Today, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev meet in Prague to sign an agreement that will eliminate more than 1,000 large nuclear bombs from the Earth. Ho-hum! Commentators are carping that this development is not splashy or dramatic enough. Quite the contrary: it is magnificent news for our world.
When historians look back on the present generation, they will say that there were three trends of historic import – and none involve the effluvial trivia that dominate most contemporary discourse.
One trend of historic import is the spread of democracy, a sanguine development which seemed impossible as recently as the 1980s. The second is the rapid decline of global poverty – an improvement barely remarked upon in the West, because it isn’t happening there, and violates the chic-pessimism script preferred by tastemakers. China has moved 220 million people, nearly the population of the United States, out of poverty in a single generation. This production-and-output achievement is every bit the equal of America’s production-and-output achievement to win World War II. Poverty is declining in many though of course not all other developing nations.
The third great development of the present generation is steady decline in the world’s inventory of Armageddon weapons. According to estimates from the Federation of American Scientists, at the peak, in the mid-1980s, the United States and old Soviet Union possessed 80,000 nuclear warheads – sufficient to end human life, if not life on Earth.
Following a quarter-century succession of agreements backed by Democratic and Republican presidents alike in the United States, and reformers and zealots alike in Russia, the total is down to about 15,500 nuclear warheads. That is still too high. But when else exactly in history has fourth-fifths of any category of military power voluntarily been given up, to say nothing of within a single generation?