Wherever you look these days, the world seems on fire. New hot spots like Russia-Ukraine are competing with old ones like Gaza. Festering conflicts like those in Syria and Iraq are getting worse. Even Afghanistan, which seemed in better shape than the other places, had a setback this week. Is there any good news out there?
In fact, some of the most important countries in the world are making remarkable progress, affecting at least 1.5 billion people. Let me give you the good news.
Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. It has more Muslims than Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf states put together. It is also crucially located, in East Asia where great power politics and rivalries are heating up. Only 10 years ago, the fear was that Islamic militants were taking over the country and that it was an economic mess and an unreliable crisis spot in the region. The country has defied all skeptics and last month it took a big step forward.
The election of Joko Widodo marks the consolidation of Indonesia’s democracy. Jokowi, as he is always referred to at home, defeated an iconic member of Indonesia’s old guard, Prabowo Subianto, a former general and former son-in-law of President Suharto who is thoroughly enmeshed in the ways of the past. (Prabowo is contesting the result.) In his campaign, Prabowo used demagogic appeals to nationalism, populism and Islam. Jokowi, by contrast, is a businessman-turned-politician, with a reputation as a competent and honest governor and mayor. He ran on a platform of economic development with virtually no reference to religion. His first steps have been promising, tackling a taboo right at the start — the country’s huge fuel subsidies, which are inefficient, distort the market and are a crippling burden on the national budget.
The other encouraging election this year has been in the second most populous country on the planet, India. First, there was the election, which is often taken for granted but should be marveled at. In one of the poorest countries in the world, 834 million registered voters got a chance to exercise their democratic rights (and 66.4 percent of them did). The elections were held without violence or controversy, using electronic voting that produced a result within hours. Compare that to the United States, which will again go to the polls this year with dozens of different kinds of ballots, many using paper, and with inefficiencies and inevitable controversies.
India’s elections could mark a turning point. The country has been mired in deadlock and paralysis for years because of a weak coalition government, ineffectual leadership and an obstructionist opposition. So people voted for a single party to take power (the first time in 30 years) and gave the new prime minister, Narendra Modi, a mandate. Modi campaigned brilliantly and effectively, and his message was unrelenting — development, development, development. Despite his party’s roots in Hindu fundamentalism, he chose to appeal to the country’s hunger for economic growth. If Modi can maintain that focus, eschew the Hindu nationalist agenda and make difficult decisions on cutting subsidies and encouraging economic competition, he will likely return India to a path of high growth, thus lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
Halfway around the world, Mexico took a big, bold step this week. The Mexican Congress passed the ambitious energy reform proposals of President Enrique Peña Nieto, ending 75 years of state control of the energy sector. They have the potential to be a game changer, bringing investment, new technology and hundreds of thousands of jobs to Mexico. Since his inauguration in December 2012, Peña Nieto has pressed for educational and telecommunications reforms that have also mostly been enacted. These reforms have not been popular and have not produced quick growth. This is understandable because most structural reforms have a negative effect on the economy in the short term — they end subsidies, reduce inefficiencies and allow competition for protected companies. In the long run, however, they boost productivity and growth.
If Peña Nieto continues to have the courage to enact major reforms, Mexico will slowly but surely be transformed into a middle-class country. And the result of that will be a sea change in its relations with the United States, which will finally see Mexico not as a problem but as a partner. It is already happening on the ground. Between 2005 and 2010, there was no net migration from Mexico into the United States. But perceptions take a while to change — especially in Washington. But once they do, North America — the United States, Mexico and Canada — will become the world’s most important, vibrant and interdependent economic unit.
That’s what’s been happening in the world while the news about rockets, bombs, assassinations and terrorism takes up the front pages.