10 Contestants for Earth's Next Superpower

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By Jeff Wilser

These nations have been dismissed as underdogs and weaklings. But like budding superheroes, they’ve been sitting on hidden talents. And now they’re about to fly.

1. FINLAND

SUPERPOWER: INVINCIBLE TEACHERS

If you’re a kid in Finland, you don’t start school until you’re 7 years old. There’s almost no homework until you’re a teenager. You don’t wear a uniform, you can call your teacher by his first name, and you can attend class barefoot if the mood strikes you. It’s always casual Friday, and you spend fewer hours in the classroom than students in the rest of the developed world.

Despite—or because of—this leisurely approach, the Finnish educational system is one of the world’s finest. Finland’s literacy rate is 100 percent. When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administers its standardized reading and math exams to students from around the world, Finnish pupils regularly come out at or near the top.

What makes these results more amazing is that just four decades ago, Finland’s academic record was a mess. In the 1970s, though, the government did something extraordinary to combat lax education: It mandated that every teacher earn a master’s degree, even agreeing to foot the bills for the extra schooling. Teaching’s prestige skyrocketed; becoming a teacher in Finland is now as tough as becoming a lawyer. Only one in 10 primary school applicants makes the cut! Today, the rest of the world is scrambling to follow Finland’s example as its hyper-educated population continues to boost the country’s productivity. Maybe we should all kick off our shoes and learn a few things.

2. NIGERIA

SUPERPOWER: VERY LIQUID ASSETS

At first glance, Nigeria doesn’t look like it’s poised to become a world player. More than 80 million Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, 40 percent of the country has never been to school, and half of Nigerian women are illiterate. Throw in the growing threat of terrorism in Africa, and the situation looks pretty grim.

That is, until you look deeper. Nigeria has two things going for it: a large population (162 million) and lots of oil. Nigeria says it pumps out 2.53 million barrels of crude every day, which is up there with heavyweights like Kuwait and Iraq. All this oil is cycling cash into the Nigerian economy and minting new tycoons, which probably explains why more than 100 Nigerians have purchased private jets since 2007. Analysts from Pricewaterhouse-Coopers say that if Nigeria can beef up its schools and technology, it could balloon into the world’s 13th largest economy by 2050, nestled between Turkey and Italy. As if that’s not reason enough for unbridled optimism, Nigeria’s president also has the sunniest name of any world leader: Goodluck Jonathan.

3. MONGOLIA

SUPERPOWER: THE GOLDEN TOUCH

Mongolia knows a thing or two about being a superpower. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan united Mongolian tribes and conquered parts of China. His grandson Kublai Khan kept the family business humming and finished the job. But the tables turned when the Ming Dynasty struck back a century later. China continued to keep Mongolia under its thumb until Russia began aiding its independence movement in 1921.

Today, however, Mongolia’s prospects are looking up because the country is literally sitting on a gold mine. The deposit, Oyu Tolgoi, will roar to life later this year and is full of enough precious metals to build several Xanadus; estimates peg the reserves at 82 billion pounds of copper and 46 million ounces of gold—that’s a little less than a third of the gold in Fort Knox. But the riches don’t end there: A second new mine, Tavan Tolgoi, may boast the world’s largest untapped supply of coking coal, a key ingredient of steel.

And there’s no shortage of demand. Mongolia’s neighbors are dying for coal and copper. Both Russia to the north and China to the south have big appetites for construction that will gobble up plenty of steel, and the new mines have investors drooling. Citigroup predicts that over the next 20 years Mongolia will have the highest growth rate of any Asian country, including China. Genghis would be proud.

4. VIETNAM

SUPERPOWER: SAFE HARBORS

A funny thing happened while the global economy was sputtering last decade. Vietnam’s GDP soared by 6 percent per year. As rice paddies have given way to factories, unemployment in Vietnam has plunged to around 4.5 percent.

What’s Vietnam’s trick? It’s ready to work. China’s laborers aren’t as cheap as they used to be, which makes Vietnam a relative bargain for companies that need new factories abroad. Up until now, though, there’s been a tiny problem: roads. Or the lack thereof. While Vietnam has a terrific labor force, its transportation infrastructure is nearly nonexistent. The country has almost no railroads, its highways are clogged, and its largest metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City, boasts just one airport, which was built before the Vietnam War. Motorcycles and bicycles are popular, and some of its 91 million citizens still travel by rickshaw. What’s the use of cranking out export-ready goods if there’s no convenient way to ship them?

To address the problem, the Vietnamese government is doubling down on investment in infrastructure’s three R’s: railroads, roads, and rivers. Officials are widening highways and building a new airport. There’s a new deep-water port at Cai Mep-Thi Vai with ship-to-shore cranes that will enable companies to haul more inventory out of the country. The investments don’t sound sexy, but they should start bearing fruit. According to consulting firm A.T. Kearney, “Logistics is the only barrier keeping Vietnam from becoming the next China.”

5. SWITZERLAND

SUPERPOWER: NEXT-LEVEL NETWORKING

Switzerland used to be mocked for its lack of innovation. Peaceful, yes. Creative, no. As Orson Welles put it in The Third Man, “In Italy, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Welles wouldn’t recognize today’s Zurich. The UN’s Global Innovation Index ranks Switzerland as the most innovative country on the planet. What stirs these creative juices? The Swiss government has perfected a system that allows academic research to flow from the ivory tower into private companies. The Swissnex network—with offices from Boston to Singapore to San Francisco—is a system of idea hubs, conferences, and networking events that connect lab coats with investors. The program helps academics, artists, and inventors with promising research hook up with private companies that can turn those visions into reality.

Introducing the brainy to the wealthy is paying dividends. Consider what’s happening with the Solar Impulse project, a company that’s designing a solar-powered plane that can fly around the world without using fuel. Think that sounds farfetched? The amazing aircraft has already completed an all-night journey!

6. BANGLADESH

SUPERPOWER: DEMOGRAPHIC SORCERY

Bangladesh is about the size of Iowa and has a larger population than Russia. It’s the most crowded country on the planet; as a result, containable problems often become huge disasters. Floods kill thousands. Infectious diseases can sweep through the close quarters.

There also aren’t enough jobs. The country’s main export is knitted clothes, and its GDP is just $743 per capita, less than 2 percent of the United States’. For years, Bangladesh has simply been too crammed to support a viable economy. But thanks to some clever policies implemented by the government in the 1970s, Bangladesh is about to make a major leap.

In 1975, the average Bangladeshi woman was bearing 6.3 children. Only 8 percent of women used contraception, and the population was exploding. All these new babies were cutting an already tiny economic pie into too many slices. So the government got proactive. To combat the baby boom, officials trudged from village to village handing out free birth control to rein in the growth.

The plan worked. The birth rate plummeted to 3.4 children per woman in 1993, and now it sits at a sustainable 2.3. And here’s where the economy comes in. Bangladesh is about to enjoy what analysts call a “demographic dividend.” All those babies born in the 1970s and ’80s are entering their prime working years, but because this generation is supporting only two kids instead of six, the demographic math is finally tilting in Bangladesh’s favor. That spells good news for the economy, and investors have taken notice. No wonder Goldman Sachs named Bangladesh a “Next 11” nation, predicting the country’s ascendance as an economic tiger.

7. NEW ZEALAND

SUPERPOWER: VANISHING RED TAPE

Let’s say you’re starting a new company. In the United States, you’ll need to conquer a punishing stack of forms for the IRS, labor boards, and state and federal agencies. By the time you’re finished with your 1040, Schedule C, and Form 720, you’ll feel like you’re choking on red tape.

In New Zealand, things are different. The government created a one-stop shopping approach for new businesses. Every form, application, and license an entrepreneur needs is part of a unified online portal. The info feeds into a single shared database, which further slices down processing time. Even for the offline hassles of starting a business, all the relevant agencies are physically clustered together, trimming even more bureaucratic fat. So far, 83 countries have similarly streamlined, but New Zealand is still the king, which is why Forbes placed it at the top of its Best Countries for Business rankings. With so little paperwork, what’s to stop you from starting your own Hobbit-themed diner that serves only second lunch?

8. TAIWAN

SUPERPOWER: OMNISCIENT DOCTORS

Back in 1995, Taiwan’s health care system was broken. Nearly half the country was uninsured, and citizens weren’t as healthy as they should have been. So the government turned to Harvard economics professor William Hsiao to gut the system and start fresh. Hsiao adopted a universal coverage model similar to Canada’s, but his more revolutionary innovation was small enough to fit in patients’ wallets.

If you lived in Taiwan, you would carry a digital card that keeps track of your medication, test results, medical history, and relevant records. Anytime you went to the doctor, you would just pop the card into a computer without cobbling together paperwork from all your hospitals and specialists. Not only is the system blissfully convenient for patients, but it helps doctors and hospitals get paid faster with less waste while reducing their billing and clerical expenses.

In 2009, Taiwan’s administrative costs for health care were just 2 percent of overall expenditures. To put that in perspective, slashing American health care’s administrative costs to 2 percent would save more than $100 billion over 10 years. The Taiwanese system saves even more money by helping regulators pinpoint fraud more readily. National health care may be a contentious debate in the U.S., but if there’s one thing the left and right can agree on, it’s that less paperwork is better.

9. LATVIA

SUPERPOWER: ENCHANTED FORESTS

In Latvia, every day is Arbor Day. As possibly the greenest country on Earth, more than 40 percent of Latvia is covered in forests, and all this thick vegetation makes it a net reducer of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not just woodlands either. Latvians have nearly stopped importing coal. They’re heavy recyclers who create Europe’s smallest amount of waste per person. And the capital, Riga, is one of the continent’s cleanest cities.

Even with such impeccable credentials, Latvia decided to up the environmental ante. In 2010, the state forest department launched a sprawling media campaign that called on all citizens to plant even more trees. To help boost volunteerism, the ad campaign targeted students, teachers, families, companies, and Latvian musicians. The government distributed free packets of seed and launched an interactive website where citizens could post videos of their plantings. It also held tree-sowing events throughout the year to sustain the buzz.

By the end of the campaign, Latvians had planted 2,278,234 firs, pines, and oaks, just over one tree for every Latvian. Best of all, the cleanliness hasn’t held back Latvia’s business. After having a hard time during the recent global collapse, the country enjoyed strong growth in 2011 and 2012. As countries around the world scramble to kick-start their economies while remaining green, they’ll be looking at Latvia to lead the way.

10. CHILE

SUPERPOWER: A THRIVING METAL SCENE

Pipes, computers, motors, and your microwave all have one thing in common: They’re made with copper. Gold and diamonds may get all the publicity, but copper makes the world go round. And lucky for Chile, it’s got about a third of the planet’s copper supply. It just needs a way to dig it up.

The Chilean government knows that leveraging this copper could transform its economy into a juggernaut. So President Sebastián Piñera’s administration is pouring investments into the country’s mines. The first big project: converting the world’s largest copper mine, Chuquicamata, from an open pit into a safer, more efficient underground mine. (Open-pit mines become unprofitable once miners dig too deep, as trucks have to drive miles up and down for each load of metal and are prone to collapse.)

Converting the mine should extend its life by 50 years, while helping to improve safety and profitability. Che Guevara may be rolling in his grave—Chuquicamata is the very mine he criticized in 1952, sparking his activism—but that same tantalizing copper reserve led Bloomberg analysts to rank Chile as the world’s number eight emerging market. Once Chile taps that copper, they’ll be making a lot more than pennies with it.

8 Facts About Niccolò Machiavelli

iStock/dcerbino
iStock/dcerbino

Niccolò Machiavelli is arguably the most influential political thinker from the Italian Renaissance. Following the publication of his political theory masterwork The Prince in 1532, his name became synonymous with ruthless political machinations. But was this Florentine philosopher really that bad?

1. Niccolò Machiavelli had a front-row seat to Renaissance power struggles.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in the independent Republic of Florence. Long before he became known as the first modern political theorist (not to mention an inspiration for House of Cards), Machiavelli worked as a diplomat in the service of the Florentine government. In 1498, at only 29 years old, he was appointed as the head of the Second Chancery, which put him in control of the city's foreign relations. His number-one concern was the potential return of the Medici family—the most infamous power brokers in Renaissance Italy—who had been ousted from Florence in 1494. Machiavelli oversaw the recruitment and training of an official militia to keep them at bay, but his army was no match for the Medici, who were supported by Rome's papal militia. When the Medici retook Florence in 1512, their first order of business was to fire—and, just for the heck of it, torture—Machiavelli.

2. Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince to regain his lost status.

As a diplomat and a scholar in an age of constant warfare, Machiavelli observed and absorbed the rules of the political game. After he lost his job as a diplomat (and even served a short time in jail), he turned to scholarship, poring over the Latin texts of ancient Roman political philosophers for inspiration. By the end of 1513, he had completed the first version of what would become his masterwork: The Prince, a handbook for the power-hungry. The book offered tips to rising politicians for seizing power, and advice to incumbent princes for keeping it.

Ironically, Machiavelli dedicated the book to the Medici, hoping it would bring him back into their good graces. It remains unclear whether it was ever read by its intended audience, and Machiavelli never got to see The Prince go viral. It was published in 1532, five years after its author's death.

3. Niccolò Machiavelli compared the need for love to the value of fear.

One of The Prince’s primary lessons was that leaders must always try to strike a balance between seeking the love of their subordinates and inspiring fear. If a leader is too soft or kind, the people may become unruly; too cruel, and they might rebel. Machiavelli had a clear preference. "Since love and fear can hardly exist together,” he wrote, “if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

4. The Prince’s ruthlessness made it notorious. 

Machiavelli’s political thesis became notorious because it focused almost entirely on helping rulers get what they want at whatever cost—in other words, the end always justified the means. Other political thinkers, while acknowledging Machiavelli’s brilliance, were appalled by his mercenary take on statesmanship. In the 18th century, French essayist Denis Diderot described Machiavelli's work as "abhorrent" and summed up The Prince as "the art of tyranny." Friedrich Schiller, a proponent of liberal democracy, referred to The Prince as an unwitting satire of the kind of monarchical rule it supposedly espouses (“a terrible satire against princes”). David Hume, the Scottish polymath and inveterate skeptic, called Machiavelli "a great genius" whose reasoning is "extremely defective.” Wrote Hume, "There scarcely is any maxim in his Prince which subsequent experience has not entirely refuted.”

But 20th-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell disagreed, saying that Niccolò Machiavelli was merely being honest on a subject that most preferred with a good sugarcoating. “Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches itself to his name, is due to the indignation of hypocrites,” Russell wrote [PDF], “who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.”

5. Shakespeare called villains Machiavels.

Machiavelli’s notoriety spread so quickly that by the 16th century his name had found its way into the English language as an epithet for crookedness. In Elizabethan theatre, it came to denote a dramatic type: An incorrigible schemer driven by greed and unbridled ambition. In the prologue for The Jew of Malta, playwright Christopher Marlowe introduces his villain as “a sound Machiavill.” Even William Shakespeare used the term as a derogatory shorthand. “Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?” one character in The Merry Wives of Windsor asks rhetorically, before adding an indignant, “No!”

6. The Prince was banned by the pope.

When Machiavelli was out of a job, he did what most Renaissance thinkers did: He found a patron. Pope Clement VII, a Medici who had been elected in 1523, was happy to support the scholar. The pope even commissioned one of Machiavelli’s longest works, the Florentine Histories, which Machiavelli presented in 1526. But after the posthumous publication of The Prince in 1532, the papacy’s attitude toward Machiavelli’s work chilled. When Pope Paul IV established Rome's first Index of Forbidden Books in 1557, he made sure to include The Prince for its promulgation of dishonesty and dirty politics. (Machiavelli’s passion for classical writers and their pagan culture didn’t appeal to Pope Paul, either [PDF].)

7. Niccolò Machiavelli collaborated with Leonardo da Vinci.

In 1503, when Machiavelli was struggling to fortify Florence against its enemies, he turned to the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

According to a 1939 biography of Leonardo, the two "seem to have become intimate" when they met in Florence. Machiavelli used his power to procure commissions for Leonardo and even appointed him Florence's military engineer between 1502 and 1503. Machiavelli was hoping to harness Leonardo’s ingenuity to capture Pisa, a fledgling city-state which Florentine leaders had been eager to subdue for decades. As expected, Leonardo came up with a revolutionary plan. He contrived a system of dams that would block off one of Pisa’s main waterways, which could have brought Pisa to the brink of a drought and given Machiavelli all the leverage he could have asked for. But the plan failed. The dam system ended up interrupting Florence's own agriculture, and so the government terminated the project. Leonardo left his post after only eight months.

Some scholars believe that the encounter with Leonardo left a deep mark on Machiavelli’s political thinking. They point to Machiavelli’s repeated emphasis on the power of technological innovation to decide a war, a view which they believe Leonardo had inspired. Machiavelli’s writing is rife with idiosyncratic expressions that seem to have almost been lifted from Leonardo's notebooks.

8. Niccolò Machiavelli actually believed in a just government.

Scholar Erica Benner argues that, despite his reputation, Machiavelli wasn’t amoral. Although The Prince openly encouraged politicians to take and offer bribes, cheat, threaten, and even kill if necessary, Machiavelli knew that even rulers had to obey some sense of justice, Benner wrote in The Guardian. He recognized that the race for power comes with very few scruples, but he also recognized that without respect for justice, society falls into chaos.

This article was originally published in 2018.

8 Things You Might Not Know About Warren G. Harding

Twenty-ninth president Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was two years into his first term when a (probable) heart attack put an abrupt end to both his life and his presidency. (Vice-president Calvin Coolidge stepped in and was then elected in 1924.) But just because his time as president was brief doesn't mean Harding isn’t deserving of closer examination. Take a look at some facts about his upbringing, his office controversies, and how a big family secret was revealed nearly a century after his death.

  1. Warren G. Harding was a newspaper reporter before he was a politician.

Warren G. Harding was born in a farming community near Blooming Grove, Ohio, on November 2, 1865. He was the oldest of eight children. Raised on physical labor, he displayed an interest and aptitude for writing and journalism while in college, later performing a variety of tasks for the Marion Mirror, a Democratic-leaning newspaper that was in contrast to the Harding family’s Republican politics. In 1884, a competing paper, the Marion Daily Star, was put up for sale; some friends of Harding’s financed its acquisition and soon, Harding was running it as he saw fit. The paper’s popularity made Harding a name in his community—one that would eventually graduate to local, then national, politics. Yet he remained involved in the Star, never ceding his financial interest in the paper until two months before his death in August 1923.

  1. Warren G. Harding could get feisty.

Harding’s temperament was even-keeled during his political career, but that doesn't mean he was a pushover. While editing the Star, Harding was the target of personal attacks by the editor of a competing newspaper, the Independent. Eventually, he had his fill of the vitriol, and Harding exploded, telling the man he would “mop up the street” with him if the alleged slander didn’t stop ("and then," Harding continued, "I’ll go over and mop up your office with what remains").

  1. Harding's presidential nomination was a compromise.

Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1899 before taking office as lieutenant governor from 1904 to 1906. From 1915 to 1921, he served in the U.S. Senate. While Harding was well-liked, his candidacy was the result of a deadlock: Republicans couldn’t decide on a candidate, so Harding was chosen as a compromise. Along with running mate Coolidge, he defeated Democratic candidate James Cox by winning 60 percent of the popular vote and 76 percent of the Electoral College. Harding’s 1920 victory remains the largest popular vote margin since the 1820s.

  1. Harding got a celebrity endorsement when he ran for president.

Decades before actors and public figures openly endorsed presidential candidates, Harding’s campaign was the beneficiary of support from Al Jolson, the performer who was among the most popular entertainers of the 1920s. Jolson, a devoted Republican, agreed to visit Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio—where the candidate was making speeches from his front porch—and led a parade down the block. Jolson then sang “Harding You’re the Man for Us,” a hastily-prepared melody that cemented his backing of the politician. Actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford also made the trek to rally behind Harding.

  1. Warren G. Harding's presidency was marked by scandal.

Though Harding himself was never implicated in any wrongdoing, his cabinet was embroiled in controversy. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was found to have leased public land to oil companies in exchange for gifts in the Teapot Dome Scandal. He spent a little under a year in prison. Attorney General Harry Daugherty was accused of selling liquor permits during Prohibition. Several other officials took bribes. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” Harding once said. “But my damn friends ... they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights.”

  1. Harding named his penis "Jerry."

Harding married his wife Florence in 1891, but he was far from faithful: He had two affairs that we know of. In 2014, letters between Harding and one of his mistresses that had been sealed for 50 years were finally released by the Library of Congress. In them, Harding expressed his affection for his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips. Written on official Senate stationary, the letters, dated between 1910 and 1920, offer a glimpse into his proclivities. He referred to his penis as “Jerry,” a code word in case a third party read the correspondence, and elaborated on his fantasies involving her “pillowing breasts.” An example:

"Jerry came and will not go, says he loves you, that you are the only, only love worthwhile in all this world, and I must tell you so and a score or more of other fond things he suggests, but I spare you. You must not be annoyed. He is so utterly devoted that he only exists to give you all."

When he won the Republication nomination in 1920, the party allegedly paid Phillips as much as $25,000 (or $297,000 today) to remain quiet about the affair.

  1. His Prohibition stance didn't keep him from drinking.

As a senator, Harding supported the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale and transportation of alcohol, an era that lasted from 1920 to 1933. He agreed to back the Anti-Saloon League, which rallied against imbibing, in exchange for support during his elections. But according to long-time White House employee Elizabeth Jaffray, with his friends Harding had no problem downing scotch and soda in the White House.

  1. The Harding DNA unlocked a family secret.

Nearly a century following Harding’s sudden death due to a heart attack in August 1923, a DNA test added another bit of salacious detail to the president’s sex life. In 1927, one of his mistresses, Nan Britton, claimed Harding fathered her child a year before his Presidential campaign. Harding’s political allies chastised her and cast doubts over her credibility, but in 2015, DNA sampled from relatives of Harding and Britton’s grandson confirmed she was telling the truth. Their daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, died in 2005. She was Harding’s only child.

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