As the public orders in the global community, in particular being liberal or illiberal, have lost their “social conscience”, we build on lessons learned to create better circumstances, rather than simply making historic judgements. All while striving to reinvigorate the “social conscience” with a greater sense of collectiveness to provide a more comprehensive order for a new global culture. The goal here is to determine how best to regenerate a wider understanding of the “common good” amongst our societies, and how to ensure that we as “peoples” appreciate and embrace collectiveness and determine that our decisions will increasingly have a greater “social conscience” collectively. In a world of globalization, it is important to understand the interconnectedness of people and systems alike. Decisions built on an understanding of the “common good” and “social conscience” will ultimately have a wider influence on a potential global culture willing to reap benefits of individual assets and achievements. Changing from a “balance of power and authority” driven systems to ones driven by different systems is an attempt to achieve a “balance of interest” is due. A paradigm shift should be in force, whereby marginalization and inequality will be reduced; yet not erased. With this critical juncture in the 21st century, it is imperative to rethink the common good. As well as, reinvigorate the “social conscience” and collective sense which are essential to facing the ever-changing global order.

Correctly determining as well as addressing “the great question of our time” is more precisely and wisely done in retrospect, with the luxury of hindsight. Time provides context for comparison and for factoring in relativism, thus providing a better basis for determining what was really great in comparison to other questions or decisions. If rigorous contextual criteria are applied, time also allows us to properly asses the immediate and long-term consequences of these questions and decisions. Needless to say, a paramount factor in this kind of judgment and determination is to clearly define what is meant by the phrase “our time.” Are we looking at generational perspectives, which tend to be a quarter of a century; longer than one generation; or even further than that if the question is placed in the “nation” context (my country, Egypt, considers hundreds of years to be contemporary).

Regrettably, however, embracing this cautious approach in many respects defeats the very purpose of the exercise because the pressing objective is to build on lessons learned to create better circumstances rather than simply to make historic judgments. This is particularly true given that it requires being reflective and applying critical thinking to achieve better outcomes, especially in handling and dealing with common goods and services for the general public. Needless to say, this is the essence and foundation of a stable and fulfilled public order.

Another point that warrants retrospect and reflection is that the intellectual public seems to have crudely defined the choices in public order to being exclusively either “liberal” or “illiberal.” The general public, as well as some pundits, push this artificial, imprecise divide even further as simply being between “democratic” and “autocratic” systems of government.

All of these assumptions are, in my opinion, imperfect if not blatantly wrong. Democratic orders are not necessarily perfectly liberal or, in fact, always consistent with liberal values in respecting and objectively applying common values. Equally true is that autocratic orders or systems are not necessarily agnostic to value systems or immune to critical thinking or concepts of the common good in dealing with public order. Neither of the systems is exclusively liberal or illiberal. The basic difference between the two is the width and intensity of the shades of gray in their application.

Recent examples of domestic disturbances in the United States because of racial tensions, as well as populist trends with clear isolationist and often racist tendencies in democratic states in Europe, are cases in point. And even in normal, less turbulent times, the interpretation of the term “liberal” differs even in democratic societies because values and value systems differ even among democracies. The United States, most of what was considered to be Western Europe in the past, and India—all established democracies, even if imperfect—have different values and concepts of liberalism and thus are very relevant cases in point here.

Equally true is that autocratic systems, often lauded as symbols of stability, have also had a stream of instability and revolutions over the contemporary history of nations. Thus, they cannot claim to be perfect islands of sustained stability if the context of time is wider. And if that is the objective, they are not an option one should be satisfied with. Nor can they completely project themselves as being agnostic to values of societies or aspirations of their constituents. This is self-evident in that given globalization, connectivity, and expanding transparency, even authoritarian systems have increasingly coached and justified their actions through what are normally considered to be the tools and expressions of democratic liberal systems. These include elections as expressions of public support, as well as legislative actions to legitimize rules and procedures.

My salient conclusions from all of this are that the great questions of our time are not about the success or failure of the liberal world order, or the efficacy of a liberal versus an illiberal order. Rather, I would strongly argue that all systems of public order are being challenged domestically, regionally, and globally and that a paramount challenge of our time is to determine the reason for this simultaneous onslaught on societal and governance systems. That challenge may actually constitute one of—if not the greatest—questions of our time.

Given that these challenges have not been restricted to particular political systems or even specific geographical theaters, without unnecessary obfuscation or overanalysis, my conclusion is that our public order systems have been challenged because they have been unable to respond in a satisfactory manner to the needs and aspirations of their own constituencies. Public systems and those in the relevant executive positions in politics, the marketplace, and even the social sphere, where ideas and norms are generated, have increasingly become elitist among those in a position of power, ignoring and even being disrespectful toward a large segment of their societies, which feel increasingly marginalized.

In order to settle these challenges or deal with them in an orderly fashion, national, regional, and global orders need reconsideration and recalibration. However, I would even go further to argue that the public orders in the global community in particular, be they liberal or illiberal, have lost their “social conscience.” Consequently, they have increasingly failed in establishing and managing global and regional priorities, besides being a catalyst in fueling domestic disparity and dysfunction. The systems need revamping, but even more importantly, we need to find more—even if not complete—common ground on common values. Reinvigorating the social challenge is, I believe, the greatest challenge we all face today.

However, I would like to underline here that I am not suggesting or, in fact, associating myself with the argument that the choices we face are between democratic liberal and authoritarian illiberal values. The issue in my opinion far exceeds this artificial dichotomy and goes much deeper. In essence, we should recognize from our practices over the last half century and some that we have lost our “social conscience” in our societies—whether our systems are democratic, autocratic, or somewhere in between, with pragmatic, realpolitik balance of power and influence considerations making social values determined and subservient to objectives and aspirations of those in positions of power, be that in government, the marketplace, or other domains.

Testimony to the absence of a “social conscience” is that we strive to find security and justify the need to provide extremely substantial resources to ensure the capacity to destroy each other many times over through absurd but highly proclaimed cold war concepts like “mutually assured destruction.” By doing so, we are hedging our future and very coexistence not only on the sustained, infallible, and indefinite rationality of others but also on the naive assumption that individuals, as well as systems, are indefinitely fault and error free.

To fuel and feed these erroneous assumptions, military expenditures have increased by 75 percent over the past twenty years, reaching astronomical levels of US$1.822 trillion, according to the most recent Stockholm Insternational Peace Research Institutereport. This increase has occurred at a time when even affluent countries are suffering from a shortage of strategic resources to deal with pandemics such as COVID-19 or even, in many countries, for basic health services. Security is, of course, important. However, excessive zeal in its pursuit or subjugation to the military-industrial complexes at the expense of basic and fundamental needs of our constituents is fuel for discontent and instability in our political systems. This choice of priorities raises questions about our “social conscience” in the political sense, besides shedding a dark shadow on our moral standards.

Another citation from our present-day reality that raises questions about the “social conscience” of our world order is the abhorrent concentration of wealth, where in the wealthiest countries, such as the United States, the highest 1 percent have acquired more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Meanwhile, 10 percent of the world community was living below the poverty line of US$1.90 a day in 2015. This remains true even after globalization had brought vast numbers above the poverty line and reduced this percentage from 36 percent of the global population. That being said, according to World Bank group estimates, the ramifications of COVID-19 will cause 40 to 60 million to fall back under US$1.90 a day in 2020.

Again, as a point of emphasis, my arguments here are not moralistic; nor are they necessarily in support of socialism or big government versus market economics. Neither are they a pushback against globalization stages and phases that are inevitable and beneficial in bringing vast numbers out of poverty. The shallowness, if not absence, of “social conscience” is, in fact, not exclusive to economic or political systems, nor is it solely a function of wealth or poverty of nations or individuals. There are wonderful philanthropic examples, but they are the exception. Nor is this a moralist, naive call for reawakening from an idealist. Regrettably, decades of public service have fueled cynicism at the expense of idealism in my mindset. However, I am proud that that this cynicism has not clouded my vision of what is right and wrong, and I am determined not to allow time to weaken my concern for the common good. Individual and occasionally exclusive needs of particular consistencies have increasingly overwhelmed and dimmed calls for societal or collective interests, whether in culture, economics, and the marketplace, or in politics and security issues and practices. Was this always the case, and can the situation be redressed?

It is noteworthy that the United Nations, the core intergovernmental organization of the post–World War II order, was established to safeguard the world from the scourge, devastation, and ravages of a third world war. Its tenets were reached with realpolitik and global social context in play. The preamble of the UN Charter uses the phrase “We the people” to give context and texture to the pursuant charter goals and provisions. While respecting sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs of states, the charter is replete with references to “collective action.” And it is the collectiveness of the “social conscience” of the international community that was the springboard for all the subsequent international legislation developing norms and standards for international practices that have emerged over the last seven decades.

Ironically, while death, destruction, and devastation drove and energized our “social conscience” in the middle of the last century, progress and material fulfillment seem to have driven us off course, numbing the senses and clouding the memory of the nation-state founders of the United Nations with respect to their noble goals and wise collective outlook—hopefully only temporarily so.

In short, the greatest question of our time is why did the international community lose its social conscience as a community of nations globally, in our immediate regional domains as well as within our respective national systems. In essence, the loss was an unintended consequence and ramification of glorious successes of individualism and singular goals and objectives. Without the drive, determination, ingenuity, and creativity that is characteristic of high-achieving individuals and nation-states, much of the progress of the last century would not have occurred. However, this progress has frequently come at the expense of the call for collectivity. The rebalancing between the genius and productivity of singular ambitions and that of collective interests is our greatest contemporary challenge. And that will require societal changes.

With globalization, our collectivity is virtually much tighter and closer. That is, in my view, a positive aspect of globalization. Closeness and interdependence remove barriers, increasing the pace as well as the scope of interaction. With the increased collectivity comes a much more naked level of transparency, with both its constructive and potentially challenging implications. That requires a greater capacity to find collective but not necessarily equal interests, in order for our diversity to remain a source of wealth and richness rather than of discord and adversity.

With respect to the world order, I believe it is imperative to regain our sense of “collectiveness” if we are to continue to reap the benefits of our individual assets and achievement. A more acceptable balance between individual and collective pursuits and applications needs to be developed. The choice is not between individualism or collectiveness but rather a balance between both, because in a globally networked, transparent global village, the paradigm is one where borders are sovereign but not boundaries or obstacles.

This is essentially a call for a paradigm shift from systems driven by “balance of power and authority” to ones driven by different systems attempting to achieve a “balance of interest.” This by no means implies that all will get equal shares of the pie, or, in fact, that all will remain fulfilled. However, it would be correct to assume that one of the goals of this paradigm shift would be to reduce the sense of marginalization and futility that exists in many parts of the world.

To achieve this objective and develop complementary rules and procedures for the world as we move forward, it is time to invite great minds to merge with experienced former practitioners in order to think out of the box—but practically so. I very much encourage different disciplines, professions, and stakeholders in society to organize processes of creative thinking on how they best see us moving forward. While such thought processes would be useful, the objective here is not essentially to search for technical solutions to problems of security, development, the environment, equal rights, et cetera. In fact, numerous Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations exist as agreed targets of global aspirations, albeit many of them remain unfulfilled. Consequently, series of action-oriented measures have been suggested, if belatedly so. To achieve these goals and, furthermore, to provide a more comprehensive order, a new global culture with an invigorated “social conscience” factor needs to be developed.

The goal here is to determine how best to regenerate a wider understanding of the “common good” among our societies, how to ensure that we as “peoples” appreciate and embrace collectiveness and determine that our decisions will increasingly have a greater “social conscience,” be that in relation to other communities, different strata in societies, or, in fact, future generations. This is a larger goal, extending well into the future beyond envisaged priorities of the day, but I believe it would also greatly facilitate the fulfillment of the SDGs’ objectives.

For this to become a truly global endeavor, I recommend that the UN Secretary General also organize a set of discussions under the organizations auspices. These discussions should start at the outset with groups of individuals in their personal capacity, in order to not get entangled in governmental competition or bureaucracies. The level, composition of participation, and format should extend well beyond the traditional weekend brainstorming sessions held previously, truly allowing for perspectives that relate to future challenges without ignoring present realities, with a special emphasis on collectiveness and common interests. Here the objective should be to raise the debate to a higher level both in posture and in recognition as well as in substance, in a way that obliges our leaders and our societies to respond and engage on the discussions, without their becoming hypothetical or theoretical.

Once a set of principles, goals, and measures are developed about how best to revive our “social conscience” with a greater sense of collectiveness, the UN Secretary General should then undertake an intensive effort of quiet diplomacy, both with governmental bodies and opinion makers, to create a societal discussion and debate about these issues.

And, subsequently, as a third step, these ideas and principles should be put up for adoption collectively before the community of nations at the UN General Assembly or its Security Council, with concrete topical issues discussed further and in depth in the respective international and regional bodies. I understand that the politics of the nation-state system today is not conducive to creatively thinking out of the box, free from the constraints of the immediate and pressing needs of our constituencies. However, I believe that we cannot shy away from taking on substantive and ambitious efforts to reestablish our national, legal, and global order. And, to safeguard against falling back into the trap of accommodation based on the prevailing balance of power, which changes over time, these principles and ideas should be formally adopted and thus legislated nationally, regionally, and globally. This is a cumbersome but logical imperative. Rule of law has to be the prevailing practice to ensure the interests of all.

In essence, we are at important junctures and thresholds once again. In the middle of the last century, devastating losses caused by world wars created a collective awareness that we had to work together to ensure that these tragic situations did not reoccur. In the twenty-first century, it is time now to raise our achievements to ever higher levels and to prevent the arrogance of power or greed for unlimited fulfillment to be the reasons for dramatic self-destruction or the infamy of inhumanity. Reinvigorating the social conscience and elevating collective perspectives are paramount for the success of these efforts.

Author Biography

Nabil Fahmy is the founding dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at The American University in Cairo (AUC), where he is also a Distinguished University Professor of Practice in International Diplomacy.

Fahmy served as foreign minister of Egypt from July 2013 to June 2014. He steered the course of Egypt’s diplomacy during times of immense challenges. During his tenure as minister, Fahmy formulated a strategy to reorient Egypt’s foreign policy, ensuring that Egypt had numerous foreign policy options, both regionally and globally. He also restructured the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to address the future challenges confronting Egypt’s foreign policy.

During his distinguished diplomatic career, Fahmy served as Egypt’s ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 1999 and the United States from 1999 to 2008, as well as in numerous government and international positions, focusing in his work was wide-ranging including global and regional security; disarmament and non-proliferation; and Arab-Israeli diplomacy. He was a member of the Egyptian delegation to many international conferences and boards including the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference; the Review Conferences of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; the United Nations Conference on Promoting International Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy; United Nations Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters; International Atomic Energy Agency Board and General Conferences as well as numerous sessions of the United Nations General Assembly since 1977. He was elected vice-chairman of the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security Affairs) of the 44th Session of the General Assembly in 1989.

Following his return to Cairo in 2009, from Washington, Fahmy founded the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and led the school in several initiatives in the field of research and academia, leading its programs to be accredited internationally and nationally. The school is highly regarded in the region. It has also served as a non-resident chair of the Middle East Non-Proliferation Project at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Strategies in Monterey, California, from 2009 to 2013, as well as on the Advisory Board of Hertie School of Governance Berlin, and the prestigious Beijing Forum. After his tenure as the minister of foreign affairs from 2013 to 2014, Fahmy resumed his position as dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at AUC.

Fahmy was awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in 2009. He was also awarded the prestigious Cordon of the Rising Sun by the Emperor of Japan.