by Joel Brinkley

Looking back on 2011, we now can recognize that we lived through the most consequential year since the end of World War II.

This was the year when the people of the world woke up and began taking hold of their fate. And by several important measures, the lot of humankind improved.

Sure, you can choose to think about Japan's nuclear crisis, Jerry Sandusky, America's gridlocked government or the European debt crisis.

Instead, consider those Egyptian women, tens of thousands of them, who angrily demonstrated last week against the military that had abused them. That was inspirational -- the first time Egyptian women have stood up for themselves en masse in almost 100 years. And the army apologized.

That was consonant with the gradual improvement of women's lot worldwide. A new World Bank study shows that more girls are attending school now than at any time in history. And in Saudi Arabia, the only nation that still forbade women to participate in elections, King Abdullah announced that Saudi women could vote -- and run for office.

Everyone knows about the Arab Spring and the fall of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya. We've seen that before, most recently in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. But the past year brought us so much more. People are demanding change in Peru, Angola, Bahrain, Uganda and many other states.

And don't forget Occupy Wall Street. The movement has spread across the nation and around the world. Some question its effectiveness, but its intentions are clear: It's time for governments to improve the lot of the common people.

That's what the Russian people are demanding right now, and in his final presidential address to the parliament last week, Dmitry Medvedev agreed, saying: "We should learn to respect public opinion and not force our decisions on the public."

Perhaps most surprising of all, the long-somnolent Arab League finally woke up and now seems to hold the same sentiment. It called for military force to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi and is now sending observers to end the slaughter in Syria.

Watching all this, some states are acting without specific prompting. In Havana a few days ago, the Cuban government announced that banks will begin offering home and business construction loans -- another important step toward free enterprise in this locked-down communist nation. Throughout the year, the Castro brothers, reading the winds of change blowing around the world, have been gradually freeing their people.

So too have the rulers of Burma. Realizing that the nation will never prosper without ties to the West, in recent weeks this reclusive state has released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi, the state's principal opposition leader, to run for office -- 20 years after her party handily won national elections, only to have the military annul them.

No one knows how far the Cuban or Burmese government will take this, but in the spirit of the moment both states are offering encouraging steps.

Tunisia, a small, barely consequential state on Africa's Mediterranean coast, showed the way for the world. Peaceful demonstrations rid the country of its hated dictator in January. Then, in October, Tunisia held free and fair elections.

An Islamic party won, professing moderation. Last week it made a powerful and surprising concession that seemed to prove the point. The newly elected president, Moncef Marzouki, invited all Tunisian Jews to return home, saying they are citizens with full rights. Most had fled after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967.

In December, the United States pulled its last forces out of Iraq, and right now the Iraqi government is facing possible disintegration. But several academic studies show that fewer wars are being fought right now than at almost any time in modern history.

Another big surprise came from China just a few days ago. Every year the Chinese people stage thousands of demonstrations against the government or businesses for pollution, land theft or other personal affronts. But then the 1,600 residents of a fishing village called Wukan actually stood up to their government, angry about official corruption and the unauthorized sale of their farmland to a developer.

Land seizures are quite common in China, but Wukan's reaction was not. The people threw the government and police out of the town, then erected barricades. After weeks of angry protest, a senior Communist Party officer met with the village's new leaders and offered significant concessions. He even recognized the new government. Amazing, and for the Chinese, there's more to come, for sure.



"Looking Back on a Good Year for Humankind"