World view: Lessons of invisible college

June 15, 2001

Conferences help the US to chat to Europeans about antipathy to American policy, Dorothy Zinberg writes.

The invisible college of the Middle Ages, often thought to have given rise to the British Royal Society, boasted networks of individuals who exchanged information not yet in the public domain, new ideas - particularly controversial ones - and barely articulated perceptions. Powerful alliances were forged out of the public eye, an early manifestation of the special interest group. Today, conferences are becoming the invisible college's 21st-century equivalent.

Whether they are small, informal, low-cost affairs such as those sponsored by universities and non-profit groups, or the much-touted, often criticised, and hugely expensive annual "Davos Economic Forum", conferences encourage the same social interactions. Professional and social acquaintances are forged, old relationships are rekindled (for better and worse) and, if successful, new ideas and policies emerge from a potent mixture of different fields and provocative individuals.

Away from the fray of everyday life, people are more likely to listen to new ideas and even to re-examine some long-held prejudices. Such was the atmosphere of "Forum 21: 21st-Century Society Challenge and Choice in the Digital Age" in Deauville, France, a few weeks ago.

The conference assembled some 250 people from academia, business, politics and the arts and sciences. In one panel, for example, two leading astrophysicists, along with two extremely well-informed former astronauts, kept the audience at the edge of their seats as they explored emerging breakthroughs in space science. At the other panels, and at the bar and during mealtimes, discussions ranged over the big issues of the day - cities, education, culture, the economy, environment, diversity, and the digital divide.

But for American participants, the conference afforded us the opportunity to hear many European apprehensions, and in some instances outright hostility, to the United States's behaviour in the post-cold war world. Though not markedly different from my own, the criticisms sounded tougher when they were expressed by traditional allies such as Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president of France, and Michel Rocard, a former prime minister and a member of the European Parliament.

Many other participants from France, Germany and the United Kingdom chimed in to reinforce the collective opinion that Europe and the US are pulling farther apart. The US, several participants contended, has become a bully, acting in unilateral fashion unmindful of the importance of consultation and cooperation, and unmindful of the existence of Europe.

Examples of egregious US behaviour in the face of European opposition are many. The refusal to ban landmines, combat global warming, join in the establishment of an international criminal court and to ratify the nuclear-test - ban treaty are only a partial list. Worst of all, they argue, is the in-your-face attitude about the proposed national missile defence, about which there has been little consultation.

Informal chats over long meals made rancour-free discussions possible, emphasising to Europeans the widespread disagreement on these policies within the US itself, and opportunities for collaboration.

A similar quasi-polite barrage was heard a few weeks later at the "2001 Harvard Colloquium on International Affairs", when Lord Wallace of Saltaire, a spokesman for the Liberal Party, launched the now-familiar polemic about US behaviour internationally - this time couched in the enviable wit of a British orator.

Lord Wallace argued that the US expects Europe to fall-in behind American leadership on all issues. Where once following the US lead was limited military security, it now includes economic matters, as an American businessman had haughtily lectured Lord Wallace in Brussels.

At both conferences, Europeans stressed that the US is not fully aware of the growth in importance of the European Union in international relations. The EU has close borders with Russia. Lord Wallace argued that if the US "tramples across these borders", in unilateral, punitive confrontations with Russia, further weakening its ability to provide health care, the country's huge problems with Aids and TB could become a threat to Europe.

Stanley Hoffman, a French-American professor of government at Harvard, said that he has heard these arguments for the past 50 years: "They make me positively nostalgic." But he added that what was new was the rhetoric (on both sides) that has become "aggravating and grating".

Successful conferences create an environment where, for example, scientists who usually speak primarily to peers are forced to explain their work to non-scientists, while artists of every stripe have to make the case for support of the arts and, as in the conferences described here, incendiary and unflattering differences can be explored without rancour. Ideally, they make it possible to reduce the aggravation and to broaden the public debate in subsequent publications and media releases.

At Forum 21, Michel Rocard told the American participants: "Even though they are immensely powerful, Americans are alone. You need a good European counterweight and you should help us to build it."

At the Harvard conference, Jeffrey Gedwin, of the conservative American Enterprise think-tank, mulling over what he had heard, opined: "Perhaps we do need a US-European Institute to hammer out these differences."

Important observations. Do I hear the genesis of a new conference?

Dorothy S. Zinberg teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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