Interesting Times: Global blues

If you don't explain to people how they can win, why should they expect to?

August 16, 2007 15:22
saul singer 88

saul singer 88. (photo credit: )

Ask the people of the world about the future and a stunning result emerges: Those living in poorer countries are confident their children will be better off; those living in more developed countries think their children will be worse off. Such are the findings of the latest Pew Global Attitudes poll, conducted in 47 territories. The first part is not surprising. Many developing countries are growing rapidly. Parents can naturally expect that their children will not only be materially better off, but that they will be healthier, better-educated, have better jobs and more opportunities. They can even expect that their environment, which became steadily dirtier with economic growth, will be cleaned up with greater wealth, as has happened in most developed countries. In China, for example, where a billion people are working under horrible conditions, with no political freedom, in a country which has some of the most polluted cities in the world, a full 82 percent believe their children will have it better. Such feelings are natural in an economy that has grown by 58 percent in just the last five years. In Europe, this situation seems to be reversed. In France, Germany and Italy 80, 73 and 69 percent, respectively, believe the next generation will be worse off. Even in the US, twice as many people (60 compared to 31 percent) think that their children's generation will be worse off. And this is despite the fact that the US economy has grown 11 percent per capita over the last five years - which is slightly faster than the previous five years. This is also despite the fact that six times as many Americans are optimistic than are pessimistic regarding their personal situation five years from now. What is going on here? Some may blame the Bush administration for taking the gleam out of the American eye. But the pattern extends across developed countries regardless of whether their leaders are popular or not. We must look deeper, especially in order to explain the gap between positive short-term expectations and negative longer-term ones. Why are so many people, who have already gotten to where the optimists in poor countries aspire to be, so pessimistic? PART OF THE answer may be the "Easterlin paradox," named after University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin. His and other research suggests that life satisfaction goes up until a certain quality of life is achieved. After that, people's expectations ratchet up over time, so that bigger paychecks fail to keep pace and increase happiness. But while this "paradox" may explain why people in wealthier countries don't expect their children to be better off, it does not really explain why they expect them to be worse off. The deeper answer, I would suggest, is both strategic and social. I wish we had global data to compare attitudes in 1992 - shortly after the Soviet collapse and Iraq's ouster from Kuwait and before 9/11 - to today. I suspect there has been a big increase in pessimism since then, particularly since 9/11 and the bogging down of the war in Iraq. This pessimism derives from a feeling that either the US is losing the war against Islamofascism; or even if the US is holding its own, that our children will never experience a pre-9/11 sense of security. In other words, we have gone from the world of the 1990s, characterized by rising Islamist terrorism but also by the triumph over communism and a "wave of democracy" sweeping the globe, to the current decade, dominated by the prospect of both rogue states and their terrorist proxies armed with nuclear weapons. The "end of history" has morphed into its return with a vengeance - a global threat on a par with the rise of fascism in the 1930s and with the Cold War. No wonder people are pessimistic. THE QUESTION of the moment is whether President George Bush will allow the current negative trend to be his legacy. When he leaves office a year and half from now, a corner is likely to have been turned one way or the other. Bush will either have led the West to fulfilling his 2002 pledge not to "permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," or the accommodation of a nuclear Iran will have begun. If Bush does not succeed in turning things around, his failure to anticipate and combat Iran's so far successful tactic of hamstringing the US in Iraq will have been the proximate culprit. The wider failure, however, which needs to be addressed even if Iran is successfully confronted, is conceptual. Even in his days of greater moral clarity, Bush did not articulate a coherent theory of victory against Islamofascist terror that people could understand and that would give them hope for the future. Bush's fingering of specific rogue regimes that comprised an "axis of evil" was a critical first step, but it did not fully explain how this relates to removing the threat of future 9/11s. To this day, Bush's opponents present his emphasis on these regimes as a distraction from the war against terrorism, and Bush has only fitfully explained why it is not a sideshow, but the essence. He should have said that the UN Charter was promulgated to combat international aggression, and that all nations must not rest until not a single nation supports international terrorism. He should have made it crystal-clear that fighting terrorists directly, however necessary, is like swatting mosquitos without draining the swamp that spawned them. And that, while some mosquitos will always be left over even without swamps, avoiding the core of the problem will only ensure that it is never adequately addressed, and will likely worsen. Instead, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to have been fought in isolation, not in the context of a declared goal of eliminating the phenomenon of state-supported terrorism. This goal is further obscured by the fact that the confrontation of Iran is being done mainly on the grounds of its nuclearization, not its support for terrorism. We can still create a world for our children that is not under the threat of 9/11s, or worse. Technology is not the limiting factor for terrorism, and it does not by itself ensure that the threat of terrorism will grow. Islamofascism can be beaten and terrorism reduced from a weapon of civilizational conflict to a policing problem. But our leaders must articulate a theory of victory that people can understand, that they can see being systematically implemented, and that will give them hope. Next week, the societal source of developed-world pessimism.

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