World War to a Global Ethic

Sep 3, 2014

"We come here—100 years to the day from the calamitous events of the summer of 1914—to remember, to take stock, and to recommit to the ideals passed on to us by Andrew Carnegie and others. The Carnegie ideal was simple but audacious: it is indeed realistic and possible to use reason and experience to improve the ways in which we live."

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Your Eminence; invited guests:

On behalf of the Carnegie Council, our chairman Mr. Robert Shaw and our many trustees who are here today, and the speakers who have prepared special remarks for this occasion, we thank you for your warm hospitality.

I'd also like to give a special thanks to Dr. Cerić and to Esmir Ganic, who made the arrangements for our journey here. We've had a wonderful trip and we couldn't have done it without you. So, thank you.

We are well aware of the significance of this historic venue. Although our program today focuses on merely the past 100 years, we understand this library was founded in 1537, and that it has persevered through many centuries of conflict and change as a beacon of education and enlightenment. It is humbling and inspiring to think about that history.

There is really no better place for our group reflection today. As many of you know, our founder, Andrew Carnegie, had two "big ideas" to improve the world:

The first big idea was to promote the proliferation of public libraries, to enable access to books and great ideas to every person, everywhere. He devoted much of his philanthropy to the building of libraries—a passion that he sustained until the end of his life.

The second big idea was the possibility to achieve a more peaceful world through the establishment of international law and organization—an effort that would be equal parts intellectual, educational, and political. This goal he pursued with all his energy until exactly 100 years ago this summer, when the World War overwhelmed him, leaving his successors, now us, to pick up the legacy.

So although we are visitors, we feel at home here. In this historic library we can connect to the ecumenical spirit of our founders—to think historically, philosophically, and practically about our topic for the day, "The Crisis of 1914 and What it Means for Us Today."

We come here—100 years to the day from the calamitous events of the summer of 1914—to remember, to take stock, and to recommit to the ideals passed on to us by Andrew Carnegie and others. The Carnegie ideal was simple but audacious: that is, it is indeed realistic and possible to use reason and experience to improve the ways in which we live.

We arrive with as many questions as answers. However, one thing we have learned over the past 100 years is that a simplistic notion of peace is not enough. Peace cannot be established by rational plan, followed by force of will and a simple belief in the unity of mankind under a global ethic. That is naïve and wishful thinking. There is another dimension to consider. Let’s call it the human dimension, the ethical dimension. This dimension involves power, interests, competing values, and human imperfections.

A 100-year perspective gives us the opportunity to reflect on ethical principles that are deeply rooted in this particular place, and yet speak to us in universal human terms. Please allow me to briefly suggest three such principles, all very much human, alive, and in contest here in Sarajevo, and around the world.

First, there is the idea and ideal of pluralism—living together with differences. For centuries Sarajevo has been a place of tolerance. Ethnic and religious minorities have lived in harmony. The Olympic Games of 1984 were to be the crowning moment of recognition, a fitting symbol of achievement for 20th century European civilization, and indeed, the world. The fact that it came apart in the 1990s does not negate the ideal. We can and should remember the success of years gone by, and rededicate ourselves to the values that prevailed for centuries before.

A second idea to consider in light of Sarajevo 1914, is the principle of self-determination. Self-determination, unleashed in earnest 100 years ago, remains the bedrock idea of international law and ethics. Once released, the principle of self-determination became difficult for political leaders to harness. Self-determination became the great variable of the 20th century and we still live with the consequences.

While self-determination may be the rock that we stand on as the foundation for freedom and human flourishing, this single principle does not give us the full picture of the landscape. Ethnic groups live amidst each other. Territories are not clearly defined or aligned by ethnic or cultural boundaries. Great Powers have their spheres of influence. Empires collapse or become reconstituted in new forms. Instability arises. Border regions are contested. Our distinguished panelists have spent their lives trying to understand this. This occasion gives them and us a moment to reflect and share what they have learned.

A third idea that concerns us today is the power of history and memory. For all of the local history—and there are many colorful, glorious, and painful layers of it—the world commemorates the beginning of World War I with the hope of learning from history and a sense that it is a moment to reaffirm universal principles of human rights and justice.

The first task of history is to tell certain truths. These truths include the cost of hubris and the sheer brutality of war. We all know that World War I began as a series of unforeseen events. Leaders miscalculated. Emotions ran high. Escalation ensued. The result was industrial war: machine guns, mustard gas, trenches, disease, incalculable human suffering. Millions died, millions more were wounded. The vast scale of pain, death, and destruction are historic facts, never to be forgotten. Nor should we forget that a war that began with such high spirits and prospects for glory ended in great tragedy and sorrow for all.

Memory differs from history in that memory is something that is chosen—it is up to us. Memory is our interpretive process—how we tell the story, the message we want to draw from the facts. Different communities have different memories because they may have experienced the same event in different ways. Perspective does matter.

Our 100-year perspective gives us an opportunity to explore the possibilities of a transcendent story—a common story, based on facts, that takes into account the perspectives of everyone. This may or may not be possible. But it seems that now when the immediate protagonists are gone, we can take a moment to consider the competing claims anew, and to see what lessons the strife that began here can have for the world now, and into the future.

We cannot know what the next 100 years will bring. But we do know that the future will be in the hands of human beings, flawed individuals who will still be motivated by Thucydides's classic humanistic formulation: interest, fear, and honor.

If I may end on both a realistic and optimistic note, we have today an unusual opportunity to explore together common goals and common interests. Competing claims of war guilt and victimhood will always be with us—and they should not be forgotten. So too should we remember the many stories of heroism, self-sacrifice, and genuine love of country. But our purpose today is to suggest that they may be best understood as part of a larger project, the project to find a genuinely pluralistic global ethic that will point in the direction of a more positive future.

It is my belief, and the belief of the Carnegie Council, that this is indeed the best way to honor those who stood here 100 years ago, and who will stand here 100 years from now. It’s a privilege to be here with you to take part in this effort, and we thank you again for spending this historic day with us.

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