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There is astonishing global political agreement – just look at the Olympics

2008 Beijing Olympics. Photo/Getty Images

Far from a “clash of civilisations”, nations have moved closer in ideas, outlook and acceptance of a global political order, writes Yuval Noah Harari in this extract from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

War makes people far more interested in one another. Never had the United States been more closely in touch with Russia than during the Cold War, when every cough in a Moscow corridor sent people scrambling up and down Washington staircases.

People care far more about their enemies than about their trade partners. For every American film about Taiwan, there are probably 50 about Vietnam. Yet in the early 21st century, people across the globe not only are in touch with one another, but also increasingly share identical beliefs and practices.

A thousand years ago, planet Earth provided fertile ground to dozens of different political models. In Europe, you could find feudal principalities vying with independent city states and minuscule theocracies. The Muslim world had its caliphate, claiming universal sovereignty, but also experimented with kingdoms, sultanates and emirates. The Chinese empires believed themselves to be the sole legitimate political entity, while, to the north and west, tribal confederacies fought each other with glee. India and Southeast Asia contained a kaleidoscope of regimes, whereas polities in America, Africa and Australasia ranged from tiny hunter-gatherer bands to sprawling empires.

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No wonder that even neighbouring human groups had trouble agreeing on common diplomatic procedures, not to mention international laws. Each society had its own political paradigm, and found it difficult to understand and respect alien political concepts.

Today, in contrast, a single political paradigm is accepted everywhere. The planet is divided between about 200 sovereign states, which generally agree on the same diplomatic protocols and on common international laws. Sweden, Nigeria, Thailand and Brazil are all marked on our atlases as the same kind of colourful shapes, they are all members of the UN and, despite myriad differences, are all recognised as sovereign states enjoying similar rights and privileges. Indeed, they share many more political ideas and practices, including at least a token belief in representative bodies, political parties, universal suffrage and human rights.

There are parliaments in Tehran, Moscow, Cape Town and New Delhi as well as in London and Paris. When Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, Kurds and Turks compete for the favours of global public opinion, they all use the same discourse of human rights, state sovereignty and international law.

The world may be peppered with various types of “failed states”, but it knows only one paradigm for a successful state. Global politics thus follows the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state fails in its own way, by missing this or that ingredient of the dominant political package. The Islamic State has recently stood out, in its complete rejection of this package and in its attempt to establish an entirely different kind of political entity: a universal caliphate. But precisely for this reason it has failed.

The Olympics have survived political crises such as in 1972. Photo/Getty Images

Global political order

Numerous guerrilla forces and terror organisations have managed to establish new countries or to conquer existing ones. But they have always done so by accepting the fundamental principles of the global political order. Even the Taliban sought international recognition as the legitimate government of the sovereign country of Afghanistan. No group rejecting the principles of global politics has so far gained any lasting control of any significant territory.

The strength of the global political paradigm can perhaps best be appreciated by considering not hardcore political questions of war and diplomacy but, rather, something like the Olympic Games. Take a moment to reflect on the way the 2016 Rio Games were organised. The 11,000 athletes were grouped into delegations by nationality rather than by religion, class or language. There was no Buddhist delegation, proletarian delegation or English-speaking delegation. Except in a handful of cases – most notably Taiwan and Palestine – determining the athletes’ nationality was a straightforward affair.

At the opening ceremony on August 5, 2016, the athletes marched in groups, each group waving its national flag. Whenever Michael Phelps won another gold medal, the stars and stripes was raised to the sound of The Star-Spangled Banner. When Émilie Andéol won the gold medal in judo, the French Tricolour was hoisted and La Marseillaise was played.

National flags follow similar patterns. Photo/Getty Images

Familiar theme

Conveniently enough, each country in the world has an anthem that conforms to the same universal model. Almost all anthems are orchestral pieces of a few minutes in length, rather than a 20-minute chant that may be performed only by a special caste of hereditary priests. Even countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Congo have adopted Western musical conventions for their anthems. Most of them sound like something composed by Beethoven on a rather mediocre day. Even the lyrics are almost the same throughout the world, indicating common conceptions of politics and group loyalty.

National flags display the same dreary conformity. With a single exception, all flags are rectangular pieces of cloth marked by an extremely limited repertoire of colours, stripes and geometrical shapes. Nepal is the odd country out, with a flag consisting of two triangles. The Indonesian flag consists of a red stripe above a white stripe. The Polish flag displays a white stripe above a red stripe. The flag of Monaco is identical to that of Indonesia. A colour-blind person could hardly tell the difference between the flags of Belgium, Chad, Ivory Coast, France, Guinea, Ireland, Italy, Mali and Romania – they all have three vertical stripes of various colours.

Some of these countries have been engaged in bitter war with one another, but during the tumultuous 20th century, only three Olympiads were cancelled due to war (in 1916, 1940 and 1944). In 1980, the US and some of its allies boycotted the Moscow Olympics, in 1984 the Soviet bloc boycotted the Los Angeles Games, and on several other occasions the Olympics found themselves at the centre of a political storm (most notably in 1936, when Nazi Berlin hosted the games, and in 1972 in Munich, when Palestinian terrorists massacred 11 members of the Israeli delegation and a policeman). Yet on the whole, political controversies have not derailed the Olympic project.

Now let’s go back 1000 years. Suppose you wanted to hold the Medieval Olympic Games in Rio in 1016. Forget for a moment that Rio was then a small village of Tupi Indians and that Asians, Africans and Europeans were not even aware of America’s existence. Forget the logistical problems of bringing all the world’s top athletes to Rio in the absence of aeroplanes. Forget, too, that few sports were shared throughout the world, and even if all humans could run, not everybody could agree on the same rules for a running competition. Just ask yourself how to group the competing delegations. Today’s International Olympic Committee spends countless hours discussing the Taiwan question and the Palestine question. Multiply this by 10,000 to estimate the number of hours you would have to spend on the politics of the Medieval Olympics.

Olympian headache

For starters, in 1016 the Chinese Song empire recognised no political entity on Earth as its equal. It would therefore be an unthinkable humiliation to give its Olympic delegation the same status as that granted to the delegations of the Korean kingdom of Koryo or the Vietnamese kingdom of Dai Co Viet – not to mention the delegations of primitive barbarians across the seas.

The Caliph in Baghdad also claimed universal hegemony, and most Sunni Muslims recognised him as their supreme leader. In practical terms, however, the Caliph barely ruled the city of Baghdad. So would all Sunni athletes be part of a single caliphate delegation, or would they be separated into dozens of delegations from the numerous emirates and sultanates of the Sunni world?

Why stop with the emirates and sultanates? The Arabian Desert was teaming with free Bedouin tribes who recognised no overlord but Allah. Would each be entitled to send an independent delegation to compete in archery or camel racing?

Europe would give you any number of similar headaches. Would an athlete from the Norman town of Ivry compete under the banner of the local Count of Ivry, of his lord the Duke of Normandy, or perhaps of the feeble King of France?

Many of these political entities appeared and disappeared within a matter of years. As you made preparations for the 1016 Olympics, you could not know in advance which delegations would show up, because nobody could be sure which political entities would still exist next year. If the kingdom of England had sent a delegation, by the time the athletes came home with their medals they would have discovered that the Danes had just captured London and England was being absorbed into the North Sea empire of King Cnut the Great, together with Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden. Within another 20 years, that empire disintegrated, but 30 years later, England was conquered again, by the Duke of Normandy.

Needless to say, the vast majority of these ephemeral entities had neither anthem to play nor flag to hoist. Political symbols were of great importance, of course, but the symbolic language of European politics was very different from the symbolic languages of Indonesian, Chinese or Tupi politics. Agreeing on a common protocol to mark victory would have been well-nigh impossible.

So when you watch the Tokyo Games in 2020, remember that this sporting competition between nations actually represents an astonishing global agreement. For all the national pride people feel when their delegation wins a gold medal and their flag is raised, there is far greater reason to feel pride that humankind is capable of organising such an event.

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.