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The Top Ten Things Americans Should (Still) Be Grateful for in 2015

The Iran deal, scientists, and the unshakable pragmatism of President Obama.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 25:  U.S. President Barack Obama (L) "pardons" Abe, a 42-pound male turkey during a ceremony with National Turkey Federation Chairman Jihad Douglas (2nd L), turkey farmer Joe Hedden and Obama's daughters Sasha and Malia in the Rose Garden at the White House  November 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. In a tradition dating back to 1947, the president pardons a turkey, sparing the tom -- and his alternate -- from becoming a Thanksgiving Day feast. This year, Americans were asked to choose which of two turkeys would be pardoned and to cast their votes on Twitter.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 25: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) "pardons" Abe, a 42-pound male turkey during a ceremony with National Turkey Federation Chairman Jihad Douglas (2nd L), turkey farmer Joe Hedden and Obama's daughters Sasha and Malia in the Rose Garden at the White House November 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. In a tradition dating back to 1947, the president pardons a turkey, sparing the tom -- and his alternate -- from becoming a Thanksgiving Day feast. This year, Americans were asked to choose which of two turkeys would be pardoned and to cast their votes on Twitter. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

By tradition, Thanksgiving is the holiday when we put aside fears and grievances and focus instead on our good fortune. Gluttony, football, and pointless family quarrels may play some role in the festivities too, but they are not why the holiday was created.

In recent years I’ve observed this day by listing the things for which world leaders should be grateful, or some things for which I’m personally thankful, but both tasks seem a little harder this year. There’s no shortage of grim news on the global front, and politicians and pundits in the United States seem to want us to sit down to dinner on Thursday in a state of trembling and xenophobic paranoia. If you keep watching a steady diet of CNN or FOX you might lose your appetite entirely.

My advice: Ignore them. There are big problems in the world today, and plenty of things to worry about here at home too. But Americans should neither overstate the dangers nor assume there are quick, cheap, and easy answers to them; it is precisely that combination of fearful overconfidence that leads countries into stupid wars and costly quagmires. For all the troubles that bombard us daily, Americans still have much to be thankful for. Keeping that firmly in mind can keep over-hyped threats in perspective and help us avoid costly or counterproductive responses.

In that spirit, therefore, here is my list of the: Top Ten Things Americans Should Still Be Thankful For in 2015.

No. 1: Living in the United States

Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday (though there are similar festivals elsewhere), and it should be. Not because America is perfect (it isn’t) or even the best country in the world (there are plenty of other contenders), but because it might be the luckiest. Americans face far fewer external dangers than most other societies, the country is politically stable (if a bit dysfunctional), and its economy and society are surprisingly resilient. Compared with other major powers, in fact, the United States has led a charmed life. It also has a better record of turning foreign immigrants into loyal citizens, which enables all of us to enjoy the benefits of a diverse society. America would be a less vibrant and successful place today if it were made up solely of the descendants of the original colonists, and all Americans should give thanks for the waves of immigration that created this intermingled crazy quilt of a country. We still have plenty of work to do here at home (and it would be easier if we did fewer dumb things abroad), but I try to keep America’s virtues in mind whenever some aspiring politician says something especially stupid.

No. 2: Barack Obama.

Speaking of politicians, Americans—even Republicans!—should be thankful Barack Obama has been president. I’ve been sharply critical of some of his decisions in office, but on balance he has done a commendable job in challenging circumstances. He inherited an economy in free fall and two losing wars (a fact his critics rarely if ever acknowledge), and he’s had to work with an opposition party that has become increasingly unhinged and divorced from reality. He has led the country in a calm and deliberate manner, which is precisely what the job demands. The last thing the United States needs is a hair-trigger or panic-prone president, and Obama has been anything but that. You needn’t have voted for him to acknowledge that he’s accomplished a great deal of good. Whoever wins in 2016 will be lucky to do as well.

No. 3: Science & Technology

I complain a lot about the “unfriendly skies,” but like Louis C.K., I still regard our ability to criss-cross the world as a miracle of modern life. And world travel is just one of the things that would astound our ancestors: every year brings new knowledge, new apps, new medical treatments, and new inventions that will eventually help billions of humans lead better lives. And make no mistake: advances in science and engineering are about the only hope we have for addressing climate change and other large-scale global problems. The fruits of technology are not wholly benevolent, of course, but the future of the human species will be gravely compromised if our store of knowledge and our collective ability to invent and inspire erodes. So this year, be thankful for scholars, nerds, geeks, and scientific progress.

No. 4: Whistleblowers

Foreign and national security policy is conducted by large, secretive and hierarchical organizations that can hide malfeasance, incompetence, or just plain dumb policies behind walls of classification. Oversight mechanisms and public accountability don’t work well in that world, even in democracies with checks and balances and a tradition of an open press and free speech (see under: Senate Torture Report). All too often, exposing and correcting wrongdoing requires individuals with the moral courage to stand up and expose what is happening, even at great personal risk. For this reason, we should be grateful for the various whistleblowers who have tried to tell the public what some public servants are really up to. Without their courage, we might never know.

 No. 5: Public servants

At the same time, we ought to be more appreciative of the thousands of public servants whose careers are dedicated to serving their fellow citizens. Markets are great and government can’t do everything, but no society can function without effective public institutions. To work well, those institutions need millions of dedicated people who put in the time on our behalf with little expectation of vast riches or glory. I’m not referring to the ambitious climbers and political appointees busy clawing their way to the top of the government hierarchy—you know who you are—I’m talking about the career civil servants, local administrators, enlisted personnel, and mid-level bureaucrats without which this country could not function. Instead of constantly demeaning them, we ought to be grateful.

No. 6: The Iran Deal  

I was glad when the United States and Iran reached a preliminary agreement, grateful when the final deal was inked, and relieved when Congressional opposition failed to kill it. And we should all be grateful to those politicians who resisted pressure from AIPAC et al and backed the deal anyway, and for the coalition of pro-deal groups that organized to defend it. Given that the alternative to a deal was another Middle East war or an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program, you should be grateful too. Assuming naysayers in Iran and the United States aren’t able to provoke new quarrels, maybe the two countries can gradually move toward a more businesslike and constructive relationship. If that happens, we’ll have even more reason to be thankful.

No. 7: Green Shoots of Democracy.

You might think a realist like me wouldn’t care a fig about regime-type, democracy, human rights, or the like, but you’d be wrong. I’ve never liked bullies, thugs, liars, arbitrary rule, mass oppression, or deliberate cruelty, and I think it’s wonderful when dictators lose power and citizens create a democratic order that actually works. This isn’t easy to do, however, and especially not for foreign powers like the United States. But the recent election in Myanmar is something to celebrate, and a welcome contrast to the undemocratic trends in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, Egypt, and several other places. So let’s give thanks for that, and keep your fingers crossed that European voters don’t succumb to the xenophobic intolerance of the National Front or other like-minded groups.

No. 8. Writers, Artists, poets, and such  

There is more to life than foreign policy, and so I’m thankful for all the creative people whose work and play has diverted, challenged, amused, confused, or entertained me over the past year. Grateful kudos to John Le Carre, Fitz & the Tantrums, Mitsuko Uchida, Susan Werner, Jerry Douglas, Barry Eisler, Elvis Costello, Lev Grossman, Jennifer Egan, and many more. A special shout-out to the astonishing Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose musical Hamilton provided the most remarkable and creative theatrical experience I’ve had in years (and I’m no great fan of rap or hip-hop). The Red Sox may have stunk last year but Roger Federer is still playing and (mostly) winning. Whichever artists or athletes you happen to like, be grateful for the inspiration, joy, pleasure, and solace these remarkable individuals provide.

No. 9: Dogs that didn’t bark

Even as we grapple with today’s crises, we should acknowledge with gratitude the disasters that might have occurred but didn’t. Another year has gone by with no nuclear weapons being detonated, no great power war breaking out, and no major economic meltdown (though I worry about some emerging markets). Their absence is worthy of celebration, for any of these events would have caused greater human suffering than anything the Islamic State or al Qaeda might have done. Greece is still in the Eurozone and the Eurozone is still intact. The Ebola epidemic was terrible but did not go global. A giant asteroid did not strike Earth, and hackers didn’t bring down the Internet, launch an unauthorized missile attack, crash Wall Street, turn off the power grid, or cause any of the other disasters dreamt up by screenwriters and professional scare-mongers. Troubles may abound all over the world, but I’m grateful for all the Very Bad Things That Didn’t Happen and you should be, too.

No. 10: What Really Matters.

It has been a difficult year since last Thanksgiving: I lost a sister and two close friends to cancer and some other friends are facing serious challenges of their own right now. Such events are an inescapable part of the human experience, but that knowledge doesn’t make them any easier to accept. So this Thanksgiving, I’m going to take some extra time to appreciate all that my family and friends have meant to me over the years. If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving this year, I hope you feel the same appreciation for those with whom you are sharing the holiday, and for those who may be absent but close in your thoughts. Is anything else really more important?

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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