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Yuval Noah Harari : We need a post-liberal order now

For several generations, the world has been governed by what today we call “the global liberal order”. Behind these lofty words is the idea that all humans share some core experiences, values and interests, and that no human group is inherently superior to all others. Cooperation is therefore more sensible than conflict. All humans should work together to protect their common values and advance their common interests. And the best way to foster such cooperation is to ease the movement of ideas, goods, money and people across the globe.

Though the global liberal order has many faults and problems, it has proved superior to all alternatives. The liberal world of the early 21st century is more prosperous, healthy and peaceful than ever before. For the first time in human history, starvation kills fewer people than obesity; plagues kill fewer people than old age; and violence kills fewer people than accidents. When I was six months old I didn’t die in an epidemic, thanks to medicines discovered by foreign scientists in distant lands. When I was three I didn’t starve to death, thanks to wheat grown by foreign farmers thousands of kilometers away. And when I was eleven I wasn’t obliterated in a nuclear war, thanks to agreements signed by foreign leaders on the other side of the planet. If you think we should go back to some pre-liberal golden age, please name the year in which humankind was in better shape than in the early 21st century. Was it 1918? 1718? 1218?

Nevertheless, people all over the world are now losing faith in the liberal order. Nationalist and religious views that privilege one human group over all others are back in vogue. Governments are increasingly restricting the flow of ideas, goods, money and people. Walls are popping up everywhere, both on the ground and in cyberspace. Immigration is out, tariffs are in.

If the liberal order is collapsing, what new kind of global order might replace it? So far, those who challenge the liberal order do so mainly on a national level. They have many ideas about how to advance the interests of their particular country, but they don’t have a viable vision for how the world as a whole should function. For example, Russian nationalism can be a reasonable guide for running the affairs of Russia, but Russian nationalism has no plan for the rest of humanity. Unless, of course, nationalism morphs into imperialism, and calls for one nation to conquer and rule the entire world. A century ago, several nationalist movements indeed harboured such imperialist fantasies. Today’s nationalists, whether in Russia, Turkey, Italy or China, so far refrain from advocating global conquest.

"The world will then be divided into distinct nation-states, each with its own sacred identity and traditions"


In place of violently establishing a global empire, some nationalists such as Steve Bannon, Viktor Orban, the Northern League in Italy and the British Brexiteers dream about a peaceful “Nationalist International”. They argue that all nations today face the same enemies. The bogeymen of globalism, multiculturalism and immigration are threatening to destroy the traditions and identities of all nations. Therefore nationalists across the world should make common cause in opposing these global forces. Hungarians, Italians, Turks and Israelis should build walls, erect fences and slow down the movement of people, goods, money and ideas.

The world will then be divided into distinct nation-states, each with its own sacred identity and traditions. Based on mutual respect for these differing identities, all nation-states could cooperate and trade peacefully with one another. Hungary will be Hungarian, Turkey will be Turkish, Israel will be Israeli, and everyone will know who they are and what is their proper place in the world. It will be a world without immigration, without universal values, without multiculturalism, and without a global elite—but with peaceful international relations and some trade. In a word, the “Nationalist International” envisions the world as a network of walled-but-friendly fortresses.

"The key problem with the network of fortresses is that each national fortress wants a bit more land, security and prosperity for itself at the expense of the neighbors"


Many people would think this is quite a reasonable vision. Why isn’t it a viable alternative to the liberal order? Two things should be noted about it. First, it is still a comparatively liberal vision. It assumes that no human group is superior to all others, that no nation should dominate its peers, and that international cooperation is better than conflict. In fact, liberalism and nationalism were originally closely aligned with one another. The 19th century liberal nationalists, such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini in Italy, and Adam Mickiewicz in Poland, dreamt about precisely such an international liberal order of peacefully-coexisting nations.

The second thing to note about this vision of friendly fortresses is that it has been tried—and it failed spectacularly. All attempts to divide the world into clear-cut nations have so far resulted in war and genocide. When the heirs of Garibaldi, Mazzini and Mickiewicz managed to overthrow the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire, it proved impossible to find a clear line dividing Italians from Slovenes or Poles from Ukrainians.

This had set the stage for the second world war. The key problem with the network of fortresses is that each national fortress wants a bit more land, security and prosperity for itself at the expense of the neighbors, and without the help of universal values and global organisations, rival fortresses cannot agree on any common rules. Walled fortresses are seldom friendly.

But if you happen to live inside a particularly strong fortress, such as America or Russia, why should you care? Some nationalists indeed adopt a more extreme isolationist position. They don’t believe in either a global empire or in a global network of fortresses. Instead, they deny the necessity of any global order whatsoever. “Our fortress should just raise the drawbridges,” they say, “and the rest of the world can go to hell. We should refuse entry to foreign people, foreign ideas and foreign goods, and as long as our walls are stout and the guards are loyal, who cares what happens to the foreigners?”

"Humankind today faces three common problems that make a mockery of all national borders, and that can only be solved through global cooperation. These are nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption"


Such extreme isolationism, however, is completely divorced from economic realities. Without a global trade network, all existing national economies will collapse—including that of North Korea. Many countries will not be able even to feed themselves without imports, and prices of almost all products will skyrocket. The made-in-China shirt I am wearing cost me about $5. If it had been produced by Israeli workers from Israeli-grown cotton using Israeli-made machines powered by non-existing Israeli oil, it may well have cost ten times as much. Nationalist leaders from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin may therefore heap abuse on the global trade network, but none thinks seriously of taking their country completely out of that network. And we cannot have a global trade network without some global order that sets the rules of the game.

Even more importantly, whether people like it or not, humankind today faces three common problems that make a mockery of all national borders, and that can only be solved through global cooperation. These are nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. You cannot build a wall against nuclear winter or against global warming, and no nation can regulate artificial intelligence (AI) or bioengineering single-handedly. It won’t be enough if only the European Union forbids producing killer robots or only America bans genetically-engineering human babies. Due to the immense potential of such disruptive technologies, if even one country decides to pursue these high-risk high-gain paths, other countries will be forced to follow its dangerous lead for fear of being left behind.

An AI arms race or a biotechnological arms race almost guarantees the worst outcome. Whoever wins the arms race, the loser will likely be humanity itself. For in an arms race, all regulations will collapse. Consider, for example, conducting genetic-engineering experiments on human babies. Every country will say: “We don’t want to conduct such experiments—we are the good guys. But how do we know our rivals are not doing it? We cannot afford to remain behind. So we must do it before them.”

Similarly, consider developing autonomous-weapon systems, that can decide for themselves whether to shoot and kill people. Again, every country will say: “This is a very dangerous technology, and it should be regulated carefully. But we don’t trust our rivals to regulate it, so we must develop it first”.

"In order to survive and flourish in the 21st century, humankind needs effective global cooperation, and so far the only viable blueprint for such cooperation is offered by liberalism"


The only thing that can prevent such destructive arms races is greater trust between countries. This is not an impossible mission. If today the Germans promise the French: “Trust us, we aren’t developing killer robots in a secret laboratory under the Bavarian Alps,” the French are likely to believe the Germans, despite the terrible history of these two countries. We need to build such trust globally. We need to reach a point when Americans and Chinese can trust one another like the French and Germans.

Similarly, we need to create a global safety-net to protect humans against the economic shocks that AI is likely to cause. Automation will create immense new wealth in high-tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, while the worst effects will be felt in developing countries whose economies depend on cheap manual labor. There will be more jobs to software engineers in California, but fewer jobs to Mexican factory workers and truck drivers. We now have a global economy, but politics is still very national. Unless we find solutions on a global level to the disruptions caused by AI, entire countries might collapse, and the resulting chaos, violence and waves of immigration will destabilise the entire world.

This is the proper perspective to look at recent developments such as Brexit. In itself, Brexit isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But is this what Britain and the EU should be dealing with right now? How does Brexit help prevent nuclear war? How does Brexit help prevent climate change? How does Brexit help regulate artificial intelligence and bioengineering? Instead of helping, Brexit makes it harder to solve all of these problems. Every minute that Britain and the EU spend on Brexit is one less minute they spend on preventing climate change and on regulating AI. 

In order to survive and flourish in the 21st century, humankind needs effective global cooperation, and so far the only viable blueprint for such cooperation is offered by liberalism. Nevertheless, governments all over the world are undermining the foundations of the liberal order, and the world is turning into a network of fortresses. The first to feel the impact are the weakest members of humanity, who find themselves without any fortress willing to protect them: refugees, illegal migrants, persecuted minorities. But if the walls keep rising, eventually the whole of humankind will feel the squeeze.

"In the 21st century we face global problems that even large nations cannot solve by themselves, hence it makes sense to switch at least some of our loyalties to a global identity"


Yet that is not our inescapable destiny. We can still push forward with a truly global agenda, going beyond mere trade agreements, and stressing the loyalty all humans should owe to our species and our planet. Identities are forged through crisis. Humankind now faces the triple crisis of nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. Unless humans realise their common predicament and make common cause, they are unlikely to survive this crisis. Just as in the previous century total industrial war forged “a nation” out of many disparate groups, so in the 21st century the existential global crisis might forge a human collective out of disparate nations.

Creating a mass global identity need not prove to be an impossible mission. After all, feeling loyal to humankind and to planet Earth is not inherently more difficult than feeling loyal to a nation comprising millions of strangers I have never met and numerous provinces I have never visited. Contrary to common wisdom, there is nothing natural about nationalism. It is not rooted in human biology or psychology. True, humans are social animals through and through, with group loyalty imprinted in our genes. However, for millions of years Homo sapiens and its hominid ancestors lived in small intimate communities numbering no more than a few dozen people. Humans therefore easily develop loyalty to small groups such as families, tribes and villages, in which everyone knows everyone else. But it is hardly natural for humans to be loyal to millions of utter strangers.

Such mass loyalties have appeared only in the last few thousand years—yesterday morning, on the timetable of evolution—and they coalesced in order to deal with large scale problems that small tribes could not solve by themselves. In the 21st century we face global problems that even large nations cannot solve by themselves, hence it makes sense to switch at least some of our loyalties to a global identity. Humans naturally feel loyal to 100 relatives and friends they know intimately. It was extremely hard to make humans feel loyal to 100 million strangers they have never met. But nationalism managed to do exactly that. Now all we need to do is make humans feel loyal to 8 billion strangers they have never met. This is a far less daunting task.

It is true that in order to forge collective identities, humans almost always need some threatening common enemy. But we now have three such enemies: nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. If you can get Americans to close ranks behind you by shouting “the Mexicans will take your jobs!” perhaps you could get Americans and Mexicans to make common cause by shouting “the robots will take your jobs!”.

That does not mean that humans will completely give up their unique cultural, religious or national identities. I can be loyal at one and the same time to several identities—to my family, my village, my profession, my country, and also to my planet and the whole human species.

It is true that sometimes different loyalties might collide, and then it is not easy to decide what to do. But who said life was easy? Life is difficult. Deal with it. Sometimes we put work before family, sometimes family before work. Similarly, sometimes we need to put the national interest first, but there are occasions when we need to privilege the global interests of humankind.

What does all that mean in practice? Well, when the next elections come along, and politicians are asking you to vote for them, ask these politicians four questions:

* If you are elected, what actions will you take to lessen the risks of nuclear war?

* What actions will you take to lessen the risks of climate change?

* What actions will you take to regulate disruptive technologies such as AI and bioengineering?

* And finally, how do you see the world of 2040? What is your worst-case scenario, and what is your vision for the best-case scenario?

If some politicians don’t understand these questions, or if they constantly talk about the past without being able to formulate a meaningful vision for the future, don’t vote for such politicians.

Yuval Noah Harari