AN OPINION PIECE
The world is going up in flames. Death, despair, poverty and destruction run rampant. Fanatical terrorists dash around shooting people and blowing stuff up. Vladimir Putin wants to start another Cold War and take over Eastern Europe. China will overtake the West and boss the world around, maybe even spread its stern authoritarian model. Africans are dropping dead left and right from the Ebola virus. The Arabs haven’t stopped howling at each other since the Arab Spring. Europe is mired in depression and internal bickering. Everywhere children go hungry, students riot, planes disappear over the ocean into Never-Never Land, and religious intolerance and ethnic hatred are the order of the day. Also, the polar icecaps are melting and we’re all gonna die.
… At least, that’s how some pundits, politicians and media outlets portray it. And in many ways it’s true. Earth has some serious problems it needs to confront, not just now but in the decades to come.
Let’s start with North Africa and West Asia. Those areas have been troubled for a long time. Israel is a long-term irritant that isn’t going anywhere — it’s not going to go away, and regional irritation at it isn’t going to go away either. Decades of dictatorship, monarchy, deeply conservative social attitudes, fundamentalist Islam, stagnant economics, and religious or ethnic divides have taken their toll. When combined with a (probably) religiously inspired zest for fighting — injustice, infidels, police, whomever — it’s an explosive combination. North Africa and West Asia probably won’t settle down for some time.
I’m also getting increasingly pessimistic about Europe. The EU is breaking apart internally; national rivalries, petty politics, recession, and fringe parties are dominating the picture more. The EU is sustained by its economic union and a sense of continental brotherhood; with the euro in peril and continental brotherhood drooping, it looks more and more fragile. Looming over everything is Russia, a newly resurgent and belligerent power. Russia has emphatically declared its dissatisfaction with the Western-led world order and cares less and less about what the rest of the world thinks of it. Its propaganda, naked dictatorship and thuggish tactics are fundamentally at odds with the rest of Europe. Putin also seems more willing than before to challenge the West and wage war.
East Asia is a more complicated picture, but still unsettled. China is less dissatisfied than Russia with the world order, but still annoyed at it. More problematic is its power; it’s the world’s second most powerful country, and by all accounts the second most influential. It could cause some serious damage if it wanted to. It is also even more tyrannical than Russia is. Its bullying tactics against Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam have rattled nerves in the region, and it too seems to feel that might makes right. In the future China could cause a serious conflict. And there’s always North Korea, a Chinese client and the most noxious, evil regime in the world.
As for America, a country many point to as the greatest threat to world peace, it remains by far the strongest nation with the most swollen military-industrial complex. To a large extent it remains attached to the doctrine of solving problems by blowing stuff up, mostly because that’s what it’s best at (but also because of machismo and nationalism).
These are all serious problems, and they all deserve to be studied and dealt with. They will give politicians and foreign policy talking (or typing) heads fodder to grapple with and debate over for years to come. But I am firmly convinced that ordinary people really don’t need to lose their heads over them, at least outside of the regions I pointed to. All in all, the world is a much brighter, more hopeful, and more progressive place now than at any time in human history, and there’s a lot of cause for optimism.
First off, a little perspective may be in order. Many people don’t seem to understand how population is distributed around the world. I have subtly tried to address this by the focus of my blog, but let’s be a little more explicit. North Africa and West Asia — that great Band of Instability — make up about 7% of the world. Europe is a little over 11%. (Eastern Europe is 5.5%.) North America (that is, the US and Canada) makes up 5%. Oceania (the rest of the West) comprises a measly 1/2%. That leaves 9% in Latin America, 11.5% in sub-Saharan Africa, and a whopping 55% in East Asia! (This breaks down to about 18% in India, 20% in China, and 8.5% in Southeast Asia.) In other words, most people live in the developing world, a huge and historically overlooked swath of land, and a whole lot of them live in India and China and their neighborhood.
And how are China and India doing? They’re booming. Although China is going through an overall slowdown, its economy is still doing great compared to most, and the country is experiencing a burst of optimism, ambition, and growth — in terms of infrastructure, in terms of cities, and in terms of intellectual capital. It’s a similar story in India, which has a new, reformist prime minister, an economy on rebound, a demographic dividend (lots of young people), and newfound energy and pride. Numerous problems remain in both countries despite (or because of) the booms, but their people more and more feel that they can be overcome, maybe even on their own.
Sub-Saharan Africa has usually been shorthand for poverty, war and dictatorship. That’s all still there, but it is receding from the picture. Ebola is being contained (and was effectively eradicated in Senegal, Mali and Nigeria.) Many of the world’s fastest growing economies are African. Entrepreneurs and business are sprouting up in Africa’s more dynamic countries (Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa), and many have continental ambitions. A long-running war in the Congo is ebbing away. Democracies, though often flawed, are now more prevalent than dictatorships. Africa also has a demographic dividend. If it can educate its 400 million kids, grow food more productively, and tap into its abundance of resources, it could become a force to be reckoned with.
Similar growth and optimism is infecting Southeast Asia. Indonesia has a new, reformist president, a growing economy, and a national eagerness to advance. Vietnam is much like China, a dour tyranny presiding over rapid economic growth. The Philippines and Malaysia are both doing well. Myanmar is opening up to the world after decades of stagnation and penury. Even Laos and Cambodia are growing, improving their infrastructure, and becoming tourist destinations. Thailand is taking a step backwards, true, but overall the picture in Southeast Asia is bright and heartening.
Latin America is also doing well. Dictatorship has become a thing of the past. Incomes are growing; more and more people are moving out of poverty and into the middle class. Brazil has ambitions to become a Great Power. Mexico is thriving economically and more eager for commercial integration with its wealthy northern neighbor. Colombia and Chile are prospering and welcoming to foreigners. Even Cuba is finally opening up to its longtime enemy. The cultural and mental divide with the West is weakening across the region. Formerly widespread antagonism against America and capitalism is on its way out.
Even in some of the world’s trouble spots, the picture isn’t as dark as it might seem. The Gulf States, Turkey, Jordan and Morocco are by and large doing fine. Tunisia and Israel are thriving democracies. Many signs point to North Korea’s oppressive regime eroding or at least loosening in the near future.
This isn’t to say a divide between the West and the rest doesn’t still exist. The Southern Hemisphere can seem a world away from the industrialized countries of Europe. Most people still spend their days hunched over crops in their fields, or hauling hay in creaky carts down grubby roads, or selling vegetables in marketplaces in medium-sized transit centers. Illiteracy, ignorance, disease and malnutrition remain scourges. Human rights violations are commonplace and come in many forms.
But I think fixating on this and other problems is ignoring the bigger picture. Thanks to widespread acceptance of the Western liberal order — free markets, private enterprise, encouraging business and investment — and a spread of technology like smartphones, tablets, motorcycles and TVs, a sense of possibility is dawning. There is a global realization of the power of individual initiative and the fruits of hard work. Increased exposure to mass media and foreign cultures is whetting appetites for comfortable lifestyles and intellectual freedom. And illiteracy and infant mortality are on their way down worldwide; vaccinations and connection to electricity grids are up.
War, conflict and crime aren’t going away. They never will. But consider this: there is no major war going on. Fixation on Syria neglects that this only affects a handful of countries. Every current war is a civil war, except the one in Ukraine. The international tension between the West and the Communist Bloc is a thing of the past. Russia may be going rogue and China may be getting ideas, but the Western liberal order (or “Washington consensus”) is still supreme. It is obvious that it has created more wealth faster than any other system. As long as the West doesn’t hog all the power for itself, it seems likely that the system will continue and be supported by the Third World. This creates stability and an international desire for peace and a healthy environment for trade.
So if everything’s so bright and happy, why is there a pervasive perception of doom and gloom? Partly this is just a reflection of the way news media works. It always emphasizes the negative. “Serious news” stories are always about corruption, or scandal, or conflict, or tragedy. There is a general perception that to understand the world, one must understand its problems. Politicians themselves mostly deal with problems and conflict. And frankly, since most of the good news has to do with economic growth and diplomacy, it doesn’t fit as well into a convenient nugget of information. It’s harder to talk about factory jobs in Bangladesh or mobile banking in West Africa or whatever than to do a segment on the war in Ukraine or the Islamic State.
Partly it’s a reflection of widespread ignorance. With some exceptions, most people just don’t know much about foreign affairs. Their perceptions are shaped by 2 or 3 global crises that pop up on TV frequently. Major countries like Indonesia or Uzbekistan are hazy concepts or completely unknown. Other countries are shaped by outdated news — Ethiopia is blighted by famine, the Balkans are riddled with genocide, China is Communist, Iran is maniacally anti-Western, etc. The older generation sometimes assumes the facts it learned in school still hold true. To return to demographics, the Swedish academic Hans Rosling, who battles against ignorantly negative perceptions of the world, points out that many still think that the world is growing at an unsustainable rate — but with family size falling across the board, population growth will level off, and the world will have at most 11 billion people by 2050 (enough to be fed).
In some ways having unnecessarily dark views of the world is helpful, since it spurs humanity to action. And indeed, the sense that nothing really matters and trying to fight pressing problems leads nowhere is something that’s changing. People everywhere realize they can improve their lives and provide for their children and have reasonably benevolent government if they try hard enough. But it also breeds gloom and despair and can be used by unscrupulous politicians to manipulate their citizens.
Chin up! The world has its fair share of problems, and it’s still not totally clear whether all this economic growth can be reconciled with an already battered environment. But in general the world is doing fine, and a sense of optimism and opportunity is pervasive. Just look at global poverty: in 1990 43% of the developing world earned less than $1 a day. Now only 21% earn less than $1.25 a day.* By 2030 the number might even be eliminated. And think of the future untapped potential the heretofore ignored masses of Africa and India might bring. We live in exciting times!
It’s different because of inflation, but it’s supposed to represent extreme poverty.