Opening Speech John Kornblum

It’s a great pleasure to be here with journalists, especially young journalists. And I know many of you quite well from battles in the past, shall we say? But I thought that because this is a very interesting effort to define what is going on, also for people who are going to write about it, I would try to give my definition, not so much about what’s happening every day. At the moment, I have no plans, in fact, even to mention the name Donald Trump, except I just did. But that’ll be the first and last time unless it sneaks in somewhere.

But I think the fact that there is so much political upheaval in the United States and in Europe, but also in China, by the way—I’m sure some of you here follow China, and you know China is anything but a stable, positive looking country at the moment—that it’s important to try and figure out why this is all happening after 30 years ago, when some people wrote about the end of history and we thought that liberal democracy was going to be easily the automatic choice for the future.

A little bit less than 30 years ago, we’re finding that it is anything but the automatic choice for the future and we have to open many of the debates again, which did, by the way, take place already in the 19th century. And in the post war period, very much in the 1950s, when we were facing the exact same kind of challenge from the Soviet Union. Fake news, propaganda, undermining our institutions, infiltrating our political parties, et cetera. There is really nothing new here. What is new, of course, is the evolution which has taken place between that time and of course, technology.

I was struck by the title of your seminar. A Post-American Age. Well, of course, we’re anything but a post-American age. The United States is booming. Its technology is dominating the world. American military expenditures are 10 times the rest of the world put together.

This is certainly not the end of an American age. But it is the steady erosion of a relationship between Europe and the United States, which started about 70 years ago. And a steady erosion of the foundations for international diplomacy and political action, which had been the norm for the past 60 or 70 years. But that’s different from Europe home alone, Europe is certainly not home alone. And it’s certainly very different from the beginning of the post-war age.

I thought I would start this comparison by taking us back 200 years, just about exactly to a bit more than 200 years, to something called the Congress of Vienna, which some of you have probably heard of. That was a congress which was put together by, essentially, the ruling monarchies of Europe, to try and punish France for Napoleon and to restore the world as it had been organized in the 18th century.

And Henry Kissinger, the famous American scholar and diplomat, in fact, made his reputation on the book which was called A World Restored, which was about the Congress of Vienna. And which demonstrated how the people who were gathered there with France sitting, so to speak, in the dock, as the guilty party, how they worked very hard to make sure that no change took place in Europe.

And I’d like to tell a little anecdote here, which happens to be 100% true but it shows you how difficult this phase was. When Napoleon was celebrating all of his victories around Europe, and he really did change Europe dramatically. To this day, his reforms are still part of the European reality. The methods of transport, communications, organizations that he used for his military were, with the exception of a few technical improvements, exactly the same ones that Julius Caesar had used. There had been in 2000 years no progress.

25 years later, by 1840 after the Congress of Vienna, we had the steam engine, the steam railroad, the steamboat, the telegraph. 50 years later, we had the electric light. In other words, the people who were in Vienna hadn’t the slightest idea what was going on. And they tried to put together a system which lasted, people say for 100 years, but it was a very undemocratic system. It suppressed minorities. It suppressed public opinion. And in the end it ended in World War I.

30 years ago is about when we can mark the end of the wars that went on in Europe between 1814 and 1989. I call them wars because the Cold War was certainly a war.

That’s when I had most of my diplomatic career. And interesting enough, when the Europeans got together to try to make sense out of the end of this war, there were a couple of conferences, especially one in Maastricht in 1992. They essentially reestablished the past by building a unified Europe built on a single structure at a time when symbolically the world was exactly at the same point that it was in 1815. Only this time, instead of the steam engine and the telegraph, we were talking about the digital world.

And so since then, we have tried—and I tried—for many years to keep together the postwar structure, which has in recent years earned the name of Liberal Democratic World Order, which it never was called in the days when it actually was functioning. We have been trying very hard to keep this world order going. Yesterday I read a long article in an American magazine in which somebody gave all the ways that this world order was going to be maintained, when the fact is that all of the reasons for its existence are more or less leaving us. Based on passage of time, the end of the Cold War, much of the reason for this world order, was the existence of the confrontation of the Cold War, and especially the rapid rise and change of technology.

Almost 15 years ago the American National Intelligence Council, which actually has very little to do with intelligence. It’s an analytical body which comes out every three years with its sort of world vision of what the world is going to be like. In 2004, it said that the next phase is going to be the phase of digitization. It is going to be a phenomenon so fundamental and so wide reaching that every part of our lives is going to be changed by it.

But our political leaders weren’t acting on this subject. And I would argue that the press, and especially the academic world, is not really taking that recommendation to heart yet. We’re still working very hard to try to keep the old order together. And so when the organizers of this conference say, “Europe alone,” what they mean is that Europe no longer has the post war order with which to protect itself and with which to hope that the United States will continue to bear the burden of keeping Europe whole and free.

And there is a term that you hear in Europe all the time. Newspapers use it all the time. “This person is a good European.” Now, being a good European means, to the current parlance in Europe, not being a good person, not being somebody who does great things for Europe. But somebody who supports the current system, the way that the European union has been organized since the early 1960s and the way in which it needs to work together to keep Europe steady. Because the opposite of a good European is not necessarily being a bad European. It’s being a criminal European, going back to the era of nationalism and confrontation.

So what has been the result of all this? A growing era of nationalism and confrontation. That is what everybody is worried about now in Europe. The populist circles in Europe are considered to be a danger to freedom and democracy in Europe. In this country, there is a tremendous debate about it. I am in no way, of course, supporting any of these parties. But I would only note that this is a political phenomena with which one has to engage not to denounce, as is the case in most countries.

I would also point out that one of the most popular populists in Europe, one of the most successful, one of whom I think most of us here would congratulate—I certainly would—is the president of France, who is a populist. He essentially pushed aside all existing political parties. He came in with a new program of populous change. He cleared out the entire national assembly and put his people there. That is mostly what populists do when they take over. Only he was a good populist. He is a good populist. I still think he’s good.

But I think the point here is that we shouldn’t be worried to engage with populists. But we should also understand what’s going on here. And just because somebody says all the right things, according to what most of us here in the—shall we call it, the liberal majority?— agree with, it doesn’t mean that he or she is the populist and we have to be very careful about what’s going on. In other words, I hope you can see where I’m going.

Most of the written press in Europe and the United States, to the extent that still exists, shall we say, is tied to this old vision of the world. You talk about America abandoning you. You talk about the populists being nationalists and dangerous. You talk about the refugee program in a way. In Germany, there is a deep inherent pacifism which rejects any idea of any kind of military adventure, shall we say.

In other words, it is really time for a new narrative, especially in Europe, in the United States, too, by the way. Everything I’m saying applies to the United States as well. The Western world is by far not dead. The Western World still dominates the world and will continue to do so. What is gone is the structure—and that hasn’t even gone itself, but it is weakening—the structure which was set up essentially, if we’re honest about it, by the United States and the United Kingdom after the war to keep Europe under control.

And the key to this was very good British diplomacy and lots of American military strength. We learned a little bit of diplomacy in the meantime and I don’t see very much British military strength anymore so maybe the sides are changing.

But the fact is that there is now a romanticism in Europe about a certain kind of relationship across the Atlantic, which as somebody who managed it for nearly 40 years can tell you, it just never existed that way. It was hours of fight. It was hours a battle. It was hours and effort to keep everything going. But we had the dedication to do so.

Now, the dedication since the end of the Cold War is declining, especially in the United States. It is not just Trump—there I said his name—who is angry about European military expenditures, for example. I can remember in the early 1970s writing papers, arguing why the United States should keep its troops in Europe even though the Europeans didn’t contribute very much.

So none of this is new, but it’s in a new context. And it’s in the context of a digitalized world, which is rapidly growing and rapidly intruding itself in our society. And none other than the world-famous Henry Kissinger who wrote about the Congress of Vienna, wrote a very long article in an American magazine recently warning that artificial intelligence was going to undermine our world and our society and our civilization as we know it.

If this is the case, then there is really a major challenge here for you, for the press of the world, and especially for the younger generations which are here. But this challenge has very little to do with the existing so-called order. It has nothing to do with Europe alone. Europe certainly isn’t alone. If anything, Europe is being intruded upon more than ever. It’s just different than it was.

We could probably do a measurement of space about which American leader gets the most time in the press. I assume the American president gets a lot. But there are other people like Jeff Bezos and Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Sergey Brin, who was actually an immigrant from Russia, who are probably affecting your lives more than the American president is. But this is not seen to be part of the world order. It seemed to be some challenge, whatever.

So my point is we need very much a new narrative. And we need a new set of criteria on which to base this. That doesn’t mean that the West is dead. If anything, the West is stronger. Our values are still those which define how the world is run and that we need to work very hard to make sure that that’s the case. Our values are still very much the best in the world as far as I’m concerned. But maybe we need to focus less on institutional multilateralism and more on humanities and values.

There is a model something that I was very pleased to work on years ago, called the Helsinki Final Act, which is a very good statement of what the principles of modern democratic civil society should be, signed onto, by the way, 58 countries, including the Russian Federation. There is an entire philosophical discussion going up right now about, what is the meaning of digital intrusion? What is the meaning of social network? Et cetera. Rather than regulating them, as some people are calling for, it’s probably better that we turn back in fact to the 18th century when philosophers and scientists were much more important for political life than the bureaucrats and the politicians.

So I will close simply saying that the post-war world was built on the basis of a collapse. And it worked very well. It got us back to the most unbelievable positive situation we can imagine. We are now into a new world. We don’t want to have to rebuild it on the basis of collapse. I don’t think we will. But to do so would be important to remember what is going on and not try to preserve the past when in fact the past has long since passed. Thank you very much.