03 December 2020 - 04 December 2020

World Order: what can and should it mean today?

In his widely acclaimed 2014 book World Order, Dr Henry Kissinger wrote, “A world order of states affirming individual dignity and participatory governance, and cooperating internationally in accordance with agreed-upon rules, can be our hope and should be our inspiration.” He noted that the old order was in flux and the shape of the replacement was highly uncertain. Everything depended on “some conception of the future.”

Some six years later, that conception of the future remains cloudy and, in the midst of a global pandemic, it is harder than ever to define. As often quoted these days, at darker moments the words of Antonio Gramsci from a Fascist prison resonate, “this crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” or, as the last phrase has been more compellingly if very loosely mistranslated, “… now is the time of monsters.” 

This extended period of flux comes at a period of potential existential risk through degradation of our global environment. The coronavirus pandemic has also exposed new downsides to our globally connected world, whilst at the same time further accelerating our adoption of, and reliance on, technology. Before returning to the current moment, though, it is worthwhile reviewing the trends and tensions that were already evident before the pandemic began and that have largely been further accelerated by it.

In this conference we will explore the extent to which the ambitions and fears of the major powers for world order are compatible or conflicting. We will aim to identify how we can build on convergence of interests and how we can mitigate the risks of escalation flowing from divergence.

We will be better served, to quote Dr Kissinger quoting Burke, “to acquiesce in some qualified plan that does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea, than to push for the more perfect.” [Full text of the Terms of Reference is provided below.]

Terms of Reference