George Soros: Important and Earnest

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2001. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

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The World Affairs Council of Northern California held its 55th annual conference at Asilomar from May 4 to May 6, 2001. The topic was Globalization in the Information Age. These conferences have long been a prestigious forum for famous and thoughtful speakers, including John F. Kennedy, and Henry Kissinger. The object is to allow the participants a weekend of in-depth exploration of the driving forces shaping the world.

The conference was superbly managed. An array of exceptionally qualified experts made presentations on a comprehensive list of issues, which were then further elaborated by knowledgeable and articulate discussants. The framework and the outline of the discourse were provided by George Soros. He was the keynote speaker, and delivered this assignment with obvious relish. Enjoying a widespread reputation as a financial guru, Soros now seeks recognition for his views on political and security matters.

The world according to George Soros is described in his book, Open Society, Reforming Global Capitalism, which was published in 2000. His address at Asilomar made ample references to the large themes of the book: the free movement of financial capital as the main driver of globalism, the Amismatch@ between economics and politics in the current phase of global capitalism, the restrains of  the nation state system which endures because of the allegiance to national interests, the unilateralism of the increasingly dominant United States, the dangerous widening gap between the rich and the poor, the need for advance crisis prevention worldwide, the necessity of invigorating foreign aid, establishing a global central bank and stronger international financial institutions, and the enlightened alliance of democracies as the means to salvation in the era of globalization.

The challenge of Soros=s speech was unmistakable. The new Administration in Washington has set upon a course, mapped by Vice President Richard Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, which is based on different coordinates. In their perception, the United States has to act alone as it faces mortal threats from various quarters, peacemaking mechanisms are merely diplomatic figments, and allies are inconsequential [1].

Against this background, the Asilomar conference, given the traditional liberal or progressive predilections of its attendees, could have best heeded Soros=s call by constituting itself as the town hall of a nascent community of individuals with transnational interests. Its purpose would have been to explore ways of defying the gravity of conflicting national interests in order to replace the existing world order with a lofty democratic and peaceable global system. This was not done. But that was the model that often seemed to be followed by the discussions at the Asilomar conference.

While Soros’s speech was invoked repeatedly at the conference, he was hardly oracular. In fact, his humility was disarming. I approached him, as he descended from the podium, to deliver a press pack showing the good use made of his contributions to a nonprofit (Roots of Peace). A number of others also wanted his attention. In this meeting on the “Information Age,@ Soros carried only a quaint little paper notebook. Not wishing to burden him with my pack, I looked for an aid who might, instead, receive the pack. Soros had come alone. So I stayed and waited for my turn.

In the ensuing half hour Soros responded to many. They were diverse and had different things to discuss. My collective impression of Soros=s demeanor, however, was rather coherently unified. I was struck by his attentiveness, gentleness, and engagement in his interlocutor=s subject. The co-discoverer of the HIV virus took some time. The range of issues he wished to bring up was catholic, and, like some others, he recalled friends he had in common with Soros. A petite middle age woman, apparently from Hungary, beaming with pride but deferential, introduced herself to Soros in the language of the old country. This widened his smile. He responded in a short exchange that was distinct, and more than simply because it was not in English. Their connection was almost subterranean, almost subversive of the melting pot. The phenomenon, of course, is familiar to all new immigrants to this hospitable land of many cultures.

But Soros is unique. Here is a man who has “pushed the envelope.” He speaks as a member of @we Americans,@ while going much further than his comparable contemporaries in questioning the values and assumptions of his adopted society. To be sure, he is far better shielded than an ordinary skeptic: his financial prowess is legendary, his prudence has the seal of approval from the Wall Street Journal as well as the Council on Foreign Relations, he is an American Jew, and he is an escapee both from Nazism and Communism. Kissinger and Madeline Albright also have enjoyed much similar protection. But they became Secretary of States; Soros takes pride in being a Astateless statesman.@

The existential paradox of being George Soros is perhaps explicable by the epistemological foundation of his beliefs. His conviction about the Ainherently imperfect understanding@ of human beings which leads to his rejection of all kinds of dogmatism- including the creed that capitalism will take care of all needs, which he calls Amarket fundamentalism@– justifies the contradiction implied in his aspiring to be an American, yet asserting independence as a citizen of the world.

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[1]  See, e.g., George Seib F.Seib, ANote to Allies: There is a Method to Bush Policies,@  The Wall Street Journal,May 9, 2001; Condoleezza Rice, APromoting the National Interest,@ Foreign Affairs, January 2000.

 

 

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