changing times

Can the G20 Help Europe Look to the Future?

EU referendum
Nothing like a walk for displaying loyalty to European ideals. Source: DPA Picture alliance [M]

It is time to try again. The summits held during 2017 so far have been anything but successful. But the international calendar is etched in stone. And this time it’s the G20 which will be called upon to demonstrate what other summits couldn’t: That multilateral diplomacy still works.

The atmosphere will not be much better than it was in May, when disagreements overwhelmed efforts at better cooperation. The Western understanding of how to manage change began to buckle long before Donald Trump was elected US president. The strict rules and large organizations of the postwar world no longer fit the growing diversity of a globalized 21st century.

And ironically, it might be the diverse membership of the G20 which helps us make better sense of the new world order. If we listen to what they are saying, we can help build a new decentralized vision of global governance that can serve the interests of everyone, big or small, rich or poor.

Some basic rethinking is urgently needed. For Europe, it will be especially difficult to adapt existing institutions to a rapidly changing world.

Why? Because for Europe, 1945 represented a near-total collapse of the pre-existing order. Postwar politics was about building something totally new: A new mentality, a new social order and above all a new understanding of history.

In the future, a “good European” will be someone who celebrates European diversity.

So European unification became a permanent peace project, organized around a comfortable continental campfire. But in a networked world, wouldn’t European diversity be more useful, with opinions expressed as part of a looser collaboration, than the “speak with one voice” mentality of today’s EU?

Another question: Is America a world leader by nature, with the country returning to its senses once Trump and his acolytes have left the scene? Or are America’s spirit guides, the ones that advocate isolationism, simply asserting themselves once again?

Above all, was 1945 really an entirely new starting point, or was the postwar world merely a period of recuperation between two eras of a ruthless and destructive industrial revolution? And either way, who will be in charge?

It is likely that no one, but then again everyone, will be running the show. If current trends continue, the world will increasingly come to resemble the G20 more than existing Western institutions.

Hierarchical leadership structures which emerged during the 19th century will increasingly be replaced by constantly changing political and commercial alliances tied together by digital networks which players can join or leave at random.

Strategy will be fine-tuned by software built into machines at the factory. Artificial intelligence systems will absorb even political decision making.  The new elite will be the knowledge wizards who are adept at gleaning value from galactic amounts of data. These opportunities will be available to anyone, regardless of size or military strength.

Power will flow to nations which can best exploit the room for maneuver within global supply chains. Diplomacy will focus on expanding influence across time and space created by information and logistics networks. Ditto for the military.

The good news is that if Western nations adjust successfully to the new order, their values are likely to offer the best available propellant for the digital world. Why? Because a system based on freedom, tolerance and open markets does best at creating value in a many-layered world where data have replaced human judgment as the measure of success.

Vladimir Putin can claim to have created value from the reborn glory of Russia. But he cannot take it to the bank. Fake facts, be they in Russia or China or the American White House, cannot build value into real products and produce real jobs.

One major problem is that we are still lacking the vocabulary to explain the choices which will arise in the digital future. Creating a narrative for successful global value creation is a project which falls in the same league as the Apollo moon landing, or tearing down the Berlin wall. It is likely to be the major political and philosophical task of the 21st century.

But the task is not hopeless. Europe’s goals and even visions need to be redefined, but its culture is one of integration and network building. Silicon Valley may produce the algorithms, but it will be German logistics meisters who bring value to the homes of normal people. That and not uncontrolled American individualism, is exactly what is needed today.

Practical steps are also being taken. The Council of Global Problem-Solving is a collective of leading research institutions who advise G20 members. It decided at a recent meeting to found a “Global Solutions Initiative” (GSI), with a Secretariat which will be located at the Hertie School of governance in Berlin. In other words, we are hopefully now getting down to work.

In the future, a “good European” will be someone who celebrates European diversity and uses it to attack the many confusing tasks which confront civil societies in a globally integrated world.

Pragmatism, invention and innovation rather than good intentions will be the most important products of this new Europe. Good Europeans will be persons who accept the challenges of the digital age as a call to action.

They will be Europe’s hidden champions who apply modern technology to remain on top of world class production of goods and services. They will be the scientists, scholars and educators who explore new European ideas for stimulating innovation, such as the historic European concept of the Foundation University, which combines private sector flexibility with the credibility of established centers of learning.

But good Europeans will also be political leaders who understand that if Europe is to be credible in a globally integrated world, it must also learn better to deal with the continent’s growing North-South confict between efficiency and solidarity.

Loss of Great Britain was a defeat for European leaders who found it impossible to convince their most globally-oriented partner to sacrifice efficiency for solidarity with others. Was the UK right? Can the forced efficiency of a digitalized world create solidarity among all Europeans? Or has Europe become so inflexible, that those who do not share the common vision will endanger the very existence of the Union, as the United Kingdom has done?

Until the European Union somehow masters the alchemy of turning the harsh winds of globalization into soft breezes of solidarity among all of its partners, this debate will remain Europe’s most threatening challenge.


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