print logo

AMERICAN.COM

A Magazine of Ideas

A Good Half-Century and a Bad One: What Will the Next 50 Years Be Like?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The world today is more secure, prosperous, and free than it was 50 years ago, but an effective Western alliance is vital if we're going to sustain that progress.

This year we begin to commemorate a series of horrific centennials — anniversaries of one of the great catastrophes of modern history, World War I.

Looking back over the century that has passed since then, the world has changed remarkably. World War I was just the first of a series of calamities that made the next 50 years without any doubt the bloodiest half-century in human history.

And yet, the last half-century has been a very different story. The world today is more secure, prosperous, and free than it was 50 years ago.

In many ways, one could say that the challenge facing the world today is how to avoid the calamities of World War I and its aftermath and to continue the progress of the last 50 years. That very progress confronts us with new challenges, particularly the challenge of incorporating a new set of powerful countries into the international system. But even though many non-Western countries are becoming increasingly important and powerful, Western leadership is still critical in this new and more complicated world.

A Better World after 50 Years: More Secure, More Prosperous, and More Free

It may seem strange to assert that the world today is more secure, prosperous, and free than it was 50 years ago, given the many problems that beset it at present.

Even at its best, the world is becoming a more complicated place.

As 2014 begins, we see the U.S. economy still struggling from the effects of the financial collapse, while Europe’s economy is in worse shape. The fall of dictatorships in the Arab world has the whole Middle East in turmoil. Syria, most disastrously, is in the third year of a bloody civil war that is spilling over into neighboring countries. Further east, the futures of both Iraq and Afghanistan are still in doubt and the possibility of an Iran with nuclear weapons looms over the Persian Gulf and the entire Middle East. As if that weren't enough, North Korea — a rogue state armed with nuclear weapons — is now headed by a 30-year-old ruler who seems to feel the need to prove his manhood by shelling South Korean islands.

So how can one possibly say that the world today is more secure, prosperous, and free than 50 years ago?

Well, first, recall that just a little more than 50 years ago, on October 22, 1962, President Kennedy announced to the world that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear-armed missiles on the island of Cuba.

That was a terrifying time. For almost a week, we weren't sure we would be alive to see the next week, whether the world as we knew it might come to an end in a nuclear holocaust. Then, on October 28, with the announcement that the Soviets were withdrawing their missiles from Cuba — along with the secret agreement, revealed only many years later, that the United States would withdraw its missiles from Turkey — that crisis came to an end. But for the next 30 years, the spectre of a nuclear exchange in which the civilized world could be destroyed in a matter of hours hung over the world.

Today, that danger has receded with the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The United States and Russia still have formidable nuclear arsenals that could do terrible damage, but the possibility of an all-out nuclear war has virtually disappeared. Awful things could still happen with North Korea's nuclear weapons or even with those of Pakistan — particularly if Pakistan's weapons were to fall into the hands of terrorists — or if Iran gets nuclear weapons. But those threats, as frightening as they are, are still small compared to what we lived with every day during the Cold War.

Second, the world is vastly more prosperous today than it was 50 years ago, even though much poverty remains. When I became the head of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff in 1981, we were asked to take charge of the portfolio of issues concerning “North-South relations.” That term “North-South,” and the accompanying “North-South divide,” described what was then thought to be a permanent division of the world between rich countries and poor countries. People had different explanations for that division — whether it was cultural, structural, or political — but there was a prevailing skepticism that the poor countries would ever actually emerge from poverty.

There was a prevailing skepticism that the poor countries would ever actually emerge from poverty.

Today, the North-South divide has been replaced almost completely by that term “emerging economies.” In the last two decades, the global economy has roughly tripled — growing by almost $50 trillion in the last 20 years — and emerging markets have accounted for just over half of that growth. More important than the numbers are the human stories behind them: the fact that nearly 700 million people have escaped extreme poverty in the last 20 years — more than half of them in China alone — as a result of that economic progress. And it has been good for the advanced countries as well: our consumers have benefited from access to better and cheaper products and our producers have benefited from the expansion of global markets. So the world today is much more prosperous than it was 50 years ago.

Finally, and perhaps most unexpectedly, the world has become much more free in the last 50 years. In 1962, there were very few democracies outside the advanced industrial countries, with the important exception of India. In 1981, Freedom House, the American nongovernmental organization that tracks the progress of freedom around the world, ranked just 32 percent of all countries in the world as truly free. By last year, the number was 45 percent.

Even more remarkable than the growth in numbers is the unexpected and history changing character of many of those changes — changes that I honestly thought I would never see in my lifetime.

Most far-reaching was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire. Perhaps equally dramatic, and another change that I thought I would never see, was the end of apartheid in South Africa, in 1994.

In 1981, when I became assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Japan was the only democracy in East Asia. Then, in 1986, a peaceful revolution in the Philippines replaced the dictator Ferdinand Marcos with a democratic government. The following year, South Korea, which had never had a democratic government in its thousands of years of history, threw out the dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan, had a peaceful transition, and became a robust democracy, as well as one of the world's great economic success stories. Shortly after that, starting in 1988, Taiwan made an almost seamless transition from the dictatorship of the Kuomintang party to a democratic system with a dynamic free press and regular elections of the president and parliament — arguably the first, but hopefully not the last, democratic Chinese society to do so.

Ten years later, in 1998, Indonesia’s authoritarian ruler, Suharto, was forced to step down and Indonesia — the country with the world’s largest Muslim population — became a democracy. Many people, including pundits and experts, said that Indonesia was too poor and too Muslim to succeed at democracy, but now, 15 years later, Indonesia is the world's third-largest democracy — with a thriving press and civil society. It’s had three free and fair presidential elections over the last 15 years and is confidently preparing for another one in 2014.

In the last two decades, the global economy has roughly tripled.

The quality of these changes is even more remarkable and important than their number. South Korea had no prior history of democracy. Some believed it was part of a more general “Confucian exception” — the notion that Confucian societies are inherently authoritarian, that people in those societies like to be told what to do, and that so-called “Asian values” are antithetical to Western democratic values. Well, South Korea and Taiwan are Confucian societies, so there went the “Confucian exception.” And Taiwan was also the end to a “Chinese exception.”

And now, with the upheaval that is sweeping the Arab world, we are witnessing an end to the Arab exception. It was premature to label this uprising the “Arab Spring,” but I think it is also premature to label it the “Islamist Winter.” It will be many years before we know the true results of this upheaval, but the West has a huge stake in the outcome and we need to remain engaged.

The example of Korea illustrates dramatically the need to take a long view of this kind of societal change. The armistice that ended the Korean War was concluded 60 years ago this past July. For the first 10 years that country was a wretched, corrupt, failing democracy. Then it was a slightly less corrupt but brutal dictatorship. It wasn't until the 1970s that we began to see the signs of the Korean economic miracle, and not until the next decade that Korea’s political transformation began in earnest. Today that country is a miracle story of political and economic development, but it took decades to achieve.

The enormous advance of freedom in the last 30 years has been good for tens of millions of people, whose lives have improved directly as a result. It has also been good for the United States and Europe. It has turned enemies into friends. It has made our friends stronger and more self-reliant. And where we have been seen to be on the side of freedom — and unfortunately that has not always been the case — it has improved our standing in the eyes of the people of those countries.

Western Leadership Remains Vital

So it is fair to say that the world today is more secure, prosperous, and free than it was 50 years ago, and those achievements would not have been possible without a Western alliance that provided the underpinning of international security, Western leadership that maintained a relatively open global trading system, and Western support for democratic change.

Of course, the people in those countries that have progressed so much are the ones who deserve the greatest credit.

Nonetheless, though a wise man once said “there's no limit to what you can accomplish as long as you don't care who gets the credit,” in this case Western nations should take a little bit of credit. For two reasons: first, because there's a dangerous loss of confidence developing in the United States and Europe about our ability to contribute to global progress. And second, and even more important, an effective Western alliance is vital if we're going to sustain the progress of the last 50 years — indeed, if we're going to avoid what could become a calamitous reversal of that progress.

We are in danger of repeating a different mistake in Syria — not the mistake of Iraq in 2003, but the mistake of Bosnia in the 1990s.

The sense that the West is in decline derives partly from the success of so many developing countries, particularly China. That very success, which has done so much to increase human welfare, has also produced both an economic challenge and a geopolitical one.

As we look to the future, more and more countries will have the economic strength to be significant powers, at least on a regional scale, and some even on a global scale. So, even at its best, the world is becoming a more complicated place. The G-8, which used to meet annually to decide the future of the world economy, has now been effectively displaced by the G-20.

But, at its worst, the world is not just more complicated, it is perhaps becoming more dangerous, and the possibility of conflict, and even the possibility of war, may be increasing.

That is why Western leadership is still so important.

The United States Can’t Afford Not to Lead

Nowadays, many Americans say that the United States can no longer afford to play a leadership role in the world. That’s true in one respect — the country certainly can't afford to play that role if we don't fix our economy. But the key to doing that is to make the right changes at home, not to withdraw from the world. In fact, we can't afford to isolate ourselves, no matter how much domestic energy we produce. The world is still a dangerous place.

Back during the 2012 Republican presidential debates, one candidate was asked what he would do if he got an urgent call at three o'clock in the morning reporting that one of Pakistan's nuclear weapons had fallen into the hands of terrorists. The answer would clearly depend on specific circumstances that were not detailed in that question, but the very fact that the question is not implausible demonstrates just one of many reasons why we can't afford to withdraw from the world. In a situation like that one, we can't afford not to be able to act.

Two long, painful, and controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made Americans question our role in the world. With Syria, the United States seems to be paralyzed by a fear that if we act it would somehow lead to an involvement like Iraq or Afghanistan. That fear is certainly more than understandable. But not every situation is Iraq or Afghanistan all over again.

The United States could have made a big difference simply with more energetic support for the moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. That would not have meant going to war on their behalf, but rather giving them financial and medical assistance and non-lethal military support, and — yes — weapons and organization as well. We are in danger of repeating a different mistake in Syria — not the mistake of Iraq in 2003, but the mistake of Bosnia in the 1990s. For three years, under two American presidents — first president George H.W. Bush and then president Clinton — the United States enforced an arms embargo on the Bosnians, who were the victims of aggression, and in the process prolonged the conflict, increased the bloodshed — some estimates are 200,000 people died in Bosnia during those three years — and made the aftermath much worse than it might have been if the conflict had ended sooner.

World War I created the conditions for Bolshevism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, and Maoism in China, each of them massive human tragedies.

Indeed, Bosnia today, though peaceful, is a broken country, partitioned in all but name. If the war had ended earlier we might have had a different story. Similarly, many of the bad consequences that people feared would happen if we armed the Syrian opposition instead have happened because we did not arm them. Having done practically nothing while a bloody conflict has continued for over a year, the result is going to be an even worse outcome even if Assad goes. And there is a real possibility that his regime will survive and continue to rule a shattered country, one that will be a confirmed enemy of the United States and that may even become a base for al Qaeda operations. That's just one of many dangers in the world today that the United States cannot afford to run away from.

A century ago, World War I destroyed all the great hopes that people once had that the 20th century would be a time of great peace and prosperity. World War I, which was the worst war in human history up to that point, created the conditions for World War II, which was even worse. World War I created the conditions for Bolshevism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, and Maoism in China, each of them massive human tragedies. Instead of being a time of great promise, the next 50 years became the bloodiest half-century in modern history.

We cannot afford to repeat that history with the even more terrible weapons of this century. That's why I believe the alliance of the Western democracies continues to be so important for the world.

This article is based on Ambassador Paul Wolfowitz’s recent talk, “Our World in the Last 100 Years,” at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Union. Video is available here.

Paul Wolfowitz is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Wolfowitz also writes “Iraq: It's Too Soon to Tell,” “Margaret Thatcher was a Woman of Iron — With a Wicked Sense of Humor,” and “Hillary and 'Leading From Behind'.” Arnold Kling describes “The Challenge of Achieving a Liberal Order.” Danielle Pletka says “Iran Rips Off the West in the Nuclear Bazaar.” Leon Aron contributes "Putin’s Petro State Approaching Empty." Alan W. Dowd adds "Measuring Freedom around the World." Lee Harris discusses "North Korea's Bluffing Blowhard." Gary Schmitt asks "Syria’s Air Defenses: Formidable or Not?"

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group