As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, the world seems troubled, from the Hamas-Israel stand-off in Gaza to Syria’s bloody civil war to the recent fighting in Congo. Americans looking out at the world from family dinner tables would be right to fear that we live in a turbulent time when global misunderstandings, violence, and conflicts abound.
But these crises should not obscure a much more optimistic perspective about the future. We also live at a time of real promise, characterized by some little noted and positive trends that could very well make the next few decades an era of remarkable human progress.
One example is China's and India's achievement in vaulting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Two visionary leaders — Deng Xiaoping in China and Manmohan Singh in India — put the two most populous countries on the path to economic progress that has been unique in recorded history. Both countries still have millions more people living in poverty and are struggling with the largest rural to urban migration ever. And yet their progress in creating a new middle class and unparalleled wealth and opportunity for their citizens represents one of the singular developments of our time.
We also live during a time of remarkable advances in scientific, technological, and medical innovations that are changing our lives for the better. We can now see our economy taking on its future form in places like Kendall Square — one of the world centers for biotechnology. From the digital revolution to the emergence of personalized medicine and DNA research, change that once seemed beyond our imagination now appears right before us. Advances in HIV/AIDS, malaria treatment, and energy research provide real hope for the future.
Much of this progress has been built on the shoulders of our parents and grandparents. Their visionary Gemini and Apollo space programs, for example, inspired us to launch NASA's Mars Exploration Rover. With this in mind, the extraordinary life of Neil Armstrong, who died this year, reminds us of the value of intrepid leaders who join technology with the human imagination to explore our globe and universe.
A third trend is the vital fact that the 21st century's great powers — the United States, China, Russia, the European Union, India, and Brazil — are at peace. This is a rare moment in modern history. While we have witnessed the horrors of the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica massacre and are still engulfed in the war in Afghanistan, our era can still be more accurately defined by the absence of war and conflict among countries with the most powerful militaries.
During Thanksgivings past, American families were forced to dwell on the bloodbath of the First World War, when more than 16 million people died, and the unbelievable carnage of the Second World War, when more than 60 million men, women, and children perished. We are fortunate indeed to live in an era where a major war among nuclear powers Russia, China, and the United States, for example, is extremely unlikely. Nevertheless, we should place diplomacy once more at the center of our foreign policy so that we might extend this rare moment of great power peace.
A final thought on why we should be thankful this Thanksgiving: It is instructive to recall on national holidays how fortunate we are to live in such a great, vibrant, democratic, and, indeed, blessed country. If you need any convincing, turn on the news from Sudan, Syria, North Korea, or other dysfunctional countries around the world to be reminded what can happen when the rule of law, tolerance, and the democratic spirit are extinguished.
Despite our very real problems and imperfections, we have, more than any other country, come closer to achieving John Winthrop's original vision of a "city on a hill." Nearly 400 years after the Pilgrims planted their flag in the sandy soil of Massachusetts, we have endured, prospered, and built a remarkable country. Shouldn't that now give us the courage to believe in the possibility of what Tennyson called a "Newer World" — a future of hope, progress, and peace? There is, indeed, much for which we can give thanks this year.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.