Three unavoidables if the West wants to sustain itself in a rapidly changing world

Speech I recently gave for the Koninklijke Industrieele Groote Club (www.igc.nl) in Amsterdam.

Brexit, Border Wall, Catalan separatism — western countries are absorbed by their own sovereignty issues. As a consequence, a much bigger issue is not addressed: how to sustain the West itself? Precisely when the West as a whole is losing influence, it is trapped in internal division. Instead of reflecting on a future-proof and non-imperialistic role for the West, (too many) western politicians are wasting precious time fighting each other and bullying the rest. The result is that they catalyze precisely the kind of marginalization they try to stop.

On 2 February 2019 I wrote that if the GDP projections of PwC are correct, not a single European country will sit at the table when the G8 gathers in 2050. Yet precisely now, nationalism is thriving and entire nations manage to grossly overestimate themselves.

As a Dutchman I live in the midst of this turmoil. At the same time, I crossed the globe in the last 10 years, speaking with social actors on all continents about sustainable solutions for social issues. Based on this experience, below 3 urgent recommendations to western politicians if they want the West to play a viable role in the years to come.

I. Stop being in denial

  1. Stop disguising the present
    • In this critical time of shaping our planetary future, facing major threats like cyber crime, nuclear risks, pandemics, global terrorism and climate change, the West cannot afford misleading politics: presenting ‘alternative facts‘ for electoral gain, hiding costs and difficulties when promoting solutions, and creating a false dichotomy between nationalism and globalism.
  2. Stop idealizing the past
    • As the West needs to respond to new issues (like its loss of power and the need for global solutions to global issues), it cannot afford a nostalgia that makes people only yearn for times that won’t come back. Above all, western countries need to overcome their post-imperial stress syndrome in which they only weaken their position by behaving as if they are still calling the shots. Brexit is currently the most dramatic example of this. It painfully shows that the United Kingdom is in no position to negotiate with 27 nations on an equal footing. Ironically, only a supranational entity like the EU can make this kind of equal dialogue possible. Leaving the EU means: falling back on the old law of the strongest between nations. Separatists in Scotland and Catalonia will bump into the same reality if they ever face negotiations with the UK or Spain.
  3. Stop blocking the future
    • Reform is gravely needed to make international institutions more suitable for global dialogue and collaboration. The longer the West waits with giving up its disproportionate power in the UN Security Council, World Bank, IMF, etc., the bigger the chance that non-western nations create their own entities (like China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). This weakens not only the western-controlled entities, but also the world’s ability to solve its joint issues.

II. Secure your Western values

  1. Secure your activism
    • 400 years ago, the West started embracing a mentality of not accepting human suffering, but always seeking “to relieve and benefit the condition of man” (Francis Bacon, 1620). This mentality is inherently optimistic, as it persistently believes that it is worth seeking solutions for whatever challenge we face. The current doom and gloom attitude of the West threatens this spirit. Time to breathe new life into it and make the whole world benefit.
  2. Secure your democracy
    • 200 years ago, the West started embracing the idea that every human being deserves equal respect and equal opportunity to participate in civil and political life without discrimination or repression. This idea is currently under pressure, with politicians disqualifying entire groups in society based on religion or ethnic background, with income inequality rising again, freedom in decline worldwide, and even EU countries leaning towards authoritarian types of governance. Time to re-affirm the meaning of universal human dignity.
  3. Secure your solidarity
    • 100 years ago, the West started embracing a welfare system in which the state protects and promotes the economic and social well-being of its citizens. After World War II, this system got expanded in Western Europe in response to Fascism, Nazism and Communism. It had become painfully clear that people who have nothing to lose become prone to extreme politics. In this time of new uncertainty and discontent, the West can draw from its past a powerful incentive to invest in solidarity again. Globalization, automation and robotics will disturb the labor market to such an extent, that a growing group of unemployed people cannot be retrained in time and stay unemployed. It will be up to us to decide, whether we want to further humiliate these citizens by treating them as a ‘cost item’ to society, or invite them to show their value in other ways.

III. Start valuing your assets

  1. Value your allies
    • If China can openly reject western democracy, Russia openly annex Crimea, and Turkey openly censor the media, western countries better start valuing their like-minded allies. This is the worst moment for the West to be internally divided, as it directly undermines the strength and credibility of western ideology. Building and preserving western partnerships, even at the cost of national sovereignty, may be the only way for the West to keep the critical mass that it needs to sustain what it holds dear.
  2. Value your culture
    • In 2030, Asia will represent 66% of the global middle-class population and 59% of middle-class consumption. Economic power means cultural power: the world will see more eastern-oriented products, adapted to the preferences of the biggest market: Asia. The West will have to decide where it draws the line in adapting to this culture shift. Not for superiority reasons, but to maintain a western sense of home and preserve the cultural assets with which the West can complement other nations.
  3. Value your planet
    • All of the above becomes irrelevant if the West cannot preserve the biggest asset it shares with all nations: our one world, with its global issues and vulnerable ecosystems. Before sustaining itself, the West needs a plan for the planet, for “there is no planet B”. The planet does not care about East or West, North or South. It only feels the weight of 7 billion people and eagerly awaits the moment in which all unite around one vision for the one earth we have.

In short, we urgently need western politicians who don’t give in to polarized debates but boldly manage to do both: preserving our assets with western nations as our contribution to the common good and our sense of home in the world, and preserving our planet with all nations to have a home at all.

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The irresistible features of Western populism

What characterizes Western populism ? Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, gives the following answer:

In the aggregate, national populists oppose or reject liberal globalisation, mass immigration and the consensus politics of recent times. They promise instead to give voice to those who feel that they have been neglected, if not held in contempt, by increasingly distant elites.

Given the rise of populism in the West, what is so attractive about this opposition to liberal globalization, mass immigration and consensus politics? Some very basic human needs. And although one would expect every politician to address these needs, populists somehow manage to be more convincing to a growing group of people. Here they are:

  1. Populists tackle people’s cultural need to come home somewhere.
    • Populists show that they realize that unlimited globalization leads to homelessness. A world that only facilitates free movements of people and ideas across the globe, makes people feel lost in their own country, city or street. ‘The world’ is too big and too diverse to provide a local neighborhood that feels safe and familiar. To feel at home somewhere, we need to understand the language of our neighbors, appreciate a common set of customs and attitudes, and share some basic values and convictions. Without these, a society becomes socially disintegrated and culturally perplexed.
  2. Populists tackle people’s social need to be seen and economic need to be protected.
    • Populists show that they realize that people on the losing end of globalization, automation and robotics cannot keep hearing that these changes are unavoidable. They need politicians who can make them feel that they actually care about the ‘forgotten ones’ in society, and are willing to take an uncompromising stand in protecting their well-being.
  3. Populists tackle people’s political need for clarity and leadership.
    • Populists show that they realize that people who are not trained to deal with complex issues can feel more and more lost in a world that gets more and more complicated. This group is not waiting for academic reflections on the uncertainty and ambiguity of things, but for a clear description of both the problem and the solution, and robust leadership when it comes to pursuing this solution.

So, here is the good news about Western populism: it raises awareness of some basic human needs that are currently insufficiently addressed, forcing other politicians to respond as well. The solutions that populists promote, are, however, not without a price:

  1. Populists promote nationalism at the cost of global collaboration.
    • Protecting national cultures and economies won’t solve issues that still require international collaboration (cyber crime, nuclear risks, pandemics, international crime, global terrorism, climate change, etc.) It also won’t stop the dependency of countries on international trade. Somehow, the ‘art of the deal’ lies in combining all three: securing people’s cultural homes and securing international trade and securing the planet’s future. A juggle as difficult as it is unavoidable.
  2. Populists provoke disappointment by over-shouting themselves.
    • In their effort to respond to people’s need for clarity and leadership, it is tempting for populists to bring a lot of misery in society back to one enemy or cause. Build a wall, leave the EU, stop the immigrants, fight Islam, and most will be well. This simplicity won’t last. One day, reality will reveal the true complexity of things – and who will people then believe? Somehow, the ‘art of the deal’ lies in offering a clear vision to people who deal with uncertainties, a vision that secures people’s well-being and keeps everyone participating, but without hiding unavoidable costs and difficulties.

Here are 2 lessons for Western politics we can draw from the above:

  1. Don’t make people choose between nationalism or globalism, but invest in both a cultural home and collaboration across borders.
  2. Don’t make people choose between compelling simplicity or realistic complexity, but invest in the clarity and leadership that is required to keep everyone on board in a transitioning society.

This last point I will pick up in a later blog.

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A one-hour overview of major positive and negative trends in today’s world

If you have a spare hour, enjoy the video below in which I take you around the globe, summarizing the major positive and negative trends in today’s world. In 2018, I held this lecture for senior leaders of major corporations in Sydney and Melbourne (companies like Perpetual Limited, QBE, Deloitte, Karrikins Group, Oxford University Press, Worley Parsons and Pearson) in my role as Chief of Vision within World Vision Australia. This video was recorded by QBE in Sydney.

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Europe has a simple choice: be the world’s 4th giant or a bunch of glorious dwarfs

If the GDP projections of PwC are correct, not a single European country will sit at the table when the G8 gathers in 2050. Germany can still join the G8 in 2030, but not the country that is currently most absorbed by defending its sovereignty: the United Kingdom.

Source: PwC (2017)

Of course, projections like these should be taken with a substantial grain of salt. But it sends a crystal clear message to Europe: now is the time to make up your mind! What do you really want? Be the 4th giant in the world – next to China, India and the US – or settle for glorious dwarfness by prioritizing national sovereignty over European unity?

Economically, the EU is already a giant. It is the world’s second-largest economy by GDP. But as long as the EU doesn’t grow up as a political entity (with one democratically chosen leader speaking on behalf of all EU members and citizens), we will continue to see a mind-boggling contradiction t between the EU’s strength as economic power and weakness as political leader, illustrated by the survey below:

Source: Pew Research Center (2017)

Below PwC’s ranking of the top-32 economies in 2016, 2030 en 2050. Europe is rapidly losing ground in the market place. Time to make up its mind. The current EU-approach is neither fish nor fowl, with for example a G20 containing both leaders of individual EU-countries and a representative of the EU. The more the rankings below become a reality, the more European countries will have to decide: splendid isolation as sovereign nations or significant participation as united EU.

Source: PwC (2017)

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Today’s biggest issue is that there are so many big issues

In August 2018 I was interviewed by Perpetual Limited, one of Australia’s major providers of financial market services. Below the 5-minute video, now available. Right after the interview, I had the privilege of speaking about the same topic – today’s global trends – to Perpetual’s top clients.

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Who inspires the West

As a Dutchman, visiting Australia and other Western countries regularly, it strikes me how we are all taken by the same fear and discontent. Only a few decades ago, after the fall of communism, we celebrated our First World victory with uncut triumphalism. Today, it easily feels as if we are on the losing end of history and living in a world that isn’t ‘ours’ anymore.

Not a misplaced sentiment, as until recently the world was ‘ours’ indeed. For centuries we did not hesitate to exercise our military and economic power to acquire the best deals and most lucrative businesses. The result was an unprecedented wealth and a job security we happily got used to. But things are changing. New powers are reshuffling the cards dramatically, national affairs are being overruled by global affairs, old certainties are becoming uncertain, and even democracy, this flagship of the West, is facing growing competition from authoritarian regimes.

We live in stormy times, no doubt. And this is the inevitable question in a storm: will our body or our spirit take over? Do we allow ourselves to slip into the survival mode of an animal? Or do we have the resilience to stick to the ways of a reasonable and compassionate human being?

If the latter: who will lead? And if less and less people listen to pastors, priests and politicians: who will fill the gap? You and me, perhaps?

Allow me to describe three features of the storm that is hitting us, and a few ways to take an inspiring stand in it.

Three features of the storm
For the first time in 5000 years, the whole world needs to work together to get the whole planet in order. Issues like climate change, cyber threats, terrorism, trafficking, slavery, pandemics or nuclear threats can only be solved if countries closely cooperate. This contains also some good news: reality demands that we overcome our differences. The current trend, however, is in the opposite direction towards nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia. And the only leaders who can actually fix the planet are the ones elected to defend the self-interest of their country. A group of legitimate egoists is supposed to seek the greater good. No reason (yet) to prepare for the apocalypse, but no reason for blind optimism either.

For the first time in 500 years, the West needs to share its power and wealth with the rest. Precisely when the world is reorganising itself on an unprecedented scale, the West is losing its grip on it. A most inconvenient coincidence. Western citizens call upon their leaders to restore the securities of the past. But the politicians are in an impossible position: on the one hand they are held accountable for the well-being of their nation, on the other hand this well-being is more and more dependent on issues they do not control (like climate change or the world economy). Some flex their rhetorical muscles: just close the curtains and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t count. But the issues turn out to be more obstinate than any country put first.

For the first time in 50 years, Westerners need a Grand Narrative to be resilient again. For decades we could afford abandoning all the religious and ideological perspectives that used to give us hope and consolation. For decades, the old Narratives could not offer us something better than we already had. But now, as our grip on things is loosening, we realise that we have very little to gain and so much to lose. Feelings of insecurity kick in, requiring a new resilience. And resilience is precisely what we lack in the West. Even though we are still quite able to be happy when things go well, we are the first to get anxious and depressed when things go wrong.

In the past, many would take comfort and courage from the hope for a communist revolution, others would focus on heavenly happiness in the afterlife, and still others would await the Messianic age on earth. Whatever Narrative people embraced, it gave them a joint strength to bite the bullet. In our time only one gospel dominates: “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” A great pep talk to get us out of bed. But it leaves us empty-handed when we cannot control our life any more. The current storm confronts us precisely with the latter. Many issues have grown too big to be solved by a single human or even a single nation. If we don’t invest in some resilience, our mental and emotional empty-handedness may turn out to be very costly (if not dangerous) for Western societies and beyond.

Seven inspiring stands
What inspires in stormy times? Not a lot of talking, but people living what they believe in. What makes their lives inspiring? Seven stands, I would say.

  1. Stay calm. Inspiring people have the strength to control their fear and discontent. They don’t panic or give up in a storm, but keep looking for creative and lasting solutions.
  2. Stay compassionate. Inspiring people are stronger than their biological self-defence mechanisms. Rather than spending all their energy on saving themselves, they have the strength to look around in a storm and care for the ones who are hit the most.
  3. Stay hopeful. In whatever secular or religious form, inspiring people don’t lose the ability to have faith in the future. They keep communicating in their words and actions that this world is worth investing in.
  4. Stay visionary. Inspiring people withstand short-sighted answers to fear and discontent. They seek the well-being of the entire planet and all nations, rather than pursuing a protection and expansion plan for their tribe only.
  5. Stay stubborn. Inspiring people withstand social pressure and stick to what they believe in and who they believe in. Consistency and loyalty turns them into beacons of hope and direction for others.
  6. Stay human. Inspiring people bridge the social gaps in society by being human among humans, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or gender.
  7. Stay joyful. Inspiring people keep celebrating the good things in life. They don’t deny what is wrong, but hold on to a sense of gratitude for anyone or anything that points them to the gift of life. Fear and discontent are contagious, but inspiring people know: so is joy. Whatever the moods and whims of a nervous society, inspiring people continue to build a spirited counter-movement of hope- and compassion carriers that can take us through the storm. Who is in?

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Why tomorrow will be less democratic than today

Western-style democracy, emphasizing individual freedoms and rights, is under global pressure and facing decline even in the West. Here are five reasons why.

1. China gets away with an authoritarian approach
Some banks are “too big to fail”, some countries are “too big to franchise”. There is no way Western democracies can shape China in their own image. It is also clear by now that they are not willing to sacrifice political and economic relations with China in exchange for upholding a Western view on democracy and human rights. So, get used to a world where superpowers can be openly undemocratic (according to Western standards) and get away with it. And don’t forget how inspiring it can be for other regimes, and how much it can add legitimacy to their own authoritarian ambitions, to see China ‘win’ with an authoritarian approach.

(Russia is a different and more complicated story, due to its strong army and vulnerable economy. Its military strength demands caution in the West; its economic needs provide opportunities for the West.)

2. Western-style democracy does not seem the ultimate solution any longer
Western-style democracy is a tough seed to sow: in most countries where it was recently introduced, it failed. Democracy is a vulnerable system as it requires discussions among equals and does not stop the election of undemocratic people and parties. Whatever its value, recent history has made it much easier for opponents to dismiss it as a universal solution. In October 2014, an influential journal of the Chinese Communist Party (Qiushi) made the following statement with reference to the enduring violence and turmoil in countries like Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Libya:

The West always brags that its own democracy is a ‘universal value’ and denies there is any other form of democracy… Western democracy has innate internal flaws and certainly is not a ‘universal value’; its blind copying can only lead to disaster.

The days are over when the West could suffice with simply supposing the superior nature and universal resolving power of its democracy.

3. Secular societies lack the resilience to withstand their need for security
More freedom means less security, more security means less freedom. A well-known dilemma in democracies, leading to the question: what will democracies need more in the coming years, security or freedom? The answer is clearly security, for two reasons: 1) the growing amount of threats within and around democracies, making citizens feel more vulnerable, 2) a lack of resilience in democracies to accept risks.

Ad 2) The Democracy Index of The Economist Intelligence Unit shows that the most democratic countries also happen to be the most secular countries in the world. This combination seems to have a price: the less people can surrender to Someone or Something that controls the universe – a God (Jews, Muslims, Christians), Spirit or Life Force (Taoists, Buddhists, New Agers), Social Order (Confucianists, Socialists) – the more difficult it becomes to accept adversities and risks in life. Friends and family can compensate to some extent, but solitude is a major problem in secular societies and only some problems can be fixed by others. So, what we see in secular societies is a lack of resilience: people can be the happiest in the world when their life is in order, but easily get anxious or depressed when things get out of hand. There is little tolerance for anything that threatens the good life. Combine this with the growing threats in the world and we may see a growing willingness in precisely the most democratic countries, to sacrifice freedoms in exchange for more security.

Big question: where will this process end? How much loss of freedom does it take before people start to accept insecurities in exchange for freedom?

4. World issues cannot be solved in a tolerant way
Pandemics, climate change, cyber crime, international crime, global terrorism, nuclear risks – the dangers these issues contain can only be tackled if all countries cooperate. Leave one out, and hackers, criminal organizations and terrorists will pick that country as their hiding place. And so, the more urgent these issues become, the less countries will be patient with those that obstruct the process. World issues, by their nature, don’t care about the sovereignty of states, and so will powerful states when facing a clear and present danger. Authoritarianism will take over, a less democratic world order appear.

5. Democracies cannot be defended in a democratic way
Another notorious dilemma: democratic tolerance can only be defended in an intolerant way. We simply cannot differ about the democratic space to differ. Democratic rules ensure freedom, but only if everyone submits to them. This raises the question: do democracies need to be more intolerant in the coming years, to ensure a fee and open society? The current rise of oppressive groups, in and around democracies, clearly points towards a yes. And so, expect to see more ‘inevitable intolerance’ coming from democracies as a matter of self preservation. Democratic governments will have to be specific about the rules of an open and free society, and they will have to enforce these rules where needed. A process as unavoidable as it is tricky, because of the continuous risk that democracies become too specific about the rules and a source of oppression in their fight for freedom.

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