The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, learned a valuable lesson last July. After he criticized Western allies a bit too much for not offering enough support against Russia, the United States openly advised him to show “a degree of gratitude” for the money and other aid already received.
Since then, Ukraine’s leader has shifted his narrative from one of gloom and grouse to one of tribute and thankfulness.
He’s recently been on a gratitude tour, noticeably last week at the annual meeting of world leaders in Davos, Switzerland. With a new U.S. aid package pending in Congress, for example, Mr. Zelenskyy told American officials, “Ukraine is grateful to the President of the United States, the Congress and the entire American people for their unflagging and powerful support for our country.” Many European leaders heard similar appreciation.
“Ukrainian initiatives are gradually becoming global initiatives,” he told Ukrainians in a video address from Davos. “I am grateful to everyone who helps us with this.”
His turnaround – toward relying on gratitude to reinforce the generosity of others – reflects a shift in several other aspects of world affairs. Many experts working on problems such as war, poverty, and climate change point to the need to emphasize progress as a realistic antidote to what may seem like intractable situations.
“As appalling as crises in Gaza, Ukraine, or Sudan are, the narrative of a world in greater humanitarian need than ever before is misleading and self-defeating,” Elias Sagmeister, a program manager at Ground Truth Solutions, a nongovernmental organization in Austria that shapes humanitarian policy, wrote in the news site The New Humanitarian.
“A closer look at global data reveals a more nuanced – and even a more hopeful – reality,” he stated, citing the fact that famine is in a long-term decline while deaths from disasters are low compared with previous periods.
“The humanitarian hyperbole might seem helpful for short-term fundraising purposes, but repeating a false narrative comes at a price in the long run,” he wrote. “The public will tune out from repetitive messaging.”
“Instead, humanitarian leaders should point to past successes while making demonstrable progress on the reforms they have rightly committed to.”
Other thinkers, such as Harvard professor Steven Pinker, have made similar arguments about the need to recognize positive trends, such as a centurieslong drop in violence. “Partly it’s a negativity bias baked into journalism: things that happen, like wars, are news; things that don’t happen, like an absence of war, that is to say peace, aren’t,” Dr. Pinker told Quillette, an Australian online magazine.
Charles Kenny, an economist at the Center for Global Development, contends that the “fact of progress makes us morally bound to make it happen more.” The world can build on recent progress, he told Vox in 2022, citing the examples of lower child mortality, higher literacy, and greater civil rights.
Gratitude for progress can also elicit gratitude, as the president of Latvia, Edgars Rinkēvičs, indicated this month. In noting how the Ukrainians are the first line of defense against Russian aggression in Europe, he said, “We are grateful to the Ukrainians … more than perhaps they should be grateful to us.”