By Vincent Lyn

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the world is confronted with a kind of a cooperation paradox. It is popularly believed that cooperation is something in which individual and collective actors pursuing common goals engage, while actors who have differing world views and pursue conflicting objectives are disinclined to cooperate. Until 1990, during the East-West conflict, however, two opposing blocs faced each other, although there was cooperation between them. Militarily, they were armed to the teeth; ideologically, they were worlds apart; and socio-economically, the development of society under capitalism was incompatible with that under communism. But the two power blocs were united by the goal of preventing the Cold War from escalating into a nuclear conflict, causing collective self-destruction.

The intensity of the antagonism did not, then, exclude peaceful co-existence under the banner of mutual deterrence. In this game it was clear that the two sides were in the same boat. And that neither could eliminate the other without running the risk of going under itself. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis showed how close the world had come to the abyss, and in Southeast Asia, Central America and the Middle East the tension was eased in proxy wars, again without it coming to a global conflagration. From the late 1950s, the policy of détente dominated, without the capitalist and communist models being abandoned.

Today the reverse paradox prevails. The world, having meanwhile become multipolar and new powers having emerged, is — if the proclamations of the G8 and G20 summits or the U.N. negotiations are to be believed — essentially in agreement on such general objectives as green growth and fair trade, limiting climate change and the extinction of species, reform of the financial markets and the eradication of poverty and hunger. Such commentators on our times as Francis Fukuyama have therefore revived Hegel’s rhetoric on the “end of history.”

It is surprising how little we yet know about “culture” as a factor in world society. Research focuses predominantly on cooperation in small groups wanting to achieve shared objectives, a common utility and a common cultural background being the main assumptions. Where, unexpectedly, cooperation does not come about, what remains — culture — is taken into account, initially to explain the failure and then, possibly, to overcome or avert it. How cooperation works in larger groups, in large international organizations or even between societies that differ culturally in some way or other (which, as has been said, is the norm) remains a mystery.

As concerned scholars as well as citizens, our aim is to get to grips with what is, by its nature, a trans-disciplinary question and to do so empirically and by reference to basic theory. How, for example, do such intercultural teams as aircrews, disaster relief workers, hospital staff, police forces and civic centers operate as they and their clients become increasingly varied linguistically and culturally? Is the U.N. General Assembly a diplomatic stage for culturally blind power politics or, in a figurative sense, a theatre of the world’s cultures? Is there such a thing as Asian values (and do they conflict with Western Christian values, whatever they may be)? In other words, are unfamiliar cultures a source of enrichment, or do they encounter each other like cats and dogs? Furthermore, who wants to see it this way — and who assumes precisely the opposite, a humane inclination too empathy? Does it help to have travelled in foreign regions, or does that tend to feed the prejudices? How do altruistic assistance and global solidarity work in the event of epidemics, famine and philanthropic deeds? In our multicultural everyday lives, we all make certain observations, but the ambivalence of the cultural factor is certainly inestimable.

Rather than becoming set on its remedial or ruinous effect from the start, we should therefore consider the culture of cooperation itself. Cooperative relations are, after all, based not only or principally on matching interests, tit for tat, shared expectations of benefits and mutual obligations of homo economicus. Cooperation is also and especially a mark of the “pointless” play of children; a musical ensemble improvises not (only) because they want to sell a disc; the dancers in a corps de ballet work together for the sheer joy of it; and a choir sings largely for the sake of singing together. Or look at a festival with its rich presentations and performances where the organizational infrastructure is always topped by an immense playfulness of actors and players in the strictest sense.

These small examples demonstrate the intrinsic value of cooperation as such, a value that is based on empathy and emerges from itself. The exchange of gifts, which engenders mutual obligations but may also include “irrational” profligacy, is a concept that has migrated from ethnology to cultural studies and that needs to be examined under the conditions of global interaction. What matters more than ever in global cooperation, then, is that these cultural elements are analyzed and applied with extreme caution to large negotiating arenas and causes of confrontation.

The ability of human beings to cooperate is also confirmed by the social sciences. In numerous studies on successful and unsuccessful attempts to protect such commons as forests, fisheries and water resources, Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, has identified some essential requirements for cooperation: communication, trust, reputation, reciprocal behavior, jointly developed sets of rules, evolving we-identities and means of punishing opportunistic behavior. These are the foundations of successful cooperation. The “natural state” of human beings is not, then, ruthless competition and conflict. Cooperation is possible, but it can also fail without the backing of suitable institutions.

So why are the institutions necessary to cope with the global systemic risks not emerging at the beginning of the twenty-first century? The theories of evolution based on the natural and behavioral sciences might provide an answer to this question. Issues such as globalization, climate change, tipping points in the earth system, and challenges to humankind have been discussed only in recent decades. The realization by human beings that they are not only dependent on each other at a local level and in their national societies, but in fact constitute a global risk community is fairly new in the history of humankind. A theory of world society is thus still in its infancy. Cooperation was essential to the success of Homo sapiens as a species early in its evolutionary history. The hard question of our times is: Will humans learn to raise their evolutionary success program as gregarious animals and beings capable of cooperating to the level of global society before serious global systemic crises arise? And how might this learning process be accelerated to a global level? Can human beings develop empathy in a global society context? Can the new communication technologies help in this respect?

The theories of cooperation similarly provide useful pointers to the reasons for the current dysfunction of international cooperation. Owing to the major power shifts in the world, some of the main conditions for successful cooperation are under considerable pressure or have yet to be created. A glance at the G20 formation quickly reveals how it differs from the western clubs — from the G7 to NATO — with their declining clout: trust, dense communication patterns, reputation, “we-identities,” common sets of rules and joint learning processes have yet to be developed between the old and new powers. Whether this investment in the cornerstones of global cooperation will be effected quickly enough for serious globalization crises to be avoided and what form institutions capable of managing global problems should take are not trivial questions.

Vincent Lyn

CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency

Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts



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Vincent Lyn

Vincent Lyn

CEO-We Can Save Children. Director Creative Development-African Views Organization, ECOSOC at United Nations. International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)