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Robert D. Hormats is the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs. He was formerly vice chairman of Goldman Sachs (International) and managing director of Goldman,[…]

Hormats, on his faith in the march of humanity.

Question: What do you believe?

Robert Hormats: I’ve a lot of faith in my fellow human beings. This doesn’t mean that there are not people who will occasionally disappoint you when you have faith in them and they fail to deliver. Or you find that they are duplicitous. You find that a fair amount, I would say. Too much. Far too much. And it is very disappointing.

On the other hand, I think that if you go into a situation with a skeptical or a cynical view about humanity, that is going to be so evident to everyone around you that you will not be very successful in achieving anything really.

I think basically human nature is good, and positive, and constructive.

And the second, I think that most of what’s happened in society over the medium and long term has been for the good. Not that there are not horrible things – the Holocaust, World War II, the kind of killings that went on in Cambodia and are going on in Darfur. There are some horrible things. People are capable of enormous brutality toward their fellow human beings. It is a terrible thing.

But if you look at the march of humanity; if you look at how much progress has been made over the last four or five thousand years, society, by and large, has had more opportunity available for the average citizen.

The average citizen lives far better today in the United States than 50 or 100 years ago. Lower-income people have medical care that they would not have had even 50 years ago. Education has given more and more people opportunity that they perhaps wouldn’t have had.

We now have, as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, blacks in this country who, while there is still some measure of discrimination, far, far less than in the past. That’s an enormous change. We don’t realize how far we’ve come in a short period of time.

Growing up in Baltimore [Maryland], as I mentioned, schools were segregated when I was little. It’s unheard of. People can’t even imagine that that could be the case, but it was.

And if you look at other countries; look at China. People have complaints. “China is doing this, doing that.” But the improvement and the economy of China has catapulted hundreds of millions of people into higher living standards. The same is true in India.

The same is true in many developing countries. Fifty years ago a large portion of the developing world were colonies. They’re now independent countries. Some are successes, some are failures; but nonetheless they’re independent and they have the opportunity to chart their own destinies.

There are a whole lot of things that have given me the sense that humanity is better off in general. Individually there are a lot of the people who are suffering; if they’re in Darfur; if they lived in Cambodia; if they lived in places like Zimbabwe; if they lived in places like Iran under this fundamentalist regime; if they’re victims of groups like the Taliban; if they’re victims of terrorism.  

There are a lot of people that live very desperate lives, precarious lives, insecure lives. So it certainly doesn’t mean that all is well in the world. For many people, things can be very bad.

But the general thrust of civilization has improved opportunity, improved longevity, improved diets, improved education. And that’s positive, and one can’t help but think that process has the opportunity to go on, but leadership is required to ensure that it does go on.

Recorded On: July 25, 2007