Why I Am More Optimistic Than Ever
Bad stuff will continue to happen around the world in 2016. Human nature will not change for the better; powers great and small will continue to pursue their own interests with inadequate regard for the global common good; misguided love will wreak havoc in human affairs at every scale; the dialectics of tragedy will play out with historically familiar madness.
In 2016 the international crisis that gets the most media attention will probably continue to be the obdurate persistence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the difficulties in providing safe havens to the steady stream of refugees from that region. While the efforts of government authorities in both the US and the EU to constrain Islamicist acts of terror on their own soil continue to be admirable, such acts are likely to continue to happen as significant numbers of Muslims around the world continue to radicalize. The tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are likely to intensify, with results that will be directly destructive while also confounding international efforts to constrain ISIS. And as Fred Kaplan writes in Foreign Affairs, “If all the countries that feared and loathed ISIS … joined forces, ISIS would crumble in short order. But each of those countries has more fear and loathing for at least one of its potential allies … Forming an effective coalition has therefore been all but impossible.” The prospect of a peaceable, federated Iraq or Syria in 2016 is dark rather than dim.
Perhaps even more significant for the everyday lives of people around the world than the trouble with ISIS is the likelihood that oil prices will remain low throughout 2016 (except in the event of extreme political turmoil in one or another major oil-producing country). While low oil prices may result in “a bonus of … $1,000 a year nearly to every American family, given lower fuel prices at the pump,” as Richard Haass of the Council for Foreign Relations claimed in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, a low oil price damages the economies of oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada, and Brazil, acting, in Haass’s words, as “a major blanket on world economic growth and as a result … political uncertainty.”
As an Augustinian, I am sure that continued violent turmoil in the Middle East and stresses and strains to economic life at every scale as a result of fluctuations in the cost of energy supplies are not the only bad things that will drag on from 2015 to 2016. I am equally sure that natural disaster and human malice will add heretofore-unimagined distress and travail to the lives of all of us on this little blue globe. I am by conviction not a philosophical progressive, trusting in an historically inevitable improvement in how we humans manage our affairs.
And yet … when it comes to the prospects for the poorest of the Earth’s poor, I am more optimistic now than I have ever been.
My somewhat uncharacteristic optimism is the result of a reality of which I was reminded in the past week as I read Steven Radelet’s “Prosperity Rising” essay in Foreign Affairs. Radelet’s writes that,
Since the early 1990s, daily life in poor countries has been changing profoundly for the better: one billion people have escaped extreme poverty, average incomes have doubled, infant death rates have plummeted, millions more girls have enrolled in school, chronic hunger has been cut almost in half, deaths from malaria and other diseases have declined dramatically, democracy has spread far and wide, and the incidence of war—even with Syria and other conflicts—has fallen by half. This unprecedented progress goes way beyond China and India and has touched hundreds of millions of people in dozens of developing countries across the globe, from Mongolia to Mozambique, Bangladesh to Brazil.
These profound changes constitute a reality of which most of us are barely aware. Radelet reports that,
In 2013, the Swedish survey organization Novus Group International asked Americans how they thought the share of the world’s population living in extreme poverty had changed over the last two decades. Sixty-six percent of respondents said that they thought it had doubled, and another 29 percent said that it hadn’t changed. Only five percent knew (or guessed) the truth: that the share of people living in extreme poverty had fallen by half.
Seen from the perspective of the poorest of the poor, we live in a much, much better world than that of our childhoods. Please don’t mistake me for an American nationalist or a nostalgic Republican if I go ahead and thank the late Ronald Reagan for his part in bringing about this much, much better world. Were it not for Reagan’s resolve in bringing an end to the Cold War and with it hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union and that totalitarian state’s chilling effect on political and economic life around the globe, I do not believe we would have seen the emergence of a market economy in China, the release of entrepreneurial energy among smallholder farmers and industrialists in what used to be known as the Third World, the trend towards democracy in Asia, Africa (also in my native South Africa), Latin America, and Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the inclusion of ever more nations and their peoples in the mechanisms of global trade—all of which are indispensable elements of this better world.
Without denying the disaster and destruction endemic to life in a broken world, I am convinced that people throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America will continue to press, at least during the next few decades, towards the improved life chances that market economies and constitutional democracies make possible. Such popular pressure towards better political and economic arrangements is the reason for my present optimism. It would be in the interest of the United States of America to encourage such pressure whenever the opportunity arises.
Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies