From The Age Of Empires To The Age Of Humanity

Imagine a planetary universalism not as a singular all-encompassing worldview, but as a collection of laws, institutions and public goods that bind humanity and apply to all.

Tianshu Wu for Noema Magazine

Lorenzo Marsili is a philosopher, writer and the director of Berggruen Institute Europe.

I. The Age Of Empires

“The era where all humanity together will be a political reality still remains in the distant future. The period of national political realities is over. This is the epoch of empires.” In 1945, in a little-known text calling for the establishment of a transnational union between France, Italy and Spain, philosopher and statesman Alexandre Kojève raised many of the questions that have come to haunt us today.

Our world is fragmenting. Beyond the newsreel contingencies of multipolarity, friend-shoring or protectionism, 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. Today’s new great powers are not national in the traditional sense: They are large and heterogeneous, and their size empowers them to reclaim at least partial political control over global flows of finance, technology and information. They are, however, also not cosmopolitan, and in fact very much the opposite: They turn away from universalism and claim the validity of their own particularistic, civilizational narratives. 

Kojève refers to these political entities as empires, sitting somewhere between the nation-state and the world. In 2020, The Economist made a list of potential “civilization states”: “Chinese academics herald China as the world’s sole civilization-state, rather than an old-hat, 19th-century nation-state. Vladimir Putin, however, has hopped on the bandwagon. … Indian commentators have long wrestled with whether their country is one, too. Other potential candidates for civilization-state status include the United States and even Turkey. Another name is rarely mentioned, but should be added to this growing list: the EU.”

Such civilizational multiplicity — previously explored in a Noema series — has plenty of value for a world eager to turn the page on Eurocentrism. As the Chinese nationalist Zhang Weiwei argues, powers like China, Russia and India “are respectively unique civilizations, fed up with the Western imposition of its values on them in the name of universality.” Universalism extends only as far as the range of the gunboats defending it. Now that formerly colonized countries have succeeded in curtailing the reach of Western imposition, they are free to indulge in the prized fruit of liberty: shaping their own worldview with references to their own tradition.

“Kojève thought empires would provide an intermediate historical step to transition from a politics centered on the nation-state to a politics centered on humanity.”

And yet, the trial of Eurocentric universalism might recall the trial of Otto Dietrich zur Linde, the fictional Nazi commander imagined by Jorge Luis Borges. After his trial for war crimes, Dietrich unexpectedly claims victory for the ideals of the German Reich. The Allies may have won the war, he argues, but to do so they have had to transform themselves into a machine as ruthless as the Third Reich. Germany was sacrificed for a “new order,” he writes, one where “violence … now rules.” With his classical taste for paradox, Borges provides a chilling reminder that we can lose in victory if we let ourselves become a mirror image of our opponent. Will a world where faux Western universalism is substituted with multiple authoritarian and nationalist particularisms be significantly better than what it will have replaced? 

The West has no right and no means to impede the rest, who are now copying its quest for wealth and power and the narrow pursuit of their own interests. The West has no right to expect that the rest should be any better than it has itself been. This is the false consciousness of privilege: projecting the motor for transformative change onto the subaltern “other.” And yet, the question that begs asking is: Can we, as a common humanity, do any better?

We know that, while the world is fragmenting, the challenges facing humanity are increasingly common to all. For Kojève, the age of empires was not where history was going to end. He saw empires as providing an intermediate historical step to transition from a politics centered on the nation-state to a politics centered on humanity. Do we now need to succumb to the destiny of great power competition, or can our age of empires begin to build a future age of humanity?

II. Planetary Universalism 

Particularistic relativism and the fragmentation of the world into separate powers, each claiming the specificity and validity of its own form of life and its right to non-interference, thrives on a collective incapacity to imagine the meaning of universality beyond its civilizational and imperialist declinations. 

Civilizational universalism is, for example, at the heart of the Roman Empire, Christianity or China’s tianxia (“all under heaven”) system. Just as Emperor Caracalla bestowed Roman citizenship to all residents of the empire (provided they accepted the primacy of Roman law), so everyone can become an equal member of the Christian congregation if they recognize the truth of the gospel. Imperial China recognized civilized status to any country that accepted its centrality and complied with required rites and tributes. This is what the historian Xu Jilin, referencing Karl Jaspers, calls an axial civilizational structure moving from a core people toward the world — from the center to the margins, from a singular particularism to a homogenous universalism. 

The modern European nation-state gave a further turn of the screw to this process. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, the nation-state differs from ancient empires to the extent that it lacks the capacity of ruling over multiple peoples and states and respecting their diversity. This is the rule of one nation over others, and it is that nation’s total way of life that is imposed in the name of universality. Whatever and whoever do not comply are either forced to in the name of “progress” or labeled “primitive” and placed in a hierarchical relation with the national metropole. This universalism functions by subsuming all that it meets: It is at heart imperialist, hierarchical and dramatically unsuited to our age of multiplicity. 

We may, however, identify a third approach to universality. Its best description is found in a stanza of the Romantic poet Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

The first line of the poem performs a striking reversal. We are used to considering all our experiences and travels as a part of us, incorporating them into what we have become. Tennyson reverses that perspective. It is the traveler who becomes a part of all they have met. The traveler does not subsume the world but is rather subsumed by it. This stanza makes a second point: The world that one becomes a part of never ends but expands as one moves through it — just like the horizon. 

Imagine universalism not as a singular all-encompassing worldview, but as a plurality of “concrete universals”: a collection of specific, universalized laws, institutions or public goods that emerge and bind humanity as it agrees on and practices them. Immanuel Kant never claimed his times were enlightened. Rather, he claimed they were times of enlightenment. The specification is important, as it points to a continuous process of shedding light: Nothing is en-lightened until it is lit. Similarly, a concrete universal does not precede its own identification: Universals emerge from a process of universalizing, from a coming together of humanity. Universalism can be a pragmatic truth procedure expanding as the common interests, experiences and agreements of planetary citizens expand. 

Just as for our romantic traveler, it is not the world that is subsumed into a preexisting conception of universality — the margins conforming to the center, the colony to the metropole — but contrary concrete universals emerge by engagement with the world and henceforth become a part of it. This process, and the universals it yields, has a beginning but no end: Its margins fade for ever and forever when we move. 

A real-world example comes from the extraordinary achievements of one of the most inspiring American universalists and political pragmatists: Eleonor Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who led the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, called it, “a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations.” Universals, and declaring them, are historical not in the relativist sense of being a contingency of their time, but in the sense of capturing the common achievement of humanity up to that point in time. 

Concrete universals are that which has been agreed to, that which has been universalized, that which has been collectively acquired until now. The European Union has a technical name for it: the acquis communautaire, that which the community has acquired and has become a standard for all. We need to move from the acquis communautaire to the acquis planetaireAs the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne points out, “The universal has never existed, it must be constructed.”

“Imagine universalism not as a singular all-encompassing worldview, but as a plurality of ‘concrete universals’: a collection of specific, universalized laws, institutions or public goods.”

This is why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights cannot be relativized. It was the outcome of a voluntary agreement of legitimate representatives of humanity, and only a similarly planetary legitimacy may put it into question or transform it. This, incidentally, is also why even authoritarian states feel compelled to pay lip service to it. 

But for these very reasons, the world is right in considering today’s international architecture — what is called “Bretton Woods” and was crafted by the Western victors of World War II — to be partial, unrepresentative and in need of transformation. Meanwhile, a lot of concrete universals remain to be constructed from scratch: What is humanity’s view of artificial intelligence? What about health? And how are the costs of the climate crisis going to be fairly distributed? 

Concrete universals can take many shapes. They can be incarnated in institutions — such as, for all its faults, the United Nations — or the many that remain to be imagined and constructed. They can take the form of global goods, the provision of which is guaranteed to all planetary citizens. They can take the form of rights or benefits. This is a long-term process of discovery that no single country, no single branch of knowledge, no single summit can define and resolve.

We need to convene the best minds and hands of our planet to define concrete 21st-century universals that bind together a common humanity, and we need to do so repeatedly and at all political levels. From the institutional with processes like COP, IPCC and new institutions to be defined from scratch on issues like artificial intelligence or global finance, to the grassroots where the place left vacant by the demise of the World Social Forum cries out to be occupied anew. 

Rather than letting a hundred flowers of particularism bloom, we need to plant a hundred seeds of planetary conversations and agreements. It is through such a process that concrete universals will be born and that the age of Eurocentric universalism will yield ground to the age of planetary universalism. Incidentally, it is also such a process that would provide the mobilizing act that gradually constitutes a planetary people.

III. Planetary Citizenship

Kojève advocated the construction of transnational political unities “between sister nations.” His plan for a “Latin union,” which would have brought together France, Italy and Spain as “the spiritual brotherhood of Latin peoples,” would guarantee sufficient social cohesion and kinship to provide the basis for a voluntary political union. 

A more ambitious take on kinship and cohesion came up in Paris only a few years later, in 1956, courtesy of a group of politicians and intellectuals from France, West Africa and the Caribbean. They presented the French parliament with plans for the full equalization of citizenship across the French empire, extending the same set of political, civil and social rights to all inhabitants. One wonders what a planetary French state stretching to three continents and to hundreds of millions of very diverse people would have become. But racism and venality collided to make this proposal a nonstarter: the citizenry too heterogenous and weakly bonded and the extension of social benefits too expensive.

This is the classical dilemma of cosmopolitans: You can either deepen solidarity within a community or expand the membership of that community, but you cannot do both. How is the emergence of concrete universals meant to deal with this?

The process of European integration has performed a useful transformation of this dilemma: It foresees kinship, cohesion and hence unity as a process rather than a foundational, heroic moment. Europe is developing a scalar, expandable and modular conception of political unity and of citizenship. As conditions allow, more is placed in common. In doing this, Europe brings home a key Marxist insight: A people does not preexist its own mobilization but is gradually constructed through consecutive mobilizing acts. The status of European citizenship best encapsulates this: It is not substitutive but additional to national citizenship, allowing for its gradual enrichment through a process of consensus formation and hence of citizen formation.  

“Universalism can be a pragmatic truth procedure expanding as the common interests, experiences and agreements of planetary citizens expand.”

Could this represent the basis for a novel conception of planetary citizenship, expanding as the invention of concrete universals advances? For Diagne, the invention of universals is tantamount to the invention of humanity itself, an idea he finds in the concept of ubuntu, or “making humanity together.” “This common humanity,” he writes, “is not given: it is a task. Ubuntu means that the human creates itself, the human is a task towards which we must travel.” Just like a universal does not precede its universalization, but emerges through that very process, so humanity as a political subject does not preexist its mobilization but is summoned by giving birth to common universals.

But how is this to happen? This may sound like the story of the gravity-defying Baron Munchausen, who famously tried to lift himself into the air by pulling his own hair. As Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani has pointed out, Kant had a half-spoken solution to this: war. With more cruel realism than is often credited to him, Kant accepted that human unsociability would make the prospect of ever closer union between the world’s people unattainable in the immediate. And yet, that very unsociability would trigger wars of increasing violence that would in turn bring humans toward increasing socialization — just as the League of Nations followed the First World War and the United Nations the second. 

Europe’s response to the pandemic offers a different possible route: the consecutive exploitation of minor crises that elicit a need for cooperation. 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. 

Of course, while Europe may have been the world’s most generous donor of vaccines, this ambitious equalization of benefits stopped at the borders of the EU. And yet, charity is not the point — scalability and prototyping are. Europe’s actions prefigured the method and subject for the emergence of a concrete universal for the planet. If we imagine the gradual emergence of such covenants between the world’s peoples, then the public goods, benefits, rights and security that they would extend to all would gradually construct the starting point of a novel conception of planetary citizenship. 

We may accept Kant’s realpolitik, in which case we should foster the ground for universals to emerge after the next catastrophe — or, indeed, after a localized war such as the one raging now on the European continent. Or we may think that the European Union demonstrates that this process may take place peacefully — in which case the gradual emergence of a common humanity requires not war but intellectual and political ambition. 

IV. Europe As A Laboratory For Concrete Universals 

Courtesy of China’s challenge to the global hegemony of the West, the quest to convince and not merely coerce the rest of the world has started. Jake Sullivan’s description of the “new Washington consensus” meant to guide the Biden administration states that foreign policy should be responsible for the “global provision of positive public goods” such as health care, education or capital investment for a green energy transition. What shape that takes remains nebulous. 

Europe may be uniquely positioned to make a planetary assembly for the definition of new, concrete universals a centerpiece of its contribution to the world. Its embodied awareness of history makes it less troubled than the U.S. in recognizing and accepting the end of a mere two hundred years of exceptional Western hegemony over the world. At the same time, it has none of the revanchism of ancient civilizations now rediscovering a taste for power. On the contrary, it has an extraordinarily rich experience of institutional compromise as it faces the task of coordinating 27 different polities. This experience in everyday cosmopolitics could, more than its regulatory ambitions, become the real Brussels effect on the world.

Europe can become a laboratory to test a planetary approach to the provision of public goods as concrete universals. As is often the case in small-scale laboratory testing, we may find a clue in the most unassuming of places. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged to include Ukraine in Europe’s free-roaming area, bestowing on all the nation’s citizens the right to make telephone calls to, from and across the entire European space at no extra cost. This sounds risible. And yet, it can be a transformative method if replicated and scaled. 

The concept behind this has a name in European jargon: sectorial integration. This refers to the extension of some of the public goods of European Union membership to other countries as they meet relevant conditions — for instance, granting Tunisian universities access to jointly pooled research funds. Imagine if such a process became an experimentation in the unearthing of concrete universals jointly provided and guaranteed by whoever decided to take part in an exercise in shared global public goods. 

This could only start shallow. Imagine the transformation of Europe’s offer to Ukraine into an offer to the whole world, decreeing the right to international communication as a concrete universal and hence decreeing the abolition of international phone charges. This would provide an important if merely symbolic step: It would show the primacy of planetary politics over the rule of the market, and it would send the message that a common humanity needs to converse, that international dialogue should not be more expensive or complicated than it is within nations.

“Concrete universals are that which has been agreed to, that which has been universalized, that which has been collectively acquired until now.”

Or take health. The 1946 constitution of the World Health Organization grandly states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” That is a high-sounding and vague universal. We could begin with a shallow but concrete one instead, scaling to the planetary level of Europe’s prototype from the last pandemic. That is something as simple as a joint guarantee, in the case of another planetary pandemic, for the shared development, procurement and distribution of necessary equipment, medicines and vaccines. This may be coupled with an offer to jointly develop a public vaccine research center, along the lines of CERN in Geneva, expanding to the planetary level a recent proposal of the European Parliament.  

Another highly symbolic show of planetary solidarity refers to climate emergencies. When floods, cyclones or droughts hit, international help often comes, but it is usually ad-hoc, limited to truly great disasters and lacking sufficient coordination between national teams. A planetary civil protection force with fast-reaction capacities could provide some security. Indicative of the interplay between Europe’s role in prefiguring and in implementing concrete universals, this would amount to scaling up Europe’s prototype transnational civil protection mechanism.

None of these three examples is a game changer. None of them is particularly costly or dramatically impolitic. And yet, imagine if Europe convened a planetary conference with this simple statement: “The desire for communication, health and safety are universal to all inhabitants of our planet. As a first concrete step toward those universal aspirations, we propose to ensure the provision of free international calling, equalized procurement of vaccines and a public research and development center, and a coordinated civil protection team as planetary public goods shared by all.” 

We could, of course, be much more ambitious; other and better ideas will easily come to mind. But the key is beginning to move, however small the first steps. Europe has an opportunity to turn itself into a laboratory, prototyping human political interaction that is neither national nor civilizational but planetary. 

Competition between the U.S. and China and the reorganization of the world into separate spheres of influence, interests and values opens an opportunity for Europe to leverage its unique cosmopolitical experience to contribute a different vision of planetary transformation. Or it could merely let itself be cradled in one camp or the other.

All this will be a long, arduous and uncertain path. We cannot know whether it will be our intelligence that reorganizes the world or, as in the time of Kojève, a catastrophe that forces our hand. But the dividing line in history is not between those who succeed and those who fail, but between those who try and those who do nothing in the face of danger.