IT IS EASY TO GET very discouraged when surveying the state of the world. Few Americans need to be reminded about the chaos in Iraq, Iran's ambitions as a regional and potentially nuclear power or the possibility of Sunni-Shiite conflict spreading throughout the Persian Gulf.
But there's also the fact that Russia has been regressing politically, using its energy wealth to muscle Belarus and Western oil companies that invested in it, while using gangster-style tactics to silence critics at home and abroad. Nationalism is resurgent in Northeast Asia, with younger generations of Japanese, Chinese and Koreans at each other's throats over wrongs committed more than half a century ago. This in turn blocks cooperation over the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons.
In our hemisphere, anti-American populists have been elected in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, and are busy centralizing power and reversing the trend of the 1990s toward openness and economic integration. Around the world, authoritarian regimes are learning repression from one another. What political scientist Samuel Huntington labeled the "third wave" of democratization began in the 1970s with Spain and Portugal, spread through Latin America and Asia, and culminated in the collapse of communism. But this wave has clearly crested. Not wanting to see another democratic upsurge like Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, Russia, Egypt, Syria and Venezuela have all passed laws closing off international funding for pro-democracy groups.
Underlying these worrisome trends is a huge decline in the prestige of the American model, which since the Iraq war has come to be symbolized less by the Statue of Liberty than by the hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib.
The world's evident instability has led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the hands of its "Doomsday Clock" to five minutes to midnight, two minutes closer to the figurative end of civilization. Even the fact that hundreds of millions of people are pulling themselves out of poverty lays the groundwork for global warming.
But before we get too discouraged with the state of the world at the beginning of 2007, we should stop to consider a broader context in which things look a lot brighter. The single most notable but overlooked fact about today's world is that the global economy has been driving ahead full speed, raising living standards and closing the gap between the First and Third worlds. The economies of the world's two most populous countries, India and China, have been growing in recent years at nearly 9% and 10%, respectively. A decade after the 1997-98 financial crisis, East Asia as a whole has returned to its torrid pace of development.
But the rest of the world is growing steadily too. Latin America, despite instability in the Andes and a backlash against "neo-liberalism," has been averaging 4% to 5% growth based on exports. Sub-Saharan Africa, after three decades of decline, has seen greater than 5% annual growth in recent years, and the Middle East is not far behind. These trends in the developing world are increasingly driven by south-south trade, as India and China consume commodities and natural resources from Latin America and Africa. This has spawned world-class multinational companies from developing countries, such as Mittal (originally of India), Cemex (Mexico) and Embraer (Brazil). Even Europe, despite the dislike of many of its intellectuals for an American-led globalization, has seen rates of unemployment fall to levels without recent precedent as the European Union expands and integrates with the global economy.
What is even more striking than the fact of economic growth has been its robustness. The early years of the 21st century have not been peaceful ones, after all: The world has seen the 9/11 attacks on the United States; horrific bombings in London, Madrid, Istanbul and Bali; two wars in the Middle East and one in Afghanistan; and an enormous increase in commodity prices. Similar shocks in the 1970s sent the global economy into a tailspin, leading to recession and inflation in the U.S., the debt crisis in Latin America and stagnation in Europe. And yet the U.S. economy has not even suffered a technical recession (two back-to-back quarters of declining output) in the last decade.