At the end of World War II, French philosopher and statesman Alexandre Kojève attempts to make sense of the new world unfolding before his eyes. The time of European nation-states, he predicts, is now over: too great are the global challenges for such a small-scale political community. But the time for humanity to constitute itself as a single political subject has not yet come. Ours, Kojève wrote in 1945, will be the time of empires. Philosophers are ahead of their time. And indeed it is precisely today that this prophecy is finally coming true.
Look around and you will find signs everywhere: the world is fragmenting. Whether we talk about de-globalization, multipolarism, new protectionism or competition between great powers, the end of History is over, and with it the unipolar moment in which a single political model, liberal democracy, and a single economic model, neoliberal globalization, reigned undisputed.
It is not only the Chinese challenge to American hegemony or the Russian challenge to European freedom that speak to us of a world in turmoil. What is happening before our eyes acts on a far more significant time scale. It is two centuries of unrivaled Western hegemony over the world that are drawing to a close. The new day opens the door to a future full of promise and contradictions, where India, Indonesia, Turkey or Brazil play a complex chess game with the West and each other. Great spaces, or empires, regain prominence on the world stage.
But ours would not be a time of change if it were not a paradoxical time. And indeed, the disarticulation of the world is accompanied by the overbearing emergence of challenges of undisputed planetary character. Whether it is the climate crisis or the governance of artificial intelligence, pandemics or migration, it is humanity as a whole that is challenged by the advancing future.
It is to act on this time and paradox that the Berggruen Institute has just opened its European headquarters in the Casa dei Tre Oci in Venice, complementing its existing centers in Los Angeles and Beijing. The Institute has a peculiarity that would not have displeased Alexandre Kojève at all: idealism. Not simply in the banal sense of utopian hope, but in its philosophical definition: the belief, that is, that it is ideas that move the world. It is no accident that the institute annually awards “the Nobel Prize in Philosophy,” a million-dollar prize to the philosopher whose ideas have most advanced human knowledge.
Thanks to its new European and Italian headquarters, the Institute now enjoys a unique feature: the ability to connect the intellectual worlds of the United States, China and Europe and thus animate a truly planetary conversation about the changing world.
But if it is ideas that move the world, then here is where this dialogue cannot fall prey to petty intellectual caboose. We will need ideas free from the self-censorship of the contingent and the immediately achievable. For if History is not over, that leaves us with only one certainty: that the future will look nothing like the present. It is to that future there that we must turn our gaze with ambition.
After World War II, driven by terror toward our own dastardly destructive power, we were able to build global institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the whole world architecture named after Bretton Woods, the small New Hampshire town where it was conceived. Is it conceivable to renew these institutions today and bring the planet to shelter before a catastrophe forces our hand? Is it possible to imagine new planetary realities that govern, for example, artificial intelligence, health, or the response to the long climate crisis?
Europe can play a central role as a laboratory. For should the most politically, economically, and culturally integrated continent prove incapable of building true unity among its peoples, should it revert to provincial competition among its small states, this would be a dramatic prelude to the world to come. If, on the other hand, it succeeds in building a true politics beyond the mental and material boundaries of the nation-state, here it would then prefigure a possible new organization of the world.
Europe is often spoken of as a continent in decline, destined to become a great museum for the newly rich rising powers. Italy seems to discount this prophecy more than others, and Venice, home of the Institute, is perhaps its main symbol. But what if Europe became a laboratory of the world instead?
That is the wager behind the birth of the European headquarters of the Berggruen Institute. Casa dei Tre Oci will become a house of ideas, hosting thinkers, writers, scientists and economists from all over the planet to animate that planetary conversation that today eludes politics. So that it is our collective intelligence-and not, as in Kojève’s time, a great catastrophe-that will propel and guide the reorganization of our planet in turmoil.