David M. Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachian Professor of History at Stanford University. His scholarship is notable for its integration of economic analysis with social history and political history. Kennedy has written over ten books; his first, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970), won the John Gilmary Shea Prize in 1970 and the Bancroft Prize in 1971. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980) and won the Pulitzer in 2000 for his 1999 book Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Other awards include the Francis Parkman Prize, the Ambassador's Prize and the California Gold Medal for Literature, all of which he received in the year 2000. Kennedy was educated at Stanford and Yale. The author of many articles, he has also penned a textbook, The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, now in its thirteenth edition. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Question: What is the world’s biggest challenge?
David Kennedy: The planet has a lot of difficulties at the moment, I believe. Many of them have an environmental character; but a lot of them are political and cultural character as well. I think that one way, in a simple statement, to capture a lot of these complicated issues is to point to the disparities between the “haves” and the “have nots” – what’s sometimes called the “north/south disparity” between the developed . . . the difference in the standard of living between the developed world and the less developed world. Many nations have quite miraculously or remarkably entered into the club of developed, and prosperous, and affluent, and secure societies in the last couple of generations. Again, that’s part of the general project of globalization in which the United States took the lead to a large extent. But a lot are still left behind, and history is . . . the record of peoples who figure out, in one way or another, that their standard of living, their way of life, their range of choices, is much less than and inferior to that of their neighbors, or their fellow citizens or what have you. That’s the stuff of deep and friction-loaded relationships that often erupt into fully armed conflict. That’s true internally of any given society. Look at the American Civil War. Look at the populist upheaval of the late 19th century in this society. The Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. All instances where people who felt their way of life was inferior to that of others, or threatened resorted to one means or another to readdress the balance. Globally, if we don’t find ways to incorporate those peoples who still work for, for example, $1 a day – and there’s a billion of them roughly out there in the world . . . sixth or more of the planet’s population – if we don’t find ways to get them on the train to a different standard of living . . . And I don’t just mean material possessions or material goods, but the capacity to really be masters of their own destinies and fates, and have the kind of range of choices and individual lives that citizens in . . . people who live in advanced, industrial societies like ours now take for granted. The planet will be in for some very, very tough confrontations going forward, I think. And this is not just civilizational, or religious, or cultural in character. I think at the bottom of it is a lot of just plain economic resentment, or potential for economic resentment if we don’t bring the “have nots” of the world into the party.