Global spirit

The sec­ond part of our exclusive ex­tract from 21 Lessons for the 21st Cen­tury

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Far from a “clash of civil­i­sa­tions”, na­tions have moved closer in ideas, out­look and ac­cep­tance of a global po­lit­i­cal or­der, writes Yu­val Noah Harari.

Far from a “clash of civil­i­sa­tions”, na­tions have moved closer in ideas, out­look and ac­cep­tance of a global po­lit­i­cal or­der, writes Yu­val Noah Harari.

War makes peo­ple far more in­ter­ested in one an­other. Never had the United States been more closely in touch with Rus­sia than dur­ing the Cold War, when ev­ery cough in a Moscow cor­ri­dor sent peo­ple scram­bling up and down Washington stair­cases.

Peo­ple care far more about their en­e­mies than about their trade part­ners. For ev­ery Amer­i­can film about Tai­wan, there are prob­a­bly 50 about Viet­nam. Yet in the early 21st cen­tury, peo­ple across the globe not only are in touch with one an­other, but also in­creas­ingly share iden­ti­cal be­liefs and prac­tices.

A thou­sand years ago, planet Earth pro­vided fer­tile ground to dozens of dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal mod­els. In Europe, you could find feu­dal prin­ci­pal­i­ties vy­ing with in­de­pen­dent city states and mi­nus­cule theoc­ra­cies. The Mus­lim world had its caliphate, claim­ing uni­ver­sal sovereignty, but also ex­per­i­mented with king­doms, sul­tanates and emi­rates. The Chi­nese em­pires be­lieved them­selves to be the sole le­git­i­mate po­lit­i­cal en­tity, while, to the north and west, tribal con­fed­era­cies fought each other with glee. In­dia and South­east Asia con­tained a kalei­do­scope of regimes, whereas poli­ties in Amer­ica, Africa and Aus­trala­sia ranged from tiny hunter-gath­erer bands to sprawl­ing em­pires.

No won­der that even neigh­bour­ing hu­man groups had trou­ble agree­ing on com­mon diplo­matic pro­ce­dures, not to men­tion in­ter­na­tional laws. Each so­ci­ety had its own po­lit­i­cal par­a­digm, and found it dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand and re­spect alien po­lit­i­cal con­cepts.

To­day, in con­trast, a sin­gle po­lit­i­cal par­a­digm is ac­cepted ev­ery­where. The planet is di­vided be­tween about 200 sov­er­eign states, which gen­er­ally agree on the same diplo­matic pro­to­cols and on com­mon in­ter­na­tional laws. Swe­den, Nige­ria, Thai­land and Brazil are all marked on our at­lases as the same kind of colour­ful shapes, they are all mem­bers of the UN and, de­spite myr­iad dif­fer­ences, are all recog­nised as sov­er­eign states en­joy­ing sim­i­lar rights and priv­i­leges. In­deed, they share many more po­lit­i­cal ideas and prac­tices, in­clud­ing at least a to­ken be­lief in rep­re­sen­ta­tive bod­ies, po­lit­i­cal par­ties, uni­ver­sal suf­frage and hu­man rights.

There are par­lia­ments in Tehran, Moscow, Cape Town and New Delhi as well as in Lon­don and Paris. When Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans, Rus­sians and Ukraini­ans, Kurds and Turks com­pete for the favours of global pub­lic opinion, they all use the same dis­course of hu­man rights, state sovereignty and in­ter­na­tional law.

The world may be pep­pered with var­i­ous types of “failed states”, but it knows only one par­a­digm for a suc­cess­ful state. Global pol­i­tics thus fol­lows the Anna Karen­ina prin­ci­ple: suc­cess­ful states are all alike, but ev­ery failed state fails in its own way, by miss­ing this or that in­gre­di­ent of the domi- nant po­lit­i­cal pack­age. The Is­lamic State has re­cently stood out, in its com­plete re­jec­tion of this pack­age and in its at­tempt to es­tab­lish an en­tirely dif­fer­ent kind of po­lit­i­cal en­tity: a uni­ver­sal caliphate. But pre­cisely for this rea­son it has failed.


Numer­ous guer­rilla forces and ter­ror or­gan­i­sa­tions have man­aged to es­tab­lish new coun­tries or to con­quer ex­ist­ing ones. But they have al­ways done so by ac­cept­ing the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of the global po­lit­i­cal or­der. Even the Tal­iban sought in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion as the le­git­i­mate gov­ern­ment of the sov­er­eign coun­try of Afghanistan. No group re­ject­ing the prin­ci­ples of global pol­i­tics has so far gained any last­ing con­trol of any sig­nif­i­cant ter­ri­tory.

The strength of the global po­lit­i­cal par­a­digm can per­haps best be ap­pre­ci­ated by con­sid­er­ing not hard­core po­lit­i­cal ques­tions of war and diplo­macy but, rather, some­thing like the Olympic Games. Take a mo­ment to re­flect on the way the 2016 Rio Games were or­gan­ised. The 11,000 ath­letes were grouped into del­e­ga­tions by na­tion­al­ity rather than by reli­gion, class or lan­guage. There was no Bud­dhist del­e­ga­tion, pro­le­tar­ian del­e­ga­tion or English-speak­ing del­e­ga­tion. Ex­cept in a hand­ful of cases – most notably Tai­wan and Pales­tine – de­ter­min­ing the ath­letes’ na­tion­al­ity was a straight­for­ward af­fair.

At the open­ing cer­e­mony on Au­gust 5, 2016, the ath­letes marched in groups, each group wav­ing its na­tional flag. When­ever Michael Phelps won an­other gold medal, the stars and stripes was raised to the sound of The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner. When Ém­i­lie Andéol won the gold medal in judo, the French Tri­colour was hoisted and La Mar­seil­laise was played.

Even the Tal­iban sought in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion as the le­git­i­mate gov­ern­ment of Afghanistan.


Con­ve­niently enough, each coun­try in the world has an an­them that con­forms to the same uni­ver­sal model. Al­most all an­thems are or­ches­tral pieces of a few min­utes in length, rather than a 20-minute chant that may be per­formed only by a spe­cial caste of hered­i­tary priests. Even coun­tries such as Saudi Ara­bia, Pak­istan and Congo have adopted Western mu­si­cal con­ven­tions for

their an­thems. Most of them sound like some­thing com­posed by Beethoven on a rather medi­ocre day. Even the lyrics are al­most the same through­out the world, in­di­cat­ing com­mon con­cep­tions of pol­i­tics and group loy­alty.

Na­tional flags dis­play the same dreary con­form­ity. With a sin­gle ex­cep­tion, all flags are rec­tan­gu­lar pieces of cloth marked by an ex­tremely lim­ited reper­toire of colours, stripes and ge­o­met­ri­cal shapes. Nepal is the odd coun­try out, with a flag con­sist­ing of two tri­an­gles. The In­done­sian flag con­sists of a red stripe above a white stripe. The Pol­ish flag dis­plays a white stripe above a red stripe. The flag of Monaco is iden­ti­cal to that of In­done­sia. A colour-blind per­son could hardly tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween the flags of Bel­gium, Chad, Ivory Coast, France, Guinea, Ire­land, Italy, Mali and Ro­ma­nia – they all have three ver­ti­cal stripes of var­i­ous colours.

Some of these coun­tries have been en­gaged in bit­ter war with one an­other, but dur­ing the tu­mul­tuous 20th cen­tury, only three Olympiads were can­celled due to war (in 1916, 1940 and 1944). In 1980, the US and some of its al­lies boy­cotted the Moscow Olympics, in 1984 the Soviet bloc boy­cotted the Los An­ge­les Games, and on sev­eral other oc­ca­sions the Olympics found them­selves at the cen­tre of a po­lit­i­cal storm (most notably in 1936, when Nazi Ber­lin hosted the games, and in 1972 in Mu­nich, when Pales­tinian ter­ror­ists mas­sa­cred 11 mem­bers of the Is­raeli del­e­ga­tion and a po­lice­man). Yet on the whole, po­lit­i­cal con­tro­ver­sies have not de­railed the Olympic project.

Now let’s go back 1000 years. Sup­pose you wanted to hold the Medieval Olympic Games in Rio in 1016. For­get for a mo­ment that Rio was then a small vil­lage of Tupi In­di­ans and that Asians, Africans and Euro­peans were not even aware of Amer­ica’s ex­is­tence. For­get the lo­gis­ti­cal prob­lems of bring­ing all the world’s top ath­letes to Rio in the ab­sence of aero­planes. For­get, too, that few sports were shared through­out the world, and even if all hu­mans could run, not ev­ery­body could agree on the same rules for a run­ning com­pe­ti­tion. Just ask your­self how to group the com­pet­ing del­e­ga­tions. To­day’s In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee spends count­less hours dis­cussing the Tai­wan ques­tion and the Pales­tine ques­tion. Mul­ti­ply this by 10,000 to es­ti­mate the num­ber of hours you would have to spend on the pol­i­tics of the Medieval Olympics.


For starters, in 1016 the Chi­nese Song em­pire recog­nised no po­lit­i­cal en­tity on Earth as its equal. It would there­fore be an un­think­able hu­mil­i­a­tion to give its Olympic del­e­ga­tion the same sta­tus as that granted to the del­e­ga­tions of the Korean king­dom of Ko­ryo or the Viet­namese king­dom of Dai Co Viet – not to men­tion the del­e­ga­tions of prim­i­tive bar­bar­ians across the seas.

The Caliph in Bagh­dad also claimed uni­ver­sal hege­mony, and most Sunni Mus­lims recog­nised him as their supreme leader. In prac­ti­cal terms, how­ever, the Caliph barely ruled the city of Bagh­dad. So would all Sunni ath­letes be part of a sin­gle caliphate del­e­ga­tion, or would they be sep­a­rated into dozens of del­e­ga­tions from the numer­ous emi­rates and sul­tanates of the Sunni world?

Why stop with the emi­rates and sul­tanates? The Ara­bian Desert was team­ing with free Be­douin tribes who recog­nised no over­lord but Al­lah. Would each be en­ti­tled to send an in­de­pen­dent del­e­ga­tion to com­pete in archery or camel racing?

Europe would give you any num­ber of sim­i­lar headaches. Would an ath­lete from the Nor­man town of Ivry com­pete un­der the ban­ner of the lo­cal Count of Ivry, of his lord the Duke of Nor­mandy, or per­haps of the fee­ble King of France?

Many of these po­lit­i­cal en­ti­ties ap­peared and dis­ap­peared within a mat­ter of years. As you made prepa­ra­tions for the 1016 Olympics, you could not know in ad­vance which del­e­ga­tions would show up, be­cause no­body could be sure which po­lit­i­cal en­ti­ties would still ex­ist next year. If the king­dom of Eng­land had sent a del­e­ga­tion, by the time the ath­letes came home with their medals they would have dis­cov­ered that the Danes had just cap­tured Lon­don and Eng­land was be­ing ab­sorbed into the North Sea em­pire of King Cnut the Great, to­gether with Den­mark, Nor­way and parts of Swe­den. Within an­other 20 years, that em­pire dis­in­te­grated, but 30 years later, Eng­land was con­quered again, by the Duke of Nor­mandy.

Need­less to say, the vast ma­jor­ity of these ephemeral en­ti­ties had nei­ther an­them to play nor flag to hoist. Po­lit­i­cal sym­bols were of great im­por­tance, of course, but the sym­bolic lan­guage of Euro­pean pol­i­tics was very dif­fer­ent from the sym­bolic lan­guages of In­done­sian, Chi­nese or Tupi pol­i­tics. Agree­ing on a com­mon pro­to­col to mark vic­tory would have been well-nigh im­pos­si­ble.

So when you watch the Tokyo Games in 2020, re­mem­ber that this sport­ing com­pe­ti­tion be­tween na­tions ac­tu­ally rep­re­sents an as­ton­ish­ing global agree­ment. For all the na­tional pride peo­ple feel when their del­e­ga­tion wins a gold medal and their flag is raised, there is far greater rea­son to feel pride that hu­mankind is ca­pa­ble of or­gan­is­ing such an event.

Re­mem­ber that this sport­ing com­pe­ti­tion be­tween na­tions ac­tu­ally rep­re­sents an as­ton­ish­ing global agree­ment.

The Olympics have sur­vived po­lit­i­cal crises in 1936, left, and 1972.

From far left: na­tional flags fol­low sim­i­lar pat­terns; the Song Dy­nasty; King Cnut ruled Eng­land.

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