There's an old saying that when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. For a lot of countries that cold could easily turn into pneumonia. Is there a doctor in the house?
I understand that we Americans have had our hands full these last few years. We had to deal with the aftermath of 9-11, including a two-front war in Afghanistan and Iraq. No sooner did those seem to turn a corner when the economy went around the bend. First it was sub-prime mortgages. Then the banks. Then the auto makers. Retail had a crappy Christmas. The stock market took all this in and went into a swoon from which it has yet to recover. As Chris Matthews put it, our 401(k)'s became 101(k)'s.
Still, attention must be paid to the rest of the world, even though this is not something we Americans are especially good at. Europe is discovering that calling something a Union doesn't necessarily mean that it actually is one. Eastern Europe is suffering from declining exports and falling currencies but when they asked for help from the European Union, all they got was a talking to from Germany. Meanwhile, a couple of countries have gone bankrupt and others are suffering from severe over-exposure of in the banking sector.
Asia for years lived off the fat of America's credit card binge. But now Americans are reigning in spending, which in turn cripples Asia's export markets. The drop-off in January 2009 exports has been quite dramatic. Singapore, 16 percent. Indonesia, 36 percent. South Korea, 17 percent. Japan, 45 percent. China, 17.5 percent.
For my money, the only country that matters right now is Russia. The country is suffering mightily from the current economic crisis, prompting large-scale demonstrations against the government. (When was the last time you saw that?) Russia's economy declined by nearly 9 percent from a year ago. The ruble has lost one-third of its value. Red is now the color of Russia's bank balance.
The country's leadership is shared between President Dmitri Medvedev and ex-President now Prime Minster Vladimir Putin in what has to be the mother of all odd couples. Medvedev would no doubt like to steer Russia past this crisis into the future, but first he must get around Putin, who is still mourning the breakup of the Russian Empire and who would not hesitate to use the crisis to get back some of Russia's lost glory.
Why does that matter, you might ask? Well, the first 50 years of the Twentieth Century were mostly spent fighting wars caused in large measure by the breakup of another empire. You may or may not remember the empire, but the wars should ring a bell: World War I and World War II.
Trust me, you don't want to know for whom that bell tolls.