– Is a world without walls compatible with Cultural Diversity and Regional Autonomy?

Lecture given by the Honorable Alfred Sant on 8 November 2009 in Berlin at A World Without Walls – An International Congress on “Soft Power”, Cultural Diplomacy and Interdependence, organized by the Academy for Cultural Diplomacy
  November 08th, 2009

Honorable Alfred Sant at A World Without Walls – An International Congress on “Soft Power”, Cultural Diplomacy and Interdependence – November 8th , 2009

We are deploying the metaphor of  “a world without walls” as we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was hardly a metaphor, hardly an image. That event stood for, and came to symbolize, the achievement by which – mainly through popular action – personal liberties were regained, real democracy was installed, the repressive boundaries of the state were rolled back and eventually national reunification of the German people was secured.

It was an event that rejoiced all democrats world wide, of left and right, and remains with us in memory and practice, as an event that demonstrates how state organized repression carries within it the seeds of its own collapse.

Such repression, and on the scale practised in former East Germany, generates huge social and economic distortions that affect in a deep way people’s consciousness and lifestyles. George Orwell’s novel “1984” had mapped the structures of behaviour that come to be adopted by normal people, as the instructions coming from the totalitarian state get wired into their day to day behaviour.

Whether they want to or not, even if they individually do not experience direct coercion, people alter their own beliefs about personal integrity, as well as their understanding of human liberty and the conduct of personal relations, to accomodate the pressures of totalitarianism. This they do at huge human cost. For one thing they lose their sense of autonomy, as shown in von Donnersmark’s brilliant film about life behind the Berlin Wall, “The Lives of Others”.


Not surprisingly then, when such a wall collapses, the people living the moment… and indeed even those who watch it happen from a distance… feel, understand and remember it as a liberating experience. Even more so when the collapse takes place very fast, as happened with the Berlin Wall.

Perhaps nothing in Willy Brandt’s memoirs is as moving as the final coda where he discusses briefly the sudden surge of events that culminated in the destruction of the wall by people on both sides of it. It seems as if the apparatus of repression and totalitarian control established behind walls that strictly separate the inside from the outside, cannot develop towards a gradual relaxation of controls, cannot decay slowly. There is no intermediate position. Totalitarian repression must either persist, no matter how atrophied it has become, or it will collapse.

The fall of the Berlin wall took place in a context where other walls… made of ideological and political dogma, restrictive laws, more forceful security apparata, economic and social dictats… that then prevailed all over Eastern Europe, were also coming down.

A man and his team who were running the then-USSR tried to organize a graduated change. With perestroika and glasnost, Gorbachev seemed aware of the danger of collapse and determined to move the levers which would slowly relax the controls, and renew the rigid structures of power and management. But then everything came tumbling down.

Clearly the collapse of the political and economic systems of Eastern Europe cannot be traced to just one cause. A complex interplay of pressures was involved, from US President Reagan’s strategy of playing the game of military competition between the then Superpowers to the hilt; to the global profile taken by Pope Paul John II and his impact on Polish affairs; to the endemic underperformance of Eastern European economies including that of the USSR; and the spread of new communications technologies that made many techniques of censorship and social control increasingly inefficient – so that ideas could no longer be contained as easily as before.

Previously, in the early fifties in Berlin, then in the middle fifties in Hungary, and in 1968 in

Czechoslovakia, dissent had briefly erupted in the closed hegemonic structures that stretched from Moscow to the capitals of Eastern Europe. It was beaten back by the overriding forces of repression, deployed across national frontiers and inside them. In Poland as of the early eighties, there were new rumblings and the regime budged, but still the problem seemed manageable within the existing frameworks.

However, all those precedents were not a good guide to what would be happening twenty years ago. The fall of the Berlin wall was a victory for popular and national forces which had been subjected for decades to overriding state repression. It also became the symbol for the ultimate futility of a closed, inward-looking totalitarianism; indeed for the futility over the long term, of trying to dam up the creative, democratic human urges that are present in any society.

The cause of liberty achieved success. Its negation had demonstrably become non-viable and unstable, and therefore subject to sudden catastrophic collapse. The idea that walls, buttressed by a wideranging and hard security apparatus, could guarantee the existence of a repressive system, was not only obnoxious in principle. It was proved to be a historical mistake…


You cannot build a “new” society, any society, on repression, coercion and isolation. The walls will break.

To those of my generation, born in the early years after the Second World War, the world that developed in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall and its accompanying events, was suddenly a very different one to the world we had always known. The experience was unsettling. We had become used to the dichotomy of a world split into two so-called opposing camps, to a Europe hived off under the labels of East and West. That, for most of us, was a given, which in the logic of an international tug of war, from Rome to Athens to Budapest, from Cairo to Djakarta to Saigon, defined the context of relationships between states and peoples, as well as within states and peoples.

For some of us then, including myself, there was the possibility of a third way, represented by neutrality and non-alignment. It became the leading doctrine for a group of newly decolonised countries and societies, which would refuse to formally take a position on the relative merits or demerits of the two different East-West systems that competed for power and influence across regions and continents.

More than political, the choice was a cultural one – a refusal to be forced into choosing between systems in the confrontational context of alliances and counter-alliances that the two systems insisted on maintaining. Naturally, we would have our own preference for the types of societies that prevailed in the East and West. But our appreciation of how things stood was coloured by the belief that there existed a global balance between the two main worldviews… that which was to be found “inside” the “wall” and that outside… though again, where the real “inside” and real “outside” should be found, depended on one’s preference regarding choice of society.

Indeed, the closer the power balance was between the two sides, the more manageable became the pressures that sought to force one to tilt towards one alliance or another; the wider became the space within which one’s own cultural identity, as well as national and regional autonomy could be affirmed.

To be sure, the world-wide balance between the Superpowers shifted all the time, and seemed to be doing so mostly through incremental changes. With hindsight, one can see now that the shifts which were more significant over the long term, were those happening in the dimensions of the popular consciousness of peoples, and perhaps in the dimension of economic transformation, rather than in those of military and political manoeuvering.

When the collapse of the Soviet system was accomplished, symbolised by the destruction of the Berlin Wall, we had to adjust our focus and thought about events around us, inside and outside our own countries, to account for the new reality. Neutral and non-aligned between what and what? – since one of the two sides in the balance had vanished. It was a new and fast changing reality. And it is still changing: originally, post 1989, a unipolar system with only one Superpower instead of two; but even that soon came to be qualified as the one Superpower overreached itself; is still being qualified in surprising ways.  The readjustment continues…


Even so, the dominant metaphor for the changeover remains that of a collapsing wall. It still provides a potent image of how liberty is constrained by walls that separate peoples from each other, and of how with the destruction of such walls, the potential for human emancipation is released and enhanced.

Yet, it would be naive to deny that events which occurred during the past twenty years have themselves again further altered the way by which we can understand what makes a world without walls… or with walls… function.

It may have been amended with time, but the metaphor of a world without walls – rooted as it is in the Berlin experience – still serves as a legitimising cachet for the deep and accelerating changes that were made possible by the events of the late eighties: chief among which, the globalisation process.

It is no exagerration to suggest that as globalisation has spread during the last twenty years, beyond the economic arguments that we have all been exposed to, its legitimacy was underwritten in the popular mind, by the fall of the Berlin Wall. For by definition, globalisation is a phenomenon which accepts no walls world wide. If the removal of the wall in Berlin was a good thing for the German people and all other European peoples – which it undoubtedly was and is, then is it not reasonable to believe the same thing about the removal of all other walls separating the peoples of the world, their societies, their markets, their communcations?

For the last twenty years, walls… and their absence… have served rhetorically as a metaphor for the human condition today – for the organization of human society – to illustrate the kind of open and free, human associations that we consider to be desirable in our world. As a metaphor, it frames the kind of political decisions that must be targeted or avoided, as well as the economic and cultural space that we would like to develop for our societies. Yet the way by which we now understand our present use of the metaphor of walls to describe our aspirations for the human condition, is strongly coloured by the recent past that we have just lived. For it is a metaphor that was also used in the not-so-distant past, and not always in a repressive sense.

There is the relatively trivial metaphor of walls serving as supporting structures for houses. You certainly need walls to keep buildings safe and sound, which by any standards should be considered positive… but let us put that meaning aside. And not just because of the nursery rhyme about how three little pigs built their house, one of straw, the other of sticks, the other of bricks.

Beyond it, there have been other times, other situations, other myths, other realities… and even now, they still prevail… where the vision of walls had a specifically protective aura that was not at all negative. Or where it related to the needs and desires of people with a very different meaning from that attached to it post-Berlin.

Consider the dams, the dykes, the walls that protect Holland from being submerged under the sea. When I was young, we read at school over and over again the story of a Dutch boy who at night, by chance, found that the wall, the dyke, protecting his village had sprung a leak. If it was left unattended, in a short while the dam would break, with disastrous consequences. The boy put his arm in the hole in the wall to plug it and spent the whole night trying to keep the water back and sustain the wall.

In that context, the wall needed to be maintained, not destroyed. The boy’s initiative was one of heroic solidarity with his community. And the morale of the story was that sometimes, you do need a world with walls. And you need to defend those walls.

Or let me recall that other story, about the walls of Jericho. When Joshua sounded his trumpets, the walls of the city blew up.

Surely this metaphor typifies how in tribal terms, the rights of conquest come to be legitimised, indeed promoted. The community that is carrying out what by modern day standards would be called naked aggression, needs to be backed by a powerful and determined Godhead.

Or consider the image of the Great Wall of China, still promoted as a symbol of how the Chinese nation withstood foreign predators and in turn, discarded the notion of itself invading others.

That Great Wall is projected too as one of the wonders of the world, the only man-made structure that can be seen from the moon. So here, we have a wall that becomes a symbol for mankind’s presence in the Universe…

Then even today, there are no inhibitions in electronic parlance to set up “firewalls” around our computer files and e-mails. We fully accept that we need such walls in order to safeguard the integrity of our communications systems and networks.


What this popular imagery seems to indicate is that one cannot simply assume that a world without walls is unproblematic. In reality, since the Berlin Wall fell, other walls have gone up, or have been sustained.

In Palestine-Israel, a big new wall has been built by the Israelis, that crosses a sizeable patch of terrain, goes through inhabited townplaces, indeed through houses, and divides Arab inhabited from Israeli occupied territory. The rationale for this wall is to prevent terrorist infiltration from one side of the land to the other. It has also served to inflame further hate and deepseated antagonisms between Palestinians and Israelis.

Meanwhile, between the U.S. and Mexico, a fence has been set up – surely a wall in its own right – crossing huge breaks of territory. It is manned round the clock to turn back the waves of illegal migrants moving from Mexico to the U.S., looking for work.

And if we extend the wall metaphor to make it cover all forms of barriers, the ongoing worldwide tussle about tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade in goods and services is still a permanent feature of our diplomatic reality. In this game, the players for and against walls are interchangeable; they come from east, west, north, south; and shift their positions according to tactical considerations of national and regional interests. Which highlights the point that like yesterday, attitudes to the existence of walls, or their absence, are not held absolutely in the “world without walls” of today.

The unplanned or unwanted movement of tribal communities; the need to assert social control; the fear of invasion; the migration of people seeking safety and refuge or work; terrorism; taxes, duties and prohibitions on the passage of merchandise: these have always been the great rationales for the construction of walls. They still remain so, even today.


However now, the dominant perspective is that an open world, a world without walls, is clearly the ideal to strive for. Beyond the point that in general terms, such a proposition is and should be welcome; beyond the other point that in reality, there are great parts of our world where walls still exist or have been newly put up to divide peoples and civilisations from each other: this dominant perspective implies that a world without walls is unproblematic. In such a view, the challenges, dilemmas, tensions are open to a solution, should be solved and will eventually be solved in a positive manner.

The real meaning here is that even if there are costs associated with such solutions… and there are likely to be… the relevant costs can be judged as of now to be acceptable, when compared to the wider good that will result from the very existence of a world without walls. Even if not self-evident, the temptation is to assume this conclusion as correct, rather than to estimate what it involves by way of costs and benefits.

However, would such an attitude be a reasonable one?

The question admittedly leads us on to ambiguous terrain. It leads us to consider whether a world that is so desirable in principle and in practice – a world without walls – might not also carry intended and unintended consequences, some very negative, that cannot just be shrugged aside.

Such a reflection would, I believe, lead us back to the effect that the collapse of the Berlin Wall had on our world, as a leading metaphor by which to promote the ideals of a world without walls. Its symbolic impact remains vibrant even if, as already said, the events in Berlin of twenty years ago did not stand by themselves. In some analyses, they were not even a primary cause of the changes that happened then and since. Yet still, they serve to legitimise the ongoing transformations of globalisation.

First and foremost, there is a dimension which in my view should be regarded as the least problematic of all – but this again, one could say, is my value judgement coming into focus: namely the dimension by which the primacy of human and democratic rights is asserted in the conduct of diplomatic affairs, of relations between states. The emergence of this concept and its lopsided, partial implementation over the years, predates by almost two decades the end of the eighties.

The primacy of human rights in the conduct of diplomacy started as a concept that was strictly outside the diplomatic pale, even if it was enshrined in the founding documents of the United Nations. When I studied to become a diplomat in the late sixties, the respect of national sovereignty was still the leading principle. Interference by one state in the internal affairs of other nation states immediately put the party attempting such a manoeuvre in the wrong.

The Helsinki negotiating process at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe during the seventies, with its basket covering human rights and cultural issues that cut across frontiers, prised those diplomatic barriers open. Not only did it become legitimate to make internal human rights issues a matter for diplomatic negotiation between states, but the issues started getting used in that way during direct negotiations between the then Superpowers.

Naturally the process was overcharged at all levels with state hypocrisy. Matters raised were selectively chosen, with a view to service the global or regional interests of those who raised them. But to the peoples and individuals who were being discriminated against, or whose rights were being abused, and whose plight became highlighted under the new understanding, the development naturally constituted an important boost to their struggle. When eventually, the Soviet regime too collapsed, human rights probes into the internal affairs of states became an important tool in the diplomatic arsenal and an integral component of the globalisation process.

In this area, my bias would be to agree without reservations that such a development, so long as it follows transparent rules that are applicable equally to all, is a good thing, no matter what the costs… if any, in this case… might be.

However, there are other important dimensions, affecting the lives of billions of people, to the ongoing spread of the world without walls we now live in. The real power behind it has been the full thrust of an economic model that seemed to come into its own on a global scale, plus the huge technological breakthroughs in the communications fields. These two phenomena while interacting with – and boosting – each other, have ensured that the globalisation of economic space became the most potent factor in our world without walls. As a result, contemporary political understanding and language have largely become digitised into the formats of economic symbolism.


The model followed, described as self-regulating, has been neo-liberal in scope and thrust. Free market policies coupled to a wideranging deregulation and world-wide privatisation of economic assets previously owned by the state, have made our worldview one that is almost totally defined by capitalist principles. A world without walls increasingly has come to signify that the same market rules must apply everywhere instantaneously, with former national markets subjected to the same play of investment, financial and strategic decision-making.

To be sure, the internationalisation of capitalist business has been going on for long centuries. It accelerated during the past century. In its middle decades, US so-called multinationals played a leading role in linking investment across national and continental markets, mainly in manufacturing, though services were soon to follow. Later these companies and other conglomerates, not only from the US but also from Europe and Japan, called transnationals in the jargon of those days, further bound together financial investments, product branding, sourcing and manufacture, and exploitation of raw materials into a global weave.

Today, global corporations from all continents, run by a wide brotherhood of financial, managerial and professional elites, make our world without walls one that responds in large part to capitalist, free market rationales.

However, the capitalism involved has little to do with the classic model of medium to small sized firms competing freely under conditions of transparent competition, where prices serve as efficient information signals regarding the products and services on offer, thereby empowering consumers to choose freely.

A main consequence of the dismantling of economic walls was not the proliferation of millions of new businesses, but the consolidation of economic decision making within institutionalised oligopolies, operating on a world scale. Raw material resources, investment decisions, the shaping of product market quadrants for production and consumption, have become increasingly subject across our world without walls, to centralised control.


Clearly the new information technologies have helped to boost this trend. Yet these new technologies also apparently gave the individual a new voice…

But that voice became one in a stream of a billion billion voices, all separated from each other, and rarely able to mobilise into an effective and coherent community or lobby.

There have been dysfunctional outcomes resulting from this state of affairs. Yet, even in the wake of the unprecedented global economic and financial recession we have just been through, it seems that there exists a certain unwillingness to discuss these dysfunctions meaningfully, that is with a view to reform what needs to be reformed.

For instance, it is clear that in our world without walls, the global economy is run on inherently undemocratic lines. One can argue, as is sometimes done, that democracy has nothing to do with economic management, especially on a global scale… Perhaps.

To be sure, in terms of the technocratic options that should define global economic management, pros and cons have been and are being raised. But it has been said quite rightly, that in the main, the debate is led and conducted by people who have a personal stake in the existing power structures of the global economy.

Nor is enough attention given to the view that as globalisation proceeded, insufficient care was taken to prevent or contain economic and social disruptions that have caused great human hardship. Instead, we are invited most of the time, to see it as self-evident that by and large, economic globalisation under the present model has improved the fortunes of huge numbers of people, beyond what would have happened under different scenarios. I remember that such was the position immediately adopted on this topic by an EU commissioner who visited me not so long ago; and he was politically on the left.

Yet recent studies about the measurement of poverty have shown that the benchmarks being used to determine the welfare of the poor as globalisation gathered pace, did not reflect adequately existing situations. They overstated the improvement of living standards. Moreover, the pitiful economic state of wideranging territories in Africa surely underscores the point that the spread of economic prosperity has been less than even… to put it mildly…

Meanwhile, the recent recession with its deep knock-on effects from sector to sector, from economy to economy, from region to region, has highlighted the possibility that the present model of economic globalisation – though claimed to be self-regulating – is  inherently susceptible to sudden instability. Like computer viruses, financial malpractice and a propensity for excessive financial risk seeking, spread from continent to continent. Their effects multiplied and infiltrated, held back by no wall. We came close to total collapse.

After all, such a collapse would not have been too dissimilar in format to what happened on a regional scale, twenty years ago to the world boxed within walls.


I would like however to look beyond the immediate economic context in order to discuss briefly some political, cultural and social implications of “a world without walls”, seen as a legitimating metaphor for the globalisation process, in the roll this process has enjoyed for the past twenty years or so.

My focus will be cultural diversity and regional autonomy, both to be interpreted as loosely as possible.

Cultural diversity would refer to the manifest variety of lifestyles, of behaviour patterns and of belief systems, which characterises human life around the globe.

Regional autonomy would refer to separate and viable ways of living acquired within identifiable geographical spaces. In such spaces, a given human society, or a number of human societies interacting closely, have achieved economic and social complementarities that now define the way of life of their component communities.

Such cultural diversity and regional autonomy could have been achieved naturally, without any restrictions on traffic with outside regions. Or they could have been constructed historically, through protective devices. The point is that today, they exist and function.

In our world without walls, protective or restrictive barriers to ideas, contacts, trade coming from “outside”, are seen in and of themselves, as destructive to the human potential for growth and development. At their least noxious, such barriers inhibit the possibilities by which to improve the quality of life of individuals. At their worst, as in the case of the DDR, protective walls serve as apparata by which a ruling dictatorial elite oppresses “its” citizens or subjects.

However, historically there have been other factors, not just walls or other barriers imposed by human decisions, which defined differences or varieties between life forms. Among the most obvious: physical distance, at times when communication was primitive. Such physical distance meant that in their separateness, societies developed different ways of understanding life and of living it.

Again, that distance, that separateness, may have been ethnic or religious in scope, or characterised by the physical features of the region in which the relevant tribes, communities, urban centres had developed. It may have resulted from different organizing principles by which work was carried out and by which wealth was accumulated and distributed. All this led to varieties of human behaviour, to cultural and regional diversities, that are astounding in their complexity, as can be agreed if one contemplates the phenomenon of language for example.

These varieties form part of the rich texture of human life, part of our common heritage… in their very distinctiveness.

True, cultural diversity has contributed to ignorance of, and prejudice about, the achievements and worlds views of others… It has contributed to pogroms and unspeakable atrocities. But that is just the dark side.

At the other end, through the variations of difference and adaptation that can be summed up under the term of cultural diversity, there has been a huge accumulation of human experiences, reflecting physical, economic, social, psychic and cultural habitats and interactions.


Like biological ecosystems, these communal experiences developed gradually, sometimes through a give and take with other comparable systems, sometimes not. They generated their own deep structures of identity and change, as well as their responses to threats and disturbances arising from internal or external stimuli. Presumably, one does not have to argue whether this huge range of human responses to the challenges of social reproduction and adaptability is an asset or a drag. The bias of official rhetoric across the planet is theoretically, in favour of considering such variety as an asset that needs to be safeguarded.

But safeguarded as what? As ongoing viable systems? Or as museum pieces, which have to be preserved as a record, as part of human history? After the downfall of “all” walls, or almost: in a world without walls… should new walls be set up to protect existing human varieties of interaction and communication, just like the efforts deployed to protect ancient tribes in the Amazon or in Papua New Guinea from the encroachments of modernization and mining?

To which a possible answer could be: the variety of human customs and lifestyles reflects the material and social conditions of a given time, and will respond to changes in that reality. Cultures must respond as self guiding systems, they must today demonstrate their viability under the prods and pushes of globalisation. If available cultural modes are sufficiently “alive” and “relevant”, they will not only survive and adapt, but they will also in their own renewal, give rise to new forms of diversity. Where they cannot do so, pity or not, their demise must be accepted and their past existence registered as a matter of record.

The problem here is that with globalisation and the technologies that underpin it, we have witnessed everwidening pressures for uniformisation of lifestyles, of modes of expression and of consumption patterns. The phenomenon is driven harder by the neo-liberal economic logic which has up to now powered the globalisation process.

As a result, cultural diversity could become increasingly restricted. Not only must it remain adaptive while facing forces that have huge economic and communications power world-wide. More significantly, its inherent attractiveness in projecting a sense of identity will wane. The likelihood then is for a shrinkage in the variety of cultural and behavioural responses among societies, paralleling the overall uniformisation of the global economic and social environment.

Is this a good or a bad thing?

With regard to our natural environment, the assumption has been that the reduction of species variety for example, is a bad thing. The response when it comes to cultural diversity has been more muted. In the end, the final response will need to be grounded on moral considerations, even if these are alien to the ideology of free market capitalism.

The human condition is defined by the texture and depth of the cultural experiences which make up our societies. Reducing that richness, making its future more difficult and constricted, should imply a cultural impoverishment of lives and relationships.

On the other hand, if such impoverishment is compensated for by improved economic living standards and levels of communication inside societies and with other “outside” societies, then some might consider that morally, the price is a reasonable one.

There is another consideration to be kept in mind.

We need to preserve as wide a range as possible of cultural responses to changes in our habitat. What may appear as a freakish, minority mode of behaviour could conceivably in the not so distant future, provide us with valuable adaptation mechanisms in reaction to changes in our physical, social and cultural environments. Allowing existing cultural niches to die a “natural” death under the pressures of globalisation, might be depriving us in the future of the means by which to respond adequately to emerging contingencies.

Yes, there is an argument against extrapolating from biological to cultural systems. But the analogy, if analogy it is, cannot simply be shrugged aside.

For I would go further to argue that in and of itself, cultural diversity needs to be sustained because it contributes to the quality of the human condition. As a value, it could be as important as considerations relating to the improvement of economic welfare, if not more. It could indeed be assimilated to the primacy of human rights in the conduct of our affairs. Which is where the moral dimension comes again into its own…


However, one could argue that the resolution of moral questions in our world without walls, under free market conditions of neo-liberalism, should remain a side issue, and this even despite the firm application at diplomatic level of human rights principles. The overall system, open as it is to change, is required to be self-regulating. The less barriers there are, the more operating conditions of production and exchange will be equalised. Resources, material as well as human, will then find their best level of interaction… by definition.

Which is where questions of regional autonomy and cultural diversity interlink. Conceptually, regional autonomy is compatible with globalization when it successfully safeguards the interests of regional communities having shared interests by allowing them to regulate their own affairs, according to their shared economic endowments, while fully importing and observing the norms of a globalising “world without walls”. In practice, the difficulty is to keep such an approach compatible both with the political and cultural logic of autonomy, and with the economic logic of a world without walls.

One response has been to widen the definition of an autonomous region. Two centuries ago that definition was national in scope, at least in Europe, such as with the unification of Italy or of Germany. Today, the scale has shifted to the continental, which from the European Union to NAFTA has met with varying degrees of success. By making the region take on the contours of a continent, the strategy has been to first remove walls inside the enlarged region, so that it would be in better shape to eventually participate in the global system operating without walls.

This approach is not without its difficulties. For continental systems to function effectively in a globalised situation, internal regional cohesion must be maintained, through the continent as a whole and through its subsystems. The same method of uniformisation that applies globally must then apply internally within the region. Despite the official rhetoric, this can best be done through one-size-fits-all approaches, applied via a spectrum of neo-liberal economic policies that do in fact, best fit such a proposition. However, sub-systems which are regions as a matter of history, as well as peripheral areas, are likely to be affected negatively by one-size-fits-all measures.

The problems that this gives rise to have been evidenced quite clearly by the European Union, even if it has taken extensive steps to counter them, and often camouflages quite well the problems that persist. Aware of the tensions that must arise between a drive towards continental unity and the urge to preserve regional autonomy, concepts like subsidiarity in decision making have been honed and in many cases applied strongly and with a certain good faith. But sometimes they have been stymied by the need to drive forward uniformisation in practices and in decision making modes, even if they were bound to antagonise citizens. The latter resent being made to feel they had become atoms in a huge sea, with less power over their lives than formerly.

An ongoing paradox in the European Union today remains this: that whenever new projects to introduce a higher degree of common decision-making are presented in referenda to “regional” or national communities, they are voted down. Which could indicate that there is a popular fear that regional autonomy in the context of a globalised world without walls, has become meaningless.


Part of the problem is that there is an inherent hypocrisy in the way by which we consider our world without walls. Theoretically at least, we consider investment flows, trade, hot money, and all other exchanges between regions as equivalent in scope and impact. Yet in practice, it cannot be like so.

Displacement of product and services sources is not the same kind of experience as displacement of job holders and neighbours, even if the two phenomena proceed in parallel. There is economic and social friction when people lose jobs while others are boosting their lifestyles. But there is even greater economic and social friction, and it is of a different nature, when displaced people having different cultures, lifestyles and skin colour move into one’s neighbourhood and pretend full access to the available jobs and welfare services, just like the big investors who went into the country of the displaced people, had full access to the mineral or forestry resources present there.

Such tensions are of course exploited by the far and not so extreme right in most continents of our world without walls. But it is wrong to allow only these political elements to take into account the emotional issues involved. The truth is what it is, must be faced for what it is, and then dealt with for what it is, with honesty and with full respect for the rights of all peoples to live a good life in our world without walls.

Cultural diversity and regional autonomy are likely to decline in a world, where globalisation proceeds according to free market principles with minimal regulation. That point must be recognised.

As local attachments and supports loosen, individuals might come to feel weaker than before in the face of forces which are shaping their life. Such forces are impersonal and appear to be coming from far off places. A sense of powerlessness increases. This operates at the level of the individual conscience, but it can equally well apply at the level of whole communities or networks of individuals.

For those who deeply contest this state of openness and the power structures operating at a global level that come with it, for those who believe that what they see around them amounts to a profoundly unjust state of affairs which seeks to destroy their identity and values, it might seem as if the only way to organize resistance is through clandestine solidarity.

It might seem that the best way to do this would be through a shared faith or kinship, subjected to strict discipline, one that recognizes no value outside those set by clandestine solidarity based on “traditional” lifestyles, while aknowledging no rules in striking at our world without walls.

Can it be that in a world without walls, with the architecture we have for it as of now, one that arguably undermines cultural diversity and regional autonomy, the temptation to turn to terrorism is bound to increase? For taking a peep at the other side of the looking glass fron our world without walls, it is possible to imagine a logic of commitment and action that would view terrorism as the only “rational” way by which to preserve localised value and power systems.


The paradox then would be that in turn, in order to protect our world without walls, new protective measures must be devised, as they have been devised, to establish adequate protective mechanisms against such threats to the security of our world without walls. They would include measures relating to hard and soft power, including wider surveillance of people, pre-emptive strikes to forestall violence, stronger controls over potential suspects and so on. In the process, as has been happening, freedom of movement for goods, services and people might have to be burdened with new capillary procedures, and citizens might have to accept curtailment of their rights to privacy, among others.

I remember a meeting I had some years back, in the presence of the US ambassador to my country with a visiting US Army general. He explained about the new programme the US Army was running to identify and track world wide the significant social and cultural developments that were happening in different regions, so as to forestall changes which could lead to violence and instability. He was in charge of a region going from north to central Africa, and among other assignments had to devise projects of soft intervention and cooperation to win the hearts and minds of people, turning them away from ideas of sabotage and terrorism.

His presentation was focussed and very intelligent, and it was clear that the programme he ran was well funded. When I asked whether it fell into the same orbit as the country programmes and reports that were annually issued during the sixties and seventies by the CIA and the Defence Department, he assured me that this was a new approach designed to cope with the newly arising threats of our times.

Though privately appalled, I did not comment, given the fervour and commitment which characterised the briefing. Providing huge resources to an army so that it can run “soft” power programmes in order to detect and defuse emerging social and economic “threats”, indeed as a form of preventive warfare, seemed to me to be turning upside down the whole concept of an open society or of a world without walls, if you like. …No doubt the programme that we learnt about on that day is still running.

The real problem is not whether the defence of a world without walls should rely or not on the military strength of one Superpower or another. The real problem is that even a world without walls – so desirable in principle – needs to maintain its legitimacy, and to consider this legitimacy as the main anchor for whatever it stands for.

Part of that legitimacy will need to devolve from the assurance that interests and concerns arising out of cultural diversity and regional autonomy will have their space within which to develop. It seems to me that under the conditions of neo-liberal market rules applied on a global scale, legitimacy will remain problematic.

The real problen is that our world without walls does not operate according to rules that are perceived by all or by most as being stable, democratic or fair. By reasons of being global, the viruses of financial or economic malfunction can spread quickly and affect all. By virtue of the mechanisms that reinforce the power of those who are already powerful, interests and concerns which are weak or have reduced economic leverage find themselves increasingly marginalised. The conclusion that cultural diversity and regional autonomy are hardly sustainable over the medium to long term under such conditions cannot in my view, be discarded.

So what is the challenge?


The legitimacy of our world without walls as we know it today, cannot be taken for granted. It is not enough to proclaim that globalisation cannot be reversed. Perhaps it can; but even if not, globalisation can become compatible with the rise of new walls… for sure, in the way by which minds are manipulated and controlled, both by the defenders of our “world without walls”, and by its critics or foes.

One should perhaps therefore start from the point that it is crucial to sustain our world without walls along with the globalisation it characterised, for so long as it remains legitimate. For so long as it has a coherent and effective moral dimension. For so long as it comes under a rule of law, that applies equally to all. For so long as it holds the prospect of an international order, based on the rule of law, that is socially just. It is a huge agenda, but perhaps issues of global governance should not be shirked for much longer.

Meanwhile too, legitimacy could derive from positive measures to sustain cultural diversity and regional autonomy. This can only happen in the medium term if the promotion of competitive market forces is somehow subjected to an equitable division of labour according to fair rules that respect the principles of human rights and social justice.

True, such an approach would entail new economic and financial costs that are today factored out of the equation. They are carried as human costs which feature on no corporate balance sheet.

Even a world without walls becomes open to threats and collapse – like a world with walls – if it lacks a conscience that reflects on issues of justice and fair treatment for all. Without that conscience, and then the will to implement the findings of its reflections, a world without walls too might become undesirable.

Perhaps we will need a recharge of the popular spirit that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago, in order to renew the commitment towards real liberty and free personal existence that defines what is best in the human condition. The ultimate goal then would be to make our world without walls a truly better place for the entire human race.