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The international system is not all gloom and doom

My friend Stuart was telling me the other day that he enjoys reading this blog, but he complained that there's never any good news. That's not entirely true, but I take the point. Of course, realists don't expect to see a lot of good news in the conduct of world politics, and I'm by nature more inclined to comment about issues where I think things are screwed up instead of spending a lot of time talking about what's going well. "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is not my theme song (except when professional threat-mongers are at work).

But despite current economic woes, the long-term implications of climate change, and the looming fiscal problems facing states, local governments, and plenty of other countries too, there is plenty of good news out there as well. Amid all the insecurity and tragedy of modern life, there is much to celebrate. Every day, all around the world, millions of people are finding love, expressing joy, dissolving in peals of laughter, making a new discovery, or enjoying the quiet satisfaction of doing a job well and with purpose. Every day, countless anonymous acts of kindness and respect are binding diverse and complicated societies together, and help thwart those who would rather drive us into our separate tribes and keep us isolated and afraid.

So in that spirit, today I wanted to highlight five "good news" stories in the current world scene, in no particular order of importance.

1. Poland lives! The long-suffering country of Poland received a body blow in April, when a plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other Polish officials crashed in a forest in Russia. The loss of the head of state and many other top leaders might have been paralyzing, but instead the relatively young Polish democracy has shown remarkable resilience in the face of this tragedy. An election to select Kaczynski's successor was held in June, leading to a run-off election in which Bronislaw Komorowski defeated Kaczynski's twin brother. Despite some signs of continued political tension (the defeated candidate did not attend the swearing-in ceremony), the positive response to an otherwise tragic set of events is grounds for hope.

2. Osama bin Laden doesn't have many friends. According to the University of Maryland survey of six Arab countries, Osama bin Laden is less and less popular (and in political terms, increasingly irrelevant). Back in 2003, "confidence" in bin Laden was well into double digits in many Arab countries. By 2008, however, only 14 percent of those surveyed in six Arab countries said bin Laden was the leader they admired most. This year, that number has fallen to a mere 6 percent. Still too high, as far as I'm concerned, but the trend is undiluted good news.

3. Global terrorism is less lethal? There's no question that global terrorism remains a serious problem, and civil violence continues to claim many lives in places like Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Insurgent groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda in Iraq are still killing innocent civilians and U.S. and NATO troops, and the trends in both places are worrisome. But amid that genuine bad news are some encouraging nuggets too. For example, the U.S. State Department reported earlier this month that in 2009, only 27 American civilians were victims of global terrorism (nine dead, 14 injured, and four kidnapped). Moreover, nine of these incidents occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is hardly surprising. While these deaths are obviously regrettable, the low numbers suggest that conventional terrorism does not pose an especially profound threat to U.S. civilians. Cold comfort to those who still live in war-torn societies, but still a piece of good news that Americans shouldn't forget.

4. U.S.-Indonesia ties continue to improve. Despite my criticisms of the administration's handling of certain issues, President Obama has presided over a dramatic and thus far lasting improvement in America's global image in every part of the world (except the Middle East, of course). They have also moved recently to expand U.S. ties with Indonesia, a country that is likely to loom large in America's strategic calculations as Sino-American rivalry in East Asia heats up. (If you want to know why, just look at a map of the region and notice how most of the key sea lines of communication run near or through the Indonesian archipelago). From a U.S. perspective, this is a good development, and I'd argue that it's a positive trend for Indonesia too.

5. The human costs of war are less than we thought? War and civil violence continue to cause great misery in many parts of the world, and I'd be the last person to want to minimize awareness of that suffering. Nonetheless, this report from the Human Security Project concludes that, in their words: "wartime mortality, from disease and malnutrition, as well as war-inflicted injuries, has been driven downwards by significant changes in the nature of warfare -- evident in the 70 percent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War, and more than 30 years of highly effective health interventions in poor countries in peacetime -- which have cut death tolls from disease during wartime."

To be sure, this finding remains contested, and I haven't gotten to the bottom of the (mostly methodological) dispute involved. But even if the report is only partly correct, it is a bit of encouraging news about an otherwise bleak aspect of the human condition (i.e., our propensity for violent conflict).

Lastly, we shouldn't lose sight of some pretty bad things that could have happened but didn't. Russia and Georgia didn't fight another war, and neither did India and Pakistan. The U.S. hasn't bombed Iran. The world economy didn't melt down completely, and the euro didn't collapse. The drug lords haven't taken over Mexico. Hezbollah and Israel haven't gone another round in Lebanon. The Underwear and Times Square bombers were incompetent blunderers and didn't manage to hurt anyone except their cause. Although there's a whole lot that could be better, things could also be much worse.

But before I get too cheerful, there's also this, this, and this.

 

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