As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate everything from the Russians to fighting ISIS, they might want to pause to consider a special briefing from someone who truly knows what he’s talking about, someone who played a vital role in defeating our previous great enemy — Soviet communism. His name is Herb Meyer, and he was the right-hand man to President Reagan’s great CIA director, Bill Casey, a man known and admired by this publication.
Meyer would be commended by the intelligence community for his extraordinary 1983 memo predicting that America was going to win the Cold War — this at a time when virtually no one (other than Ronald Reagan and Bill Casey) thought winning was possible. Just as it is hard to imagine defeating ISIS today, Meyer predicted the unthinkable yesterday.
Now, after the Cold War, amid the War on Terror, Herb Meyer speaks around the country — including here at Grove City College last week, for our annual Ronald Reagan Lecture — and has written a small book on Why is the World So Dangerous.
“All of us understand that terrorism is a big part of it,” writes Meyer. “Some politicians and commentators will point to Iran’s nuclear bomb program, or to the lunatics in North Korea. Other experts will cite Russia’s efforts to destabilize Europe, and a few will talk about China’s growing military power.” Yes, all true, all obviously true. “But,” adds Meyer, “these are descriptions of the dangers that confront us; they aren’t explanations. They tell us what’s going wrong, but not why.”
That is no mere thought experiment. Meyer wants to get at the root of what’s happening in the world. It was Meyer’s job to brief Casey and Reagan about what was really going on in the 1980s — not what everyone read in the news — but what was really happening behind the Iron Curtain. Today his task remains the same, giving his audiences a fuller, more intelligent understanding of our increasingly complex world.
First, you need a prism, an intellectual lens — one that works; one that has the correct focus. Meyer says the old prism, the Cold War paradigm, has faded away. George H. W. Bush called it the “New World Order,” Meyer calls it Modernity. He stresses, above all else, that we understand that the world is becoming modern and is experiencing growing pains, temporary nastiness which (on the plus side) proves progress is being made.
To appreciate Modernity, you need a broader historical perspective than the November 2016 election. Consider the terribleness of life at the end of the 17th century. Most people lived on the edge of starvation, were illiterate, never traveled 20 miles beyond their home. From generation to generation, the drabness of life never changed much. The 20th century was more dynamic, but hardly brighter, characterized as it was by wars, genocide, fascism, and over 100 million dead from communism, 10 million dead from World War I, over 60 million dead from World War II.
Life today, by contrast, could not be more different. In First World countries, men and women are educated, have political rights, and democratically influence how they are governed. And it is historically remarkably, if not incredible, that the majority of people worldwide are not starving, as so many were in so many centuries past. Meyer notes a hilarious irony: that the biggest problem among America’s poor today is not starvation but obesity. Think about it.
We easily take today’s monumental achievements for granted, but Meyer uses them to demonstrate and underscore the world’s enormous human progress just within his own lifetime. Modernity is characterized by constant change and innovation. We’re on an escalator, he says, despite the occasional breakdown. We’re always steadily improving, rising higher and higher.
In short, Meyer is an optimist in world where many of us are not — where many of us see the planet headed to hell in a handbasket. And he backs his case for optimism. To wit:
It should come as a revelation to those glued to the 24-hour news cycle that things aren’t as bad “out there” as we think. The evening news never reports the countless airplanes that land on time and unharmed, or the daily billions who walk through malls and shopping centers without getting shot. Though you may not see it in your paycheck, the modern world is becoming richer every day. Since 1990, says Meyer, 2.5 billion people have been lifted out of poverty. Furthermore, the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are all African countries, and 300 million people on the continent now have disposable income. Every year, adds Meyer, 50-150 million people emerge from poverty around the world. Meaning, Meyer predicts, within a generation the world will accomplish what was thought to be impossible — for the first time in history, the overwhelming majority of human beings will not be poor. This is a remarkable achievement. The greatest underreported story of our time is the emergence of a global middle class, whose demand for goods and services is set to produce an economic sonic boom.
Global health is also improving greatly. Between 1990 and 2013 there has been a 47% drop in deaths from malaria, a 38% drop in AIDS related deaths, and a 33% drop in deaths from tuberculosis. In the same period, the number of deaths from diarrhea-related illnesses plummeted from 5 million to 760,000. All told, on an average day in 2016, 17,000 fewer children die than on an average day in 1990.
Best of all, we know what works. “Want to bring your population out of poverty?” asks Meyer. “You need free-market economics, property rights, the rule of law, stable financial systems, reasonable regulation and taxation. You put that in place — BOOM — your country comes out of poverty.”
Wait, there’s more. “People like us, meaning modern democracies, don’t go to war with people like us,” says Meyer. “We send nasty emails.” War is always a possibility, but conflict will become less and less likely as the world becomes more economically and politically stable. Meyer believes that the massive wars of the 20th century are likely gone for good.
To Americans specifically, the horizon is especially promising: The six industries Meyer believes will dominate the 21st century are led by U.S. innovation, broadly organized as food, fuel, infrastructure, healthcare, education, and entertainment. If he’s correct, the U.S. will remain an unrivaled economic superpower even while many other countries begin to flourish and join the global marketplace.
Meyer urges one of the presidential nominees to make that inspiring point during one of the debates. It’s a point well-taken. Trump, a businessman, should make it. He should see it. Where’s the Reaganesque optimism about America’s dazzling possibilities ahead?
Herb Meyer has it. He’s the quintessential optimist, with facts to back his optimism.
Meyer certainly paints a much brighter picture of the world than news watchers will recognize. But don’t think for a minute that the man who predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union is naïve. He readily and obviously acknowledges the challenges posed by ISIS, Iran, Syria, and China. Modernity has its own challenges that require new solutions, everything from rampant drug use to the disintegration of the family.
Meyer sincerely believes those solutions will be found, and advises a step back to view today’s problems in their proper scope. For instance, he insists that the many conflicts in the Middle East should be seen as signs of progress. Much like an antique operating system, Meyer says Islam is no longer compatible with the modern world. “What we’re looking at now are a billion and a half people, the entire Islamic people, beginning to write the code for version 2.0,” he explains. Much like our own Civil War, progress requires time and struggle. “We should not expect Islam to leave the 7th century and join modernity by next Tuesday,” Meyer says. But nonetheless, he believes Islam and the Middle East are marching to modernity, albeit not nearly as quickly and smoothly as we’d like to see, and offers plenty of examples, especially the embrace of markets and technology by some of the rapidly developing Arab nations.
In 1983, Herb Meyer described to Ronald Reagan and Bill Casey a bright fantasy land without the Soviet Union. In writing his book and giving his security briefings to audiences around the country, Meyer’s work remains the same — to see the world, not as it’s presented in the media, but as it really is. Instead of communism, he’s predicting the fall of widespread poverty, disease, and war. Instead of espionage, his analysis is based on information that is widely available but rarely reported and pessimistically and improperly interpreted. He offers us a broader, fuller prism called Modernity through which to interpret current events.
So, as the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees argue over what’s wrong in the world, Herb Meyer urges them to listen to him, or to read him — to look for a clearer explanation of why the world is so dangerous, and for a better understanding what’s going right as well as what’s going wrong.
And despite who wins in November, Herb Meyer remains optimistic.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and author of over a dozen books. Grant Wishard’s publications including USA Today, the Weekly Standard, and others.
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