As I approach my first holiday season in New York City, I have been reading and listening to countless accounts of the first decade of the 21st century and how America has fared. The general view is that this past decade was the most trying since the 1940s. It started off with a presidential election that was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, of course, came the horrific events of 9-11. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq followed, while Hurricane Katrina only added to the heavy burden of the American people. Finally, the financial meltdown and the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression closed out the decade, leaving most Americans in a state of uncertainty and vulnerability.
The rest of the word did not fare much better. The economic woes of the United States were felt globally and natural disasters, like the tsunami of 2004 that left over 200,000 people dead, devastated entire regions. Terrorism continued on its ugly course and was not just relegated to U.S. soil. We need only think of London, Madrid, Mumbai, and Bali to remind us that terrorism has no boundaries. Tensions in the Middle East intensified with two armed conflicts involving Israel. Meanwhile, Iran and North Korea continued their nuclear sabre rattling. Political divisions also surfaced in Iran and parts of China. And finally, an anti-climactic outcome in Copenhagen rounded out a less-than-stellar decade on the international stage.
Americans were hopeful at the start of the past year, welcoming the inauguration of a new president. Barack Obama, the first African-American to hold the job, was seen as a vehicle for generational change. And while his activist agenda did much to stir optimism, suffice it to say it is premature to conclude on his success or failure. The new administration is still grappling with a sluggish recovery; Congress appears more divided along partisan lines than ever; potential health care reform seems to be leaving few people enthused despite the general consensus that major reform is needed; and the Democrats are showing faultlines in a crucial election year while the Republicans seem united against Obama but not as united on other matters.
Looking back may not be the best way to build confidence and generate optimism for the next decade for our American friends. But, as the cliché goes, by looking at the glass half-empty, we’ll forget it’s also half-filled. History has shown America has a way of rebounding. There is something intangible in the American spirit and unwritten in the U.S. Constitution—it is that in the face of adversity, the American people find ways to rise up, face the challenges, and eventually regain the upper hand.
The beginning of the next decade will not be easy for America and the world. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rage on in different forms; the geographic region of Pakistan and India remains unstable and dangerous; Iran appears bent to follow a course toward greater isolation and perhaps confrontation; the outcome of the climate change debate remains uncertain; and terrorism is still very much a fact of 21st century life. Yet, the lone superpower, America, and the emerging one, China, are on talking terms and the major economies of the world have never been so interrelated and interdependant. This is grounds for optimism and hope as the new year beckons. This is the main reason to look forward, knowing full well that progress cannot happen if we are prisoners of hindsight.
[John Parisella is former chief of staff to Premiers Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson, and co-author of Élections: Made in USA. He currently serves as Quebec’s Delegate General in New York.]