The Geo-Political Landscape: The Perspective of an Optimist

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!

  • I agree 100% with everything you said. The thing about optimism and pessimism is that they both tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. An optimist will work to make the world a better place, and a pessimist will surrender to despair. We mustn’t think of the world or history as an unmovable monolith. Each of us has a responsibility to visualize how things could be better and to strive to bring the necessary changes about. This is the “Enlightenment Project”, and it remains valid today despite the attempts of ideologues and civilization-bashers to undermine it.

  • The world is clearly better off today than it was in the 60s. Is it better off today than it was in the 90s? Because if not, we may need to identify, examine, and try to impede factors in the relevant time-frame responsible for a trend that arguably stopped and reversed the earlier trend towards peace. We need to do this to avoid finding an improbably hostile world in 2054. A serious discussion is required where one hardly exists in the upper-echelon of policy circles.

    I share your optimism for the future, and also your view that the stakes are far lower than they are said to be in our conflict with so-called “terrorists” or “insurgents” (state-affiliated, paramilitary, or independent). The only cause for discomfort here is that the road to victory, by which I mean the way towards a tolerable political relationship with these agents, would likely be pebbled with economic and social incentives towards them rather than the existing avalanche of escalating militarily threats against them: we should be doing all we can to make our perceived enemies healthy, wealthy, and wise, not bitter and influential.

  • It may be a ‘head in the sand’ attitude but I’ve all but stopped reading newspapers and watching the news on TV.

    It’s just one small part of creating the world I want to live in by simply choosing what messages to listen too and which to ignore.

    I have learned sometime ago that people can live in the same place but see the world in totally different ways.

    Terror threats, global plagues and imminent disaster can be part of a persons picture of the world 3 or 4 times a day or alternatively can be replaced by a good book about someone interesting and inspirational.

    I’m sure that once upon a time the news had some value in forewarning and protecting us, I’m sure it still has some value, some of the time, but for 99% of my time, it just adds to the stress.

    There has to be some element of thrill that we derive from this mild level of fear though or it just wouldn’t thrive like it does.

    It’s probably similar to the thrill we get from seeing crime thrillers on TV. In the UK right now, twice a week you can sit through maybe 4 or 5 hours of CSI and similar programming and unwind with a good 5-10 gruesome murders.

    Maybe if the news channels applied the CSI formula (atmospheric lighting, torches, good looking folks, annoyingly unrealistic technology) I would start to watch more 🙂

  • 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.
    I have to slightly disagree with that assertion, I’d say things will never be as bad as before, communism has beyond a shadow of a doubt been disproven.
    ..but, it seems there is a “pendulum” movement between freedom and more government intervention, moving in cycles. Probably because people are always dissatisfied and want what they don’t have.

    A case in point would be britain: after being in a socialist morass up until the early 80’ies, Thatcher came in and changed things around drastically for the better.
    Now, with the current Labour government, regulation and taxation is agains slowly but certainly creeping upwards, businesses have thousands of pages of new regulations added to their burden on a yearly basis, and public sector spending is growing faster than anywhere else in europe.

    I can only hope that the pendulum swings back towards more economic and social freedom in the next five years..

  • Fabrice,

    I feel socio-economic factors can explain most developments across the globe. The reality of life is that environmental factors such as a Functional Judiciary, a Fee Press and Economic Opportunity make for a better life for all (on average).

    Freedom of thought and spirit trumps terror any day…and will continue to do so…even as the internet destroys barriers to information/opportunity and levels the field between developed and developing societies.


  • Frank:

    I am also an optimist on global warming as I discuss on some global warming specific posts…