Palestinian paramedics lift the body of a man from the Al Shejaeiya neighborhood, during a brief period of ceasefire requested by local rescue forces to retrieve dead and wounded from the Shuja'iyya neighborhood in east Gaza City, July 20, 2014.
Photo by Mohammed Saber/EPA

The importance of context amid turmoil

On “Meet the Press” yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry concluded his appearance with a big-picture assessment: “[T]he American people ought to be proud of what this president has done in terms of peaceful, diplomatic engagement, rather than quick trigger deploying troops, starting or engaging in a war of choice. I think the president’s on the right track – and I think we have the facts to prove it.”
 
Soon after, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appeared on the same program and called Kerry’s perspective “ridiculous and delusional.” The Republican senator added, “It scares me that he believes the world is in such good shape.”
 
There’s a lot of this going around. Many U.S. observers look at the world – war in Ukraine, deadly violence in Israel, deteriorating conditions in Central America forcing unattended children north, civil war in Syria – and see a planet unraveling. The turmoil, they insist, is not only terrifying, but also unlike anything Americans have seen in recent memory.
 
Indeed, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said last week that there’s “greater turmoil” in the world now than at any time “in my lifetime.” McCain’s lifetime includes the entirety of World War II, Vietnam, and the Cold War.
 
There’s no denying that the tumult is scary, and for those affected and confronted with bloodshed first hand, heartbreaking. That said, for those arguing that the entire world is unraveling before our eyes, some context is in order. This exchange on ABC yesterday between George Stephanopoulos and The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe rang true:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Julia Ioffe, I was struck by a piece you wrote this week, where you said it was somewhat egotistical, I think it was our word, for us to focus on how great the turmoil is in the world right now. We have to put it in context.
 
IOFFE: That’s right. You know, I talked to a bunch of historians. Every generation has this moment that they believe that they’re the ones able to identify a moment of great change and great turmoil that is unique and different and worse than all other moments of turmoil and change that came before. I mean, just look at what happened in 2001, you had the second intifada in Israel-Palestine, you had the September 11 attacks, had the invasion of Afghanistan, that was a pretty bad year, too. And we’re still alive. We’re still here. We’re still kicking.
Quite right.
 
Fareed Zakaria also had a good piece along the same lines last week, noting conditions in 1973, the year McCain was released from a Vietnamese prison. That year, Zakaria noted, several hundred thousand people died as a result of the war in Vietnam, tens of thousands who died in the Yom Kippur War, OPEC imposed an oil embargo, and Cold War tensions pushed the United States literally to DEFCON 3.
Today’s world is unpredictable, but it doesn’t compare with the kinds of geopolitical dangers that existed for decades during the Cold War, not to mention before that period. […]
 
For all the problems, let’s keep in mind that we live today in a world with considerably fewer dangers. Nuclear war is unimaginable. The Russian-American nuclear arsenals are down to one-fifth their size in 1973 and at a much lower level of readiness. In 1973, Freedom House published its first annual account of political rights around the world. At the time, countries listed as “not free” outnumbered “free” countries. Today that is inverted, with the number of “free” countries having doubled. Open markets, trade and travel have boomed, allowing hundreds of millions to escape poverty and live better lives.
 
Of course there are crises, problems and tensions around the world. But no one with any sense of history would want to go back in time in search of less turmoil.
President Obama talks regularly to White House interns at the end of their six-month internship, and he tends to always tell them the same thing: “[D]espite how hard sometimes the world seems to be, and all you see on television is war and conflict and poverty and violence, the truth is that if you had to choose when to be born, not knowing where or who you would be, in all of human history, now would be the time. Because the world is less violent, it is healthier, it is wealthier, it is more tolerant and it offers more opportunity than any time in human history for more people than any time in human history.”
 
Such talk is not “ridiculous and delusional”; it’s true. The point is not to diminish the real suffering of people facing crushing violence. Telling people whose lives have been ruined by war, “In a historical context, the world is quite stable right now” is absurd and offensive.
 
That said, those Americans in our political sphere who see global crises as proof that the entire world is falling apart at the seams are mistaken.
 
I suspect for many in the “unraveling world” crowd, the instinct is lazy partisanship: if they can convince the public that we’re facing unprecedented instability around the globe, maybe Americans will blame President Obama and turn to the GOP – as if more military engagements abroad will quickly bring peace and stability to the international stage.
 
But regardless of the motivation, the argument just isn’t based on reality.
 

Foreign Policy

The importance of context amid turmoil