WASHINGTON, DC – The year 2015 was difficult, punctuated by declining growth forecasts, horrific terror attacks, massive refugee flows, and serious political challenges, with populism on the rise in many countries. In the Middle East, in particular, chaos and violence has continued to proliferate, with devastating consequences. This represents a disappointing turn from the undoubtedly flawed, but far more hopeful world of just a few decades ago.
In his autobiography The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig described a similarly drastic change. Born in 1881 in Vienna, Zweig spent his youth in an optimistic, civil, and tolerant environment. Then, starting in 1914, he witnessed Europe’s collapse into World War I, followed by revolutionary convulsions, the Great Depression, the rise of Stalinism, and finally the barbarism of Nazism and the outbreak of World War II. Devastated, Zweig committed suicide while in exile in 1942.
One imagines that Zweig would have been comforted by the post-WWII creation of the United Nations and the Bretton-Woods system, not to mention the subsequent decades of reconstruction and reconciliation. He could have witnessed the cooperation and progress that marked the post-war era. Perhaps, then, he would have looked at the period from 1914 to 1945 as a terrible but limited detour in the world’s march toward peace and prosperity.
Of course, the second half of the twentieth century was far from perfect. Until 1990, peace was secured largely by the threat of mutual nuclear destruction. Local conflicts, such as in Korea, Vietnam, parts of Africa, and the Middle East, took their toll. And while about 100 developing countries gained independence, the process was not always peaceful.