2014 was an annus horribilis in foreign policy, as the Ebola crisis, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the rise of ISIS in a burning Middle East, and multiple civil wars in Africa attest.
As the year ends, however, a closer look illuminates thousands of courageous men and women who work ceaselessly for the elusive hope of peace. I asked some of the smartest, globally-minded people I know — my students at the Harvard Kennedy School and my three daughters — to suggest those people, from the celebrated to the unknown, who gave us hope in an otherwise turbulent year. Here are their and my heroes.
■ The brave doctors and nurses who, at great personal risk, treated thousands of Ebola victims in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Time Magazine’s salute to the “Ebola Fighters” as its “Person of the Year” was so right. We can’t thank them enough.
■ Pope Francis: The new Pope is breathing new life into the Roman Catholic Church. Through his message of tolerance for all and embrace of the poor and the excluded, he reminds Catholics of the simple beauty and abiding importance of the Social Gospel.
■ Malala Yousafzai: Recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for her peerless courage in standing up to terrorism, this 17-year-old’s determination and grace will be tested by renewed death threats against her as it was by last week’s horrific murder of 141 schoolchildren by the Pakistani Taliban.
■ Joshua Wong: Also just 17, this fearless young man was among the most inspiring of the Hong Kong protest leaders who sent China’s Communist Party leadership an unmistakable message this autumn — freedom of speech and human rights are squarely on the agenda of the Chinese people.
■ Professor Joep Lange: This intrepid former Dutch president of the International AIDS Society perished in July on the ill-fated Malaysian airliner cruelly shot out of the sky by Russian separatists in Ukraine. He devoted his life to develop treatment programs for HIV/AIDS patients.
■ Shimon Peres and John Kerry: The indefatigable 91-year-old Peres left the presidency and 66 years of service to the state of Israel this year. He continues pursuit of a two-state solution at his Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. Oft criticized for his persistence in chasing a historic Israeli-Palestinian accord, Kerry honors the American diplomatic tradition — he never gives up in the search for peace.
■ Americans young and old: The thousands who took to our streets this autumn to demand, through non-violence, a desperately needed national conversation about race and discrimination against minorities.
■ Barack Obama: Last week’s bold decision to try to bring to a close our half-century Cold War with Cuba is smart and far-sighted. Obama is betting that American engagement of the Cuban people can eventually overturn communism and birth a new era of freedom.
■ The United Nations, The International Rescue Committee, CARE, World Vision, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services and all the indispensable humanitarian relief organizations delivering food, medical aid and shelter to more than 11 million homeless in benighted Syria — the most urgent humanitarian crisis in the world today.
■ James Foley, Stephen Sotloff, Peter Kassig, Alan Henning, David Haines: Americans and Brits who risked everything to tell the story of civil war in Syria and Iraq. Their lives of decency stand, as President Obama said after Foley’s death, “in stark contrast” to the moral depravity of their ISIS executioners.
When the world gives us violence and murder, we can still draw inspiration from these people and millions like them who, as Tennyson wrote, “seek a newer world” and a future of peace. The late Irish poet Seamus Heaney put it this way:
“History says, don’t hope
on this side of the grave;
But, then once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.”
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.