Since the early 1990s, daily life in poor countries has been changing profoundly for the better: one billion people have escaped extreme poverty, average incomes have doubled, infant death rates have plummeted, millions more girls have enrolled in school, chronic hunger has been cut almost in half, deaths from malaria and other diseases have declined dramatically, democracy has spread far and wide, and the incidence of war—even with Syria and other conflicts—has fallen by half. This unprecedented progress goes way beyond China and India and has touched hundreds of millions of people in dozens of developing countries across the globe, from Mongolia to Mozambique, Bangladesh to Brazil.
Yet few people are aware of these achievements, even though, in aggregate, they rank among the most important in human history. In 2013, the Swedish survey organization Novus Group International asked Americans how they thought the share of the world’s population living in extreme poverty had changed over the last two decades. Sixty-six percent of respondents said that they thought it had doubled, and another 29 percent said that it hadn’t changed. Only five percent knew (or guessed) the truth: that the share of people living in extreme poverty had fallen by half.
Perhaps that ignorance explains why Washington has done so little to take advantage of these promising trends, giving only tepid support to nascent democracies, making limited investments in economic development and in new health and agricultural technologies, and failing to take the lead in building more effective international institutions. Whatever the reason, many developing countries are now responding to what they perceive as the United States’ indifference by looking elsewhere—especially toward China—for deeper engagement and advice on how to keep growing. At the same time, climate change, the slowdown in global growth, and rising tensions in the Middle East and beyond have begun to threaten further progress. As a result, the United States now risks missing out on a historic chance to strengthen its global leadership and