2016 was a great year for the Berggruen Institute. In May we celebrated our fifth anniversary with California Governor Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti headlining a gala event calling attention to the Institute’s major contributions and its future promise. With a new president and an increased capital base, the Institute embarked on expansion, clarification of its mission, and the building of a new home in Los Angeles. In December we awarded the Berggruen Prize for the first time, recognizing the extraordinary work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor – and the public, global importance of philosophy, deep thinking, and basic ideas that shape the world.
But these celebrations came not with a sense of contentment, but rather with commitment to deepen our work, for 2016 was a very challenging year for the world.
War and terrorist violence continue to exact tragic tolls. They swell the numbers of refugees and migrants seeking shelter who are too often met with hostility. Nationalist, populist, and sometimes reactionary politics undermine prospects for effective global cooperation – whether on health risks or climate change or financial stability. The European Union teeters on the edge of crisis. Britain’s vote to leave has been followed by deepening nationalist challenges in other countries. The U.S. Presidential election has upended a range of what seemed settled policies on issues from nuclear weapons to trade with China and relations to Russia.
In this volatile context, the Berggruen Institute is committed to thinking long-term. This is vital to reaching beyond partisan polarization to improve governance, as our work in California has shown. We need reforms that will improve governance no matter which party wins the next election. We need to break the cycle of basing policy on short-term political gains and provide the basis for a sustainable future. This is also crucial on a transnational scale. Trade wars and tit-for-tat diplomacy distract the world from grappling with basic issues like intensified inequalities, illicit markets and tax havens, climate change, and migration. We need to distinguish possibilities for cumulative improvement from mere short-term transactions.
Take the U.S. election. It highlighted the role of social media in political polarization and the spread of ‘fake news’. It raised questions about whether political parties and ‘mainstream’ journalism would ever again be able to underpin a political center and common discussion of public issues. And it offered reminders that cybersecurity has become a major issue in our radically interconnected world. None of these is merely a short-term policy issue. Each is part of major transformations – in the nature of public communication, in the effectiveness of democratic institutions, in the infrastructures on which we rely.
The Berggruen Institute focuses attention on great transformations, understanding deep changes and the choices they pose for policy-makers and publics. These transformations come from new technologies, from crises in public institutions, from geopolitics, and from cultural change. They are full of possibilities to build a better human future, to address challenges from ending poverty to eradicating diseases. They also come with instability and disruption and usually an unequal distribution of costs and benefits.
Some new technologies challenge old understandings of what it means to be human. How should we adjust? What thinking can underpin renewal of democracy as it faces a crisis of legitimacy around the world? What ideas can give meaning to a possibly postcapitalist economy no longer driven by the same definitions of growth? Can a new structure of global cooperation be put in place that recognizes shifts in geopolitical power? Must identity and culture be organized in national terms? And must national solidarity be protectionist and contentious?
These are not questions that can be addressed adequately within any one national context or civilizational tradition. They demand analysis from different perspectives. The world is densely interconnected, but this does not mean there is simply one global perspective. Dealing with the great transformations requires developing better mutual understanding across cultures. This is not just a matter of studying inherited differences but of pursuing innovation together. This matters across all borders and differences, but it matters perhaps most of all as China and the West struggle to manage a shift in global leadership. Each needs to understand how the other sees the world, basic patterns of social change, and core values. It is crucial that short-term transactions and tensions not derail this pursuit of deeper understanding and ability to work together.
As 2016 ends, technology, crises in governance, geopolitics, and cultural change all challenge us to think anew. This means seeking innovative, new ideas. It also means rethinking and sometimes renewing older ideas in new circumstances. This is why the Berggruen Institute stresses philosophy alongside governance and understanding great transformations. We mean philosophy in its broadest sense, not simply one academic discipline among many but the pursuit of wisdom to complement technical, instrumental capacity. We mean the ability to have a reasoned discussion of fundamental values and the very categories with which we conceptualize the world. We mean the importance of careful thinking at the most fundamental levels to make possible a deeper understanding of the world in which we live and the choices we can make.
In closing, we want to stress again that there are opportunities as well as risks in the transformations we face. All of us at the Berggruen Institute will work to deepen understanding that can inform wise decisions. And we wish you the best possible future.