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Cheer Up Folks! Things Could be Worse

Posted: 02/ 1/2012 1:42 pm

Some people have been more vociferous in their lamentations about the state of the world than I, and many have been more disconsolate, but few have been more consistent. It seems timely to reflect on some objectively good developments.

The progress of democracy and of economic prosperity in the two thirds of a century since World War II has been nothing short of spectacular, chiefly through the American-led victory in the Cold War. From the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 to the end of World War II in 1945, there had been almost no outward spread of democracy, apart from natural demographic growth where it already existed: the British Isles and Dominions, the United States, parts of Switzerland and Scandinavia, and the Netherlands. The only significant addition, intermittently over those 160 years, and still awaiting a post-Liberation republic at the end of the war, was France.

Today, all of Latin America, except Cuba, and to an extent Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, and almost all the rest of the Caribbean, are democratic. So is almost all of Europe west of Russia, much of the Middle East, important parts of Africa, most of South Asia including India, almost all of Australasia, and Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and soon, perhaps, Burma. Apart from the exceptions mentioned, all this is new in my lifetime (67 years).

As China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, and dozens of other countries totalling more than half the world's population, have swung into the column of seekers of economic growth and have adopted enterprise economies, every year scores of millions of people are pulled up, or bootstrap themselves, out of poverty.

Here, above all other places, is the dividend, the great payoff, from the overwhelming strength throughout that time, of the United States. From its earliest days, the United States proclaimed itself the light unto the world, but prior to the Civil War it had little ability to pursue that vocation, and after 1865 until the Cold War, had little inclination to do so. Then the brilliant strategic team assembled by Roosevelt: Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Acheson, Bohlen, Kennan, and others, devised and executed the containment strategy that emphasized that the Cold War was a Manichaean conflict between totalitarian, Godless Communism and responsibly capitalist, freely religious, democracy.

In these current circumstances of dynamic political and economic change, the correlation of forces is evolving rapidly in ways that vastly transcend (legitimate) concerns about the erosion of American influence. The sources of America's strategic vulnerability have been not only the public sector deficits, but the lengthy miring of almost all the country's conventional ground forces military capability in the Near East, and the steadily increasing reliance on foreign energy imports, with the very skewed resulting balance of payments deficit.

Now, most American forces have departed the Middle East, and the rest will be gone in 18 months, and American oil imports are in steady decline (from 60 per cent to 46 per cent of total consumption in five years). Since 2006, the U.S. has had the greatest increase in domestic oil and natural gas production of any country, and the unlikely state of North Dakota now has a greater oil production than some members of OPEC, including Ecuador. The hydraulic fractional and horizontal drilling processes have come to the rescue of a president who has still not emancipated himself from the fables of solar and wind power creating hosts of green jobs in response to non-existent human generated impetus to minimal global warming.

There is a great range of counter-historical developments now at play. As U.S. energy imports decline, Japan, former terror of the manufacturing world, has begun to run a trade deficit for the first time in decades, as China and South Korea eat into its manufacturing markets. General Motors has bounced out of bankruptcy to reclaim its status as the world's largest automaker. Japan's successor as the yellow commercial peril of America's nightmares, China, though still growing at a rate of over eight per cent and for the first time in its prodigious history a majority urban country, is now suffering slowing growth, about two per cent less year over year (but still over eight per cent), and is wrestling with almost 10 per cent inflation yet a 60 per cent decline in property values.

Chinese president Hu Jintao has taken to railing against Western popular culture (apparently motivated by screening the film Avatar). Grumpy and worried though Americans may be, they can take some comfort from the fact that unlike in China, 60 per cent of the wealthy do not want to emigrate, and unlike Russia according to recent polls, nor do about 40 per cent of their whole population.

As long as it does not metamorphose into an intolerably belligerent country, Chinese economic growth is both good for the world, as it betters the lot of teeming masses of formerly destitute people, and is not an inexorable menace to America.

There are interesting cross-currents in these trends. Angola, a poor Portuguese colony for centuries, and then a strife-torn Cold War battleground and site of a permanent civil war, enjoys a 12 per cent annual GDP growth rate, compared to Portugal's three per cent current year decline. And now rich in oil, Angola is considering the cupped-hands importunity of its former colonial overlord. Portuguese prime minister Passos Coelho visited Angola in November, and delicately urged taking "advantage of this moment of financial and economic crisis to strengthen our bilateral relations." The Angolan president of nearly 40 stormy years, Eduardo Dos Santos, replied: "Angola is open and available to help Portugal face this crisis." The Philippines, 114 years after the United States evicted Spain as its colonial master, and following decades of political tumult, is now selling bonds at a lower rate of interest than Spain.

There are parallel inversions among prominent public personalities. Long imprisoned or excluded leaders like Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia, Aung San Suu Khi of Burma, and the Shinawatras of Thailand, have returned to or to the edge of government. At the same time, it is not only Arab leaders who are beleaguered. Spain's grandstanding leftist judge Baltasar Garzon, who acted for years on Spain's (preposterous) doctrine of universal jurisdiction, most infamously against Augusto Pinochet, is now himself facing two civil trials and a criminal prosecution.

Two hundred years ago, almost the entire advanced world was in Europe, and Austria's Machiavellian foreign minister, Klemens Metternich, the Coachman of Europe, was about to freeze the whole continent in aspic for a third of the 19th century. Now Germany, which spent much of the subsequent time frightening and assaulting its neighbors, holds the key to Europe by its ability to offer financial relief for the Eurocrisis in exchange for partial desocialization, the fearful practice of paying Dane geld to organized labor and small farmers.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, as she observes this week the 60th anniversary of her accession, enjoys huge popularity in her country, where the monarchy was questioned just a few years ago, and even 58 per cent of Canadians support a non-residential monarchy, on its face a hard sell. And the venerable Roman Catholic Church, widely regarded as a vast and geriatric bumble bee among the world's institutions, that should fall to the earth from one week to the next, seems, in adherence as in recruitment, to have shaken off the child molestation crisis, which was widely represented as its death-knell. It profits from most contemporary comparisons with secular leaders and governments.

The last and the first, old and new, different and continuous, are changing places almost compulsively. Recessions end and terrorism is more a nuisance than a threat to civilization. Most changes that seem like upheavals are not, but most of what appears to be progress is. It could be worse.