If the last few decades can be summed up in a single theme, it might be “power to the people.” The grassroots campaigns that began as long ago as the Protestant Reformation, and continued through the rise of capitalist economies and republican governments, are being taken to their logical ends in the present time. The age of empires and colonies is gone. The age of dictators is past its peak. The 1989 Autumn of Nations was paralleled two decades later by the Arab Spring, and the number of republics continues to grow. Meanwhile, the internet has truly made this a global village 1 . Ordinary people play more of a role than ever before in shaping society, trends, and business. For this reason, “You” were named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006.
The post-Cold-War world suggests a very uplifting promise. As nations become more democratic, they become less aggressive toward each other. War between republics has been rare or non-existent, depending on definitions. 1 This is so far a short-term experiment, because only since the end of the Cold War has the world been led primarily by republics. I have never met a Russian who hates Americans – so why were our two countries teetering on the brink of nuclear war for decades? There are no good reasons, only poor excuses: governmental monopoly on foreign policy; an underdeveloped system of global property rights, trade, and conflict resolution; isolation imposed by geography and language barriers; and lingering memory of the World Wars. Today, China is growing as quickly as Japan was a century ago, yet by dint of treaty, investment, and contracts instead of military invasion. Geographic isolation no longer matters much in an age of free trade, mass migration, and the internet. And with an increasing amount of world control in the hands of the private sector, cultures and economies are blending irrevocably, a course of globalization that no government or military can contain.
Several hold-over tyrants remain, and this is a factor inflaming radical Islamism. But the worst 21st century belligerents are not nation-states. They are criminal organizations like al Qaeda and the Mexican mafia. They are small, fragmented, and adaptable. They fight dirtily, using terrorist tactics and infiltrating western institutions. This has necessarily directed espionage inward. Governments cannot monitor telecommunications for criminals and terrorists without gathering data on their own citizens. The balance of privacy vs. security has never been such a salient and difficult issue.
As republican nations enjoy their unprecedented pax civilia, poverty has moved to the front of the line as the greatest social problem. With a billion poorest of the poor, the scale of poverty is more immense than many westerners realize, and it is perpetuating the violence of the modern age. The War on Terror has its roots in separatism, but it is fueled by poverty and instability in the East. Even in the First World, poverty feeds the drug trade, and children born into poverty grow up to populate the criminal underground. Now that the whole world is majority urban, the problems of poverty, overcrowding, and unemployment are major plights in many cities.
Our times are defined by AIDS. It has been a complicating presence in this age of lifestyle liberalization. While wreaking its worst havoc on the gay community in the 1980’s, the AIDS epidemic did serve to draw attention to that minority. A gay civil rights movement took hold. Previously marginalized, homosexuals are now largely assimilated into mainstream culture. Even the very definition of marriage is changing in some places to acknowledge gay rights. Traditional marriage is becoming less common as cohabitation and single parenthood are on the rise. This is a delayed response to the separation of sex from pregnancy in the 1960s, a generational change of values after the divorce boom of the 1960s and 1970s, and a consequence of deferred parenthood in the era of working women. Unfortunately, sexual liberation has not led to sexual responsibility. Two out of five pregnancies are unplanned and STD’s are on the rise, both disproportionately in poor communities.
Conservative fear of globalism has taken on religious expression in conspiracy theories. Conspiracism is especially prominent in the United States, where it is directed against the rich and powerful, and in radical Islamism, where it is anti-Semitic. The world wide web has been the ideal breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Conspiracists are a relatively small but very vocal minority.
As a takeaway, it is important to appreciate what we have! It is easy to feel pessimistic about conflict and global crisis. I often hear people sigh and ask, “What’s wrong with the world today?!” The more I study history, the more I realize that there is plenty of cause for celebration to be living in the third millennium. Call me a hopeless optimist if you will, but at least I have done my homework. I hope that this book has helped make you, too, happy to be alive in this most amazing of times.
- Ray, James Lee: “Wars between democracies: Rare, or nonexistent?”, International Interactions Volume 18, Issue 3 February 1993 , pages 251 – 276, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03050629308434807?journalCode=gini20#preview ↩
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