24 February | 2024

Lahore, Pakistan

Civilization is in danger as open, closed societies fighting for ‘power’

‘We are both participants and observers. As participants, we want to change the world in our favor. As observers, we want to understand reality as it is’ | ‘In an open society, role of the state is to protect freedom of individual; in a closed society, role of individual is to serve interests of the state’

By George Soros

I’ve spent my entire life trying to understand the world I was born into, and I can claim some modest success. At a relatively early age, I realized that our understanding is inherently imperfect. That’s because we are part of the world in which we live. We are both participants and observers. As participants, we want to change the world in our favor. As observers, we want to understand reality as it is. These two objectives interfere with each other. The interference doesn’t affect all domains of reality equally.

For instance, natural scientists like astronomers can come close to perfect knowledge because they have an objective criterion, like the movement of the stars that allows them to judge whether their predictions are correct. Social scientists don’t have it so easy. People’s behavior already reflects their imperfect understanding. Therefore, it doesn’t provide as reliable a criterion for social scientists as the movement of stars does for astronomers. So how can we understand the current state of affairs? We must find a way to distinguish what is important from what is less so.

Let’s start with a bold assertion. While two systems of governance are engaged in a fight for global domination, our civilization is in danger of collapse because of the inexorable advance of climate change. This is a very succinct statement, but I believe it provides an accurate summary of the current state of affairs. My statement links climate change, which belongs mainly to natural science, with systems of governance, which is a social concept. I’ll discuss climate change first and systems of governance later.

I have always been fascinated by the Greenland ice sheet, which is several kilometers deep and has built up over a thousand years. In July 2022, an extreme weather event occurred in Greenland. It was so warm that scientists there could play volleyball in short-sleeved shirts and shorts. When I saw this, I sent a team of photographers to Greenland to gather visual evidence. They were present when a second event occurred in September, and they recorded it live.

The melting of the Greenland ice sheet would increase the level of the oceans by seven meters. That poses a threat to the survival of our civilization. I wasn’t willing to accept that fate, so I tried to find out whether anything could be done to avoid it. I was directed to David King, a climate scientist who had been chief scientific advisor to previous British governments. He has developed a theory which is widely shared by climate scientists. It holds that the global climate system used to be stable but human intervention disrupted it.

The Arctic Circle used to be sealed off from the rest of the world by winds that blew in a predictable, circular, counterclockwise direction, but man-made climate change broke this isolation. The circular wind used to keep cold air inside the Arctic Circle and warm air out. Now cold air leaks out from the Arctic and is replaced by warm air that’s sucked up from the south. This explains, among other things, the Arctic blast that hit the United States last Christmas and the cold wave that hit Texas recently.

The Arctic Ocean used to be covered by pristine snow and ice that reflected the sun in what is called the albedo effect. But rising temperatures have caused the ice to melt and the Greenland ice sheet is no longer so pristine; it is covered by soot from last year’s forest fires on the West Coast of America, Arctic shipping, and other causes. David King has a plan to repair the climate system. He wants to recreate the albedo effect by creating white clouds high above the earth.

With proper scientific safeguards and in consultation with local indigenous communities, this project could help restabilize the Arctic climate system which governs the entire global climate system. The message is clear: human interference has destroyed a previously stable system and human ingenuity, both local and international, will be needed to restore it. At present, practically all the efforts to fight climate change are focused on mitigation and adaptation. They are necessary but not sufficient. The climate system is broken, and it needs to be repaired. That’s the main message I’d like to convey.

The message is urgent because we are dangerously close to breaching the 1.5° Celsius limit set in the 2015 Paris agreement. We are already at 1.2°C and if we maintain our current course, global warming will reach more than 2.5°C around 2070. That would take us past several tipping points such as the melting of the Arctic permafrost. Once that happens, the amount of money needed to restabilize or repair the climate system will grow exponentially. This is not well understood. The accelerating pace of climate change will also cause large-scale migration for which the world is ill prepared.

Unless we change the way we deal with climate change, our civilization will be thoroughly disrupted by rising temperatures that will make large parts of the world practically unlivable. We must reorient our financial institutions, particularly the World Bank, to focus on climate change. World Bank President David Malpass, who was a climate denier, resigned. Now, I should like to turn to geopolitics. There are two systems of governance that are fighting for global domination. I’m talking about open and closed societies.

I have defined the difference between them as simply as I can: in an open society, the role of the state is to protect the freedom of the individual; in a closed society, the role of the individual is to serve the interests of the state. As the founder of the Open Society Foundations, open societies are obviously close to my heart, and I consider them morally superior to closed ones. When we talk about moral superiority, however, we encounter a difficulty: both systems consider themselves superior. Open societies must therefore distinguish themselves by actually protecting the freedom of the individual. That would certainly attract people living in closed societies.

Of course, repressive states may still prevail because they may be able to force their subjects to serve them. The fact is, both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. By understanding them better, we can improve our understanding of the world. I have distinguished between open and closed societies. This leaves out many countries that have gone to great lengths to avoid tying themselves irrevocably to one side or the other. India is an interesting case here. It’s a democracy, but its leader – Prime Minister Narendra Modi – is no democrat. Inciting violence against Muslims was an important factor in his meteoric rise.

Modi maintains close relations with both open and closed societies. India is a member of the Quad (which also includes Australia, the US, and Japan), but since the start of the Ukraine war, it has been buying a lot of Russian oil at a steep discount and makes a lot of money from it. Modi and business tycoon Gautam Adani are close allies; their fate is intertwined. Adani Enterprises tried to raise funds in the stock market, but failed. Adani is accused of stock manipulation and his stock collapsed like a house of cards.

Modi has been silent on the subject, but he will eventually have to answer questions from foreign investors and in parliament. This will significantly weaken Modi’s stranglehold on India’s federal government and open the door to push for much needed institutional reforms. I may be naïve, but I expect a democratic revival in India. Overall, the current situation has some similarities with the Cold War, but the differences are much greater. There is a real war going on in Ukraine that has changed everything. Until October, Ukraine was winning on the battlefield.

Then, Russia, with the help of Iran, introduced drones on a large scale. Their aim was to deprive the civilian population of electricity, heat, and water and undermine their morale. This has put Ukraine on the defensive. The regular Russian army is in desperate straits. It is badly led, ill-equipped, and demoralized. Putin recognized this and took a desperate gamble. He turned to Yevgeny Prigozhin, who owns an army of mercenaries called the Wagner Group and is eager to prove that he can do better than the regular army. Prigozhin has a criminal background and knows how to deal with criminals. Putin allowed him to recruit prisoners from jails. That violates Russian law, but Putin doesn’t obey any laws. The gamble worked. With the prisoners’ help, Wagner started gaining territory.

The Ukrainian army slowed down their advance, but it was losing more than a hundred trained soldiers a day which it could ill afford. Ukraine faced a strategic choice: either get bogged down in holding Wagner at bay or hand Russia a propaganda victory and preserve its limited resources for a counterattack. On December 21, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky flew to Washington, DC, to discuss the situation with President Joe Biden. They agreed that the only way to end the war is to win it. But Biden warned Zelensky that there are limits to what he is willing to do.

A third world war must be avoided at all costs and Europe’s support for Ukraine must be preserved. The Biden administration is providing Ukraine with the weapons – air defense, tanks, and plenty of ammunition – which are needed to defeat a Russian assault. But opposition from the Republican-led House of Representatives makes another large bipartisan funding package from the US unlikely. Zelensky went on a diplomatic offensive in European countries, urging them to deliver more tanks faster. He also asked for fighter planes, and European countries have agreed to start training Ukrainian pilots to fly state-of-the-art planes.

Prigozhin has been ordered by Putin to produce a battlefield victory before the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24. He is trying to surround the Ukrainian defenders of the town of Bakhmut, where he enjoys numerical superiority. It is possible that he will succeed, but I consider it unlikely because the Ukrainian army is putting up strong resistance and once Ukraine can use the weapons it has been promised, the tables will be turned. But Moldova’s president Maia Sandu warned that Putin is planning a coup d’état against Moldova. That threat could be executed before the anniversary.

On February 11, Prigozhin gave an interview in which he admitted that he won’t be able to trap the Ukrainian defenders of Bakhmut. “There are many roads out and fewer roads in,” he said. He took a two- to three-year perspective talking about occupying the Donbas region. This gives Ukraine a narrow window of opportunity later this spring, when it receives the promised armaments, to mount a counterattack which would determine the fate of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The countries of the former Soviet Union can hardly wait to see the Russians defeated in Ukraine because they want to assert their independence.

This means that a Ukrainian victory would result in the dissolution of the Russian empire. Russia would no longer pose a threat to Europe and the world. That would be a big change for the better. It would bring huge relief to open societies and create tremendous problems for closed ones. Turning to China, President Xi Jinping would be an obvious loser of a Russian defeat in Ukraine. His close association with Putin would hurt him. But China may already be undergoing a revolution.

In the short term, Xi is likely to remain in power because he is in firm control of all the instruments of repression. But I am convinced that Xi will not remain in office for life, and while he is in office, China will not become the dominant military and political force that Xi is aiming for. Fortunately for Xi, he is not personally threatened from abroad because Biden is not interested in regime change in China. All he wants is to re-establish the status quo in Taiwan.

To complete the geopolitical picture, I must also examine how democracy is functioning in the US. Obviously, not very well. When Donald Trump became president in 2016, he posed a real threat to US democracy. Trump is a deeply flawed character, a confidence trickster whose narcissism grew into a disease. He feels no commitment to democracy; democracy merely provides him with a stage on which to perform. As president, he was more interested in hobnobbing with dictators than in promoting democratic principles. Trump’s role model was Putin, who amassed a fortune while asserting total control over his country.

Trump attracted a lot of non-educated white followers, but his biggest backers were the mega-rich – and he certainly delivered for them. First, he cut their taxes. Second, he nominated to the Supreme Court ideologues who embraced an extreme version of the Republican agenda. Third, he brought the Republican Party under his control by threatening those who didn’t swear loyalty to him with a challenge in the primaries. Lastly, he encouraged Republican-controlled states to introduce outrageous measures of voter suppression to ensure that his party would remain in power indefinitely. With that program, he was almost re-elected in 2020.

My hope for 2024 is that Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida will slug it out for the Republican nomination. Trump has turned into a pitiful figure, continually bemoaning his loss in 2020. Big Republican donors are abandoning him in droves. DeSantis is shrewd, ruthless, and ambitious. He is likely to be the Republican candidate. This could induce Trump to run as a third-party candidate. This would lead to a Democratic landslide and force the Republican Party to reform itself. But perhaps I may be just a little bit biased here.

To conclude, I want to repeat what I stated at the beginning: while open and closed societies are in a fight for global domination, our civilization is in danger of collapsing because of the inexorable advance of climate change. I believe this sums up the current state of affairs accurately. I also believe that an open society is superior to a closed society, and I grieve for people who must live under repressive regimes.

George Soros – the author of many books – is Chairman of Soros Fund Management and the Open Society Foundations. His most recent book is In Defense of Open Society. Jarida Daily is republishing this interesting article from Project Syndicate for its readers.