Why the Global Glass Is Half Full

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Dylan Martinez / Reuters

Egyptian antigovernment protesters celebrate at Cairo's Tahrir Square after the announcement of President Hosni Mubarak's resignation

For many, Egypt's 18-day revolution seemed to come out of the blue. It was the kind of event that "cannot always be known or predicted," said James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. Even Egyptians could hardly believe their eyes. "I am speechless," one pro-democracy activist told al-Jazeera. "It's like a dream," a giddy Egyptian woman in Tahrir Square said on CBS News. "We cannot imagine it at all. Everyone is so happy — and shocked at the same time!"

Maybe they shouldn't be so surprised. The swiftness of Hosni Mubarak's downfall was stunning, but the sight of an aging autocrat shuffling into ignominy is by now a familiar one. In 1974, the world had only about 40 democracies, nearly all of them in the West; today there are three times that number. Some 85 authoritarian regimes have collapsed in the past 30 years. The triumph of a peaceful, secular, pro-democratic movement in Egypt is thus in keeping with broader global trends. All across the planet, people are leading safer, healthier and happier lives than they have done at any other time in human history. As a result, democratic reform is also on the rise, less because of Western pressure than because of the fact that the citizens of countries like Egypt now demand it. "The fact is, the world is becoming more banal every day," says Charles Kenny, a senior economist at the World Bank, "and that's wonderful news."

Kenny documents this stirring banality in his forthcoming book, Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding — and How We Can Improve the World Even More. (Full disclosure: Kenny, like me, is a fellow at the New America Foundation.) In 1950, fewer than half of the world's primary-age children attended school; now close to 90% do. A century ago, rich countries like the U.S. had infant-mortality rates as high as 15%; today the rate worldwide is less than 5%. In sub-Saharan Africa, literacy rates increased from 28% to 61% between 1970 and 2000. There are just 12 nations in the world where average incomes are lower today than they were in 1960, and yet even in those countries life expectancy has increased by close to 10 years.

Such developments are creating a virtuous cycle of social and political change. As people get healthier and more educated, they also are increasingly invested in the future of their children, less inclined to commit violence and more demanding that their governments provide basic services and expand civil liberties. A widely used database at George Mason University ranks the political systems of 163 nations on a scale of -10 (strong autocracy) to +10 (strong democracy). The global average score is 5.5, the highest it has ever been. In one recent poll of international public opinion, support for the proposition that "democracy ... is better than any other form of government" was over 80% in every country surveyed and close to 90% among those in the Middle East.

In other words, Mubarak should have seen it coming. "Once people expect their governments to respect their rights," Kenny says, "it is much more likely to happen." He believes the quality of life has risen worldwide because the "interconnections among the global population" have facilitated the rapid spread of cheap, lifesaving technologies, such as vaccines, antibiotics and bed nets. Political ideas cross borders more easily too. "Once the transition to democracy is made to look possible by (peaceful) neighboring example, it often spreads," Kenny writes. That's what happened in Southeast Asia in the mid-1980s, across Eastern and Central Europe after 1989 — and may be taking place in the Arab world right now. No one knows what democracy in Egypt will look like. But the historical evidence strongly suggests that Egypt's revolution won't be the region's last.

So what does this "snowballing of democratic change" mean for the U.S.? First, safeguarding our long-term interests in the Middle East increasingly requires active support for democratic forces, even those fighting against regimes friendly to Washington. "Nothing else is going to work," says Abbas Milani, a professor of political science at Stanford and author of The Shah. "It's too easy to learn the truth. It's too easy to tell the truth. And as a result, all of these despotic regimes are going to find it impossible to rule."

Second, Kenny's findings about the factors that actually influence the quality of people's lives — and, in turn, their likelihood of embracing values compatible with ours — suggest that modest, incremental policies produce more positive outcomes than efforts at grand transformation. In the end, we might be better off funding local literacy programs and vaccination drives in Afghanistan than spending untold billions attempting to midwife a strong national government there.

At the same time, the real improvement in life around the world is testament to the benign role played by the planet's sole superpower. Over the past 20 years, America's military and economic supremacy has underwritten a stable global order that has allowed more people in more places to lead freer, better lives than ever before. That's less a reason for self-congratulation than an argument for committing to self-improvement at home — by, among other things, making our public schools globally competitive again. It's good news that the rest of the world is getting better. But only a strong and thriving America can ensure it stays that way.