The Great Convergence

 Reith Lecture 3, Columbia University, New York – 25 April 2007

Notes  of Lecture given by

Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs was on his home ground for this lecture, with politicians, academics, students and "ordinary New Yorkers" in the audience. The United States at the zenith of its economic power is facing colossal changes as the giants of Asia prepare to take their turn on the world’s stage.

Our generation’s challenge is of a planet bursting at the seams. We’re 6.6 billion people and rising. The UN recently estimated that we’ll number 2.2 billion by 2050 on the current demographic trajectory. Unprecedented economic growth in Asia offers the prospect of a richer world – of shared prosperity, an end to extreme poverty. But unless we come to grips with the dangerous aspects of our technological prowess and demographic trends, we might instead face the prospect of an ecologically wrecked planet; one gripped by manmade climate change, massive, human-led extinction of other species, and the grave insecurity of a planet divided as never before between the extreme rich and the extreme poor. The hope of shared prosperity could become a nightmare of shared insecurity.

John F Kennedy told us that manmade problems can be solved by man. This year is the 200th anniversary of the end of the transatlantic slave trade – a victory for social activists over once-entrenched economic interests. It’s also the 60th anniversary of Indian independence and the 50th anniversary of the birth of Ghana – the first independent post-colonial state in Africa. And it’s the 50th anniversary of the European Community after a millennium of warfare.

He sees four steps as necessary to peace:

First, we need a sound and scientific diagnosis of the problems we face: climate, water, biodiversity and poverty.

Second, we need public awareness of that diagnosis.

Third, we need governments to deploy and fund the technology that will allow 6.6 billion people – rising to a possible 9.2 billion by mid-century – to experience improved material conditions of life with environmental sustainability.

Fourth, there must be global agreement: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biodiversity must be implemented, as well as the Millennium Development Goals.

Steps 1 to 3 all seem to be within reach, but number 4 seems impossible: global cooperation – how to respond to what we know – that’s where our deepest scepticism is. And as John F Kennedy said, that scepticism is "a dangerous and defeatist belief". At the time he spoke, Americans thought war with the Soviet Union was inevitable – and they were wrong. So are the people who say that we cannot end poverty, fight climate change and even make peace in the Middle East and elsewhere. Global cooperation is difficult and at risk for three reasons:

  1. the most urgent reality and threat of war
  2. the collapse of any single part of our interconnected world has implications for every part as Adam Smith knew. Cooperation must be comprehensive. We must care, and act in response to suffering anywhere.
  3. Complexity: the unprecedented interconnectedness of today’s world needs unprecedented strategies.

This lecture will focus on the problem of war. This is still the greatest threat; our species is drawn to it like moths to a flame. We’re not warlike by nature but vulnerable to its allure as a way to solve problems. $0.5 trillion has been spent in Iraq and still the home town press (The New York Times) urged the government to boost the standing army and military budget. Jeffrey Sachs worries that we’re gambling recklessly to make 2014 match 1914.

The 20thC never quite recovered from WWI and historians still debate why it occurred. Four years of mass carnage, revolution in Russia, the rise of Hitler and the holocaust; war in Iraq, threats against Iran and increasing anti-Chinese sentiments in the American Senate all raise the stakes of a similar disaster on our watch. We’re not doomed to it, but can become accomplices to it.

There are two crucial aspects of human psychology: first, we hover between cooperation and conflict. With little fear, we are probably genetically primed to cooperate, even with strangers. But where trust is broken, fear and conflict follow. Then it’s what game theory calls Tit for Tat. There’s the risk that an accident could trigger conflict and catch us in a trap: we fight fearing the other will fight.

Second, we’re social animals. We identify with an in-group – ethnic, national, religious, occupational or other. Most of us belong to many groups creating overlapping webs of trust and shared regard. But with fear, a single "us" can take over; the world divides between Us and Them and what has been peaceful co-existence over centuries can become carnage over weeks.

One possible future: trust builds trust; cooperation builds cooperation.

Acknowledging multiple identities, we are on the road to peace and prosperity.

An alternative future: people with box-cutters hijack planes leading to violent retaliation, war, spreading conflict; lumping terrorists groups like Al Qaeda with states like Libya, North Korea, Iran and Iraq though states have varied interests and can be negotiated with. Cooperation collapses into Us versus Them.

The cycle is as threatening today as in the Cold War, and now it’s marked by the perils of inter-religious hatred, zealotry, the wider spread of nuclear weapons and stronger global interconnections that amplify conflict worldwide.

John F Kennedy’s greatest insight was that Peace is a Process, a way of solving problems. See how he applied it and consider how we can do so. His speech on 10 June 1963 was addressed to his fellow Americans, not to governments. (cf Michael Ashworth, SJ re Mark 10:32-45 – Mark wasn’t focused on the bad guys persecuting Christians but on how Christians related to one another in that situation). It was not only a scintillating exposition on peace and a challenge to his generation to seek peace, it was also part of the peace process itself. A way of problem solving. Kennedy set no pre-conditions for negotiations, no threats of sanctions – the speech was all about American behaviour and attitudes. "… re-examine as individuals and as a nation… begin by looking inward to the possibilities of peace toward the Soviet Union, the course of the Cold War and toward peace and freedom here at home."

As a result Krushchev declared to the American diplomatic envoy, Averill Harriman, that it was the best speech by an American President since Roosevelt, and said he would negotiate an arms control treaty. The speech (co-written by Ted Sorenson who was in the audience to hear Sachs) was followed within six weeks by a partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (initialled 25 July 1063). That was the turning point of the Cold War onto the path of arms control, détente and perestroika. From the near-Armageddon of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that speech led to the path to the end of the Cold War.

Threats of self-fulfilling conflict will rise in the years ahead: many Americans and Europeans will be afraid of Chinese economic and military power – and of India – of the changing demographics of the Middle East and our own societies. America will no longer be the sole superpower, if it ever really was. America cannot secure Baghdad, let alone the world.

America is likely to be eclipsed by China economically within a generation, though not in per capital income. The population of Western Europe was nearly four times that of the Middle East and North Africa in 1950. Now it is only a third larger, and by 2025 it will be the same. By 2050, the population of the Middle East and North Africa will be a third larger than that of Western Europe. The Muslim population of Western Europe will soar, especially in major cities, to perhaps a third, through migration and higher fertility rates. This is viewed as cause for alarm in many quarters. But don’t lose control of our future. Trust can beget trust, it all lies in the process.

For example, New York City: its population is 40% foreign-born, a unique amalgam of civilisations. Manhatten is 25% Hispanic, 15% African-American, 10% Asian and 50% White non-Hispanic. It is a forerunner of the demographics of the United States as a whole by 2050. It is forecast that the proportion of White non-Hispanic Americans will be down from 70% today to 50% in 2050. London is the demographic forerunner of Western Europe – but neither London nor New York is in disarray. Arguably, they are the two quintessential World Cities at the start of the 21stC: hugely prosperous, safe and diverse.

Jeffrey Sachs was in London for the 7 July bombings in 2005. Above all he was impressed by the calm appeal by all British leaders for mutual respect. And both America and Britain will be safer still when the troops are withdrawn from Iraq.

Continued immigration across divides is inevitable and broadly beneficial, reinforcing economic, social and cultural links and ties. Immigration needs to be steady and sure, neither a floodgate nor a trickle. If we proceed with wisdom, our generation can cooperate globally – we can see peace as a process; understand the fragility of peace and how easily war can escalate.

There has been too much talk of sanctions and pre-emptive strikes; too little examining of our own attitudes, as Kennedy urged us to do. It is time for a process of building trust with Iran, Palestine, Africa and our own poor at home. Each of us must reach out in our multiple identities, make connections round the world – talk to potential adversaries. End confusion: it is not true that talking to an adversary means making concessions or appeasing him. The lesson of Munich in 1938 is not "don’t negotiate" but "don’t make concessions that cripple security". Dialogue may open up vast vistas of cooperation.

Iran, North Korea, Sudan and other countries truly need solutions to energy problems, water, food, and adaptation to Climate Change. We can help, and we should do so. We should use some of our bloated military budgets to confront malaria, AIDS, unsafe water, unwanted fertility and climate change. Why not at least $70 billion from the budget of $623 billion? Why not re-programme those funds as practical help to the world’s poorest countries – and save another $100 billion a year by ending the Iraq war. John F Kennedy’s deepest insight after peering into the abyss in October 1962 explains how we can cooperate and why we will do so: "for in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future and we are all mortal." (He quoted more extensively from that passage at the conclusion of his first lecture too.)

Question time:

… What American traditions can lead to the sort of self-examination he is calling for?

JS: Americans are pragmatic – they see, for example, that the Iraq War "doesn’t work". America is an open society – it’s had great leadership from Roosevelt and Kennedy in the past and can have it again. Americans learned after 9-11 how institutions can be hijacked by fear and misguided leadership. If the Iraq war had been a success we would have been on track for more wars in the region – that was the game plan. Americans can talk to each other, though they still have a tendency toward Us versus Them thinking and readiness to attack and bomb people whose countries they could not locate on a map.

Jason Weingartner (Chairman, Young Republicans, New York State): America has a history of protecting and promoting civil rights. JS yes; we believe in the expansion of democracy – but not by bombs. Eg. America needs to talk to the governing authority of Palestine and keep its side of the bargain.

(a woman): How can Sachs reconcile his feelings on the Iraq War with two recent major polls reporting that Iraqis say their lives are better now, and they do not want the Americans to leave.

JS said she read different polls than he had; he sees only reports of overwhelming unhappiness.

(… on the rise of China): JS said this was a fundamental part of global history. 20thC history shows that leading and rising powers don’t have an easy time. Consider the years before 1914. The exact trigger of WWI is obscure, but causes included an arms race between the rising power of Germany and the naval leader, the British Empire. That provided the fulcrum for alliances which ended up in conflict. What happens with China will depend on how we behave ourselves and on our attitudes.

(a woman on shifting international power and migration): If the East is to be home to the new superpowers, why will so many migrate West? JS much immigration is from Africa and the Middle East; and into the United States from Latin America. It is economically driven. The world’s income distribution is highly unequal and that produces pressures we can expect to last many more years yet.

David Ungar (New York Times editorial page): we kid ourselves if we think we’re talking about the effects of the last six years. History has made the United States secede from the world after wars such as in Vietnam or Iraq. JS speaks to dozens of world leaders and finds a readiness to work on the hard challenges: climate change, water, population pressure, extreme poverty. Fear is grounded in a sense of real dangers on a global scale. With even reasonable leadership in the United States this country can greatly reduce that fear. 9-11 opened up the possibilities for much worse events; to an end of self-critical introspection, to bellicosity and faith in the military approach – a belief we could bludgeon them all as "the world’s sole superpower". We don’t yet understand the implications of the failure of that policy.

Matthew Dan Curnow (British; on The Spectator) Paraphrasing what Kennedy said in January 1961, "ask not what the world can do for you, ask what you can do for the world". Has Jeffrey Sachs thought of running for President? JS some of his neighbours here say he couldn’t carry 85th Street on the Upper West Side, never mind the country. A Sachs bandwagon is a non-starter.

(…man from an Interfaith Peace Network): he shares the Enlightenment Values with Jeffrey Sachs – a "shared values model". But the world is not behaving rationally, people are blowing up their own environments. JS strife is not a matter of religion but of politics and management, understanding and institutions; seeing things another way.

Ted Sorenson (lawyer, writer; special advisor and speech-writer for Kennedy) was in the front row and invited to comment. He said it had been a "wise and wonderful lecture", he was sure JFK would have been moved and touched, as Sorenson is, that so much of the June 1963 speech is going out all over the world. (Asked if he had written the speech, he tactfully replied that President Kennedy wrote all his own speeches (laughter) – "or should I say, ask not?") In one part of that speech Kennedy said the world knows that America will not start a war; this generation has seen enough of war – he hasn’t heard that much recently. And Kennedy praised the Soviet people for their great sacrifice in WWII, which no one had done before. It is time now to praise Islamic contributions to civilisation over the centuries.

JS said it was astounding that that speech had worked, it had changed history within weeks. And that was a tribute to "the man here with us tonight."

Notes by Alison Williams (from Radio Broadcast)

The Lectures are probably BBC copyright