Turn the pages of any paper covering foreign policy and it is easy to become depressed about the state of the world: massacres in Darfur, quagmire in Iraq, setbacks in Afghanistan, nuclear ambitions in Iran, a nuclear armed North Korea, recurring terrorist threats around the world, continued Palestinian/Israeli conflict, war in Somalia. The list goes on.
I am not going to cover any of these conflicts explaining why they are going to get better (in many cases they won’t) or why we are fighting an effective war against terrorists (we’re not). At the same time, I don’t want to lessen the importance of the threat from militant Islam – the war against terrorism must and will be won – but I want to show how relative it is.
From the perspective of the 1950s and 1960s, the world we live in today would appear improbably peaceful. Take yourself back to a time where two thirds of the world was under communist control. Dictatorships outnumbered democracies. The cold war was raging. The threat of global thermonuclear war was very real and possible. Stalin and Mao ruled over the Soviet Union and China overseeing the killing of tens of millions of people. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge were massacring 2 million people in Cambodia. The U.S. fought bloody wars in Korea and Vietnam. Misguided economic policies were keeping billions in poverty.
Today, Eastern Europe and Latin America have become mostly democratic. China has become one of the most capitalist countries of the world taking hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Globalization is spreading wealth around the world and global GDP has grown as fast in the past 5 years as it ever has in the past 50 years! The risk of thermonuclear destruction is a distant memory.
We are still at war against enemies of change and progress, but for the most part, the debate is verbal. The biggest military threat is no longer coming from state actors, but from supra-national organizations with somewhat amorphous aims. As a result, the current military operations are mostly counter-insurgency operations (though we are not necessarily operating as such). It should also be mentioned that the stakes are lower: the very survival of “western civilization” is not at stake!
For all that, I am an optimist. We live in a much better world that we did 50 years ago. The forces of wealth, progress, science and reason are inexorably advancing around the world. There are and will be setbacks, but once people have had a taste of the empowerment brought by capitalism, freedom and science, there is no turning back. They will fight to get access to the forbidden fruit of hope, ambition and dreams and will thus make the world a better place.
To a better tomorrow!