10 Things in the World to Be Thankful for in 2018

From Angela Merkel to America’s civil servants, a list of some bright spots in the world’s darkening sky.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
U.S. President Donald Trump waves after pardoning a turkey in a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 21, 2017. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump waves after pardoning a turkey in a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 21, 2017. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s partly because I like a good feast (and let’s be honest, the traditional Thanksgiving spread is the epitome of guilty-pleasure comfort food). It’s also because I like an excuse to convene family and friends together in a boisterous bacchanal, even if the conversation gets a bit overheated at times. But it’s mostly because I think devoting a day to remembering and acknowledging our blessings is simply appropriate. We can go back to being our normal neurotic, self-centered selves on Black Friday.

Admittedly, finding joy and giving thanks is a bit tougher this year, as dictators, con men, megalomaniacal princes, self-centered jackasses, and assorted other problem children dominate the political stage. Nonetheless, there are still some bright spots in a darkening sky. So, in addition to the obvious joys that I’ve received from my family and friends, here are the top 10 things I’m giving thanks for in 2018.

  1. America’s still-remarkable geopolitical good fortune.

Otto von Bismarck supposedly quipped that “there seems to be a special providence that looks after drunkards, fools, and the United States of America.” That good fortune begins with location: The United States was founded on a continent teeming with resources, traversed by navigable rivers, and with no powerful neighbors nearby. We seldom reflect on how lucky we are to live such a benign neighborhood, and perhaps the only downside to this happy situation is that it allows us to wander all over the world getting into trouble in places we don’t understand. But on balance, America’s providential location is a blessing that should never be forgotten. Had the United States not enjoyed so much “free security,” (as historian C. Vann Woodward put it), it might not have survived the parade of incompetent leaders its citizens have had to endure on more than one occasion. Like now.

  1. Civil servants.

I’m a frequent critic of the foreign-policy “blob,” but most of my ire is directed at the top of the pyramid (and the pundits who inspire, enable, or mislead them). By contrast, I’m deeply grateful for the quiet legions of civil servants who go to work every day and try to serve the public’s interest. And I’m especially thankful this year, when the cabinet is filled with incompetent people who are in fact hostile to the departments they oversee, and when the civil service itself has come under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump and his gang of grifters.

Civil servants aren’t infallible, of course, and a few of them are undoubtedly lazy or crooked. And we all find dealing with the government agencies frustrating on occasion. But trust me: You don’t want to live in country where the civil service doesn’t work at all or is irredeemably corrupt, or where the state has collapsed entirely. A “deconstruction of the administrative state,” which bombastic poseur Steve Bannon once said was his goal, would leave most of us far more vulnerable and worse off. (If you want gain a new appreciation for these unsung heroes and be alarmed at what Trump & Co. are doing to them, I recommend Fintan O’Toole’s review of Michael Lewis’s book, The Fifth Risk.)

  1. Science and technology.

Granted, some technological developments (such as the internal combustion engine, the coal-fired power plant, opiates, and social media platforms), have caused real problems for humankind along with their obvious benefits. But every year I’m grateful for how improved scientific and technological knowledge have made me healthier, more productive, more comfortable, and allowed many of us to do things that our grandparents never dreamed of. Equally important, advances in science and technology will be essential for coping with many problems that now loom before us, such as weaning us off fossil fuels or helping us cope with consequences we cannot reverse. All of which makes me wonder why any world leader would try to govern without listening carefully to the best scientific advice, or why they would not fully support scientific education and research. Only an ignoramus who wants to stay that way forever could favor such a course.

  1. Angela Merkel.

As her political career nears its end, I’d like to express my thanks for the estimable chancellor of Germany. Almost alone among recent European politicians, she has been a steady, smart, knowledgeable, principled, and above all sensible steadying force in a turbulent decade. She made a few mistakes—as all leaders do—but she’s been vastly impressive when you consider the European leaders with whom she’s had to work. Her counterparts have been the likes of François Hollande, Silvio Berlusconi, David Cameron, Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin, and the whole Monty Python-esque claque of twits busily steering the United Kingdom over a cliff. Not to mention our own President Trump, whose diplomatic tool kit contains only bluster, insults, and lame excuses for appalling behavior. Compared to that crowd, Merkel has been a titan among pygmies.

  1. Moon Jae-in.

And while we’re on the subject of world leaders, I’m thankful South Korean President Moon is so patient, tolerant, level-headed, and able to keep his eyes on the big picture. It cannot be easy to have your country’s fate be at least partly dependent on whatever goofy thing Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump dream up, yet Moon has repeatedly shown creativity, courage, flexibility, persistence, and a willingness to take intelligent risks in pursuit of peace. It would be nice if the U.S. president would give him some help in that regard, instead of treating North Korea mostly as an opportunity for meaningless public-relations stunts.

  1. Younger scholars.

Scholarship is a progressive endeavor, and even successful research eventually gets overtaken by new ideas, new bodies of evidence, or more compelling interpretations. I’m thankful to be in a field where younger scholars keep coming along and teaching me things I didn’t know, or correcting things about which I was mistaken. So, here’s a quick Thanksgiving shout-out to some of the younger scholars whose work has inspired, intrigued, interested, provoked, and otherwise enriched me in the past year or so: Sarah Kreps, David M. Edelstein, Josh Shifrinson, Michael Beckley, Vipin Narang, Caitlin Talmadge, Elizabeth Saunders, Mike Horowitz, Nuno Monteiro, Dan Bessner, Micah Zenko, and Michael A. Cohen. (That’s a very partial list, by the way, so don’t be offended if your name’s not there.)

What’s even more gratifying is that younger cohorts seem to have developed a remarkably collaborative ethos, and are even more inclined to provide mutual support than my generation of scholars. If so, this augurs well for the future of the field, as well as its internal harmony.

  1. Other authors.

Man does not live by political science alone—at least I don’t—and I want to acknowledge a few writers whose work enriched my life this year. Kudos to my friend, Barry Eisler, whose thriller Livia Lone tackles the issue of sex trafficking with insight and dramatic flair. And to Gary Giddins: Volume two of his marvelous, revelatory biography of Bing Crosby was worth the fourteen-year wait after the first volume. Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True is both a great read and a mind-stretching experience, though he hasn’t got me meditating yet. I reread all Raymond Chandler’s novels this year, along with Lawrence Osborne’s Only to Sleep (which gives now-retired protagonist Marlowe a new adventure); they were as evocative, dark, humorous, ambiguous, and entertaining as ever. Lee Child remains a favorite guilty pleasure, Jill Lepore’s New Yorker essays make me envious, and Benn Steil’s The Marshall Plan made me appreciate that extraordinary diplomatic achievement even more. Once I get my email under control, I’d have even more time to read great books like these. And anything James Scott cares to write too, of course.

  1. The Boston Red Sox.

It’s not a big thing, but watching and rooting for the Sox was a great pleasure this year. (I live in Boston. Sue me.) It was a joy in part because they were such a compelling and talented team (108 wins!), but also because it was a roster filled with good guys and devoid of major-league jerks. Their pleasure at playing and winning together was palpable, and how can one not like a team whose best player is nicknamed “Mookie”? And in case you thought differently: Four World Series titles since 2004 is not too many.

  1. I’m not still writing my book.

Writing a book is very rewarding, but as every author knows, it ain’t exactly easy. One starts out excited by a new topic and eager to embark on the journey, only to discover that getting there is always harder than you thought it was going to be and the path from beginning to end often feels like a solo march across a trackless, arid, and seemingly endless desert. I’m grateful to the colleagues and friends who helped me and to those who’ve reviewed it favorably so far, but as far as I’m concerned, the best thing about The Hell of Good Intentions is that I’m not still trying to finish it.

  1. The U.S. electorate.

If Trump’s Republican Party had done well in the midterm elections, it would have proven that you really can fool most people most of the time. But instead, American voters turned out to swing the pendulum back toward sanity. Make no mistake: The Democratic Party still has its own pathologies, and our money-soaked, gerrymandered, voter-suppressing, and embarrassingly haphazard electoral system is a national disgrace. But the House of Representatives will now be able to shed much-needed light on the Trump administration’s malfeasance and pressure the GOP-led Senate into more centrist and sensible politics. We should all be thankful for that.

That’s my list of 10, although I’m sure I could add to it. My advice if you’re throwing a Thanksgiving feast: Make your own list and ask your guests to compile theirs, too. Then have everyone read theirs aloud at the table. I think you’ll discover that we all have much to be thankful for, despite the obvious worries that haunt us throughout the year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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