The Malta Independent 17 May 2022, Tuesday

Doing all we can to become extinct

Evarist Bartolo Tuesday, 25 January 2022, 06:44 Last update: about 5 months ago

Over 2000 years ago, the Jewish sage Hillel warned us: “He who refuses to learn deserves extinction.” During this Covid crisis, Pope Francis re-echoes Hillel’s warning, when he says: "Worse than this crisis, there is only the tragedy of wasting it, withdrawing into ourselves, against others." In the same sermon at the end of May 2020, Pope Francis exhorts us not to yield to the "temptation to defend one's ideas with the sword and get along only with those who think like us."


The reality checks of Covid-19 and the climate crisis have not been enough to convince us human beings living on this blue dot in the universe to cooperate to save ourselves from extinction. We continue to turn against each other. We form blocs to confront each other. We act to decouple our economies from each other. We stress the differences amongst us as if the diversity of civilizations we belong to make it impossible for us to learn to live together.

Yet at the same time we say that we have to work together to address the existential global challenge we face, the climate crisis. We want to believe in the fairy tale that we can fight on everything, but then work peacefully only on climate action and live happily ever after. We cannot solve the climate crisis if we do not address the political climate crisis of global distrust and polarisation. The old unipolar world is dying, the new multipolar world is struggling to be born and we must find ways of managing the severe turbulence we are all going through.

Political leadership is needed to manage this turbulence and create the conditions for security cooperation. Dialogue and negotiation are mostly needed with those with whom we least agree. Our political climate has become so toxic that simply calling for hostile neighbours to sit together is dismissed as naïve at best and denounced as a betrayal at worst. We have weakened multilateralism through division, polarisation and mutual distrust and then we blame multilateral structures as being fragile and ineffective.

But rather than blame these structures, we should have the courage and honesty to look into ourselves and reflect what we are doing to them, how we are behaving, how we are using them and abusing them. An English proverb says: “A bad workman always blames his tools.” A Russian proverb tells us: “Don’t blame a mirror for your ugly face.”

We have deprived inclusive multilateral structures and processes of leadership, legitimacy and resources and then blame them for being dysfunctional. We set up alternative arrangements of fake multilateralism that often marginalise and exclude those we disagree with and withdraw into a bubble of “like-minded” countries and talk to ourselves.

We are practicing politics as the continuation of war by other means, as the role of the military in formulating and implementing foreign policy is growing. The military industrial complex has become an integral part of the export sector of the economy in different countries. The armaments industry needs new markets and so needs new tension and conflicts to justify the purchase of yet more armaments. Military expenditure continues to grow. Budgets are always available for war while spending on climate action, health, education and humanitarian aid often face budget shortfalls.

The death of diplomacy

The art of diplomacy is being degraded as foreign policy and arms deals become increasingly intertwined. No wonder that we have an arms control crisis. Like war, diplomacy is being practiced as trying to cause maximum damage to the enemy and as a zero-sum game. We are always “right” and they are always “wrong”.

We are asked to propose innovative diplomacy for the 21st century. But how about a good dose of Basil Liddell Hart’s old-fashioned diplomacy in his ‘Advice to Statesmen’ 61 years ago: “Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save his face. Put yourself in his shoes – so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil – nothing is so self-blinding.”

Most of the time we are doing the exact opposite when dealing with each other. We live in a world of 193 states with around 8 billion people with different interests and different attitudes. We have serious conflicts and divisions not just between one country and another, but also within countries. Even where military conflicts do not exist, politics have become the continuation of war by other means.

At the same time the world has become so small that we have become each other’s neighbours. We are all bound to each other. We cannot run away from each other. We have to find ways of living together, if not as friends at least as enemies. Whether we like it or not we are bound to each other, as strangers, as neighbours, as enemies.

Even as enemies we need to find ways of working together, not because we love our enemies and wish them well but because we need to survive. Even our selfishness and narrow interests dictate that we cooperate with our enemies.

At the least, we need to find a way to coexist peacefully. Forging cooperative security depends on dialogue. Fundamental differences are not a reason not to talk. It is precisely because of their diverging positions that states must talk before it becomes too late. Dialogue allows to define red lines, to keep channels of communication open, and to make relations more predictable. The security architecture that we need to build in every region of the world must be built on the principles that however difficult and painful compromises are, neighbours must find ways of living together, not threaten each other, and respect each other’s sovereignty and right to choose their own political and economic system. Major powers that do not want hostile forces on their doorstep cannot expect other powers to welcome them and not to want the same.

However difficult it is, we must not abandon attempts at global and regional cooperation to create such security architecture. Let us define and make workable at least the minimum cooperation we must have to address our common security challenges. The alternative to painful compromise and agreement is much more painful catastrophe.

The year ahead will show whether we will learn from our mistakes and save ourselves from extinction. The year ahead will show whether we are able to avert the tragedy of wasting the climate and pandemic crises by learning to live and work together for our common good.


Evarist Bartolo, Minister for Foreign and European Affairs


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