Sachs on the Great Convergence

Just tonight as I was driving, I heard some parts of a radio speech that were so sharp I had to pull over to the kerb for safety reasons.  Talking on a mobile while driving is not safe and neither was the speech I was hearing.

Turns out it was Professor Jeffrey Sachs giving Lecture No 3 of the BBC Reith Lectures called “The Great Convergence” described by programme synopsis notes as:

Power and America have seemed synonymous for the last fifty years. No longer. Power in the 21st Century is shifting to the East: to India and above all to China. Facing up to the end of centuries of North Atlantic dominance – first Europe then the U.S. – will pose huge challenges.

 The opening theme goes like this ..(full transcript is available from BBC)

“Global problems can only be solved with global public understanding.

Next is the deployment of technologies to address the challenge. Though advanced technologies are sometimes considered to be a malign force, yet a further threat, they are of fundamental importance in enabling 6.6 billion people, and perhaps 9.2 billion people, to meet the twin aspirations of improved material life and ecological sustainability.”

He then continues about the difficulties of achieving global co-operation to make some of the changes that we know can be made – but lack the political will or trust to do so mentioning some examples.

In President Bush’s 2008 budget just submitted, military spending is $623 billion***(see footnote below), more than all of the rest of the world combined, while aid to all of Africa is $4.5 billion…..

Kennedy’s speech on June 10, 1963, which I have quoted throughout this evening and throughout the Reith Lectures, was not only a scintillating exposition on peace, and not only a challenge to his generation to make peace, but was also part of the process itself, a way of problem solving. Kennedy literally used the speech to make peace.

Kennedy’s chosen process was ingenious. The entire speech is to his fellow Americans, not to the Soviet Union. He didn’t tell the Soviets that they were either with us or against us. He didn’t lay down preconditions for negotiations. He didn’t make a list of things that the Soviets must do. There were no threats of sanctions. In fact, the opposite was true. The entire speech was about US behavior and US attitudes..

We need to end pre-conditions to talk. We need to end the prevailing confusion that claims that negotiating with an adversary is the same as appeasing that adversary. The true lesson of the 1938 Munich Agreement, when British Prime Minister Chamberlain acceded to Hitler’s assault on Czechoslovakia, is not to end future negotiations with adversaries, but to reject concessions that cripple one’s security….

We can help, and we should do so.”

If we are interested in breaking some of these cycles and a changed outlook for the better; then, some of the challenges from this set of lectures may help in framing a deeper level of debate. Best to hear the full set speeches themselves – which you can do as the transcripts don’t do full justice to the content.

Many years ago I interviewed a famous musician and as as you do, I asked him what type of art he might find interesting as an aside. His answer was that he would find the prospect of watching a debate between Malcolm Muggeridge and James Baldwin (it was the early 80’s) delicious, or words to that effect. I was a bit surprised but also impressed and intrigued to think that an articulate debate or speech could have such an inspired effect.

Regarding this particular Reith Lecture I noticed that the Kennedy speech, was being sprinkled a bit like pixie dust to help add some weight. As it happens the speechwriter behind that particular speech was in the house and he also made some comments included below. He was asked if he wrote the speech.

THEODORE SORENSEN: Oh I never acknowledge that. President Kennedy was the author of all of his speeches. (LAUGHTER & APPLAUSE) Or I, or what I should say in answer to that question is, ‘Ask not’. (LAUGHTER) So my recommendation to you, Jeff, when you make this lecture again, is to cite two other parts of that speech. One is a passage where President Kennedy said, ‘The world knows America will not start a war. This generation of Americans has seen enough of war.’ Haven’t heard that recently! The second was where he not only asked for a re-examination of our relations with the Soviet Union, but praised the Soviet people for the enormous contribution and sacrifice they made in World War Two, which no-one had ever done before, and the Soviets rather resented it, and it was one of the ways that he reached Khrushchev. Seems to me we live in a world where the people of Islam have been rejected and humiliated for generations, and if someone took the time to praise their contributions to civilisation over the centuries, that might help.

I especially like that last part by Sorensen which leans more towards respect than we are seeing from some of the current leaders of Iran and the U.S for example.

I also noticed in the Guardian last week, that President Putin announced it was considering withdrawing from a Soviet- era weapons treaty. This was in response to US plans to site  a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.  

It seems ironic that the Kennedy speech which is partly credited with ending the cold war and is now being amplified by the Reith lecture above is again echoing current events and we seem to have learned little despite optimistic signs.

Also writing in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins notes that:

Countries too have feelings. So I am told by a Russian explaining the recent collapse in relations between Vladimir Putin and his one-time western admirers. “We have done well in the past 15 years, yet we get nothing but rebuffs and insults. Russia’s rulers have their pride, you know.”

“Britain and America have been led by essentially reactive politicians with no grasp of history……

Russia and the west have everything to gain from good relations. Putin has struggled to modernise his economy while holding together a traumatised and shrunken Russian federation. The west may feel he errs towards authoritarianism, but second-guessing Russian leaders is seldom a profitable exercise. This is a huge country, rich in natural and human resources. It is hard to think of somewhere the west would be better advised to “hug close”. Instead, Putin will hand his successor an isolated and bruised nation. Under a less confident president, it could retreat into protectionism and alliances the west will hate. To have encouraged that retreat is truly stupid.”

It seems incredible to think that- even while Professor Sachs is delivering his speech, we still seem stuck in old patterns that need to be broken. We should be taking a great deal of notice of not only the vaguely abstract global challenges but the very real example mentioned by Jenkins as well.

Footnote:*** I have also come across this piece on the annual restoration budget to heal the planet at the Earth Policy Institute website. Compared to the $623b of military spending mentioned above – fixing some of this seems a much better idea.

“Altogether, restoring the earth will require additional expenditures of $93 billion per year. Many will ask, Can the world afford this? But the only appropriate question is, Can the world afford to not make these investments?”