The World Is a Village Without a Mayor
In what ways is the EU an inspiration for a future model of global cooperation?
December 21, 2009
Copenhagen is like Geneva and Pittsburgh. Obviously, the Scandinavian capital does not really resemble the Swiss city that is the hotspot of international institutions or the former American metropolis of steel.
The geographic differences are also clear enough: Copenhagen is located by the sea, Geneva overlooks a beautiful lake and Pittsburgh finds itself at the confluence of three rivers.
What united these three cities, though, is that all of them have served as stages to meet the real challenges of the modern world this year. In Copenhagen, the focus is on climate change. Geneva staged yet another convocation of getting global trade negotiations off the ice. And in Pittsburgh, all attention this past September was on reforming global finance, with some notable successes in recent days, one might add.
This chain link of international negotiations owes nothing to chance. What it demonstrates is that, increasingly, our world is a village. Few people still refuse to acknowledge that what happens at one end of the world can directly influence events taking place at the other.
But this global village of ours has no city council, much less a mayor. Just a bunch of neighborhood committees which usually guard their independence quite jealously.
Over the long term, this unenlightened approach is untenable — but for now it is inevitable. It took centuries to move from a local authority at the level of the nation. It will take at least decades to find ways to forge global governance, even if we French have long dreamed up schemes to advance its cause and reach.
On what will inevitably be a long and winding road, there is, though, one useful precedent — and a precedent that ultimately gives reason for hope, even optimism: the construction of Europe ever since 1956.
Some may find it odd to refer to the EU as an inspiration for the future construction of the world. They see the EU as a pitiful example of an effective integration effort.
And yet, it is possible to come up with the opposite conclusion — and argue that, even to date, it has been a resounding success. That success becomes apparent enough if one considers the original, truly toxic ingredients of the European brew: centuries of mutual envy, fear and denial.
The fundamental desire of Europe's founding fathers whose global importance will eventually come to be seen as on par with that of America's famous founding fathers was just that: Work jointly, and against seemingly long odds, to overcome that disastrous and highly frustrating legacy of negative sentiments, envies and even outright hatreds.
Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer gave the original impulse to tackle that treacherous landscape pockmarked by a profound fear of geography and history on a tough continent.
What kick-started the integration process at the middle of last century was the then-strong fear of the latest holy terror in Europe's midst, the USSR. Its presence — and the threat it emanated — had a salutary effect on formerly suspicious neighbors, such as Germany and France, who resolved to prefer conquering their fear of each other to avoid falling back into a history of terrible wars.
Two decades later, that same constructive outreach approach was extended to the "bear" itself, when détente became Western Europe's chosen policy path toward the Soviet Union.
The construction of Europe, imperfect as it is to date and as all human construction inevitably must be, nevertheless has provided a unique resolution. Overcoming centuries of mutual envy, fear and denial required a steep price which came in the form of the abandonment of sovereignty. Taking this step was painful not just to national politicians, but also to entire countries because it forced them to go beyond merely national frameworks of decision-making.
Questions of national sovereignty are highly sensitive — and symbol-laden — matters. Just witness the British reaction to the recent appointment of France's Michel Barnier as the EU commissioner in charge of, among other matters, financial services.
To Britons, this appeared about as intolerable as the French would have found it to experience the appointment of an Englishman to the (imaginary) post of EU commissioner of gastronomy.
And yet, the painful, but progressing construction of a modern, integrated, forward-looking and well-balanced Europe requires precisely surviving such — hopefully brief — moments of severe irritation.
We Europeans have no choice but to deal with such irritations. We have known all along that Europe's integration process is inherently fragile. But if we are serious in our resolve to make outright envy disappear and to weaken those fears that have distorted our collective potential for centuries, we must be prepared to surrender part of our national powers to create a better common good.
And yes, while we are engaged in that high-wire act, we do risk that centrifugal forces, unless managed well, will contrive to explode the whole building.
Applied to the current negotiations on the global stage, whether on the environment, finance or trade, the lesson from Europe suggests to proceed with caution. For now, there is no question of parting with even the slightest bit of sovereignty, particularly on the American side.
There may be a generalized urge to move in that direction, but it is far from being shared by all. Still, let us not underrate the importance of fear — yes, outright fear — as a powerful building block of that new, better-integrated world.
All over the world, people are aware of the chokehold in which global finance holds human fates. The extreme anguish over the economic crash, so prevalent just one short year ago, has quickly dissolved in the acid rain of special interests.
Their desire is a perpetuation of a global casino which has provided handsome benefits to some, in the double- and triple-digit million range at the level of individuals, and in the double-digit billions at the level of companies.
Their freedom to pursue these extreme expressions of personal liberty has come at a steep price to the rest of humanity, counted in tens of millions of additional unemployed, hundreds of millions with diminished economic prospects and billions of people exposed to fewer economic choices because of the cutbacks their governments have to undertake to try and compensate for the costs of the bailout packages and the severe recession caused by the recklessness of some in the business and policymaking worlds.
The more time passes, it will become even more difficult to change the rules of the financial game. Some sober minds already believe we have to wait for the next bubble-related earthquake before we will see real progress on this crucial front.
In environmental matters, we find rather the reverse scenario. In many quarters, fear over the costs of inaction is growing significantly. There is a widespread sense of disasters of all kinds — unprecedented storms, incurable floods, deadly droughts, etc.
Even if there is no absolute certainty about the link between human activity and global warming, voters ask more and more of their governments to act in the matter. Faced with this rising level of concern, the Copenhagen meeting is probably still a bit too early. But then again, it may already be too late.
In other words, on the environment, that under-acknowledged core principle of European construction — take on fears to seek to improve the human condition — is merrily at work.
We can only hope that the same emotional logic is soon brought to bear in that other world marked by seemingly amorphous, but in fact very real disasters. The world of finance deserves no less. Be worried, very worried.
Few people still refuse to acknowledge that what happens at one end of the world can directly influence events taking place at the other.
The extreme anguish over the economic crash, so prevalent just one short year ago, has quickly dissolved in the acid rain of special interests.
On the environment, that under- acknowledged core principle of European construction — take on fears to seek to improve the human condition — is merrily at work.
Europe's founding fathers will eventually come to be seen as on par with America's famous founding fathers.