Ko Colijn is director of Clingendael Institute. I did an internship at this institute being driven by the strong desire to understand the complexity of the world we live in, where everything seems to be connected. Clingendael Institute advises the government about global developments, and those seem to go faster than ever before. I went back to Clingendael to talk to Colijn and his view on how we can approach these fast-paced global developments as a unity. Now that we slowly start to realize that everything is connected with each other and our old principles of separation and controlling no longer serve us.
Text: Robin van den Maagdenberg
Is there a development in the current International political climate that makes your heart beat faster?
In international relations, there is a continuous danger of chaos, war and anarchism. Simply because there is no hierarchical structure and there is no higher power that can say “stop making war”. Laws of the jungle reigns supreme. Because of all these conflicts in the world, the realization that we as humans have to solve our own problems is rising. A very good development if you ask me. This development sometimes goes with two steps forward and then one step backwards. The terrorist attacks are a step backwards for example. There is a certain pessimism screaming “we can’t control this”, “we have to fight each other away”. This fighting paradigm is predominant nowadays but for the long term, I don’t believe it will be. Call me naive to say this but I am convinced that we will accomplish to live together without aggression. We might need two world wars to accomplish this.
If we want to live together without fear and violence, which values will then inevitably change?
Hundred years ago the primary goal was power, occupying land and oil. Today it’s still all about that. There is a group of people and organisations that profit from chaos. They gain power and strength by fear and uncertainty. There is another movement slowly rising too, though. A movement of people that realize that global issues can be solved if we work together. A movement that realizes that everything is connected to each other. That understanding is speeding up since we have no other choice. If we mess things up we eventually will find it back on our plates. Worse case it is purely out of self-serving; if we don’t do anything about Syria, we will have to pay the bill. Something like “I am not intrinsically motivated my tax money to be spent on that, but for my kids I will do it. Otherwise, we might end up with a tsunami of Wilders-a-likes.’ People are willing to grant something to someone else if they get better out of it. ‘If we both benefit from it I am willing to participate.’ A form of hidden self-serving. The world might get better out of it but there is a difference between granting something irrespective of your own situation. Can we, for example, overcome our fears and see the coming of the refugees in our countries without self-serving thoughts? Oftentimes it is just an idea that something has a negative impact on your own situation. Are we willing to examine that idea and go beyond our fears?
“We need crisis to prevent us of an even bigger crisis. Like we needed two world wars to say “that third world war should not happen.”
What role does empathy play in this process of change?
I think empathy occurs out of crisis. We need crisis to prevent us of an even bigger crisis. Like we needed two world wars to say “that third world war should not happen”. In a sense we need these crises to know where we don’t want to end up. Like when we needed to have the genocide to later introduce responsibility to protect. We act responsively. We aren’t yet aware enough to really feel what is good for us. We are prevented from catastrophic disasters by being exposed to disasters of a lesser degree. For example, Hiroshima was the one time use of a nuclear bomb. In a sense this had the right outcome; realizing that we should not go all out, realizing that scenario needs to be prevented from happening. This is what I mean with a disaster being a pre-emptive scenario at the same time. Unfortunately, we need the start of a disaster to make us think and change. From my point of view, awareness arises on the brink of the abyss. We probably will be hit by huge cyber terrorism that we will need to conquer. Parts of society will be completely shut down. We will survive and only then we will search for solution to prevent ourselves from this kind of danger. With our climate it’s exactly the same story. We will let the water levels rise up to the edge of the “Afsluitdijk” (the major causeway in the Netherlands).
Aren’t we up to our necks with problems yet?
No, not yet. Everyone knows that it is happening and that in this speed it will happen within 50 years from now. We first need to see and experience the destruction to then make the necessary steps.
Talking about cyber problems. What’s your opinion about the influence of Julian Assange’s Wikileads on foreign affairs?
(Sigh) He doesn’t come from a strong vision or a true belief that he will make the world a safer place. It is how he rationalizes it. He said: “it is necessary to make the world a safer place by exposing secrets”. I think that in our current system confidentiality, not full transparency is actually something functional. For example, secret negotiations; who doesn’t want that somewhere in the world there are actually secret negotiations going on with regards to Syria? We often hear it afterwards, but there have been some successes in the past because of this secrecy. Thanks to confidentiality, not thanks to throwing all sorts of viewpoints and secrets on the street for the mass to have an opinion about. It’s like playing with fire what he does if you ask me.
“Transparency is a value and that is beautiful. But our current society is not build on complete transparency. Owning the power, is the safest in this system.”
Transparency in the international arena; you don’t find anything positive about that?
Transparency is a value and that is beautiful. But our current society is not build on complete transparency. Owning the power, is the safest in this system. And information is power. Like in personal relationships it’s also not always best to be open and transparent about everything. You can hurt or shock someone. Empathy means also having a sense of right timing and considering the sensitivity of the other. Just like human rights and democracy will never be perfect, so will complete transparency in my opinion not be something we will be able to reach. However, it definitely should be what to aim for. It might sound a bit ideological, but in family relations, there is a certain sense of ultimate safety and trust. If that is possible in small social structures, then why not in bigger communities?
Oil, information… what more gives power in this time we live in?
Definitely not only raw materials like oil and land. It becomes more and more about soft power. The power of being happy and being able to show that. The Netherlands is not a big player in the international political field but why do Chinese diplomats visit our premises on Clingendael? Certainly not because we are so powerful and we can impose things on them. But surely because the Chinese see that we score third on the Human Development Index. That’s all about another form of power. The Chinese think, “we don’t have to be afraid of them, but we can learn from them”. That model, as small as it might be, works. Military power might not be our biggest asset, but human development is, and that’s also power.
If I would have been a big leader in a chaotic society like China or India I would have looked closely at countries like Iceland, Finland, The Netherlands and Norway and why they always score amongst the highest in terms of education, literacy and happiness. It would be foolish for them to say its only because of our size and not dive into this. That’s exactly where they can learn from.
Does the power of violence decrease?
If a leader cannot protect his nation he loses his sovereignty and recognition of being a leader. Therewith the responsibility automatically shifts to the international community that then needs to take action. So, sovereignty is not something that you have but something that you earn. With that in mind it is legitimate to decide to invade a country and its privacy, and to use violence. I support that.
So in terms of the crisis in Syria intervention is permissible?
Yes, you need to work on the root cause. The only solution is safety in those territories. It’s an illusion tot think that we can make a change with money or food. You need to use military power. This is being denied so far. If you ask me they can bomb the barrel bombs warehouses of Assad. Or perhaps make sure their helicopters cannot take off. You will do a lot of good with that. That is part of military intervention too.
What is your strategy in a personal conflict?
It’s easier said than done but I am a firm believer of not confronting but looking at the motives instead. What does the other want? Why do we have a conflict? Can we talk about it? This is the way I have been programmed – also as a democrat – hold off with fighting for as long as possible. See if we can find a solution without fighting. Even without verbal violence.
Is there a leader in the international arena with this approach?
At this moment, I think Merkel can be placed in this category. Someone permeated with the idea that Europe cannot afford to do certain things and is always considering the other side in her decision-making. Her inner belief and not only the strategic point of view. Norway is a nice example too. They consciously decided to have the following idea in their foreign affairs policy: we are a friendly and peace loving country. We come from a place of vulnerability and helpfulness in international politics. They succeeded in this. They were able to solve a lot of conflicts that never made the breaking news section on CNN. They state: You don’t need to suspect us of false motives or self-serving because that doesn’t benefit us. We are way too small and insignificant as a country for that. The Norwegians are thus only friendly. And that works. But of course, that would not work for all countries. If Russia decides to use this approach everyone would be suspicious: what is cooking over there?
Do you think we are shifting towards a world that thinks and acts more as a union?
I am not a refugee expert, but the current developments are nothing special from a historical point of view. Once in 100 years, we experience mass movements. This is a fact for the past thousands of years. The conditions for escaping have significantly changed, though. Thirty years ago the father of Assad killed four million people in Syria. A horrifying genocide. People in that time didn’t have the option to escape and take a boat or an airplane to Europe. They do have that option now. So the tendency to escape, to leave, to make a home somewhere else in the world will only increase. A new admixture is taking place; countries will arise with less of a homogeneous population. That won’t happen without conflict. We will be confronted with resistance and war, perhaps also here. But in the long term, the inevitable will come to our understanding: we live together on this planet and have to cooperate and live together whilst we are here. We can’t exclude anything or anyone in this. We can’t turn back time. We have to adapt, preferably from intrinsic motivation but otherwise forced, because there is no other way.