.Speech at the Seventh World Peace Forum

Speech at the Seventh World Peace Forum
Beijing, China, July 2018

ByHerman Van Rompuy 

Some observers of the current global situation are of the view that we live in a dangerous world. Others speak about “the case of global optimism”.

1. What is the state of the world?

We have less extreme poverty than ever, more prosperity, more functioning democracies, fewer local conflicts and almost no global threat of war, such as we had during the Cold War, much more interdependency - including in many domains going beyond just the economy, such as tourism, culture, entertainment, communication, etc. Colonialism and imperialism have disappeared. All this pleads in favour of optimism. The anxiety comes from the prospects. This feeling is much more present in the Western world. We are facing a demographic and migratory explosion, especially in Africa. Climate change is the biggest challenge for mankind. The Paris Agreement -even implemented as convened- will by no means be sufficient to bring global warming under the needed 2°Celsius. Our multilateral framework is under pressure due to growing nationalism and protectionism, of all kinds and by several global actors. The Middle East still has the potential for a major war between Israel and many in the Arab world, which is, in its turn, divided alongside religious lines. The Korean Peninsula nowadays is less toxic - but for how long? A financial crisis is bound to happen due to the very high level of both private and public debt worldwide, which is now even higher than ten years ago.

But people are not grateful; they live from perspective. The current facts are positive, but the future looks less bright. In Europe we have these mixed feelings as well. To call these trends dangerous is sometimes based on objective facts, but it is also enhanced by emotions which bring a loss of any sense of proportion.

Europe is called ‘the continent of fear’ whilst Asia is labeled “the continent of hope”. Some speak about sunset and sunrise. But is this  analysis correct? The facts are that Europe has lost completely the fear of war on its territory. There is no nostalgia to a past of world dominance, which is new in our history and an exception in today’s world.  The economic and political recovery after such a devastating war was spectacular, and social inequality is the lowest in the world due to the welfare state. Totalitarian regimes in Europe evaporated and were followed up by political democracies, without bloodshed. 

All this pleads in favour of optimism. But many European citizens fear that we can lose what was built up. Most European societies are open and transparent, which makes comparisons with others about the mood in a society difficult.

2. What can we do in order to strengthen the forces of optimism and of hope? I will discuss five axes.

First. Interdependency has to be an objective not only for economic growth but, in the first place, for peace. Trade, not war. This has been the recipe of the EU. It has to continue to be the aim in the future. We shouldn’t pay mere lip-service to it, because it is so crucial. The ideal is not only a European one, but entails the worldwide free movement of goods, services, capital and people. But these freedoms have to be framed so that the stability of economies and societies are not jeopardized. They are never and nowhere completely free. But still this has to be the objective. Autarchy is a signal of distrust. Negatively because some have no confidence in the intentions of other nations and because they want to be independent in terms of energy, technology and agriculture. Positively, another reason for promoting independency is inspired by the ambition to dominate, whether regionally or globally. But globalisation has already reached a level such that no country can survive without the rest.

To secure the global system, we need rules and the compliance with those rules. We need a level playing field among national economies. We need accords based on mutual benefit and reciprocity. The privileged way to obtain results is through negotiation. Not under threat but in good faith. In the long term, this is the only way to have lasting solutions. The multilateral system was created by the West after 1945. The EU is a strong defender of multilateralism, like China is.  It has to be adapted to the changed economic weight of nations and it should be preserved. The founders were at that time considered “naïve” by those who only believe in the “rapport de forces”, the balance of power. All power plays of today lead to global negative outcomes and to policies of revenge. It is inspired by short-termism and it is not productive in the long term. 

Second. Interdependency is the royal way to prosperity. The experience of the emerging economies and of the EU has given evidence to this statement. But we have to look at the distribution of this economic growth. Those working in a successful export sector are benefiting from new wealth and higher productivity. The others are lagging. This put social cohesion under strain, and in the end also political stability. Inequalities have narrowed among countries, but have often risen inside them. The Arab Spring was deeply rooted in this evolution. Apparently stable societies turn rapidly into chaos. Lasting political stability needs social cohesion. Even without revolutions, inequality leads to polarisation and confrontation. It is the root cause of populism and nationalism. It undermines the support for interdependency and globalisation. The aim should be: prosperity for all. This is ultimately a task for the nation-states. They have the tools to correct the negative aspects of globalisation. It is their responsibility.

Third axes. Inequalities lead to migration. Movements of people have taken place since the beginning of mankind. We all are the descendants of migrants. In my definition,migration is a long-distance movement. 

All our nations and its boundaries were created by men. There are no eternal borders. But we live in today’s world with national borders, symbols of national sovereignty. Migrants are people who refuse to stay within those borders, looking for a better life. Sometimes fleeing war and/or poverty. Sometimes they are welcome in their host country, sometimes not. If the migration is massive, generosity turns rapidly into fear in the receiving countries. The established population fears that their own welfare and their identity will disappear. Often these anxieties are disproportionate. Building walls then becomes a widely accepted practice. 

More than 60 million people are currently living or trying to live outside their home country. Internally displaced persons not included. Rising inequalities, climate change and remaining poverty will only enhance those numbers. Africa is the continent with the biggest migratory potential due to its demographic explosion, which can make it the most populous continent in the next century. Africa is Europe’s neighbour.

Development aid and open and fair trade stimulate prosperity. This is the right long-term remedy, but we have to be fully aware that asylum seekers  are not coming from the poorest states but from those en route to becoming middle-income countries, where a growing number have the financial means to pay human traffickers!

Tolerance and generosity are not increasing at the same pace as migration. The problem is even more complicated because once established in a country, migrants have to adapt to the culture, the values and the language of the host country. If migrants refuse or if they are discriminated against, a new source of conflict or even violence arises within the countries of destination. This evolution enhances fear and polarisation. 

The unequal demographic evolution in the world and income inequalities  make migration inevitable. How to turn illegal migration into legal and ordered migration? That’s the question.It is one of the big challenges of the upcoming decades. The European experience shows that this goes beyond the capacities of nation-states. If not, it can end in a beggar-my-neighbour policy. For many migrants, the end result is even more misery than the reality they tried to escape. By the way, protectionism is also a kind of beggar-my-neighbour behaviour. Problems are simply transmitted from one country to another as so many ‘hot potatoes’.

Fourth axes. Combating local and regional conflicts is a global responsibility. The Korean peninsula and the Middle East are the most dangerous places on earth. Denuclearisation is a key issue in both areas. It is very unfortunate that we couldn’t keep the international consensus on how to react. It is not in the interest of peace. In Syria, Yemen and other places,some nations are fueling, instead of trying to stop, wars. Without consent amongst the members of the UN Security Council, and without understanding between the main Arab actors, the bloodshed will continue in the Middle East. We need a Westphalian agreement in the Middle East. We got in Europe  in 1648 after the Thirty year war.

Fifth axes. Climate change is the biggest challenge of all. Catastrophes are already happening today, especially in the Caribbean and in South Asia in the form of floods and tsunamis. Islands in the Pacific will just disappear if things continue. But as long as large parts of the population don’t feel the effects of climate change close to them, it is not their direct concern. Air and water pollution beyond a certain level create societal pressure. Governments have to act then. Short-termism is no longer an option. Awareness campaigns also can help and bring leaders to action. In the COP 21 in Paris, all global actors finally agreed to tackle this threat to mankind. The implementation of the accord depends on the nation-states. Only the overall objective is binding. This agreement was possible because national interests finally coincided with global interests. Without this convergence, nothing happens. This is the hard lesson of the seventy-year’s work of European unification. Implementation of the Paris agreement is key. Scientists tell us that the objectives of this accord are not sufficient. One day, we have to be more ambitious. It is a race against time. “Too little and too late” is not an option. If the time is not ripe, we have to make it ripe. In general, I’m a defender of gradualism: not the speed but the direction is of most importance. This is not true as far as climate change is concerned.

The UNFCCC is one of the good examples of world governance. Even after the retreat of a global actor from the Paris agreement. This is a rear-guard action. The work of the G20 right after the eruption of the banking crisis was also an appropriate expression of global governance. The world financial system was on the brink of implosion.

Globalisation of economies, capital, human flows, the internet, etc. needs a global response, a form of global governance. The answer to world wars was world peace, an objective enshrined in the charter of the United Nations, created in 1945. It has not really been a success story, but we have avoided the worst. This is already an achievement in itself. There will never be a world government, but we can agree on world governance, embodied in separate organisations. I can add to the two already mentioned: the WTO, the ICJ, the UN of course, the IMF. Each of them has its own history and decision-making processes. Some of them have to be reformed against vested interests. For some of them, we have to fight for their survival. Global sustainability is a new common purpose translated in the SDG. Here too, lip service is often practiced. These global goals have to become national objectives.

These endeavours are not “naïve” or idealistic, as if the real world were the world of geopolitics with its balance or its imbalance of power. We all are in the same boat. Real leadership is the recognition of this 21st-century reality. It needs no courage to be a nationalist. The opposite, rather, is true. We love our own country, and leaders have to defend the legitimate interests of their own people; but this task is no longer enough  to protect in the long term the interests of their people. A people without vision perishes. This is also true for mankind. We have to add a new global dimension to our vision. We shouldn’t give up our national identities but complement them. That is what we try to do in the EU. It is not always easy, but the support for EU membership is still very high - even bigger now than ten years ago. Despite the challenges, a large majority of Europeans know that in today’s world, there is no alternative to cooperation and integration. This doesn’t prevent Europeans from being less happy about current policies at European and at national levels. They know, nevertheless, intuitively that trade, currency, climate, migration all necessitate policies at a higher level than that of the nation-state. I’m convinced that this is now also the opinion of the majority of the British people.

Peace was, and to some extent remains, a major responsibility of the global actors. The balance of power shifted dramatically after the end of the Cold War and following the economic rise of China and other emerging nations. “It’s the economy, stupid” is true on a global scale. But in the West migration has become more important than the economy.

We aren’t living any more in a bipolar world, nor in a unipolar world, nor even in a multipolar world - but in an a-polar world. Nobody rules the world. Nobody wants to rule the world due to a lack of financial and economic means or to a lack of societal support internally, or due to a main focus on national priorities. The most worrying tendency is nationalism, inspired again by a so-called glorious past. Nostalgia never is a good adviser. The past never comes back, at least not in the way it once was. The Cold War didn’t create lasting stability, either internally or externally. Our time is much less ideological than before 1989. And even if some think that their system is superior, they don’t have the ambition to impose it on others. A peaceful rivalry between competing systems is not dangerous in itself. History will show which one is the most sustainable and the most humane. Too soon to judge paraphrasing Zhou Enlai. 

This absence of polars and the global challenges to an  interdependent world make cooperation more necessary and more possible. It requires a sense of compromise. There is no life without compromise. Even in every political system. The EU is more than others a living example of a continuous conversation between 28 member states. Ending disputes, conflicts, wars can only be achieved via negotiation and diplomacy. Multilateral organisations (f.i. the WTO) have structures and procedures to settle differences. Conflicts of interests are not unusual, but we should solve them via the usual channels. Otherwise stability is lost. Military interventions by global actors in recent decades brought no solution to conflicts — nor do they now in the Middle East. The only successes of the most recent period have been the elimination of ISIS and the rollback of Al Qaeda in northern Africa. Annexation of territories of another state is a violation of international law. Dialogue in multilateral institutions is key for creating and maintaining a minimum of trust among global actors. Unfortunately, today we miss that level of trust. Military build-up leads nowhere. All this is contributing to a general feeling of uneasiness and of anxiety among citizens all over the world. The responsibility of leaders is key. Conversation leads to moderation. This is precisely what we need.

Finally, let me make a few remarks about the relationship between China and the EU. 

A new China and a new Europe were created after 1945, of course with different origins but each of them building on an ancient civilisation. Our partnership is a mature one with convergences and divergences, on values as well as on interests. But we try each time to find solutions via dialogue, even if it takes time. We share a key common value: peace. That’s why we work together on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and Iran. Sanctions are not an aim in itself. The objective is to bring the parties to the negotiating table and to find peaceful and effective solutions. The EU and China share an unwavering  commitment  to combat climate change, the biggest issue for mankind. We are not engaged in a rearguard action about the man-made origins of climate change and we don’t see a contradiction between economy and ecology. On the contrary,renewable energies are a sector of the future, even already of today. But the EU and China have different political systems based on different values. We have a common interest in a rules-based trade system, especially those rules agreed in the WTO. But we have differences on our mutual trade and investment relations. The problems are known for some time. It’s about time to solve them. Reciprocity is a key word. An agreement on investments would be a major achievement, giving a strong signal to the world community in the midst of very serious trade tensions. Creating a level playing field for investment has to be a top priority. There are encouraging signals noticed the last days. The EU speaks in those matters with one voice via the European Commission. It speaks on behalf of the 27 in the Brexit negotiations and in our trade disputes with the USA.

The EU wants a positive agenda with China about what we can do together to our bilateral relationship. China and the EU would then stand stronger in our endeavours for keeping the world economy as open as possible.  The upcoming China-EU summit will hopefully mark a turning point. China and the EU have to show that there are alternatives to trade wars for settling differences.

The EU and China promote people-to-people exchanges, especially amongst young people and students, also via tourism. They are the world citizens of tomorrow. They are attached to their country and their culture but in a spirit of openness and respect. Those youngsters are the hope for  a more peaceful and a more prosperous world. 

Herman Van Rompuy is Former President of the European Council, Former Prime Minister of Belgiumand President of European Policy Centre.