An academy for global civics

In order to navigate our increasing interdependence, we need a mental map to help us decide what sort of a rapport we wish to have with billions of others with whom we share our planet and destinies, but not our citizenship. And for that we need forums.

There are few things we do more automatically and with less thought than greeting each other.  Yet the way we greet may hold important clues. Greetings across different faiths have one important, common feature: Assalamu alaykum, Pax vobis and Shalom aleichem all mean "I come in peace," respectively in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The manner in which one should greet and how that greeting should be reciprocated were deemed so important that they were often codified in the canonical texts. Incidentally, the military salute is also based on a convention to show that one is not bearing any weapons, and therefore comes in peace. In India, Namaste means "I revere you" and is reciprocated with the same words. In South Africa, Sawubona means "I see you." These common traits are important and telling. It seems that humanity has decided that the best way to start an interaction is to confirm that all parties to the interaction are bearers of recognition and respect, and that harm will not be part of that encounter. That is, in a sense, the Da Vinci Code embedded in our greetings.

This code makes more sense, if we take a longer view. We did not always greet strangers in this manner. In his recent book, The World Till Yesterday, Jared Diamond describes the world of our tribal ancestors. In that world, people were divided into three categories: friends, enemies, and strangers. Friends and enemies are relatively straightforward; how to deal with strangers was the critical question. Diamond demonstrates convincingly that strangers were treated essentially as enemies, as there were no benign reasons for you to encounter a stranger.  

It looks like we started out in a world where we assumed most strangers were enemies. We evolved into more complex social and geographical arrangements, where we could not afford to assume that all strangers were malign. Therefore, we had to develop conventions and normative frameworks which would rule out harm, and recognize and confirm the equality of each party to the encounter. Hence the code interlacing the multiple ways we greet and start an encounter.

This is important since we are at the precipice of a new age. We have spent the last two hundred years assuming greater control of our lives. Thanks to democracy and technology, we have increasingly become more able masters of our own destinies. Yet in the last twenty years, we have been exposed to centripetal forces pushing us together and intermixing our destinies. What happens in one part of the world affects lives in other parts. CO2 emissions, financial engineering, infections, nuclear leaks and several similar dynamics have global consequences. That means our lives are no longer authored by us alone, but are being co-authored with others. In order to navigate our increasing interdependence, we need a mental map. We need to decide what sort of a rapport we wish to have with billions of others with whom we share our planet and destinies, but not our citizenship.

One option may be to start with "Do No Harm." After all, this dictum has guided physicians for centuries. It fits well with what we have learned about how to start an encounter. Signing up to doing no harm will entitle us to expect others, with whom we share a planet but not our countries, to commit to doing the same. This dictum sounds simple enough, but it will require us to amend our decision tree and make the welfare of billions of others part of our decision processes. That small step for each of us may well end up being one giant leap for mankind. It may pave the road to a global civics, indispensible for our increasingly interdependent world.

Yet even more than the first draft of our global civics, we need forums to debate that civics. The last ten years have given us new and exciting social science scholarship on how norms and cooperation emerge. Cristina Bicchieri, for example, describes norms as the grammar of a society; like grammar in language, they are often implicit as they are formative. Elsewhere, Robert Axelrod had explored ‘how cooperation emerges in a world of egoists without central authority,’ and he discovered that starting out with cooperation, and then reciprocating both cooperation and defection has proved to be an exceptionally resilient and successful strategy in several, simulated experiments. Bowles and Gintis argue that our linguistic skills are key to our ability ‘to formulate general norms, to erect social institutions, to communicate rules and what they entail, to alert others to their violations, and to organize coalitions to punish the violators.’  Bicchieri, too, underscores the multiple ways in which communication elicits and elucidates norms. We learn and reproduce norms by talking and debating them.

Fortunately, there is now a new effort to choreograph an agora where young people will be able to debate these issues and forge a global civics. Amar Bhattacharya of G24, Gareth Evans of Australian National University, Mark Harrison of University of Oxford, Thaddeus Metz of University of Johannesburg, Branko Milanovic of the World Bank, Luis Moreno Ocampo of New York University, Dani Rodrik of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Mohamed Razeen Sally of National University of Singapore, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of Potsdam Institute, Dingli Shen of Fudan University, Javier Solana of ESADE, and Ethan Zuckerman of MIT have all become lecturers at the new Global Civics Academy. They help answer what exactly pushes us together and how we can manage our interdependence. Students have the option to simply audit the lectures, or take their course for credit. The Academy plans to recruit each year a small group of fellows among the students.

The precise content of our civics in our nation states have gone through numerous iterations and continues to be a draft. One African proverb observes that the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is today. We have been needing, for quite some time, an explicit global civics to manage our increasing interdependence and the processes to forge that civics. The fact that we have been delayed should not obscure our will to start now. The Global Civics Academy provides one forum to do that, and others should and will join.

About the author

Hakan Altinay is the President of the Global Civics Academy. His book, Global Civics, has been published in 2011, and has been translated into Arabic, Chinese and Spanish. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a global ethics fellow at the Carnegie Council, and a world fellow at Yale University.