The Turn Towards Unity: Converting Crises into Opportunities

Human progress is stimulated by external threats and pressures. Values distilled from long experience possess the essential knowledge and power needed for continuous development and evolution. Successive waves of foreign invasions following the collapse of the Roman Empire coalesced the tribes of England into a nation state. Centuries of incessant warfare finally compelled the countries of Western Europe to evolve a regional union within which war has become unthinkable. Most recently, the rising incidence of terrorism has compelled national security institutions to forge a network for global coordination unimaginable during the Cold War. Challenges met are converted into opportunities. Opportunities missed degenerate into problems. All crises are psychological in origin. The remedy always calls for a change of attitude and values. The greatest threats confronting human beings today do not come from external aggressors. They are the result of problems that affect humanity as a whole and can only be addressed collectively by the entire human race. International financial instability, unemployment, terrorism, proliferation of nuclear weapons and climate change are indications that humanity is entering a higher phase in social evolution that compels us to evolve more effective instruments for governance at the global level. No nation or group of nations acting on its own can protect itself from these threats. Effective action to address these issues is unlikely to come from governments whose source of power and very identity are based on national sovereignty and separateness. Mechanisms for global governance will not be effective unless founded upon universally accepted values in fact as well as in principle, a condition violated by the undemocratic character of the UN system. Power relents only in the face of greater power. Power that exceeds that of the five permanent members of the Security Council can only come from representatives of humanity as a whole. A confederation of transnational organizations with shared values and common concerns can formulate a vision and plan that will constitute the seed for future world government. Organizations have evolved to the point where they can play the pioneering role traditionally played by pioneering individuals in the past, but even such organizations must depend on a core group of aspiring individuals to point the way.

1. Crises and Opportunities
Society is founded on the distilled essence of millennia of experience. It takes centuries of experience to create a little history, centuries of history to create a little civilization, and centuries of civilization to create a drop of culture. Universal values are the quintessence of that culture. Spiritual values of freedom, equality, peace, harmony, unity, truth and self-giving are the most precious products of the evolutionary process, for they embody the deepest wisdom of our cumulative experience, the knowledge on which all lasting achievement and sustained progress are founded. Those values are our surest guide to a more perfect future. Values possess unparalleled power for accomplishment.

Experience also teaches us that progress almost invariably arises from the ashes of conflict, crises and, very often, massive destruction. Destruction is destructive of obstacles. Destruction is creative. Hence the irony that the most devastating destruction in human history during WWII has been followed by the most remarkable period of accomplishment. Humanity has developed more during the past fifty years than during the previous five centuries, according to UNDP, and the rate of progress is accelerating. Therefore, we are compelled to acknowledge the mystery that problems and crises give rise to unprecedented opportunities.

At the same time we are forced to acknowledge that opportunities missed often degenerate into problems. Thus, the missed opportunity to found a truly global system of governance in 1945 was followed for 45 years by the Cold War that generated a greater real threat to the future of humanity than all the real wars fought throughout its long history. The irresistible temptation of the victorious nations to unevenly distribute political power in the new dispensation led instead to the fashioning of an effete, unrepresentative system of governance in the name of democracy. Looking back, it is almost impossible to conceive of the logic that compelled informed leaders on both sides to sanction the creation of 70,000 weapons of mass annihilation. Yet this was a ‘logical’ outcome of the post-war mindset. The physical urge in thought and act is for blind repetition without end until a new crisis compels it to stop.

Once again, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain in 1989, unprecedented opportunity presented and was at best half-heartedly embraced. The unification of Europe, establishment of a single world market devoid of ideological barriers, and emergence of the Internet as the first truly global social organization are its finest products. The multiple crises the world faces today are its worst consequences.

2. Psychological history of human progress
History records facts. A psychological history reveals the thinking and attitudes responsible for those facts, which alone give us the power to avoid endlessly repeating the same mistakes. Knowledge is power. Psychological knowledge is power to escape from the limitations of the past. All crises are psychological in their origin. They arise from uninformed or misinformed opinion, prejudiced attitudes, exclusive pursuit of narrow self-interests, refusal to renounce a temporary advantage, indulgence of a destructive urge, inability to control a triumphant impulse.

All opportunities are psychological as well. They are created by embracing a higher or wider perspective, a more inclusive viewpoint, the courage to build a fresh future free from the legacy of the past, a willingness to cooperate, an urge for harmony, a sense of fairness, the inspiration of an ideal, the commitment to a value. Thus, millions of impoverished Europeans, inspired by the ideal of freedom and the value of self-reliance, found the courage and inspiration to give up the settled security of life in their native countries to brave rough seas and settle the American wilderness. It is significant that the most successful American colonies were not founded in the Southern Hemisphere in which European monarchs established crown-administered colonies in quest of gold, but in the northern regions where no gold was found until centuries later. The northern colonies were left to fend for themselves. It was freedom that made America prosperous, not precious metals. Ideals, attitudes and values constitute the principal difference between astonishing achievements and intractable problems.

The nuclear weapon states missed a unique opportunity to rid the world of the most pernicious devices of self-destruction ever fashioned by man. But the five nuclear powers lacked the wisdom and idealism to renounce a temporary individual advantage in exchange for humanity’s permanent freedom from a nuclear nightmare. The world’s only remaining superpower missed a golden opportunity to pioneer the next stage in global governance. But that required a self-restraint and humility rare among those at the crest of power.

Overlooking the gaping holes in their own half-failed system after the collapse of communism, market fundamentalists of the Washington Consensus proclaimed ideological victory over decrepit, centralized economic autocracy. Swallowing their own propaganda, they discarded the most valuable lessons of the Great Depression and post war decades. The world stands witness to the results of these missed opportunities – chaotic global financial markets, depressed economies, disenfranchised workers, rocketing disparities between rich and poor, the looming threat of environmental catastrophe, youth without dreams, rising levels of social unrest and violence among those who have been left out. The rising of fundamentalism and terrorism are symbols and symptoms of fundamental defects in our own beliefs and attitudes.

Today we face even more threatening crises, which cloak even more promising opportunities. We desperately need to discover the alchemy of consciously transforming crisis into opportunity. The psychological history of recent decades offers all the knowledge we require to effect that transformation, if only we have the sincerity to understand and the will to act on that knowledge.

3. From Threats to Unity
Historically, unity is an adaptive response to a common enemy. Churchill illustrated this process in his History of the English Speaking People. After the fall of the Roman Empire, for centuries Britain was subjected to the onslaught of successive invasions by aggressive neighbors – Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes and Normans. Each invasion conquered and supplanted the previous ruling tribe. Each new invader was invited or encouraged by warring local barons and the suppressed majority, lured by the hope of casting off the yoke of present tyranny, only to discover the rule of the new tyrant equally or more oppressive than that which it replaced. Is humanity today any better at learning from its experiences? After centuries of recurring conquest, awareness gradually emerged and a common identity was forged among the long suppressed, motley community of successively conquered tribes of Britain. The eventual result was a consolidation of disparate peoples into the united community of the English under a universally-recognized monarch. Thus, the foundation was laid for the early emergence of Britain as a modern nation-state. It was not commonalty of language, race or religion that united the English, but the pragmatic power of values – the values of freedom and unity.

Values are contagious and often surface where we least approve. We revel in our own freedom from subordination to the power of others, yet cry foul when ungrateful others rebel against the gentle yoke of our own superior power. History repeated itself across the Atlantic, when Britain’s American colonies came to perceive that only by freedom and unity with one another could they withstand the arbitrary imposition of authority from England or potential threat from other European powers.

Two centuries later, the same ingratitude of the enslaved spurred the emergence of India as a nation-state, a subcontinent which through most of its history had consisted of hundreds of divided and sometimes warring major and minor kingdoms. Eight hundred years of humiliating subjection to foreign rule – first by the Moghul emperors and later by the British traders – forged a culturally united but linguistically, ethnically, socially, religiously and politically diverse people to build a common future based on a common identity. It is as though the fragmentation of Indian society by caste and religion compelled Nature to employ foreign invasion to forge the unity of these people. India’s diversity of language, caste, class, religion, race and political grouping – perhaps Nature’s greatest experiment with heterogeneity – evolved into Nature’s greatest experiment with human unity.

4. Peace as an emergent property
Threats and challenges generate opportunities. The UN emerged from the devastation of World War II as humanity’s greatest ever conscious endeavor to learn from experience, to transform high ideals into living social values, to convert unprecedented suffering into peace and prosperity. It did succeed in ending the incessant warfare that had made Europe a perennial battlefield of warring peoples for the previous five hundred years. Physical war was replaced by an ever-present, imminent threat of nuclear annihilation, intense political confrontation between opposing ideological blocs, and global competition for allies through the declared idealism of foreign aid and the secret pragmatism of proxy wars. Yet beneath the surface confrontation, the essence of that bloody competitive history gradually coalesced into the idea and eventually the reality of a regional cooperative security system, NATO, and an increasingly united community of nations, the European Union, built on the battlefields of the past. As a result, in the words of a European security expert, “war in Europe has now become unthinkable.” That is surely an achievement worth thinking about.

Here too, a great opportunity was only half-seized, leaving behind it inherent weaknesses that have recently surfaced to shake the entire edifice of the nascent union. Spurred by the political and economic triumphs of their mighty neighbor across the Atlantic, yet still possessed by the ghost of divisive nationalism, the members of the EU forged a confederation more similar in most respects to the failed southern Confederacy than the federation of American states it was intended to emulate. The recent financial crisis has exposed the defects in that design, created by political sleight-of-hand to appease nationalistic sentiment at home. The lesson is now apparent. A strong currency union can only be based on a strong central bank that is a branch of a strong unifying central government. The experience of Europe today foreshadows the experience of the whole world, as it inevitably discovers the desirability and eventual necessity of a single world currency as the basis for a truly global system of governance -an idea seriously contemplated and then short-sightedly abandoned at Bretton Woods in 1945.

The Turn Towards Unity: Converting Crises into Opportunities: Paper presented at UNESCO Conference on Sustainable Development, Dubrovnik, September 2011, Special World Academy of Art & Science Project “From Crisis to Prosperity.”
Garry Jacobs: Trustee & Chair, Committee on Peace & Development, World Academy of Art & Science; Vice-President, The Mother’s Service Society, Pondicherry, India

Pages: 1 2 3