GREAT TRANSFORMATIONS. Nicolas Berggruen’s mission as expressed through the Berggruen Institute is to develop foundational ideas and, through them, shape political, economic and social institutions for the 21st century. In 2014 the Berggruen Institute formed a partnership with The Huffington Post, creating The WorldPost, an online global publication gathering top editors and first person contributors from all corners of the planet. In 2017 The WorldPost began publishing exclusively on The Washington Post platform. In 2018 Nicolas Berggruen received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, an American award founded by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) and presented annually to American citizens whose accomplishments in their field and inspired service to the United States are cause for celebration.
The WorldPost is now affiliated to the Washington Post. What does it mean?
It means good things. The Washington Post is a wonderful partner and a wonderful publication with great reach. Traditional media have been challenged by social media and the internet, and the few really trusted voices of the media, of which the Washington Post is one, have increased in value and also gained circulation. Every article that we publish at the WorldPost is now also at the Washington Post, which is very good news for us and for the Washington Post, because they get content, writers, and people who get interviewed who complement some of their journalists.
“The Berggruen Institute has one major theme, which is what we call Great Transformations.”
Berggruen Institute Chairman Nicolas Berggruen and President Xi JinPing attend Understanding China Conference.
What are your main concerns today?
The Berggruen Institute has one major theme, which is what we call Great Transformations, and we have four legs there. One is rethinking democracy – the system itself, how our democratic systems need rethinking or reform; two is rethinking capitalism; three is rethinking geopolitics in a world that is breaking up and needs to come together at least in certain areas – how do you get China, Russia, India, US, Europe, to sit around the same table? and the last one is thinking about the nature of us humans – who are we becoming in the age of AI and gene editing?
Do you share geopolitical views with the Washington Post?
The Berggruen Institute has never been partisan, so we will give a voice to people who are not necessarily aligned to the Washington Post. For example, when Xi Jinping was appointed President of China without an end date, most western media including the Washington Post thought this was a terrible idea, and we gave voices that were very similar in nature to the Washington Post, but we also gave a couple of voices to some non-governmental Chinese insiders whose view was really different and more supportive of the move. It doesn’t mean we approve it or are on their side, but part of our goal and mission at the Berggruen Institute and at the WorldPost is to inform readers.
What do you think are the consequences of the new Chinese life Presidency?
We hear that what really counts in China is being the Party Secretary. The party really runs China. The President is more ceremonial, although it means a lot in the West because that is how we identify leaders. The fact that Xi Jinping is Party Secretary is much more significant.
What does it mean in five or ten years from now?
If Xi stays on, with age maybe there is less flexibility and that will be a question. We now have a number of leaders in countries like Russia or Turkey who seem to stay on for ever. At least in the last decade that wasn’t the case in China, and officially any Chinese will profess that he won’t be there for ever, but people change and once they get accustomed to power they are reluctant to go.
Do you think the U.S.A/North Korea meeting was meaningful?
I hope so. If Trump can find peace and a way to work together as opposed to against each other that’s always better. More important than Trump in this case is what the Chinese do. The fact that Kim went to China twice before this meeting is more significant and indicates that in this case the cards are really held by the Chinese.
“You have unleashed extreme democracy but you can’t put it back in.”
Is America the only flag of democracy today?
America is taking itself out of the world as a cultural and moral leader. You could certainly argue that the challenge to democracies is in terms of western leadership. You could also say that America has not played this role of moral enforcer of the West that successfully in the last decades. Maybe it has been less forceful on the global stage and in that sense it is positive, but the negative is that the West is getting much weaker and the West is not working together. That means Europe essentially is the defender of traditional western culture democracies, but only if it comes together. America is withdrawing and Britain is becoming an island again, and Europe needs to come together for the defence of western culture and values. What’s happening in the eastern European countries and potentially Italy could make this impossible.
Can we say that California is the centre of the western world today?
It is the American West Coast – all the way from Seattle to San Diego – although California is the biggest and most vibrant. Really, it is the entire American edge of the Pacific in terms of technology and influence around technology. That is the world we are used to. But there is another western world that is powerful and alive in the middle of America and on the less moderate edges of Europe, and that has become culturally and politically very powerful. The West Coast was the most influential in terms of technology and culture over the past twenty years, but will it have the most influence over the next ten years? Well, it’s receding!
What do you think of the changes brought about by Silicon Valley revolution?
Good in the sense that almost everybody has access to a cell phone and is part of the world. This is extremely positive. At the same time it really has distributed voices and power, and you have lost control. The genie is out of the bottle. You have unleashed extreme democracy but you can’t put it back in. That’s the good and the bad that has come out of Silicon Valley, and it’s a real challenge for democracies. I don’t think Silicon Valley will come up with the solution, technology will not solve things. At the end of the day you have to come up with new ideas as to how to navigate in a different environment, and that will come probably from thinkers, not necessarily politicians or technologists.
What is the role of the intellectuals today? They seem to be mostly silent.
As for thousands of year their role is very important, but I am not sure that anyone wants to hear them, at least the larger population. I don’t know if they have much credibility. The last thirty years have progressed very quickly, but as opposed to bringing the world together the world has fallen apart. You can’t blame the intellectuals, as social networks and other factors, the rise of the East, are not necessarily their fault, but they didn’t anticipate it and their credibility is challenged. They need to come up with solutions and new ideas with regards to rethinking democracy, capitalism, globalisation. These are big questions. If the intellectuals don’t come up with ideas then what is their role? Hopefully that’s where we at the Berggruen Institute can make a contribution.
Publisher of The Washington Post Fred Hiatt and Chairman of the Berggruen Institute Nicolas Berggruen.
Berggruen Institute 21st Century Council meeting with Dr. Henry Kissinger in New York, December 2014.
“Democracy has been reduced to a voting machine that creates incredibly random outcomes.”
After a year and a half of the Trump Presidency and on the eve of the mid-Term elections, what do you feel is going on in America?
It is a more and more divided country. There are two different versions of America. The America of the founding fathers is the fairly sophisticated balanced governance system and at the end of the day in the hands of elites, and then there is the more libertarian America of the Wild West, the vision of the cowboys where your fate is in your own hands and society and government has very limited use. This is equally important as the more enlightened view of America.
What about Trump’s trade issues?
This is his mentality. Trump has always lived in a world of win/lose, and the idea of everybody winning is not the world he comes from. For the world to go forward you want to try to see that everyone wins, as opposed to winners and losers. His challenge to big partners to be more open is not wrong or an unfair ask, but the way he is going about it may be wrong.
What do you perceive is happening in Europe? Is the concept of Europe in danger?
Yes, it has been in danger for years, because you have a federation which didn’t really federate, a sort of half-way house which has been a struggle for Europe. Now you have a global crisis of governance, and the same issues that were in Europe all along are back, because they did not centralise the minimum required to make a federation work, which is fiscal policy and foreign policy and real European wide democratic elections. The struggle is that all politics are local, so each country is on its own even though they are part of a union. It’s a very difficult situation. The structural side of Europe will continue to be challenged until you either have a break up or more federation, one way or the other, but being in the middle is very difficult. In terms of short term politics there are challenges for all democracies where two versions of the world have to be reconciled, and in a very quickly changing world people are fearful of the future. A lot of traditional filters or editors, traditional political parties and media, are gone, and you don’t have democracies guided by perceived as being wise voices of opinion leaders. Democracy has been reduced to a voting machine that creates incredibly random outcomes, from Trump to Macron, sometimes good news, sometimes bad news. Populism is a challenge to the democratic ideals, ideals which are about more than giving individuals a vote, they are about a system that works. But the system is fraying. In Europe it is harder to come together and have a united vision of Europe. The cultural ideals of democracies in general are being challenged in a world where a strong Europe is even more important to represent the West, in a world where America has taken itself out of the traditional game of being leader of the West. England has reverted to being an island. Europe represents these traditional western ideals, but it is going to be difficult because while France has a very clear leader, Germany is wobbly, in Italy anything can happen, Spain just changed its government; there is not a united centre.
What is at the core of the new values which people look to develop?
There are two models, the eastern very authoritarian model of concentrated power expressed in a simple way, and the opposite in the West. Neither is ideal right now. You need a balance between the two. You need on the one hand the voice of the people that maybe has the ultimate say, but on the other you need to delegate decisions to people who want to do it, who are qualified to do it, and who also take the responsibility for doing it. Good government needs to empower people who are elected and have the capacity to actually run things, not just who is the most popular. You don’t want the eastern way, in the hands of one party where citizens have no recourse.
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