Two heavyweight international meetings are upon us, so I think I’ll turn from our more usual discussions of social life on the smaller scale and write a bit about the global situation within which we find ourselves. A lot of my focus on this blog has been to think about people and their common life, rather than a more generalized “humanity” that always stands in danger of devolving into ideological utopias or vague abstractions. But it's a small world after all, and sometimes global humanity is plausibly reducible to a conference room.
The G-20 are meeting in London, while the Hague is hosting an international conference on the future of Afghanistan. While Secretary Clinton pushed for the Hague conference and a significant portion of discussion will likely be directed towards Obama administration plans for troops in Afghanistan, the event is being led off by President Hamid Karzai and Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. That is, this will be no unilateral agenda, but rather a gathering of international voices. The G-20 I think falls into the same category for obvious reasons (like the fact that there are 20 of them. Seems to pretty well put the "multi-" in multilateral).
The two major headlines that we're seeing on these two events are what I'd like to focus on, not so much to analyze them in particular but to present them as fodder for a broader point. At the G-20, eyes are on France, while at the Hague, eyes are on Iran. France is threatening to walk out if demands for stronger international financial regulations are not met, and Germany seems to be in agreement on this front. Meanwhile, Iran itself is the news at the Hague. The mere fact that they are there (or that they aren't at the G-20) has been the basis of excitement. This was Secretary Clinton's intention from the beginning, and it's consistent with the (relative) opening of conversation by the Obama administration.
This all seems like cause for cautious hope, in my mind. I'm not in a position to say whether the international regulations supported by Sarkozy are adequate or helpful, but a serious call for such structures at least carries with it the virtue of seriousness. I'm no partisan of cosmopolitanism by a long stretch, but it strikes me that if globalization is present and increasing at the pace it currently exhibits, we might as well meet global risk factors with global order while we're at it. It seems that we can't turn back the clock on the more destructive aspects of global capitalism, and it would be worth acknowledging the relative good of a more cosmopolitan structure to inform and check what now is more of a transnational wild west. The problem with the localist utopianism often set in opposition to the UN, G-8, G-20, etc., is that it doesn't recognize the arbitrary scale of its demands. We in the U.S. may balk at greater international regulation as a disconcerting "new world order", but it's not as if anyone is suggesting a state of nature as a viable alternative. The sovereignties of states, unions of states, or international bodies are all very much the same thing, and I don't think the more local manifestations of civil order are peculiarly sacred... if they are at all they are only so by degrees. If we have the communicative tools and structures to make a global order a real possibility, I don't think there's any problem in doing so. We should cede control to political sovereignties only as the common good remains free and supported, but if it can be done well and fruitfully, I don't see why a global scale would be more problematic than any other. The reach of collapse is global, and it would seem that a global rebuilding is only just.
On Iran at the Hague- what a fascinating mirror with which to examine ourselves! It has lately been a contentious issue of public dialogue whether we should view the Islamic Republic as beyond the moral pale, or as a legitimate political agent with whom we must dialogue, regardless of whether we ever get chummy. Iranian officials met in Moscow last week to discuss Afghanistan before the present conference, and I imagine that many Americans, if not most, would view such a discussion as immediately suspect. Axes of evil are a veritable fixture of our political imagination. But while Clinton has not revealed any plans to meet with the Iranian deputy during the conference, there is an obvious mutual interest in the stability of Afghanistan, and the eventuality of a conversation with Iran should not surprise us, whether or not we ever hear about it.
This all broaches the other side of common life in a global context. While a global cosmopolitanism promises (or threatens, however you like it) an international rule of law and order for common life, it also means that a deep pluralism will need to be addressed. European discussions of law and order proceed largely on the basis of a cultural rather than a rational continuity. It is the common heritage informing political life that allows France to stand within a dialogue of nations and demand a particular way forward for the whole, and even the typical protests of such a global order are grounded in the assumptions of a classical European dichotomy, between regulation as a public or private imperative.
A good deal of this might go out the window when a secular republic meets an Islamic republic, however. In order for any successful global option to avoid ideological proportions like those of the Cold War and its aftermath, it will be necessary to recognize the dialogue itself on an empirical level. There is ground for discussion with an Islamic Republic- it's going on right now at the Hague and it signals that reasonable discourse (the very basis of cosmopolitanism, I would say) is not conditional upon a particular polity or foundational philosophical assumption, even concerning the terms of dialogue itself. Dialogue happens even where theoretical understandings say that it cannot, and because it does happen we can begin to understand theoretically what it might mean for us.
None of this guarantees any success. I think it's foolish to forecast too much about either a global pluralism or cosmopolitanism. But these are the rudimentary structures that we have to deal with, and I think that we should at least open our eyes and recognize that they're not something we can any longer ignore.
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