This is a hard year in which to feel thankful. As disasters go, 2020 may not rank with 1914 or 1939, to pick just two famously bad years, but it is still likely to be remembered as one of the more lamentable periods in modern history, and few people will be sorry to see it end. It is easily the worst year I've ever lived through, and I count myself as luckier than most.
Yet as Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, I am striving to be grateful for those aspects of life that give me hope. Being thankful for small mercies, appreciating there were bad things that might have occurred but didn't, and highlighting the positive developments that have helped us get through this annus horribilis is a way of reminding ourselves that the present crisis will not last forever and that it is within our power to make things better.
In that spirit, here are my top five reasons I'm still thankful this year.
No great-power wars.
It's been awful—more than 60 million people sickened worldwide, almost 1.5 million dead, and societies disrupted in countless ways. Economies everywhere are in recession, poorer countries have taken a huge hit, and the careers of many people—and especially women—have been set back years. Schooling has been disrupted in ways that will affect future productivity, and mental health problems will be more severe and cast a long shadow over the future.
Yet all of these depressing features pale in comparison to the harm a great-power war would have inflicted, even if we assume that weapons of mass destruction were not used. We lament the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia or India and China, not to mention the continued bloodlettings in Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, and we should. But an all-out war between any of the major powers would wreak even greater destruction and suffering, and its non-occurrence should never be taken for granted. Any year when major war does not occur is something to be thankful for.
The US election.
You knew I'd mention this, didn't you? More than 70 million Americans wanted a different outcome, but millions more Americans are thankful that Joe Biden will replace President Donald Trump. There's more good news here: Preelection fear that violence would disrupt voting proved unfounded, foreign powers did not interfere in any significant way, and the votes were counted accurately and fairly. Biden won decisively. Predictably, the only dissonant note in what might otherwise have been seen as an affirmation of America's democratic ideals came from soon-to-be-ex-president Trump (and his increasingly goofy band of conspiracist enablers), whose petulant attempts to challenge the outcome have undermined citizens' faith in core American institutions, further tarnished the US image abroad, and, by making a seamless transition impossible, put the well-being of millions of Americans at risk.
But seriously: What did we expect from a misogynistic, venal, litigious, racist, adulterous, tax-evading, draft-dodging, science-denying, and irredeemably dishonest con man? There's no shortage of corrupt and dangerous politicians in America's past, but to have expected this grievously flawed narcissist to act differently in defeat requires ignoring not just the past four years but his actions throughout his entire adult life. Fortunately, a clear majority of Americans saw through the con and told him, "You're fired."
He has a few weeks to do more damage—and no doubt he'll try—and his antics may continue to pollute US politics for some time to come. But his ejection from power at the hands of the voters creates the possibility of ending the downward spiral the United States has been riding for some time.
Let us give thanks.
People with integrity.
The orator Edmund Burke famously warned that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." We can be thankful this year for the good people in both political parties who acted with integrity in the face of temptation and political pressure. At our Thanksgiving table, my wife and I will raise a glass to Brad Raffensperger (the Republican secretary of state of Georgia), who affirmed that the election results there were valid. We'll be thankful for former cybersecurity chief Christopher Krebs, who worked successfully to prevent illegal interference in the US electoral process and got fired for it by that most petty of presidents. We'll sing the praises of Mike Shirkey, the Republican head of the Michigan Senate, who reacted to Trump's efforts to thwart the people's will by saying, "That's not going to happen. We are going to follow the law and follow the process." We'll be grateful to the growing but still small handful of Republican leaders who respect the democratic process and have acknowledged Biden's victory, and to Democrats like Stacey Abrams, who shrugged off her own past disappointments and got busy overcoming voter suppression. And we'll continue to wonder what the hell happened to Sen. Lindsey Graham and the other invertebrates who now represent a once-respectable political party.
The universe doesn't care if you know how it works—the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. will operate whether we understand and accept them or not. You are free to reject the evidence that human activity is causing climate change, for example, but the atmosphere isn't interested in your opinion, and the Earth will keep getting warmer if atmospheric carbon dioxide keeps rising, no matter how many op-eds and Facebook posts climate denialists write. Understanding the basic forces that govern the real world is essential to operating in that world, and for that we thank science.
You can also thank science for longer life expectancy, the electricity that lights your room, the ability to travel to distant lands, the availability of safe food and potable water, and an endless series of other enhancements to human existence. Without science, I wouldn't be typing this on a laptop, and you wouldn't be reading it online. And in the modern world, a sophisticated scientific and technological community is a prerequisite for being a great power.
Ironically, in a year when millions of people decided to ignore scientific advice and rely on false nostrums peddled by ignorant and self-interested politicians—sometimes with fatal results—and when the refusal to wear masks, physically distance, and stay out of bars has undermined efforts to control a destructive disease, it is science that is riding to our rescue. Effective vaccines against the coronavirus are expected to be available soon, heralding a return to normal life sometime next year. If you are protected by a vaccine and celebrating a more traditional Thanksgiving with family and friends next year, thank a scientist.
My classes went online in mid-March and remained there this fall. It hasn't been easy, but I'm not going to complain about learning to teach in new ways and in less-than-ideal circumstances. Instead, I want to highlight the resilience, seriousness of purpose, adaptability, and sheer good humor that my students have displayed throughout this ordeal. They've been deprived of the informal connections, extracurricular activities, and random social interactions that provide much of the joy of university life, and I know that some of them also faced serious personal challenges even as they sought to continue their education. Despite it all, they have mastered new material, shown an enthusiasm for ideas and knowledge that life on Zoom could not erase, done some remarkably impressive work on their own and in teams, and helped support each other (and me). The pre- and postdoctoral fellows with whom I work have been fully engaged online and are producing innovative research despite unfamiliar and unexpected challenges. It hasn't been a cakewalk for anyone, but my students made my job easier, and I hope my own efforts to adjust were at least partly successful. I'm grateful to all of you.
I'll be back after Thanksgiving. Maybe Trump will have come to his senses by then and bowed to the inevitable. I wouldn't bet on it, but if he does, that will be one more thing to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving, and for everyone's sake—please celebrate safely.
Stephen M Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.