The latest fragile cease-fire agreement in war-torn Syria had scarcely been implemented before a US air strike mistook Syrian forces for ISIS forces and opened fire, killing dozens of people. A terrorist explosion in New York's Chelsea neighborhood injured 29 people. A knife-wielding Islamic fundamentalist injured nine people in a Minnesota mall before being shot to death. Pakistan-backed Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists killed 17 soldiers and injured many others in an attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir. These things all happened on the same day.
Consistent polling shows that the current Republican and Democratic nominees for President of the United States are the least-popular and least-trusted candidates ever to run for that office. The eastern lowland gorilla is now on the “critically endangered” list and will likely be extinct in the wild by the end of the decade. The polar ice caps have shrunk to their smallest dimensions in millennia, and 2016 is shaping up to be the hottest year the planet has experienced since record-keeping began, breaking the previous record which was held by 2015. One out of every five children in the United States lives in near-hopeless poverty, and one-half of all the wealth in the world is owned by 80 individuals.
All these things and many, many more crowd around the perimeters of The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline, the new book by Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman, in which he admits immediately the obstacles to writing what he refers to as “a good news book.” In many ways, 2016 seems like the worst year in recent memory in which to publish a book made out of optimism.
Fortunately, Tepperman's optimism isn't starry-eyed, and the hope he proffers is as grounded as he can make it in concrete examples of strategies that seem to work.
He focuses on a small handful of the large-scale problems afflicting the world – Islamic terrorism; corrupt political systems; unstable, panic-driven declines in financial markets; the decay of societal institutions; widening income inequality; and a few others – and travels widely to talk to the people who are devising new and innovative strategies to hold chaos at bay and sometimes even improve things. “Why is it,” he wonders, “that in this time of turmoil … a few countries are nonetheless flourishing?”
He looks at Mexico's fight against governmental gridlock and cites President Peña Nieto's employment of oversight committees for legislative reform. He studies the decades of work done by Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, to curb his country's rampant graft and corruption on all levels. He describes the success Indonesia has had in combating and in some cases subverting Islamic extremism inside its borders.
Throughout his book, these and other scenarios are held up as examples of the ways strong, enlightened government and passionate, involved people can tackle some of the worst problems in the world today and find solutions that actually work. “The fixes are out there; now our leaders must act on them,” he writes. “Either that or the doomsayers will win the day, and things really will keep getting worse and worse.”
It's an encouraging message, and "The Fix" is an ultimately inspiring performance, but it's also a problematic one. Tepperman has a weakness not only for TED talk-style empty catch-phrases like “The Power of Promiscuous Thinking” or “Embrace Extremity,” or “Govern with Guardrails,” but also for the facile data-manipulation that makes such catch-phrases deeply suspect.
President Peña Nieto, for instance, empaneled those reform committees in part with the aim of having them absolve him and his wife of suspected ethics violations. Indonesia's successes against radical Islam take on more complicated, less helpful overtones when Tepperman points out that Indonesia has always been “overwhelmingly Muslim,” and thereby neatly avoids the anti-Christian motivation of so much Islamic terrorism. And Prime Minister Lee's measures against governmental corruption were so effective mainly because Lee gave himself dictatorial powers. (Tepperman calls this reliance on repression “unpleasant to contemplate”).
Tepperman's chapter in praise of fracking is nothing short of bewildering, considering the vast, catastrophic environmental damage that always follows in fracking's wake. “Peak oil,” he writes, “has become a distant, slightly embarrassing memory” – words the next generation will likely read with a good deal of understandable bitterness.
"The Fix" focuses mainly on top-down government-imposed solutions to the problems Tepperman identifies; in the world of this book, power is almost always the key to progress. And maybe this is simple realism, but it tends to remove the potential for restorative action from the hands of the very people most immediately afflicted by the bad news Tepperman describes. Leaders can make that bad news better, or they can make it worse – Tepperman is striving for better, because the alternatives have never been starker.
But a great many of the ills he cites have been caused by the same political power structures he hopes can be taught to fix them. Let's all hope they're listening to this book.