Gideon Rose: Don't Worry, Be Happy

There is an odd disconnect these days between popular perceptions of international relations and the actual state of affairs. Americans increasingly see the world as a source of threats, worrying about terrorism, nuclear proliferation or immigration. Non-Americans, meanwhile, see the United States itself as a dangerous rogue bent on imperial adventures.

Neither view is quite right: the United States profits far more from its engagement with the world than its citizens recognize. And it's far more benevolent than outsiders think. Aside from managing the endgame in Iraq, therefore, the greatest foreign-policy challenge facing President George W. Bush in the next 18 months—and the toughest job his successor will confront—will be how to convince everyone else that things really aren't that bad, and that desperate measures to change course would be unnecessary and unwise.

"Naive claptrap," many will respond. Don't I understand that radical Islamist terrorism is a grave and continuing danger, both to the stability of the Middle East and to the security of the West itself? That weapons of mass destruction are about to fall into the hands of angry lunatics in Iran and elsewhere? That authoritarianism is making a comeback, the globe is overheating and China will soon dominate everything? And shouldn't I acknowledge, many will add, that a lot of these problems are the direct result of America's greed, brutality and recklessness?

Sure—to some extent. The War on Terror will be with us in some form for generations, until the Islamic world makes a full transition to modernity. Iran may well get nukes, complicating regional security. The turmoil in Iraq is likely to get worse before it gets better. And yes, the Bush administration's bungling is partly to blame.

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But the true naifs are those who fail to put such troubles in perspective. War has been a constant throughout history, consuming millions of lives and untold wealth. Tyranny and poverty have also been the norm. What is notable today is not that such scourges still exist—but that so much of humanity has finally begun to escape from them.

The first half of the 20th century was marked by two global cataclysms; the second, by a tense superpower standoff. In retrospect, however, the most important aspect of the cold war was that it largely remained cold till the end, when the Soviet collapse removed any chance of U.S.-Russia conflict. Next came the emergence of a unipolar system in which democracy, peace and prosperity were given the chance to spread beyond Europe and Japan to the world at large.

Today, U.S. military dominance is so clear that traditional great-power war is unthinkable. U.S. economic power upholds a global capitalist system that offers everyone a chance to grow together. And U.S. political ideals, when properly expressed, are a force for liberalization and popular sovereignty.

For all the whining and worrying in the United States and abroad, therefore—and for all the real and pressing problems that remain—the world has never had it so good. The most advanced countries are allies and are generally devoted to the betterment of their own and other peoples. More than a third of humanity lives in countries growing at about 10 percent annually. Living standards have never been higher, life spans longer or politics freer, and there is every reason to expect such trends to continue. This generally benign context, in which great-power war and depressions are extremely unlikely, is the backdrop against which less serious or more speculative problems—terrorism, diplomatic rivalries, slow or unevenly distributed growth, future climate changes—loom large.

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It is crucial to remember, however, that our generally happy condition is neither accidental nor inevitable. It is the result of wise choices made by leaders and publics in decades past—a legacy that could be squandered if we take things like great-power peace or an open global trading system for granted, or get spooked into rash or imprudent actions that create more problems than they solve.

This was the Bush administration's real failure: intoxicated by self-righteous hubris, it never understood that dominance could be exercised but legitimate authority had to be earned. So it scorned the routine diplomatic maintenance necessary to keep the system in good working order, only to find itself isolated when its pet projects came a cropper. At this point, having squandered most of his capital and having defined himself so starkly through his initial policies, there is little Bush can do to change anyone's mind about anything. His successor, however, will get a fresh start. And if the next administration can avoid Bush's mistakes, it should find keeping the world on track much easier than most currently expect.

Gideon Rose: Don't Worry, Be Happy | World