Bathed in the rising Asiatic sun, the thousands of athletes from East and West, North and South competing in Seoul’s breathtaking Olympic stadium herald a new era of international competition in all fields of human endeavor. Watching these splendid young men and women of every color, race and religion concentrate body and mind, stretch every muscle, nerve and breath to gain the precious inches, ounces and seconds that separate victory from defeat gives one a sense of the mounting global economic rivalry that lies ahead.
In today’s wide-open arena of the world market, an Olympiad of another type has already begun. The games it calls for are not second-division matches among gentlemen amateurs protected by geographic or political barriers. They are hard-fought contests with no holds barred, where the best must measure themselves against the best and win or fall by the wayside.
The South Korean miracle that raised a desperately impoverished country to the summit of industrial growth confirms what Jesse Owens demonstrated at the Berlin Olympics of 1936: In economics, as in sport, there are no preordained masters and no subhumans. The fantastic outburst of energy, ingenuity and self-confidence spreading among certain developing nations comes from an awareness that life is a bitter struggle for survival that begins afresh every day. Deprived of geophysical riches, these nations are forced to rely mainly on the gray matter contained in the skulls of their people--the only natural resource that counts. Lacking sizable markets of their own, they look to the world economy as the only promising frontier of their hopes and ambitions.
Kindle millions of neglected minds, prepare them for the intelligent and dynamic activities of the future rather than the routine, outmoded jobs of the past, and you unlock sources of wealth that will make Texas, Siberia and the Amazon look pale by comparison. Japan was first to show that in the contemporary world, a highly educated and trained population is the supreme economic asset. China’s teeming masses are destined to become as inventive and industrious as their cousins in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Mexicans who cross the border to seek a subsistence wage in the orchards of California can be trained to produce at home the same sophisticated components that American corporations now import from distant India, Thailand or the Philippines. Under the prodding of Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s perestroika , even the Soviets are eager to embrace the logic of the multinational marketplace as an escape from Marxist stagnation and underdevelopment.
In this changing economic environment, no country can take its prosperity for granted. As soon as a significant discovery is put into production in the remotest part of the globe, it has immediate repercussions everywhere. In its wake, competing manufacturers are forced to abandon activities that have ceased to be viable and turn to new ones or risk instant elimination.
Just as there is no apparent limit to the best time established by a runner or a swimmer, there is none to the ingenuity of an inventor, a manager, a manufacturer or a salesman. Record after record in every sphere of industry and commerce is bound to fall as champions subdue champions and then surpass themselves before being subdued in their turn. In the words of Marian Anderson’s celebrated song, “there is no place to hide on this Earth.”
For example, America’s capacity for discovery and invention remains unequalled. It still has the largest and most sophisticated scientific establishment in the world. Its academic and corporate research laboratories are an inexhaustible well of new knowledge. It remains the fountainhead of the most advanced computer and robot technologies. Yet these coveted treasures are being exploited much more effectively by others. Asia’s managers, engineers and technicians are proving themselves consistently more agile at identifying discoveries with the greatest commercial potential and moving them from laboratory to plant and from plant to marketplace. The resulting trade deficits have relegated the United States to the status of the most indebted nation in history.
The emerging industrial regions of the Pacific are teaching America and Europe a fateful lesson in the rise and fall of great powers: They can design, produce and sell almost anything, and do it better and cheaper than Westerners can. After Toyota, Sony and Mitsubishi, South Korea’s Hyundai, Daewoo and Samsung corporations are now joining the ranks of the super champions and running rings around us in all phases of the economic game at which we have so long excelled. Our response to this challenge cannot be blind protectionism. Denying them our markets would only accentuate our obsolescence at home and undermine what is left of our competitiveness abroad.
Learning to run faster than the competition is the only meaningful protection in the accelerating economic race. Rather than drugging ourselves with tariffs and quotas, we must reactivate our atrophied muscles, quicken our dull reflexes and, above all, raise the intellectual standards of our youth.
To cope in the increasingly exacting arena of international economic competition, every nation must get ready to play on center court, sprint on the fastest track and tame the strongest wind in a permanent quest for excellence. Nations must educate, train and nurture their most promising champions by offering them the best facilities, the latest equipment and the most competent teachers so that they can develop their creative talents and productive capacities to a peak. For each and every one of them is a potential gold medalist and a crucial contributor to the Olympic struggle for economic progress.