Becoming Universal

A planetary “community of fate” can only be forged through shared responses to common challenges.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

In an essay in Noema, Berggruen Institute Europe director Lorenzo Marsili observes that “the unique historical feature of our time is that both the nation-state and cosmopolitan aspirations appear to be in decline at the same time.” 

Globalization during recent decades did them both in, undermining the sovereignty of the nation-state while alienating its inhabitants by outsourcing management of their world to an elite class of distant strangers. Not surprisingly, the reaction to global flows of people, capital, technology and information running roughshod over the identity of belonging to a certain way of life sparked populist revolt, nativist rebellion and geopolitical assertion as a way to take back control.

What has emerged in globalization’s wake is both dis-integration and ingathering at a higher order of affinity — civilizational zones bound by the “kinship and cohesion” of those who share the distinct particularisms of moral taste, style of life, form of government and spirit of laws. In short, safe political and cultural spaces defined by those who are not part of it. 

It is in this context that China and Russia declare themselves as “civilizational states” with claims over surrounding spheres of influence. It is in this sense that the G7 sees itself as the “steering committee” of the Western world.

Marsili doubts that this present geo-civilizational constellation is any more the end of history than Francis Fukuyama’s famous post-Cold War benediction about the triumph of liberal democracy. Rather, the dialectical mind suspects that this supersession of the nation-state combined with a repudiation of the false universalism of Western cosmopolites is only a waystation to the next step of history: a lean planetary polity where key “concrete universals” of common humanity are shared across otherwise incommensurate political and cultural realms. 

Such a universality, Marsili points out, does not precede itself. It will emerge not from some heroic foundational event, but through a process of responding one tangible step at a time to pressing challenges that are converging for all of humanity. Only what arises organically can become integral. A planetary “community of fate,” to borrow a phrase from the political scientist Margaret Levi, will only be forged through the shared experience of volitional mobilization by diverse actors to meet a summons that demands a common response.

As Marsili sees it, the European Union is a laboratory for the kind of planetary transition he envisions. The concept of integrating sovereignty arose as a consequence of catastrophic wars on the continent in the 20th century. If “nationalism means war,” as former French President François Mitterrand put it baldly back in the founding moments of the EU, peace has meant a long, often tedious, arduous and evolutionary process to realize a form of unification that respects diversity.

For all its internecine squabbles over the years, from the Eurocrisis to regulatory overreach to restrictive debt limits, the EU did arrive at the equivalent of a “concrete universal” for its own member states in facing the Covid pandemic. As Marsili notes, “The citizens of Europe’s largest economy, Germany, which co-developed the Covid vaccine via the Mainz-based BioNTech, received the same per capita doses of the vaccine on the same day as citizens of Europe’s poorest country, Bulgaria. This is an under-appreciated achievement. Without any preexisting legal requirement for doing so, the fear unleashed on the continent by the virus was leveraged to set aside localist interest and produce the emergence of a concrete universal: the fair and equal access to health in the face of a pandemic.”

On the planetary level, one of Marsili’s proposals is for a fast-acting civil protection corps drawn from across the world to respond to climate emergencies. Such an idea would seem ripe for traction when each successive year breaks the thermometer even as relentless rains inundate some regions while others dwell in drought. Already, on an ad hoc basis, firefighters in California help out when forests go up in flames in Canada, and vice versa. The same takes place within Europe across the Mediterranean countries.

There is a Red Cross for “people affected by conflict and armed violence,” as its mission statement reads. Why not a Green Cross for climate-related calamities? (Mikhail Gorbachev had this idea in the early post-Cold War days, but climate awareness was then too far from the urgent meter for it to take off.)

During the Depression years in the U.S., Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to employ those out of work while building America’s parks and conserving its forests. Why not a Planetary Conservation Corps in which various nationals might fulfill their mandated service, an idea already in gestation through the Youth Environmental Service, which has worldwide ambitions?

Marsili tangentially mentions AI. Wouldn’t a collaboration of leading Chinese and Western scientists to mitigate the most worrying aspects of AI while amplifying its potential in health and environmental management enjoin a process that would concretely benefit all of humanity?

Each of these cases, where pressing challenges can only be met through the imperative of a common response, would be a path to becoming universal in a way that overarches but does not undercut particularisms in a multipolar world. 

The capacity for diverse civilizational realms to join together for a planetary purpose rests on a sense of security in their own identity. That is not the antithesis of concrete universalism, but the pre-condition for it.