Professor Klaus Schwab is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.
Switzerland’s recent vote to curb immigration poses a question to us all: in a globalized world, how do we define our identity, and how do we make it a meaningful reality?
Identity means feeling we have things in common. Identity marks the outer limit of an autonomous community. The need to feel rooted in a society is particularly strong precisely because our world is changing at such a rapid pace.
From this perspective, the outcome of the vote should not come as a surprise. Nor is it shocking that the fear of Switzerland losing its identity is stronger in those regions where the pace of change is less intense.
The crucial question, however, is whether defining our identity along just one dimension can ever be a recipe for living together peacefully. It doesn’t matter whether that dimension is a nationality, a religion, an ethnic grouping or an ideology. All we have to do is take a look at the world around us: most unspeakable atrocities throughout history have had something to do with a rigid, unilateral sense of identity turning radical. This is still happening today, with Syria providing just one example.
Radicalization of identity leads us to exclude, to hate and finally to destroy our opponents, simply because they are different from us.
In Switzerland, we have a centuries-old tradition of living together in one confederation and one society. That holds us back from excesses. We are a civilized and enlightened community and, by practising multicultural tolerance, we manage to stop extreme developments from going too far.
That, however, is not the full story, because we too are permanently being pulled two ways – by autonomy and differentness. This creates a conflict that populists are all too ready to exploit for their own ends. We must understand that the time has passed for pitting different identities against one another. The challenge today is to combine various identities to form a new harmonious whole.
I grew up in Germany and am old enough that the war and the post-war period left their mark on me. I do not deny my German identity. But I also feel Swiss. Of my eight great-grandparents, seven were born Swiss. I have been living in Switzerland for more than 50 years. I am often asked why I haven’t been naturalized. I believe that what matters is not the colour of one’s passport, but how well one embraces the national values, and integrates into society.
The time has come for Europeans to stop focusing on nationality as a signifier of meaning. I have great esteem for our common European cultural heritage. I see the need for both an economic and political union. I am an enthusiastic European, and my first-hand experience of war and hatred has strengthened that conviction. I have seen how misguided unilateral nationalistic identities have brought destruction and death.
I am, however, a world citizen too. I know we live in a world in which we can only ensure our ultimate survival, or at least the existence of the next generation, by acting together.
Environmental pollution, terrorism and many other global threats do not stop at borders. We all bear global responsibility and thus need a global identity to enable us to cope with them. We must learn to integrate different levels of identity in ourselves. What matters is not either/or, but both/and.
Of course, conflicts arise within the various levels of local, national, regional and global identity. But these can be solved. All it requires is just the right amount of each identity, so that the final result always serves the overriding well-being of us all.
If this principle is now applied retroactively to Switzerland’s vote on 9 February, we must ask: what outcome would have contributed most to the long-term common good in Switzerland and Europe?
To answer this question, we must recognize that the society of the future is going to be shaped more by talented individuals than by capital. As I’ve argued in the past, “talentism” is replacing capitalism. What characterizes really talented people is more than their outstanding professionalism. Through training and experience, they have learned to foster within themselves all the various identities that are necessary today. Generally speaking, these types of people are adept at rapidly assimilating into new environments.
I am less concerned by potential restrictions on immigration than I am by the consequences of Switzerland being seen as xenophobic and therefore as a less attractive place for global talent to exercise its potential. Our democratic principles do not allow us to question the outcome of the vote. We can, however, live in hope that it will lead to a fundamental reconsideration of identity in the reality of the modern world.
Image: A pedestrian walks towards the (L-R) Irish, Greek, Spanish, French and Dutch national flags outside the European Parliament in Brussels REUTERS/Yves Herman