A Conversable World


Is the world talking? One of the most basic needs of the age is an open global conversation. But the more you listen for it, even in the most obvious places, the less you hear. This makes the world more dangerous, and duller. And it makes the time ripe for an opening.

We are slowly learning to distrust the rhetoric of Silicon Valley. While it flatters us that we are seamlessly connected, the algorithms of its search engines and social networks narrow our view of the world. In Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection MIT’s Ethan Zukerman shows how we confuse a global infrastructure with our more provincial habits, leading to an imaginary cosmopolitanism. Surveys of the reporting and the reading of international news tend to support this view.

Governments, NGOs and the United Nations recently called for “a global conversation about the world we want”. Leading presidents and prime ministers enrolled in panels and presented reports, and questionnaires were taken in all but a few countries, but there seems little danger of any new ideas. The development community, which is leading discussions, is not the sponsor of debate it should be: its tone is metropolitan, and its great darlings of recent years have been the dictators Paul Kagame and Meles Zenawi. In its effort to design global goals, it has not even engaged the luminaries of its own profession.

If anywhere should be an example of trans-national dialogue, it is Europe, where most citizens are free to live, work and often vote across borders, and share a foreign minister, parliament, currency and vast body of law. But the European Union was built by the Monnet Method: a technocratic pursuit of economic integration and a caricature of the bureaucratisation and marketization often thought to have gutted the public sphere in the first place. It has left 28 echo chambers, crippling Europe’s ability to forge solutions and solidarity.

International relations remains, in Stanley Hoffmann’s words, “an American social science”. This is a stranger truth now we are living through a historic diffusion of power. Not the least persuasive prognosis is Charles Kupchan’s: that although Qings, Mughals, Ottomans and Hapsburgs coexisted they were relatively self-contained: ours will be the first age of numerous interdependent great powers. This cries out for a global conversation, but almost all such studies are made in America, and, however panoptic, they speak inwards, at most rising, like John Ikenberry, to a Washington-directed western grand strategy.

We have little to compare to the republic of letters that ebbed and flowed between the first printing press and the rise of nationalism. Our historians have not even written its full history. We do have a virtual salonnière: for years Timothy Garton-Ash has been seeking agreement on rules for global free speech such as “respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief”. It is admirable work, but the problems are deeper.

Many of our ways of thinking undercut the modesty and curiosity that would yield a conversable world. One is an inflated notion of objectivity. If you think “the view from nowhere”, in Thomas Nagel’s phrase, can be complete and certain, why indulge a view from somewhere? Another is value-relativism, which is equally pervasive. If you strive to be value-neutral, what can you hope to learn from other ways of life?

Philistinism in world affairs — where if culture is invoked at all, it is normally in a patrimonial sense — is debilitating for dialogue. The more diverse any interlocutors, the greater their need for shared references, which can furnish the language of strangers with rich allusiveness. Compare the deracinated discussions at Davos with the Davos of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where conversations are faster, deeper and freer. The global scene would be unimaginably richer if, as the late South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung urged, Asia’s intellectual heritage were mined for its strikingly germane ideas, including its traditions of public reasoning.

Of course, open global conversation flickers. I thought the best recent example of how to cultivate it was Disordered World by the French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. Maalouf’s is a humane, syncretic sensibility. Passionately dispassionate, he hides his erudition in lithe, limpid and companionable prose, by turns grand and intimate. “I read it and felt I was not alone,” the host of the last Earth Summit, Brazil’s Antonio Patriota told me. But it was little read in the English-speaking world.

The eminent philosopher Stephen Toulmin thought the establishment of absolutely sovereign states was part of an intellectual closing by a ravaged and exhausted Europe. He saw this legacy long outlasting absolute sovereignty, and wanted us to recover something of the state of mind of the Renaissance. It’s not a bad example. There will be others. What is clear is that we now need an opening of our own.

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