Ismail Serageldin


Reflections on a Multi-Polar world





Reflections on a Multi-Polar world

Closing remarks


Ismail Serageldin





This fourth Baku Forum was very special.  It addressed the truly global issue of our times.  What kind of world are we going to live in for much of the 21st century? And the vision that emerges from the many distinguished interventions is one of a multi-polar world.  And yet, the reality of tensions and conflicts shows that this multi-polarity is not one of structured cooperation and mutual support.   Far from it.  It is one of competition and strife.  Indeed, since global leaders last convened in Baku, the world has become less stable, there is continued weakness at the UN, while Globalization continues to have profound impact in country after country.


Four pressing cases:


Our Global Baku Forum was unique for having a first part where present sitting leaders spoke about the global challenges of today’s world.  But we also organized four plenary panels to benefit from the experience and wisdom of many former leaders and get their insights on the world’s most pressing cases, beginning with Syria, Ukraine, Iran and Afghanistan.  Each of these four cases represents a complex and different configuration of direct actors and the sponsors behind them and what they hope to achieve. 


Syria is an all-out war where hundreds of thousands have died and more are falling every day.  The conflict there is also pushing hundreds of thousands of refugees to breach European borders in search of asylum.  Regional and global powers are behind every faction, and crafting peace there would to take into account many contextual factors and many complex historical narratives. 


Ukraine is testing the limits of the authority of signed agreements in changing times, and the continuity of interplay of regional interests in the face of weak national structures.  In retrospect, was giving up the nuclear weapons a wise decision?


Iran raises the issue of a nation that wants to acquire nuclear weapons in a fairly volatile region.  It was part of radical Islamic nation wanting its role as a true regional power in the face of Israeli military power and asserting its Persian Shia identity confronting predominantly Sunni Arab states of varying degrees of solidity and secularism.   But the whole region is locked in various inter-related conflicts exacerbated by the Iraq war and the collapse of many governments in the wake of the revolutions and popular uprisings of the Arab Spring of 2011.


Afghanistan.  That is where Islamic extremism first reared its ugly head in the modern era.  Initially nurtured by the USA to counter the soviet invasion forces, the Mujahideen would soon spawn the Taliban and Al-Qaidah, one which took over power in Afghanistan and the other launching the deadliest terrorist attack in the world on 9/11 of 2001.  The long war that involved NATO forces in Afghanistan itself is winding down, but the democratic elections and the efforts at building the foundations of a modern nation remain fragile till now.


But these cases were just a few from the many that could have been analyzed.  Here our thematic panels looked at the issues that crossed geographic boundaries and unleashed different sorts of profound forces onto the world scene.


Broader Thematic Considerations:


If we look at the results of the unstoppable drive for globalization of communications, capital movements and trade, we will have to acknowledge that it has been accompanied by increasing inequality within countries and widening gaps between the poorest countries and the rest of the world.  How countries can capture the benefits that are offered by globalization without having to suffer the rising inequalities that tend to undermine social cohesion and political stability in countries around the world.


So the conference went much further, and looked beyond the individual country cases to address the broad thematic issues of our time.  We looked at  (i) Radicalization and migration;  (ii) energy security; (iii) global inequality; (iv) human rights and women’s empowerment;  (v) interfaith dialogue; and (vi)

multi-culturalism and integration.


I believe that each of these themes deserves a major conference of its own.  But I will limit my observations at this point to two of the big issues:


The Muslim World: Radicalization and cleavages:


Most important of the many cleavages that exist at present is the split between the Muslim word and the non-Muslim world.  Here within the large Muslim world that covers Muslim-majority countries stretching from Morocco to Indonesia and from central Asia to the heart of Africa, there are major conflicts.  These lands have become fertile ground for extremist and violent political movements that try to provide legitimacy for their barbaric ideologies by proclaiming a bigoted and distorted pseudo-Islamic religious discourse as they play upon the problems of inequity and frustrated national dreams of youth in many of these societies.   These intolerant currents blame the west generally and the US specifically for the failures of their societies and attack non-Muslims as well as moderate liberal Muslims who do not agree with their dogmatic, intolerant versions of Islam.  These increasingly strident and bigoted groups are waging war on all who disagree with them, and have carried out campaigns of terror in their vicinity and beyond, into the heart of the western countries themselves.   


But beyond the ferocity of the intra-Muslim fighting and the endless conflicts that

have destroyed any semblance of the authority of the state in many places, the extremist, violent part of the Muslim Ummah is being challenged by more learned and moderate groups who want to change the prevalent religious discourse and who believe that if military and security measures are necessary to re-establish the rule of law and the authority of the state, ideas are only ultimately destroyed by ideas.


So, Intra-faith and inter-faith dialogue is badly needed and should be intensified where it already exists.  Yet there are some considerable obstacles to be overcome, including the recognition of the universality of human rights and the absolute centrality of women’s empowerment and that the world’s great religions all need to find their own paths to acknowledge the  critical importance of these issues.




So if we go back from that set of issues to the problems of inequalities globally, regionally and locally, we must also acknowledge the multi-dimensional reality of the notions of inequality, for inequality is not just about income.  It is that the people concerned consider that the whole process is fundamentally unfair.  The weak feel disenfranchised, marginalized, excluded and always living on the edge without firm prospects to look forward to.   If we are to address that rising inequality we need to understand the mechanisms through which multiple inequalities interact and are created, maintained, and reproduced.  We need to go way beyond the statistical aspects of income and jobs, and attend to culture, social norms and values, and religion, as well as to material economy, politics and resources.


If new political programs are to be effective in addressing the issues of rising inequalities they need to be designed to address the insights that emerge from the applications of the insights generated by new techniques of social sciences.  We must complement statistical measurement with subjective assessments of people’s relative well-being across a range of indicators (social acceptance, personal safety, health, education, housing, employment, financial stability, community influence, etc.), disaggregated by characteristics relevant to discrimination. Anthropological and participatory approaches go further, encouraging even key concepts, criteria and meanings to be defined by people themselves, according to local language, experience, history and identity.  If we do not combine the standard global statistical analysis with these more local in depth realities, the anger will continue to build up among the disadvantaged, and the policies and programs that are being designed will be ineffective in addressing the socio-economic and cultural dimensions of inequality. 


Effective programs based on insightful analysis will be needed to develop truly inclusive societies.  Business as usual cannot be allowed to continue.  The revolt of the masses is already on the march: witness the unfolding American election, witness the rise of the right wing protest parties in Europe.




Finally, a salute to the youth who will fashion the future and bend it to their dreams.  I was therefore delighted that in this distinguished meeting at Baku the organizers made room for a group of “Young Leaders” to present their view on the current state of the world and to sketch out their potential solutions to key challenges.


So, on the whole, our conference was profound and instructive, but it still raised important questions that deserve more in depth discussion.  The delineation of the program for Baku 5 is beginning to emerge from these valuable questions left only partially answered.  So let us get ready to meet again in 2017 and carry this thoughtful discussion further to an effective vision of a future where human values are respected, where our common humanity is celebrated, where gender balance is achieved and where sharing, inclusive societies become the norm rather than the exception.




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