10 Things in the World to Be Thankful for in 2019

Be grateful for Greta Thunberg, Emmanuel Macron—and the fact that things aren’t as bad as they could be.

U.S. President Donald Trump pardons the National Thanksgiving Turkey during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Nov. 26
U.S. President Donald Trump pardons the National Thanksgiving Turkey during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Nov. 26 SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

It’s the week of Thanksgiving in the United States, which means it’s time for Americans to overeat, watch a lot of football, meet with friends and family, and try, if at all possible, to avoid talking about politics. More seriously, Thanksgiving is a day to reflect on the aspects of life for which we are most grateful, however difficult that might be in these disturbing times.

I’ve had as fortunate a life as anyone has any right to expect, and I try to keep that in mind when disappointments occur. As I contemplate Thanksgiving 2019, there are a number of people I’m especially thankful for right now. Without further ado, here are my Top 10 Reasons to Give Thanks This Thanksgiving.

1. Greta Thunberg. Unless you have been off the grid or confining your news intake to Fox, you’re probably aware that climate change is an even bigger problem than we previously thought. The head-in-the-sand response of many U.S. politicians (including the denier-in-chief in the White House) and the fossil fuel industry’s active efforts to mislead the public have made the problem worse. For this reason, I’m thankful that a teenage Swedish activist found a way to rivet public attention on the problem and has inspired more and more young people to take up this cause. You may not feel thankful if you happen to own a coal mine—but future generations will.

2. The Whistleblower. I don’t know the whistleblower’s name—despite some scurrilous efforts to expose it—and I wouldn’t repeat it if I did. But Americans who still respect the Constitution and the principle of civic duty should be thankful that this brave individual took immediate, appropriate, and entirely legal steps to bring a case of presidential malfeasance to light. They had nothing to gain personally from this action—on the contrary, blowing the whistle is usually professionally damaging—but they played it by the book and followed established procedures to the letter. Unless you are a Republican member of Congress or prefer to be willfully ignorant about President Donald Trump’s shenanigans (two categories that are largely synonymous), you should be thankful, too. The whistleblower deserves a goddamn medal, plus an extra helping of pie.

3. Fiona Hill & Co. And while we’re on the subject, here’s a Thanksgiving shout-out to Fiona Hill, Marie Yovanovitch, George Kent, William Taylor, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and all the other foreign-policy professionals who have testified to the House impeachment hearings. Despite my misgivings about some aspects of the foreign-policy “blob,” these sober, nonpartisan, and patriotic professionals were a marked contrast to the sleazy schemers they were reporting on (not to mention the Republican fantasists on the Intelligence Committee who tried unsuccessfully to impugn their testimony).

4. Sacha Baron Cohen. I’ve never been a big fan of Baron Cohen’s comedy: Borat was too crude for my tastes, and even his cleverest Ali G interviews relied too heavily on contrived and awkward situations with various clueless victims. But his recent address to the Anti-Defamation League on the dangers that unregulated social media pose to democracy is well worth watching. It’s direct, articulate, forceful, and one of the best takedowns of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg that you’re likely to see. Who knew Borat could be so sensible? Kudos, and thanks.

5. The Anonymous Chinese Official(s) Who Leaked to the New York Times. It is not exactly a secret that China is currently engaged in a massive, involuntary, and inhumane campaign to “reeducate” a million or more ethnic Uighurs (a Muslim minority) in vast prison camps. Chinese officials initially denied reports of these prisons, then tried to describe them as “vocational reeducation” camps created to protect the population from a small minority of “religious offenders or extremists.” Official Chinese documents leaked to the New York Times have confirmed the existence of the camps, along with the responsibility of top Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, as well as the far-reaching ambition of this indoctrination campaign. Global opinion is divided on how to respond to these revelations, but I’m grateful to have China’s conduct exposed for the world to see.

6. The Squad. I don’t agree with every position that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, or Rashida Tlaib have taken, but I’m still glad they are in Congress. If nothing else, they have brought energy and independent thinking—and in the case of Ocasio-Cortez, a wicked sense of humor—to an institution that is prone to egomania, posturing, windy pretentiousness, and overzealous fealty to wealthy donors. Thus far, none of them has succumbed to the various temptations that can turn promising reformers into venal insiders. If you think Congress needed a breath of fresh air, you might offer a word of thanks for these courageous women, too.

7. Outstanding Authors. I read a lot of books over the past year, and I got enormous pleasure (and some important insights) from many of them. A partial list: Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power, George Packer’s Our Man, Stephen Kotkin’s two-volumes-and-counting biography of Stalin, Bruce Cronin’s Bugsplat, Lindsey O’Rourke’s Covert Regime Change, William Burns’s The Back Channel, Patrick Porter’s Blunder, Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets and The Doomsday Machine, and Stacie Goddard’s When Right Makes Might. On the lighter side, I finally found time for Bruce Springsteen’s outstanding autobiography (Born to Run), as well as the usual guilty pleasures from Lee Child (The Midnight Line) and Barry Eisler (The Killer Collective). So many books, so little time; but I’m lucky (and thankful) that more-or-less constant reading is part of my job.

8. Emmanuel Macron. It wasn’t his most diplomatic moment—and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was particularly ticked off—but I could not help but smile and nod when the French president told the Economist magazine that NATO was experiencing “brain death.” A lot of smart people tried to give NATO a compelling new mission after the Cold War, but their efforts have failed, because the necessary conditions—a clear, compelling, and common threat—no longer exist. Yes, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a vexing problem, but Europe has more than enough capacity to address it if it can ever wean itself from supine dependence on the United States. China’s rise is forcing Washington to pay a lot more attention to Asia (assuming it can finally find a way to get out of the Middle East), and that means NATO’s European members will need to decide if they are going to: 1) side with the United States vis-à-vis China 2) tacitly align with China, or 3) remain neutral. (Speaking just for myself, I think No. 2 is unlikely, but No. 1 is not assured.) So I’m thankful for Macron’s bluntness, because it might help convince NATO’s members to stop living in the past and start planning for the future.

9. Loyal Readers, Audiences, and Generous Reviewers. The Hell of Good Intentions came out about a year ago, and I’m thankful for the mostly positive reviews and decent sales. I also appreciate the many opportunities I had to talk about the book at universities, think tanks, and citizens’ groups, and on radio shows and podcasts. Sincere thanks to anyone who invited me to speak, bought copies of the book, or asked a tough question at one of my presentations. I’m especially grateful to all the Kennedy School students who took my course on U.S. foreign policy in recent years, and whose reactions to earlier drafts made the finished product much better. If by some chance you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and buy. Also makes a great stocking stuffer or Hanukkah gift.

10. Most Important of All: The Dogs That Didn’t Bark. There are a lot of troubles in the world today: a steadily warming planet, increasingly dysfunctional democracies, rising bigotry and xenophobia, a rising tide of refugees that is likely to grow, and a growing political assault on the idea of truth and the concept of honor. Even so, I’m thankful another year has passed with no great-power conflict, that the United States has not entered any new wars, that the world economy didn’t crash (again), that levels of poverty and disease continue to decline around the world, and that a majority of likely U.S. voters seem to be aware that they elected a charlatan in 2016. If the Democrats can get their own act together—a possibility that should not be taken for granted—we might have something to be really thankful for next year.

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

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