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How Obama's optimism about the world explains his foreign policy

(Zackary Canepari/Vox)
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The Vox interview with President Obama touched on failed states, the seemingly unstoppable move of the American political system toward bitter division and gridlockIran's pursuit of nuclear armsstate violence against marginalized groups in the US, and ISIS. It got pretty dark. That makes it all the more striking that Obama repeatedly emphasized his firm belief that the world is getting better and safer all the time. "The trajectory of this planet overall," he told Matt Yglesias, "is one toward less violence, more tolerance, less strife, less poverty."

He's right. What you make of that fact is another question, but the underlying point that violence and poverty worldwide are on the decline is absolutely right, and something both Obama's and his successor's foreign policies have to reckon with.

Safer than ever

Violence — whether in warfare or regular homicide and assault — has been on the decline for centuries, probably millennia. Here, for example, is the fall of European homicide rates since the Middle Ages, according to research by criminologist Manuel Eisner:

(Max Roser/Our World in Data)

And here's how the rate of death in battle has declined since World War II:

(Steven Pinker)

The biggest compendium of evidence on the broader violence decline was compiled by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. In one chapter, he compares the rate of violent death in 21 prehistoric archaeological sites — ranging from South Dakota to India to Ukraine to Niger — to rates upon the emergence of the state. The prehistoric average was about 15 percent.

By contrast, in pre-Columbian Mexico — whose cities and empires formed actual states — the rate was about 5 percent. The two bloodiest centuries in modern European history were the 17th (with the Thirty Years' War and other wars of religion) and the 20th (with the two world wars). Pinker cites an estimate from historian Quincy Wright that the rate of death in war in Europe was 2 percent in the 17th century, and 3 percent in the first half of the 20th (it'd be lower if you looked at the whole century, of course). Other analysts' estimates were even lower. And again, that's the worst it got in modern times.

Better than ever

So that's violence. The world is also improving on a variety of other metrics. Extreme poverty has fallen dramatically in the past 30 years, most prominently in India and China. But it's starting to edge down in sub-Saharan Africa as well:

(Max Roser/Our World in Data)

Life expectancy is rising, and it's rising the most in poor countries:


Relatedly, deaths of children

childhood mortality


… and of mothers in childbirth have fallen too:


Literacy is on the rise worldwide:

(Max Roser/Our World in Data)

And while the spread of democracy has stagnated in the past decade, the long-term trend is very positive:

polity democracy chart 2009

(Max Roser/Our World in Data)

You can see more charts on positive trends in the world here. It's important to not get too Panglossian about this. There are real challenges remaining. Climate change threatens to unravel much of the progress made by people in the developing world in recent decades, and that progress has still left over a billion people living on less than $1.25 a day as of 2011.

But ignoring the gains that have been made would be a mistake. Obama's task — and that of other world leaders — isn't to reverse a spiral into more "death, destruction, strife, and chaos" (to use Obama's turn of phrase). It's to keep positive trends going.

That goes a long way toward explaining the anti-interventionist attitudes Obama expresses elsewhere in the interview, at least with regards to military solutions. If things are getting worse — if threats are gathering not dissipating, if forces interested in attacking the US are growing more capable — then predictions of what the world will look like if the US does nothing begin to look very dire. And when the consequences of non-intervention appear to be awful, taking big, risky action starts to look appealing.

If, say, you think that Islamist terrorism is a growing menace, that strengthens the case for large-scale intervention against groups like ISIS. Sending boots on the ground risks the lives of US service members and could very well make the situation worse, but if the alternative is that ISIS will grow dramatically powerful and begin striking America, intervention looks more sensible.

But if you don't think Islamist terrorism is growing into a major problem for the US but instead is a relatively small and shrinking threat, then this line of reasoning looks batty. If a future without intervention is better, not worse, than the present, then undertaking huge interventions that have the potential to reverse that positive trend looks foolish in the extreme. Erring on the side of restraint and gradual progress makes sense.

Erring against military options and toward subtler strategies with less downside risk also makes sense. Elsewhere in Vox's interview, Obama expresses a desire to shift resources away from traditional military activities and toward foreign aid — a sensible step if you want to protect and speed up positive trends in the developing world. His pivot to Asia, too, reflects an interest in helping China and India's rapid growth continue apace without sparking rivalries with neighboring states in the process. The goal is protect what's already happening — because what's already happening is, overall, pretty good.