6 DECEMBER 2003, Page 36

All for the best in the best of all possible worlds

pessimism is the 'ism' which has succeeded Marxism in occupying the vacant space in the minds of the slobbering classes. Nowhere has it established a more feverish grip than among journalists, especially in Britain, where there is a pervasive theory that bad news sells papers. There is no more depressing — and unenlightening — experience than reading our national press. That is one reason why I regularly buy only the Telegraph, getting my other information from Le Monde and the Wall Street Journal (much improved since being reinforced in its European edition by the Washington Post). I often buy the Corriere della Sera and La Vanguardia, of Barcelona, and also like to pick and choose among the many other dailies now easily available in London, such as the Manila Times and the Buenos Aires Herald. They help remove the impression that Britain consists entirely of yobs, slobs, idiotic celebs, druggies and crooks, and that the world is about to disappear in ecological smoke.

Part of the trouble is that few people study history or know anything about it. The idea that humanity has never before been in such poverty, danger and hopelessness, as one would assume if one believed the BBC, is a fantasy. The world has never been richer, safer, or had more cause for hope. The sheer misery of the past, not least the comparatively recent past, is difficult for us to take in. I have just read Hew Strachan's forthcoming The First World War, a highly successful attempt to epitomise the causes, consequences and principal events of this catastrophe, the worst in the history of the world, in 350 pages. I have seldom chanced upon a short book which so brilliantly brings to life and explains an immensely complex historical phenomenon (helped by a superb selection of photographs). The overwhelming impression it leaves is of stupidity, waste and absolute horror. The war was fought for no discernible purpose but from fear, and achieved no object other than to lay the ground for future conflicts, some of them with us still. The slaughter makes unbearable reading, the destruction of property, old and valuable institutions, customs and courtesies was colossal, the replacement of civilised behaviour by sheer brutality left scars which have never healed. It brought into existence new kinds of monstrous tyrannies, ended with a peace of such injustice as to make another world war almost inevitable, and set in motion new phenomena such as hyperinflation and world depression on a scale never before experienced.

The second world war was in some respects even more destructive, and should be seen as a continuum with the first. The number of people who died in both, and under the regimes they brought into existence, cannot be fewer than 200 million, and even after the most active phases of the conflict ended in 1945, an entire generation of a billion and a half people was condemned to lives of poverty and semi-slavery in the communist fifth of the world. Until 20 years ago, large numbers of the rest of us had to live under the threat of thermo-nuclear war, very real at times, which in Britain alone, during its opening phase, would probably have killed 25 million people. For countless numbers life was indeed nasty, brutish and short. Working democracy, freedom of speech and movement were luxuries confined to a few corners of the world.

If we look at the realities of the world today, a totally different picture emerges. Take one instance: India. It has a billion people who, for the first time in its history, have learnt to feed themselves and even to export food, who can and do vote freely and have established a democratic way of life that now seems secure, and who can read the truth in their newspapers. Many of them travel all over the world, as one need only visit an international airport to see. Another instance: China has not yet attained India's level of democracy, but it has successfully embraced a market economy and is transforming itself from a have-not to a have power. The whole of history teaches that ultimately political and economic freedom are inseparable: if you have one, you eventually get the other — and vice versa. I cannot believe that China's rapid advance towards middleclass affluence will not, perhaps much sooner than we think, produce an irresistible advance towards individual freedom, as it has everywhere else. Nor should we ignore the smaller successes. I rejoice that Singapore, which when I first knew it had a per capita income of less than $100 a year, is now rich, stable and secure, and that Japan, where both capitalism and democracy have taken firm root, is now moving forward again.

At present we are deeply concerned, and rightly so, by Muslim fundamentalist terrorism. But we should not be obsessed by it. It is a shadow from the past, not an adumbration of the future, probably the last spasm of Dark Age religious frenzy, which, unlike Christianity and Judaism, has so far failed to undergo reforma

tion and enlightenment, but which cannot resist modernisation indefinitely. The Muslim world must and in the end will reform itself, as more and more young Muslims realise that, despite the riches which providence, in the shape of oil, has poured on Muslim territories, such states — I am thinking particularly of Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, which is half-Muslim — have so signally failed to prosper, either economically or politically, as states with fewer resources but a different religious culture have done. And I believe that Muslim women, on whom their faith imposes such unjust burdens, will play a major role in this dawning consciousness of the need for radical change.

In the meantime, the United States, in the two years since the 9/11 massacre shocked it into action, has accomplished a great deal in devising a protective system for the world while the Muslim terror lasts. I don't think we sufficiently appreciate the amount Mr Bush has achieved, at such speed and at such comparatively small cost in lives. He has destroyed the two most malignant and dangerous Muslim regimes, and set up military occupation of those countries, which makes it impossible to re-establish them or anything like them. Both these campaigns were brilliantly conducted at great speed and with the loss of relatively few American and British lives, resembling in this way the colonial wars of the 19th century rather than the dreadful campaigns (Korea, Vietnam, even Malaya) of the Cold War. This vital point has been noted by leaders of other Muslim regimes who want to stay in power: America is not to be defied or trifled with. Indeed, its power to operate within the entire Muslim world increases all the time. It now has a cluster of airfields and army bases in the heart of central Asia. Huge stockpiles of materiel are being built up. The infrastructure of America's presence in the Muslim world, and the experience gained, mean that the world policeman can strike hard and instantly at whatever Muslim regime offers assistance of any kind to large-scale terrorist groups. The rest is a matter of intelligence. There, America has been weakest; there, she will eventually be strongest, for no nation in history has been more successful in learning from its mistakes.

In the meantime, we can all rest assured that nuclear annihilation is no longer something we have to fear. Our only real concern should be a collapse or weakening of the American will to do what we cannot do for ourselves. And there is no sign of that. The world is still imperfect. But it is getting better all the time.