Essentials of World History from 1500 to the present

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Africa is the world’s poorest continent. Unstable governments have slowed Africa’s economic progress because foreign businesses have been reluctant to invest their money where conditions are not secure.

During the Scramble for Africa in the late 1800s, the great powers of Europe carved Africa into artificial new countries that included people of various ethnic groups. When these countries gained independence in the mid-1900s, they had not existed long enough for national feeling to overcome ethnic divisions. Africa’s newly independent nations had little or no experience in self-government, yet they had to contend with tough problems like ethnic conflict, poverty, and corruption. Most governments failed.

Ethnic violence remains a problem; it led to genocides in Rwanda and in western Sudan, and it can cause famine by disrupting farming and food distribution. If these troubles weren’t enough, Africa has the world’s worst epidemic of AIDS, which burdens African economies with high medical costs and the loss of workers.

Still, there are positive signs in Africa. White rule ended in South Africa in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President in free and open elections, and other authoritarian states have been replaced by more democratic governments. African countries are also making progress in fighting the plague of AIDS.

180. ethnic cleansing

Ethnic conflict has been around a long time, but in 1999 the world recognized a new type of ethnic violence when Serbia was accused of “ethnic cleansing” in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Christian Serbs were brutally forcing Muslims out of Serbia, killing many Muslims in the process.

At the urging of American President Bill Clinton, NATO approved U.S. air strikes against Serbian forces that stopped the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Did the U.S. have the right to interfere in the internal affairs of Serbia? Does the world have a moral responsibility to stop atrocities like genocide or ethnic cleansing? Who gets to decide when war will be waged to enforce morality? Should it be international organizations like the United Nations or NATO or individual countries like the U.S. or China?

181. the Arab-Israeli conflict

When the Ottoman Empire dissolved after World War I, Britain took control of much of the Middle East and encouraged Jews to immigrate to their ancient homeland in Palestine, an Arab region at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. After World War II, Britain left the region, and Jews seized over two-thirds of Palestine to form their new nation of Israel. Neighboring Arab countries did not accept Israel’s right to these lands and tried to destroy the new Jewish state in a series of wars that stretched from the 1940s to the 1970s. Israel won the wars and took control of all of Palestine. Israel continues to extend Jewish settlements into Palestinian territory, dismaying those Palestinians who want to reach a permanent peace agreement with Israel.

Arab bitterness has also been directed at the U.S. for playing a key role in establishing the nation of Israel and for strongly supporting Israel since. America faces a difficult balancing act in the Middle East, trying to support democratic and Jewish Israel while trying to stay friendly with authoritarian Arab governments that dislike Israel but have large oil supplies that America wants. Meanwhile, poverty, hopelessness, and a history of Western imperialism contribute to Arab resentment against rich Western nations. Angry young men and women have been willing to kill and be killed in terrorist attacks aimed at Israel and the West.
182. Iran

In 1951, the government in Iran voted to take control of its oil industry from the British. In response, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (spy agency) secretly organized the overthrow of Iran’s democratically chosen leader and replaced him with a monarch, the shah. This was the first of several times that U.S. leaders used the CIA to harm or overthrow foreign governments without the knowledge of the American people. For 25 years, the shah supplied the U.S. with Iranian oil and a base of operations in the Middle East.

But the shah’s harsh dictatorship angered many Iranians, and his efforts to Westernize Iran were seen as threats to Muslim culture. Popular uprisings ended in a revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979. The shah was replaced by a radical Muslim government that despised the U.S. for its long-time support of the shah. When the shah arrived in the U.S. for medical treatment, Iranians feared the U.S. might try to return the shah to power again. Demanding that the shah be turned over to Iran, a group of young Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran and took 52 Americans hostage for over a year.

The leader of neighboring Iraq, Saddam Hussein, took advantage of the hostage crisis to attack Iran. The U.S. supported Iraq’s invasion of Iran, but when Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait a decade later, the U.S. crushed Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. America still has a terrible relationship with Iran; the U.S. accuses Iran of trying to make nuclear weapons, but Iran says it only wants to make peaceful nuclear power plants.

183. terrorism

The Islamic revolution against the shah in Iran marked the emergence of a new political force, Islamic fundamentalism. Fundamentalists tend to believe that people should adopt basic religious values and that religion should influence government policies. Fundamentalists are often intolerant of other religions. Christian fundamentalism grew in the United States during the same period.

Muslim extremists used Islamic fundamentalism to justify violent acts including the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that killed some 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. After the attacks, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism,” and launched an invasion of Afghanistan, home of al Qaeda, the terrorist organization behind the 9/11 attacks. In 2011, the U.S. killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but American troops are still fighting in Afghanistan.

While the U.S. war on terrorism was aimed largely at Muslim extremists, terrorism may take other forms as well. In 1995, homegrown American anti-government terrorists killed 168 people with a truck bomb at the federal building in Oklahoma City. The term terrorism usually refers to attacks against civilians not conducted by a government. When governments attack civilians, they usually call it war or maintaining order.

184. Iraq

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew the government of President Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration was following a new policy called preemptive war, which means the U.S. may attack a country that has done nothing to threaten or harm America if U.S. leaders feel the country might want to harm America in the future. President Bush said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the U.S., and he indicated that Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When it later became clear that that neither was true, the Bush administration said the war was still necessary to bring democracy to Iraq. Critics of the war said the U.S. was more interested in control of Middle Eastern oil supplies.

The United Nations, NATO, and most countries did not support the U.S. invasion. It hurt American relations with important allies like Germany and France, and it turned worldwide Muslim opinion against the U.S. The war also triggered brutal ethnic violence in Iraq, and it has cost more in lives and money than expected. As happened earlier in Vietnam, Latin America, and Iran, U.S. intervention in Iraq brought major unintended consequences. Some historians argue that American leaders have not been sufficiently aware that invading countries and overthrowing foreign rulers may end up harming American interests in the long run.

185. Arab freedom uprisings

The Middle East has undergone a century of war and conflict. In the spring of 2011, young people in the Arab world led the way in seeking a better future. First in the north African country of Tunisia, then in Egypt, young people took to the streets in peaceful protests aimed at replacing authoritian rulers with governments that would give citizens greater freedom and economic opportunity. The protests grew until the leaders of both countries were forced to leave office. These “Arab Spring” protests spread to nearby countries where some rulers promised greater freedoms to their people, some rulers killed protesters in the streets, and some did both. In Lybia protesters formed a rebel army that went to war and defeated the country’s dictator.

The political situation in the Middle East is unstable. No one is sure what kind of governments will emerge from the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Lybia. Will military dictatorships take control? Will the new governments look like the Muslim-controlled regime that took power in Iran after the fall of the shah? Or might they look like the democratic and secular (nonreligious) government that exists today in Turkey?

186. capitalism

Although capitalism looked like it had failed during the Great Depression, it survived, and most countries today have capitalist economic systems. To prevent another depression, governments tightened regulation of businesses, banks, and the stock market. Western governments also embraced the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, who offered an updated version of capitalism.

Unlike Adam Smith, Keynes said government should interfere in the economy. Keynes believed government could stabilize the economy by raising or lowering taxes and government spending. Depressions could be avoided, he said, by increasing government spending, which would create more jobs and increase demand for goods, which would stimulate production. In 2009, the U.S. government used this method to prevent a bad economic recession from turning into a depression. Keynes also believed governments would be wise to ease the harshest aspects of capitalism by providing citizens with a “safety net” of programs like Social Security and Medicare to meet basic needs. In the U.S. today, the Democratic Party tends to be more comfortable with Keynesian economics, while Republicans tend to favor the ideas of Adam Smith.

In today’s global capitalist economy, money flows to countries where wages are lower, which has the effect of gradually leveling incomes across nations. Workers in China are making more money than in the past, while American workers are earning less. Meanwhile, within the U.S., the middle class is shrinking as the income gap grows wider between America’s wealthiest citizens and those who are less well off.

187. democracy

Although most countries in the world claim to be democracies, true democracy is not easy to achieve or maintain. Democracy appears to work best in societies with traditions of open expression, which might help to explain why democracy has struggled in the republics of the former Soviet Union.

One of the greatest threats facing American democracy today is the huge sums of money needed to win election campaigns. Because politicians need to raise so much money, they are tempted to make decisions that favor big campaign contributors over the interests of ordinary American citizens. In the early days of America’s democracy, Thomas Jefferson warned citizens to be vigilant about their government. He said, “The people are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty.” Jefferson believed the study of history could help give American citizens the knowledge they need to think for themselves and protect their democracy.

A democratic system is effective only if government is being watched by a free and active press and by citizens with a realistic understanding of the world. In America’s democracy, citizens can have a big impact. It wasn’t government that started the civil rights movement or stopped the Vietnam War. It was the people.

188. the environment

Our last issue may be the biggest. If humans destroy the earth’s environment, nothing else matters. Our environment is a complex system of interactions between the atmosphere, weather, chemical compounds, and human activity. Humans appear to be altering this balance through overpopulation and pollution. Most scientists agree that human activity is contributing to global warming, which is changing the earth’s climate, melting polar ice, raising ocean levels, and causing the extinction of many of earth’s species.

Although the United States is one of the world’s largest polluters, the U.S. was the only advanced industrial nation not to approve the Kyoto Agreement to limit the production of greenhouse gasses. These are pollutants such as carbon dioxide from cars and power plants that collect in the atmosphere where they can trap the sun’s heat like the glass of a greenhouse. U.S. leaders were concerned that limiting greenhouse gasses could hurt American businesses. Others said America could help both the planet and the U.S. economy by developing new “green” technologies to reduce energy consumption and pollution.
What will historians write about America 30 years from now? Will they say the United States was unable to adjust to new realities and declined like other superpowers of the past? Or is America exceptional, and future historians will say the U.S. maintained its creativity and kept pace with a changing world? Stay tuned.

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