Who Owns Our World? Looking Backward and Forward in Rhodes

Fred Dallmayr

A Paper by Fred Dallmayr, Сo-Chairman, WPF "Dialogue of Civilizations", delivered at the Closing Plenary Meeting of the 10th Rhodes Forum

At this concluding session of our Forum, I want to reflect a bit with you on the past and on the future. First the past: We have been celebrating here the 10th anniversary of the World Public Forum – Dialogue of Civilizations. And indeed we have reason to celebrate and to be proud. We have accomplished much. We have advanced from a relatively small and little known organization into a large and globally recognized Forum where major issues of the world are being discussed in a spirit of cooperation. Much of it is due to the tireless work of our Founding President Yakunin and his executive team. But most of the credit goes, of course, to you - the members and participants of our Forum.

So, we have now 10 years: 10 years of learning, of experimenting, of dialoguing. But I want to suggest to you that the spirit of our endeavor is much older than 10 years. It is indeed an animating spirit, an inspiration and longing of humankind through the centuries. In a short essay I did on “Who Are We?” I referred to an organization which existed almost 100 years ago, between the two World Wars. It was called “World Committee against War and Fascism.” Now, if we mean by “fascism” an aggressive, military unilateralism wedded to monologue, then we stand for and against the same thing: against militarism and aggressive war, and for multilateral, dialogical cooperation and peace. The Committee at that time included such famous intellectuals and writes like Maxim Gorky, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, John Dos Passos, and Romain Rolland. This is the tradition, I believe, in which we stand. Of course, there are also other traditions and sources of inspiration. There is the inspiration which comes to us from the former President of Iran, Muhammad Khatami. And there are the older traditions of Mahatma Gandhi, of Erasmus, of Bartolome de Las Casas, of Francis of Assissi.

However, instead of gazing further at the past, I would like now to look to the present and the future. I do not have to tell you: we live in an extremely turbulent and dangerous time where the world is threatened by multiple dangers: a major war (possibly a “nuclear winter”); financial chaos, and environmental disaster. We need courage and strength to carry on our work. In our Opening Session, we heard a statement or an appeal by one of the most courageous intellectuals in the world today: Noam Chomsky. He recently published a book titled Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance. I have written some reflections on the book which I want to share with you. In the book, Chomsky repeatedly uses the phrase “The Owners of the World.” The phrase means, of course, that some people “own” or “possess” the world, while all the rest are possessed or rather “dispossessed.”

To highlight the meaning or the edge of the phrase, I start my reflections in a completely different register. As you know, the German poet Goethe wrote a collection of poems titled West-Eastern Divan. It begins with these lines: “To God belongs the Orient/to God belongs the Occident/Northerly and Southern lands/Peacefully rest in His hands.” These lines - which actually resonate with some verses in the Qur’an - announce a peculiar kind of belonging or ownership. The entire world - we are given to understand - “belongs” to God or (we might say) is divine or sacred at its core. However, “belonging” here does not denote a proprietary possession because it does not exclude, disown or expropriate anybody or anything. On the contrary, by virtue of an enormous largesse or generosity, all beings are first of all empowered, enabled or “en-owned”; they all share in ownership as recipients of a gift.

Goethe’s lines came to my mind when reading the essays assembled in Noam Chomsky’s recent book. One of the opening essays is titled “We Own the World.” Commenting on the usual debate between hawks and doves in American foreign policy, Chomsky points to the underlying premise accepted on all sides: “The entire debate can proceed without absurdity only on the tacit assumption that ‘we own the world’.” With specific reference to the war in Iraq, Chomsky lifts up for consideration a discussion in Washington focused not on the rightness, justice or legality of the invasion, but simply on the most promising method for success, especially for stopping “the flow of foreign fighters across the borders” - where the term “foreign fighters” excludes Western troops. The “tacit premise” underlying this debate and virtually all public discussion about Iraq, Chomsky says again, is “that we own the world.” Do owners not have the right to invade and destroy a foreign country? Of course they do. That is a given. The only question is: Will the invasion “work” or rather some other tactic?

By contrast to Goethe’s lines, the ownership referred to by Chomsky thus is predicated not on largesse or generosity but on exclusive privilege and domination. In our time, the privilege enjoyed by the owners extends from the geopolitical and military to the technological and economic-financial domains. In the latter domain, the privilege manifests itself in the gulf separating the “haves” from the “have-nots,” the opulently rich from the poor and destitute. A major contributing factor to this widening gulf has been neo-liberalism with its corollaries of financial deregulation and outsourcing of costs. As Chomsky comments, referring to the economic melt-down of 2008/09: “Two major elements were financialization (the shift of investor preference from industrial production to so-called FIRE: finance, insurance, and real estate) and the offshoring of production.” The resulting concentration of wealth, he adds, yielded greater political power [for the rich], accelerating a vicious cycle that has led in America to extraordinary wealth for a fraction of one percent of the population while for the large majority real incomes have virtually stagnated.

In the geopolitical domain, the interests of the “owner” states are backed up by massive military power, an immense arsenal of weapons (including nuclear weapons), and a far-flung network of military bases and installations. In the pursuit of their interests, owners do not hesitate to launch unilateral wars of aggression and even “preemptive” wars (in clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations to which they are signatories). One example of such aggressive warfare was the attack on Iraq - which was a disaster for the Iraqi people. As journalist Nir Rosen observed in an article “The Death of Iraq”: “Iraq has been killed, never to rise again. The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols, who sacked Baghdad in the 13th century” (precisely in 1258). So again: the tacit assumption shaping international conduct seems to be “We own the world.” What does it matter what happens to others? They are “unpeople,” to borrow the term used by British diplomatic historian Mark Curtis. The American philosopher Judith Butler, in her book Flames of War, has written about “ungrievable people.”

As is well known, the Iraq war was only one facet of a much larger geopolitical strategy which is still unfolding. Washington Post correspondent Robin Wright has introduced the notion of “Cold War II” - a phrase picked up by Chomsky (with some qualifications). One aspect of this new Cold War is the ratcheting up of military spending (with the leading “owner” state spending as much or more on military armaments as the rest of the world combined). One favorite phrase used by hegemonic leaders is that “all options are on the table” - where these options include not only defensive strategies but also aggressive and preemptive forms of warfare disguised as defensive. (As if there were no international law, no United Nations, no rules of the game). In the case of other military technologies, the defensive rhetoric is entirely dropped in favor of near-random violence. A prime example of such mayhem is remote-control warfare by means of “drones” - which results in the near-indiscriminate killing of “militants” and civilians (and which recently has rightly been denounced as a “war crime”).

As everyone knows, a major catalyst for a possible transition to “hot war” today is the conflict over Iran, especially its nuclear aspirations. On this issue, the drum beats of war are reaching deafening proportions, with constant invocations of a “red line” and “all options on the table.” Yet, there is a perfectly sane and reasonable option on the table: namely, the establishment of a nuclear-free zone. As Chomsky observes in an essay “Containing Iran,” Iran scarcely poses a military threat to the West; and any potential threat might be overcome if America “would accept the view of the great majority of its own citizens and of Iranians and permit the Middle East to become an nuclear-weapons- free zone, including Iran and Israel, and U.S. forces deployed there.” This idea was actually endorsed by Security Council Resolution 687 (of 1991) which called for a zone “free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery.” To be sure, in the Western pursuit of geopolitical aims, Iran is only one obstacle - much larger obstacles being Russia and especially China.

Seen as a whole, Chomsky’s book is a wake-up call; it presents a grim picture of a world in the possessive grip of military, financial, and technological privilege. Possible antidotes are also mentioned. One such antidote is genuine (not militarized) “democracy promotion,” based on the insight that “a functioning democracy at home holds promise for a simple recognition: that we do not own the world, we share it.” At the end, Chomsky pleads for a “large, active, popular base” which could become “a major force in global society and politics.” But he also recognizes that organizing and educating such a base cannot mean “telling people what to believe”; it also means “learning from them and with them,” that is, listening and dialoguing. Only if this is kept in mind, can we “set society on a more humane course,” and contribute to a better future.

This, of course, is precisely the premise - not the tacit assumption, but the explicit assumption - of our World Public Forum: namely, that we strive for justice in the world through dialogue of civilizations and peoples. Let us rededicate ourselves to this goal and hope that, at the end of the next 10 years, the world will be more a just and peaceful place for us and our children to live in, not as owners but as partners.