In late August, I drove myself from Brussels to Alpbach – a town in the Tyrolean Alps, where people have been gathering since 1945 to share ideas of unity, peace and progress. It felt good to be alone on the road. The silence was just what the head (and heart) needed. These are frantic, frazzled, uncomfortable times. Timelines are warping, realities dissolving. We’re in a liminal space, between the worlds. The old has withered, the new is not yet here. I realise I was saying exactly this sort of gibberish two years ago, when the altered reality of the pandemic made all sorts of new things seem normal.
More of what we took for granted has gone since then. Peace. Multilateralism. The illusion that economic interdependence is a shield against bloodshed. Let me put that more bluntly. The insanity of believing money can buy you peace.
I feel in that same in-between space now as I did then, only more uncomfortably aware of how ill-fitting the truths, assumptions, certainties of the past are as an answer to our needs in this moment. And how far we still are from a future that soothes our fears and meets our aspirations. Our age of shocks demands that we huddle together to reinvent society, our lives, our identities – and yet our energies are centrifugal, pulling us apart, North from South, East from West, liberals from conservatives, oppressors from the oppressed. Rupture seems to be the reality we inhabit, both the consequence and a symbol of dead ways of organising society.
OK, I’ll stop talking in abstractions.
The European Forum Alpbach was beautiful, clever, buzzing and tense. I saw the words NEW EUROPE emblazoned everywhere, in huge capital letters. I heard the words “this is serious” and “we’re in real trouble” in almost every talk, debate, conversation. One day, I went to an early morning political briefing and sat on a slouchy sofa next to a former Austrian foreign minister. She made this quiet comment that absolutely floored me:
“What is being destroyed right now is the chef d’oeuvre of my generation.”
Her words still give me goosebumps. Her generation is my mum’s generation. The people who came just before us. The people who ended the Cold War, reunited Europe, had everyone sit down at the table once again. Their generational legacy was peace. Their chef d’oeuvre was peace. Multilateralism, with all its flaws, is peace.
Russia’s murderous act of aggression against Ukraine is the dissolution of a reality that has served us all, whatever its injustices and imperfections, for more than 30 years. Every time I hear “this is Europe’s problem” and “the world has other wars”, I think: yes, of course, and no, no, no, my friends. A whole way of doing things has vanished. A fragile equilibrium, an intention – however sincere – to reach big decisions together, all this has imploded.
We’re in zero sum, strongman, dog-eat-dog territory now. We can only lose.
All wars are immoral, all human pain matters. This war changes everything for everyone, in that terrible way that some wars can.
So, what comes next? Whether you (and I) are melting with hot rage or thinking Europe or NATO or whoever had it coming, something has to happen next. What are we going to fill this void of vision with? What now? What will a new global order look like?
I have a vested interest here, because my life’s work is about that. I run a little think-and-do tank (www.flaregovernance.eu) that brings people together, from all walks of life, to talk about collective purpose. About what societies should deliver. Talking about the future and hopes and what happens next sounds simple, but it can be counterintuitive. Our instincts pull our attention towards the fear, tensions and injustices of now, and as a result our energy goes into critique, and much more rarely into vision.
The week after Alpbach, I was on another work trip, on another mountainside, in a long-deserted village in Greece. Once again surrounded by beautiful people who dedicate their lives to better things ahead. Laconia’s hot, dry earth felt familiar, like the Baragan dust I come from in south eastern Romania. Alpine cowbells made way for distant sheep, the feeling of grounding, silence, permanence a beautiful, reassuring continuum.
One afternoon, a kind man brought us lettuces for us to plant together as a group bonding exercise. He made a lousy quip about big shovels for the boys and not ruining manicures. I rolled my eyes and shrugged it off. Later, I found out my friends there were incensed that their experience was sullied by that lame relic of unreconstructed masculinity.
What do these stories have to do with one another, you might ask. What’s geopolitics got to do with lettuce?
Geopolitics has everything to do with lettuce
Geopolitics has everything to do with lettuce. Alpbach has everything to do with Vamvakou, and Brussels, Moscow, Beijing and the Baragan.
The way that we approach each other and the future matters. How we engage with those who see the world differently from us matters. Planning for a reality that meets everyone’s needs matters. You may say I’m a dreamer and all that. There’s nothing dumb or utopian about a reality that meets everyone’s needs. What’s dumb is telling ourselves that a reality that meets almost no-one’s needs is the absolute best we can do. That, my friends, is how we live right now.
I see a global order where everyone comes back to the table. Where we take collective responsibility for injustice and put it right. I see people and countries putting their money where their mouth is, prioritising our collective well-being and survival over self-interest and greed. I see a Europe that takes responsibility for its moral inconsistencies and does something about them, where we really do live by the values we preach to others. A global order where every pain and fear matters (including those of Europe).
Whether it’s war or gender roles, I see beyond this excruciating struggle with evil, warmongers, wrongdoers and retrogrades. I want to do more than fight – and look beyond the fight. I see a need to extricate myself from the language and mindsets of conflict. I see less time spent on condemnation and more time imagining and planning what should be.
What will be our generational legacy at Alpbachs of the future?
Let’s imagine for a second what things will look like when we have put them right, once we have finished fighting the righteous fight. Let’s figure out together the steps that are going to get us there. Please, let’s think ahead about our generational legacy, the things our kids will be looking back on 30 years from now. The things that we might describe as “our chef d’oeuvre” at the Alpbachs of the future, when we can rejoice that we came close to burning down the world, melting every Alpine glacier and searing every bigot in the process, but we pulled through somehow and walked together into something really worth the pain and fear and sacrifice.
Let’s imagine the day when enemies lay down arms, and our children build good lives together. A brave, beautiful woman who carries on her shoulders the burden of intergenerational pain and intractable conflict shared this vision with me in Vamvakou. It will inspire me forever.
When we look beyond the fear and rage of the present, we see the things that truly are worth the hope and the fear and the leaps and the struggle. We see safety, wellbeing, love, care. The struggle itself is not the end. Without a destination, our journey is but drift. The struggle, wasted effort.
Our shared vision of the future, the dream that brings us together, that is our destination. For the generation before us, that vision was peace (and prosperity, however wasteful and unjust the recipe). What will ours be?
About the author:
Andreea Petre-Goncalves is President and Founder of Flare Governance, a Brussels-based think-and-do tank that brings people together to imagine a radically better future. Email her on email@example.com to join in Rethinking our purpose, a big conversation about what comes next in our collective journey.
Published on November 3, 2022.
Photo Credits: Andreea Petre-Goncalves