12 March 2010

Positive World Trends

Latin America

Gay marriage has arrived in Mexico City (as well as the District of Columbia, in both cases by legislative action), and Mexico has developed a multi-party democracy after generations of dominant party rule. Latin America is no longer dominanted by military regimes. Major earthquakes in Haiti and Chile struck at time when those countries have had their political affairs in better order than in much of their recent histories. A long overdue thawing of U.S. relations with Cuba is in progress.

Eastern Europe and Central Asia

The Ukraine, which was on the brink of civil war a few years ago, has managed to muddle through with the democratic process with peaceful elections and a political arrangement that seems stable. Looking back a little further, the Soviet Union and communist Eastern block are no more, and the totalitarian communism that prevailed is gone or at least greatly scaled back in much of that region. Germany has been reunited in a way that has put East Germany on the fast track toward rejoining a larger world community. A genocidal civil war in the former Yugoslavia has simmered down to chilly federal government deadlock in a Bosnian successor state and a dispute over the full independence of a de facto independent Kosovo region in a successor Serbia; some of the worst offenders of that war were convicted and sentenced by international tribunals for their war crimes. The war and terrorism offensive in Russia related to Chechnyia has cooled down.

Post-Soviet Russia is not one of the countries that is rushing as fast as it can to Westernize. Shedding Soviet communism has brought Russia a declining standard of living, crime, corruption, terrorism, decreased international clout, and political instability. But, despite all of that, the emerging Russia is also not the totalitarian monolith that it was before the Soviet Union fell. Rather than being commited to rolling back history, Russia is a nation at an ambivalent moment in its history deciding what to do next.

Russia is slouching towards the Western economic and political model, as much as anything, because it lacks any other well defined alternatives. Implementing the amophorous Asian brand of Communism emerging in countries like China and Vietnam, would require an even more dramatic upheaval than adoption of a Western style economic and political system. Likewise, it is absurd for Russia to try to buy into Islamist theocracies on the model of Iran, Algeria, the Taliban and Saudi Arabia, to which new constitutions in Afghanistan and Iraq have paid lip service, and Northern states in Nigeria have sought to emulate.

Simply by virtue of the reduced economic scale, geographic scope, population size and political unity of Russia and the hard line remnants of the old Communist block and Soviet empire, it has fewer resources to devote to serving as a military adversary to the larger and increasingly unified block of Western nations. Rather than focusing on global conflicts, Russia has used its military might to intervene in tiny local separatist conflicts in Moldova and the Caucuses, and to politically support potential allies in the Baltic states, Belarus, Eastern Ukraine, Serbia, former Soviet Central Asia and Iran. The once seemingly monolithic alliance of China and Russia is no longer a united front.

Countries like Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Belarus have likewise not been rushing headlong towards Westernizing reforms, but like Russia, have few alternatives to latch on to. As much as anything else, each of these countries seem to be starting over from where they left off when communists gained the upper hand in the Russian Revolution and this movement spread across Eastern Europe, leaving the age of monarchy behind, but still vague on the kind of post-monarchical regime that they will put in place.

Western Europe

Notwithstanding the severe impact of the financial crisis on Iceland and Greece, Europe has come a long way, establishing free trade within most of the European continent, and free immigration and a common currency within a large part of this free trade zone. A treaty to give the European Union a sustainable and workable governance structure for its expanded scope looks like it will be adopted. Europe's mostly sound financial regulatory structure also mitigated the intensity with which the financial crisis hurt its member nations. Many former Eastern bloc countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia are eagerly rejoining the Western European economic and political sphere. Turkey too is making major efforts to be the most economically Western oriented Islamic country in Southwest Asia.

East Asia

China, which makes use of the death penalty relative to its population about ten times as frequently as the most death penalty prone state in the United States (Florida), is instituting reforms to significantly reduce its death penalty use. China is continuing a program of economic and political liberalization: local elections are being held, property rights are emerging, political issues receive guarded discussion but public discussion nonetheless, the effects of double digit GDP growth year after year are starting to become apparent. Detente is the current trend in the often bellicose relationship between mainland China and Taiwan. The Chinese takeover of Hong Kong did not destroy this pocket of East Asian prosperity. North Korea is increasingly isolated even from one time Chinese and Russian allies. The United States and communist Vietnamese regime, once at war, now have trade relations and exchange tourists, trade relations have also been restored with Laos whose communist regime leaders have handed over the party and the nation to a younger generation of leaders.

Japan is emerging from its post-war period of dominant party government and become a genuinely multi-party system that is focused on economic rather than military expansionism, and finding its place for itself as a developed, rather than a developing country. South Korea too is emerging into the ranks of relatively political stable civilian democracies with a developed economy.

South Asia and Southeast Asia

India is also showing notable signs of progress: an Indian automobile company bought luxury brand from U.S. companies, modern plumbing is reaching its hinterland, a rising professional class there, enabled by telecommunications, is exporting services to the United States, once epidemic disease like polio are on the verge of eradication there, the government is developing practical social welfare programs like a guaranteed job system that seems to finally be circuumventing a long history of corruption. Decades of civil war in Sri Lanka have ended. India and Pakistan are cooperating in the wake of a terrorist attack in India, and the U.S. and Pakistan are cooperating in addressing violent Islamist forces near its Afghan border. Pakistan's system of civilian rule survived a crisis that errupted when its leader with ties to the military tried to oust its supreme court. The elected civilian government in Bangladesh has ended a two year state of emergency and put down a mutiny by one of its military units.

Indonesia, which not so long ago was under the grip of a many decades old dictatorship, has seen democracy restored. A separatist conflict in Aceh, Indonesia ended in 2005 the deal that ended it has held for four years. Relative peace has helped Indonesia cope with a serious tsunami and major earthquakes. This has also made possible independence for East Timor.

The Near East

The Iraqi civil war from which we are planning to withdraw significantly this spring, is also winding down with the key milestone of national elections completed this past weekend. Afghanistan may be at war, but that nation has spent eight years mostly outside the oppressive rule of the Taliban and a fragile civilian political structure and network of public services is emerging.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, but the once frequent suicide bombings in Israel are now rare. The peace deal brokered by President Carter between Israel and Egypt after thirty years of war, has now held for more than thirty years. The peace deal between Israel and Jordan brokered by President Clinton likewise remains in force. Massive influxes of refugees from Iraq into Syria and Jordan have not destabilized those governments.


One of the messy civil wars in Sudan (it has more than one of them) is about to reach a permanent resolution with the likely creation of the independent nation of South Sudan this year. Long civil wars are over in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique (which is seeing solid economic growth despite multiple rounds of crippling floods). A fragile political truce in Kenya ended political violence that threatened to errupt into war there after a disputed 2007 election. South Africa's apartheid regime is no more and interracial politics are functioning at least as well as politics do in most of the developing world, and Namibia likewise has a post-apartheid independent civilian government.

While Uganda's recent history has been dotted with many troubling incidents of genocide, involvement in an ugly multi-polar war in Congo, and the near adoption of draconian anti-gay laws, its legislature also adopted massive legal reforms granting rights to women, has provided refuge to people fleeing conflicts in neighboring countries and has been a host to international war crime tribunals.

Problems For A New Era

We live in a world that still has totalitarian regimes, that still has ugly civil wars and ethnic violence raging, that still has many places where peace and democracy are fragile. But, a world no longer inclined to fight Cold War struggles by proxy has made resolution of myriad little wars and the creation of democratic civilian governments possible.

Some of the problems the world faces today are relatively new, like the intense drug war in Mexico and the flare up of ethnic violence in the Sahel. Others, like some of the repressive regimes in post-Soviet Central Asia, look bad only because they have maintained a status quo that other post-Soviet republics improved upon. The international community has an ability now that it once lacked to focus attention on domestic government abuses in countries like Burma, Iran and Darfur, and an ugly war in the Congo.

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