- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
There seems to be a general consensus that the world is in lousy shape. There is also a pretty widespread belief that the U.S. is a mess. Also that Washington is a cesspool of corruption and incompetence. In fact, there is a prevailing view that times are pretty dire here in America. The president and the Republican candidates speak ominously of the threats we face and speak wistfully of the past or inspiringly of better tomorrows. It’s no wonder that Midnight in Paris was one of the past year’s signature films. Everyone is suffering from golden age-ism, yearning for anything but what we’ve got.
But what if the premise is wrong? What if these are actually the best of times? What if we are living in the best moment in U.S. history and we are not even enjoying it?
One of the few certain facts I have learned since I left the fine public schools of Union County, New Jersey is that into every life come good developments and bad developments, but that we seldom know the difference while they are unfolding. It is only years later that we can tell whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to get or lose a job or a date or make a move to a new city.
I wonder if it goes further and we just don’t know a good thing when we see it.
For example, I got an email today from a friend who lamented the state of Washington (not the one with Walla Walla in it, but the condition of our federal government). She earnestly offered up the conventional wisdom that things have never been worse. But read any history of Washington and there was just as much bickering and conniving and in-fighting and stupidity and sometimes there was much more. From the innuendo-driven personal scandal swirling around Alexander Hamilton to cane fights on the floor of the House in the 19th Century to machine politicians cutting sweet deals while ignoring the deplorable state of civil rights in America during the 20th, there has always been plenty to complain about. People wax on about the comity of the good old days, but for all the comity the good old days were periods in which women, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and other minorities weren’t given a seat at the table and during which powerful pols managed to coax reporters into looking the other way over scotch and soda at a Georgetown cocktail party.
Or look at U.S. history. Sure, we’re going through a tough economic time now. The downturn is the worst since the Depression. But the Great Recession was not a depression, and it was a recession starting from a much much higher standard of living then in the 1930s, and people today live longer, healthier, happier lives with shorter work weeks, more conveniences, and more information at their fingertips than ever before. And then there’s the history itself. This may well be the least precarious moment in U.S. history. The first decades of our existence were the fragile stuff of a start-up and there was no certainty we could make it. We were at war with Britain again within three decades or so of the revolution. The first half of the 19th Century the country was increasingly torn apart over slavery culminating in the bloodiest war the world had ever seen as we tried to work out the issues of what kind of a union if any we wanted to be. The years after the Civil War saw further wars with the people from whom we stole the continent, the rise of rapacious megacompanies, and the birth of the KKK and a new racial divide in the South. Think we’re facing a tough economic transition? At the end of the 19th Century the vast majority of folks in the U.S. worked in agriculture. We had to change-over our entire economy to manufacturing, and in the 20th century, the percentages of agricultural jobs actually flipped in the course of 100 years.
Then came the rest of the 20th Century, marked by two world wars and then the Cold War’s threat of oblivion. And then after that came the recklessness and risks associated with the delusion that we were the world’s hyperpower, the one country that had to be active everywhere and could impose its will anywhere.
But that’s passed. We’re still the richest and most powerful nation on earth and we will be for the foreseeable future. No other nation comes close to matching our military or economic might. But there are no existential threats out there on the horizon. We are no longer tilting at the windmill of a global terror threat that actually turned out to be much less than we spun it up to be. We are resetting our priorities in a sensible, more inward-looking way. We are pulling in our oars a bit to restore things at home. We’re debating how to do that but there is very little debate that it ought to be done. We’re working better with others, more cognizant that we need multilateral solutions and thus better international relationships in order to succeed. The biggest rising power is also hugely dependant on its trade with us and does not pose any direct threat to us for many years to come. There are problems out there but they are nothing compared to the wars or threats of the past. We have challenges at home, but for most of our history we have faced much greater risks, much more precarious times. And then there’s the Voltaire-ian icing on the cake: it could be that this is the best of all possible times and we might as well appreciate it for what it has to offer.
I suppose by the time Monday rolls around I may have a different view. (In fact, I’m sure of it.) But it’s the weekend and you might as well roll this one around in your head for a while and have a good time.