DAVOS, Switzerland (Project Syndicate) — We’re living at a transformational moment in history. The survival of open societies is endangered, and we face an even greater crisis: climate change, which threatens the survival of our civilization.
These twin challenges have inspired me to announce the most important project of my life.
As I argue in my recent book, “In Defense of Open Society,” in revolutionary moments, the range of possibilities is far wider than in normal times. It is easier to influence events than to understand what is going on.
As a result, outcomes are unlikely to correspond to people’s expectations. This has already caused widespread disappointment, which populist politicians are exploiting for their own purposes.
Open societies have not always needed defending in the determined way that they do today. Some 40 years ago, when I became engaged in what I call my political philanthropy, the wind was at our back and carried us forward. International cooperation was the prevailing creed.
In some ways, it prevailed even in the crumbling and ideologically bankrupt Soviet Union — remember the Marxist slogan “workers of the world, unite”? The European Union was in the ascendant, and I considered it the embodiment of the open society.
But the tide turned against open societies after the crash of 2008, because the global financial crisis constituted a failure of international cooperation. This in turn led to the rise of nationalism, the great enemy of open societies.
So long, normal world
In the middle of 2019, I still cherished the hope that there would be another reversal toward international cooperation. The European parliamentary elections produced surprisingly favorable results. Participation increased by 8% — the first uptick since the Parliament was established. More important, the silent majority spoke up in favor of greater European cooperation.
By year’s end, however, my hopes were dashed.
The strongest global powers, the United States, China and Russia, remained in the hands of would-be or actual dictators and the ranks of authoritarian rulers continued to grow. The fight to prevent Brexit — harmful both to Britain and the EU — ended in a crushing election victory for Brexit’s promoters.
Nationalism, far from being reversed, has made further headway. The biggest and most frightening setback occurred in India, where a democratically elected Narendra Modi is creating a Hindu nationalist state, imposing punitive measures on Kashmir, a semi-autonomous Muslim region, and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of citizenship.
In Latin America, a humanitarian catastrophe continues to unfold. By the beginning of this year, almost 5 million Venezuelans had emigrated, causing tremendous disruption in neighboring countries. In neighboring Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has failed to prevent the destruction of the Amazon rainforest by those seeking to open it up for cattle ranching.
In a further blow, the United Nations climate conference in Madrid broke up without reaching any meaningful agreement.
To top it all off, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un threatened the U.S. with its nuclear capabilities in his New Year’s speech, and President Donald Trump’s impetuous decision to assassinate Iran’s second-highest-ranking official heightened the risk of a conflagration in the Middle East.
The China test
The problem of North Korea is of course tied to an even larger problem: the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China.
Sino-American ties have become exceedingly complicated and difficult to understand, but the interaction between the two presidents, Trump and Xi Jinping, provides a useful clue. Both face internal constraints and various enemies. Both try to extend the powers of their office to its limit and beyond.
While they have found some mutually beneficial reasons to cooperate, their motivations are completely different.
Trump is a con man and narcissist who wants the world to revolve around him. When his fantasy of becoming president came true, his narcissism acquired a pathological dimension.
Indeed, he has transgressed the limits imposed on the presidency by the Constitution and has been impeached for it. At the same time, he has managed to gather a large number of followers who have bought into his alternative reality. This has turned his narcissism into a malignant disease.
He has come to believe that he can impose his alternative reality not only on his followers but on reality itself.
Trump’s counterpart, Xi, suffered a traumatic experience in his early youth. His father, one of the early leaders of the Communist Party of China, was expelled from the CPC, and Xi grew up in rural exile.
Since that time, the goal of Xi’s leadership has been to reassert the Party’s dominance over Chinese life. He calls it the “Chinese Dream” of a “rejuvenated” China capable of projecting its power and influence throughout the world. To consolidate his leadership, Xi abolished a carefully developed system of collective leadership to become a dictator as soon as he had gained sufficient strength to do so.
When it comes to their motivations, the two men are completely different. Trump is willing to sacrifice U.S. national interests for personal political or material gain, and he will do practically anything to win re-election in November. By contrast, Xi is eager to exploit Trump’s weaknesses and use artificial intelligence to achieve total control over his people.
But Xi’s success is far from assured. One of China’s vulnerabilities is that it still depends on the U.S. to supply it with the microprocessors it needs to dominate the 5G market and to fully implement the AI-powered social credit system that threatens open societies.
Moreover, impersonal forces, such as demographics, are working against Xi. The one-child policy, in effect from 1979 until 2015, created a shortage of child-bearing women and young workers. The decline in the working-age population, together with a growing proportion of old people, is now relentless.
The Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s signature program to build infrastructure linking China to Europe and Africa, has required giving countries along the route large loans, some of which will never be repaid. China can ill afford this, because its budget deficit has increased and its trade surplus has diminished.
Since Xi has centralized power in his hands, China’s economic policy has also lost its flexibility and inventiveness.
To make matters worse for Xi, the Trump administration has developed a comprehensive and bipartisan policy declaring that China is a strategic rival. This is the only bipartisan policy that Trump has been able to produce and there is only one man who can violate it with impunity: Trump himself.
Unfortunately, from an open society point of view, he is capable of doing so, as he has demonstrated by putting Huawei on the bargaining table with Xi.
Iran over impeachment
This month, Trump abruptly shifted focus from China to Iran. Trump didn’t have a strategic plan when he authorized the drone strike that killed the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Qassem Souleimani, and an Iraqi pro-Iranian militia commander, but Trump does have an unfailing instinct for how his faithful followers will respond to his actions.
They are jubilant. This makes the task of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, which has impeached Trump, extremely difficult. The trial in the Senate is shaping up to be a strictly pro forma affair, because the Senate’s Republican majority is united behind Trump — although Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding, may surprise us.
At the same time, Trump’s economic team has managed to overheat an already-buoyant economy. The stock market, celebrating Trump’s military success, is once again reaching new heights. But an overheated economy can’t be kept boiling for too long.
Had all this happened closer to the election, it would have assured Trump’s victory. His problem is that the election is still 10 months away. In a revolutionary situation, that is a lifetime.
Of course, from an open society point of view, the current situation is quite grim. It would be easy to give in to despair. But to do so would be a mistake.
The public is beginning to be aware of the dangers of climate change. It has become the top priority of the EU under the new European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen. But there are real limits to Trump’s ability to steer the global agenda in this regard, as he is a climate-change denier.
Hope dies last
There are also grounds to hope for the survival of open societies. They have their weaknesses, no doubt, but so do repressive regimes.
The greatest shortcoming of dictatorships is that when they are successful, they don’t know when or how to stop being repressive. They lack the checks and balances that give democracies a degree of stability. As a result, the oppressed eventually revolt.
We see this happening today all around the world. The most successful rebellion so far has been in Hong Kong, but it comes at a great cost: it may well destroy the city’s economic prosperity.
There are so many revolts occurring in the world that it would take far too long to examine each case individually.
But, observing the torrent of rebellions, from Hong Kong to Santiago to Beirut, I can venture a generalization about the ones that are likely to succeed. They are typified by Hong Kong, where the protest movement has no visibly identifiable leadership and yet maintains the overwhelming support of the population.
I began to form this conclusion when I learned about a spontaneous movement of young people turning up at rallies held by Matteo Salvini, the would-be dictator of Italy. They held up cutout signs of sardines proclaiming, “Sardines against Salvini.” There are many more sardines than sharks like Salvini, they explained, so the sardines are bound to prevail.
Sardines against Salvini is the Italian variant of a worldwide trend led by young people. This leads me to conclude that today’s youth are a bulwark of open society, unafraid to confront nationalist dictatorships in its defense.
But I see another constructive force emerging worldwide: the mayors of major cities are organizing around important issues.
In Europe, climate change and internal migration are high on their agenda. This coincides with the main concerns of today’s youth. Uniting around these issues could create a powerful pro-European, pro-open society movement. But it’s an open question whether these aspirations will be fulfilled.
Getting the future we want
Taking into account the climate emergency and worldwide unrest, it’s not an exaggeration to say that 2020 and the next few years will determine the fate not only of Xi and Trump, but also of the world.
If we survive the near term, we still need a long-term strategy.
If Xi succeeds in fully implementing his social credit system, he will bring into existence a truly Orwellian authoritarian system and a new type of human being who is willing to surrender his personal autonomy in order to stay out of trouble.
Once lost, personal autonomy will be difficult to recover. An open society would have no place in such a world.
I believe that as a long-term strategy, our best hope lies in access to quality education, specifically an education that reinforces the autonomy of the individual by cultivating critical thinking and emphasizing intellectual freedom.
Indeed, I have had faith in higher education’s benefits for open society for decades, and I set up such an educational institution 30 years ago. It is called the Central European University (CEU), and its mission is to advance the values of the open society.
Within just three decades, CEU has emerged as one of the world’s top 100 graduate universities in the social sciences. It has also become one of the most international universities, with students from 120 countries and faculty from more than 50.
In recent years, CEU gained a global reputation for defending academic freedom against Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who was hell-bent on destroying it.
Students and faculty representing very different cultures and traditions listen to and debate one another at CEU, which has demonstrated that active civic engagement can be combined with academic excellence. But CEU is not strong enough by itself to become the educational institution the world needs. That requires a new kind of global educational network.
Education is all
Fortunately, we have the building blocks for creating such a network: CEU and Bard College in the U.S. are already long-term partners. CEU is a graduate institution, and Bard an innovative, mainly undergraduate liberal arts college.
Both have been supported by the Open Society Foundations and encouraged to offer a helping hand to other universities and colleges worldwide. Bard and CEU have developed an array of successful relationships in less-developed parts of the world.
The time has come for OSF to embark on an ambitious plan to build on this foundation a new and innovative educational network that the world really needs. It will be called the Open Society University Network, or OSUN.
OSUN will be unique. It will offer an international platform for teaching and research. In the first phase, it will more closely connect an existing network. In the second phase, we will open up this network to other institutions that want to join and are qualified to do so.
To demonstrate that the idea is practical, we have already implemented the first phase. We are holding common classes for students from several universities located in different parts of the world, sharing faculty and conducting joint research projects in which people from many universities collaborate.
OSUN will continue in the footsteps of CEU and Bard in seeking to reach places in need of high-quality education and in serving neglected populations, such as refugees, inmates, Roma communities, and other displaced peoples like the Rohingya.
OSUN is ready to start a massive “scholars at risk” program, connecting a large number of academically excellent but politically endangered intellectuals to this new global network and with one another.
CEU is already part of a network of European universities of the social sciences called CIVICA, which is led by Sciences Po in Paris and includes the London School of Economics.
CIVICA has won a competition sponsored by the European Union requiring members of the consortium to cooperate not only in education but also in civic and international outreach. The CEU-Bard partnership has already pioneered these fields, and we hope that members of CIVICA will become interested in joining OSUN — laying the groundwork for a truly global network.
To demonstrate OSF’s commitment to OSUN, we are contributing $1 billion to it. But we can’t build a global network on our own; we will need partner institutions and supporters from all around the world to join us in this enterprise.
We are looking for farsighted partners who feel a responsibility for the future of our civilization, people who are inspired by OSUN’s vision and want to participate in its design and realization.
I consider OSUN the most important and enduring project of my life, and I would like to see it implemented while I am still around. I hope that those who share OSUN’s goals will join us in making it a reality.
This commentary has been adapted from a speech delivered at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos on January 23, 2020. It is published with permission of Project Syndicate — How a Democratic Counteroffensive Can Win.
George Soros, founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations, is the author, most recently, of “In Defense of Open Society” (Public Affairs, 2019).