From Aladdin’s Lamp to a Global Modus Vivendi


On Thursday, the 14th of June 1325, the second day of Rajab 725 after Hejjira, the 21-year-old Abu Addullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta left Tangier.  He traveled  for about thirty years, covered more than 75,000 miles, then he returned to the court in Fez, Morocco, and dictated accounts of his journeys , “The Famous Travels of Ibn Battuta”. Through his stories we learn of the important role that Arab sailors and merchants played all over European and Asian seas, from The Mediterranean Sea to The Red Sea and the Sea of Arabia, and further on the Indian Ocean, and to the Chinese waters.  Ibn Battuta’s memories on the Black Sea and on the Byzantine Empire are a significant historical source for the early Renaissance history of my country, Romania, where the Silk Road linking Spain and China crossed the Amber Road descending from Scandinavia to Greece.

          In Ibn Battuta’s day, civilizations dialogued through voyages of commerce, scientific discovery, and faith.  It was a time when the Arab traders did business in good faith in the Ports and Harbors of the Ancient World, trading furs from Finland, grain, livestock, and honey from Romania and Bulgaria. A time when Byzantine, Genovese, and Venetian ships carried both textiles from Flanders and pepper from the Far East. During that period, Qatar made a mark as a dynamic trading nation. From the eighth century on, the growth of Qatar as a focal point for the lucrative exchanges between the East and the West can be compared with the Black Sea space as the focal point in trade between North and South.

          To the world of today the men of medieval ages seem remote and unfamiliar. Their names and deeds are recorded in our history-books, their monuments still adorn our cities, but our kinship with them is more than often dimly conceived in the romantic image of the Arabian Nights. Yet, I believe we can learn a great deal from our brethren of yore, since it was during their time that the first global economy and trade came to be.  The memoirs of Ibn Battuta as well as those of contemporary explores, sailors, and pilgrims, reveal that within the Mediterranean centered global economy, we find a rich world full of cross-cultural exchanges.  Commerce, freedom, and tolerance were the values of the day, for both individual and collective actors. There was no “Clash of Civilizations”. Huntington’s theory was contradicted by the realities of that time. Then the Arab, Greek, Genovese, and Viking merchants and sailors crossed freely the open seas. This world decayed and lost its brilliance when, and only when the superpower of the Ottoman Empire put an end to the freedom of trade all over the seas of the Ancient World, and pushed them far away to the Atlantic. Only the absence of freedom, which resulted in an absence of trade, split and eventually confronted the East to the West.

          We are here to discuss democracy and trade.  Democracy and trade are two means by which human communities strove over the course of the last two millenniums to achieve individual rights and collective welfare.  Both of these enterprises are extremely difficult and often involve failure as much as they do success. 

The Oriental imaginary, that has fascinated Westerns over the course of centuries has offered us, through Aladdin and his lamp, a parable about the eternal search for material goods (wealth) and spiritual fulfillment (love).  My own childhood was enchanted by the story of a poor boy who sees his dreams come true, thanks to the help of a genie, only to loose everything, and eventually to win back his palace and his princess.  The story has a more profound meaning: gains that are not based on the fruit of ones own labors mean nothing and are ephemeral.  Losing his riches, however, brings Aladdin a spiritual awakening, and it is with a new a sense of integrity that Aladdin reclaims his palace and his princess by his own merits.  The metaphor of the lamp suggests the primacy of knowledge and study, without which all can be lost, but with which one becomes his own master.  Similarly, I have learned that in whatever form, democracy and commerce are successful if they serve the needs of the individual and if their foundation is the right to private property.

Aristotle was the first to argue that individual diversity and private ownership are desirable.  In a passage that might have been taken from a speech by contemporary politicians, he argued that private property will receive the greatest care, whereas communal property will receive  little care. Thus, private property is more productive and stimulates progress.

Much later, in 1776, in his landmark book “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith argued that countries differ in their ability to produce goods efficiently. Some nation would have an absolute advantage in the production of particular products, while other nation would hold an advantage in the production of others. Since each nation has the potential to specialize in certain domains, it should do so,  exporting the surplus and importing the products that it needs. If every country practices free trade, instead of protectionism, everybody wins in what Adam Smith calls “a positive-sum game”.

What separates Adam Smith from other economists, his contemporaries or ours, is that he did not only explained a past or present economic situation, but he rightly anticipated what would happen if his theories would be pursued.  The governments that followed his prescriptions had only to gain.  The creation of the World Trade Organization and the globalization of markets confirm his prediction that all countries involved benefit from free trade, albeit in different proportions.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich August von Hayek proclaimed the trinity of civilization: legality, liberty, and property.  He noted that it was only through their co-existence that good relations could be maintained between democracy and a market economy.

Furthermore, from Aristotle’s time on, his theory that a healthy democracy is dependant on the existence of a consistent middle class, from both an economic and a political standpoint, has yet to be disproved. A critical mass of independent citizens who are economically self-sufficient and who wish to dedicate part of their energy to public affairs, is today, as it was in Pericles' time, a precondition of participatory government. Still, it remains a precondition, insufficient to guarantee democracy, as the history of many states in Europe, South America and Asia had proved time and again.

Germany’s tragic experience during the 1930s showed what consequences the middle class collapse might have. Restrictions  imposed to the German Reich, following the defeat in the First World War, left the Germans with an impossible choice between fascism and communism.

More recently, the Central and South-East European experience of communism dictatorships has more than a local resonance, and presents an analytical model for any transition process.  It teaches us that only individual property creates civic conscience and the impetus to defend the right to disagree in order to protect ones’ interests.

In the globalized world, not the dimension of the economy is conclusive, but the freedom within economy, free thinking and the right of the individual to chose and to protect his option; all of them are essential for the democratic institutions.

The relationship between economy and politics is a two-way street. The majority of theoreticians argues that democracy protects and promotes the individual rights, the private property, the free market and trade, thus democracy nurtures the progress to free trade. In my opinion, the opposite way also holds true: the reverse evolution, through which the freedom of trade brings about the political freedom, might be a trend of recent history. The governments of some totalitarian states, observing that planned economy and state ownership are bankrupt, decided to pursue free market economy. We could see this strategy implemented either starting from right-wing totalitarianism, in countries like South Korea, Chile, Taiwan, all being now prosperous and democratic states, or from left-wing totalitarianism, in countries like China and Vietnam, which now allow free trade and private property. Free trade brings prosperity and builds a vibrant middle class. The individuals of this class synchronize themselves, as if guided by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, in applying pressure for democratic reforms which guarantee that whatever they have acquired will be safely passed on to their heirs. Each one cares only of himself, but individual interests interconnect and together serve the higher interest of the society. On a larger scale, free trade could be also perceived as a guarantee for world peace, since warfare would affect business interest from both sides. Hence, global business limits the political leaders’ tendency to promote aggressive nationalist attitudes.

In this very point, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” theory gets closer to Hegel’s “universal reason’ slyness” theory, according to which the universal reason uses the selfish reasons of leaders in order to achieve progress.

The major challenge of the present, is in my opinion, the strengthening  of democracy through the progress of market economy. Neither the freedom of the market, nor the freedom of the citizens can be independent one from each other. They both need determined political will, in pursuing bold and creative reforms. From my own experience, I can tell that privatizing centralized state economy and delegating decision power to the to the private economic agents is a difficult and painful process, for which I had to pay a high political price. I did not hesitate, because I knew this was the only right choice for my country. Democracy and free trade are not sufficient guarantees for a peaceful future, but, without a doubt, they are essential conditions for a rational and equitable world order.

I can’t stop asking myself what do we understand by “rational and equitable world order”, a phrase so often found in the language of the contemporary international bodies. If we talk about imposing a unique model of welfare, then we have to remember  that the mankind history was shaken by devastating wars and bloody revolutions, all of them in the name of common good. This should urge us to be cautious.

In her latest work on Iraq’s war - “Oedipus in Washington”- Ph.D Zoe Petre, dean of History Faculty, Bucharest University, and Foreign Affaires adviser during my term as President of Romania, analyses the concept of Middle East democratization, starting from the case of an Iraq liberated from the dictatorship. The reality showed lack of insight in Iraqi environment, poor understanding of the tensions, the loyalties and the hurdles that define Iraq’s society. They all require careful study, respect and tolerance and lead the author to conclude that Iraq’s reluctance to follow the proposed democratic model was a consequence of rejecting a wrong model rather than the idea of democracy.

We live in an open world, in a world of communication and continuous interaction, in a world whose continuous evolution can not be withhold. In such a world, closed societies have no chance. Globalization means much more than free trade and quality selection. Globalization means knowledge,  dedication to a fair system of norms and values and - why not? -  a certain closeness tolerance and mutual understanding.

We need to change our way of thinking, we need to evolve beyond the old concept of liberal tolerance, which sets the goal of rational consensus upon the best way of life, and only tolerates a reasonable disagreement.

I consider the concept of “modus vivendi”, more up-to-date and productive. This concept, developed in 2000 by British professor John Gray, is built on accepting existing differences between several ways of life, in which people evolve and prosper. This is way more than accepting different value systems, rooted in different civilizations, this is about coexistence of virtues valued differently, even within the context of the same culture. I refer to the contrast between virtues preached in Old versus New Testament, between the warlike virtues of Homer’s heroes versus the ones of  Socratic philosophers, between virtues of Brahmanism versus virtues of Buddhism. Mass migration and communication outburst resulted in open societies, that include several communities, co-existing inside on small areas.  In John Gray’s vision, no political system can pretend to hold the best solution for managing the clash between values. Diversity in ways of living and in social organizations is a sign of human freedom, not a sign of error, so, having different alternatives of achieving prosperity and happiness should be good news. Holding dear to one life style should not push for the destruction of the others. Starting with value pluralism as an ethical theory, “modus vivendi” could thus be considered as a political ideal.

The accelerating transformations in the contemporary world are imperatively asking our engagement in a process of re-thinking the global society, human relationships, and most of all the politics in general and political action in particular. Politics area can not be considered as special place, a separate environment, isolated from the reality of the day, somewhere on the edge of the morality, governed by esoteric rules, understood only by initiated people, a space monopolized by closed circles, not accessible to the majority, or even opposite to it. The  politics of the day can not afford to limit itself to just manage the relationship between friends and enemies, it must be seen as the best way of coexistence, as a collection of practices meant to unite people instead of dividing them, motivating all social layers to take part in a major common project.

Building its universal vocation on the natural right, democracy is much more than a simple option for one political regime among others. It is, above all, a way of fulfilling one’s life lived in harmony amongst the others. And so, the key issue is how to identify the best ways and means to build a society with democratic institutions.

Just because the democratic values belong to the natural right field, they can not be imported and planted in any soil, whatever  its characteristics. The guidelines for democratic political organization are the same everywhere, but the core content must always adapt and address local needs. In fact, democratic values should not be looked for in the outside world they must be found, rediscovered in the human being, in ourselves, in the vocation of the liberty which characterizes each society. The democracy should not be considered at as a simple pattern ready to travel anytime and anywhere, the democracy has to emerge and to enrich itself according to the requirements of any case itself.

We have  the privilege to live  the  democratic construction as a process of political invention.

In Western Europe there are constitutions adopted during 1947 – 1949, that keeps norms which probably wouldn’t be voted by today’s successors of the former law-makers. From this point of view, the citizens of the new democracies could be considered to be much more free comparing to their predecessors’ will. No restriction withholds our image upon the democratic institutions, as long as it takes into account the natural values of the democracy. We are free  to build our own destiny , to create institutions and political practices, adequate to our times.

I think that the proclaimed global triumph of the democracy at the end of the Cold War can not be perceived as an end of the history, as an installing of humanity in an era when value could no longer be created or invented. On the contrary, the democracy of this new century and millennium is nothing but the triumph of the liberty to ingeniously and creatively invent, new patterns and new means to develop each of us own identity.