Interview: G20 co-founder Hans Eichel

“If you want peace, then prepare for peace”

Hans Eichel, while chairing the G7, started the G20 with then US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to reflect the rebalancing of global power. As Germany’s finance minister during its landmark ruling coalition between the Social Democrats and the Green Party, Hans architected the fiscal reforms that turned Germany from the “sick man of Europe” into the best performing major Western economy in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. He is a vocal supporter of global debt forgiveness for the poorest countries and currently supports initiatives for the arts, climate change and circular economies.

Jeremy Sim is a community organiser at the civilisation prototyping lab Audacity/Aufhaven, and concurrently creative director of the venture builder Mistletoe. 

ON HIMSELF

Jeremy: Hans, I take pleasure in knowing you are comfortably settled in for the winter, in your home amidst beautiful snowy forests. Could you share with us something that you feel is true, but that almost no one agrees with you on.

Hans: Hello, Jeremy. Some of my beliefs may only be shared by minorities, especially in the rich industrialized countries, but there are people everywhere who think like I do.

Jeremy: Is there a guiding principle that has shaped your life or career?

Hans: “Human dignity is inviolable” This is the first sentence of the first article of the German constitution. It means every human being, regardless of gender, skin color, faith or sexual orientation. This principle is decisive for my thoughts and actions.

Jeremy: What are the key moments of deep profound happiness in your long and distinguished career?

Hans: Privately, it is the love for and of my wife and family. Politically, it is the Nobel Peace Prize for Willy Brandt, the liberation of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa, the unification of Germany in 1989 / 1990.

Jeremy: Is it possible to lead a deep and meaningful life without long-lasting romantic love?

Hans: I have no answer to this

Jeremy: Fair enough. Let’s see, Brandt and Mandela were personal friends of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. These great men who shaped the post-War world order lived in times that were even more turbulent than what we face today. What do you think we can learn from the spirit of Brandt, Lee and Mandela?

Hans: First of all, let us learn to live together peacefully, precisely because we are so different. Recognize the dignity of every human being. Bertolt Brecht, a great German poet who, like Willy Brandt, had to flee the Nazis, put it wonderfully in verse:

And because man is a human being,

That’s why he doesn’t like boots in his face

He does not want to see a slave under him

And no master above him

And then Willy Brandt’s sentence applies, that politics has only one meaning: To make people’s lives better, even if it is sometimes only a little.

Jeremy: Willy Brandt was a left-wing journalist who escaped to Norway because of Nazi persecution, became Chancellor of Germany, lived to see the Berlin Wall come down, and received the Nobel for his efforts in strengthening ties between Europe’s nations. In what personal ways has he most influenced or mentored you?

Hans: He was an unusually impressive personality, both publicly and privately. I was very moved by his consistent peace policy in the middle of the Cold War. He put an end to the dangerous principle: If you want peace, prepare for war. His maxim was rather: If you want peace, prepare for peace. This meant: unconditional renunciation of violence, arms control, confidence-building measures vis-à-vis all neighbours, i.e. treaties with the GDR, Poland and the Soviet Union. The equally dangerous sentence which only sows mistrust and discord “The enemy of your neighbour is your friend” he replaced with “We want to be a nation of good neighbours, both internally and externally”.  For me, this sentence from his first government declaration as German Chancellor encompasses Willy Brandt’s entire political thinking and actions. It must be our guiding principle for living together in the global village – then we will have a good future.

ON WHAT THREATENS OUR WORLD

Jeremy: As bad as the Covid19 pandemic is, it has triggered an economic fallout that could be unprecedented. The IMF said that over 100 countries have asked for a bailout, and there is worry of a chain reaction of sovereign defaults and global social unrest. 

Hans: The danger is real. Only decisive counteraction in all countries and resolute solidarity between rich countries and poorer countries can avert this danger. Debt relief for the poorest countries, repayment deferrals and increased funding from the IMF and regional development banks are needed, and fast.

Jeremy: Climate change worries me more than Covid19. The National Academy of Sciences published a 2020 study that up to 3 billion people could be living in areas too hot for humans by 2070. Singapore has announced that we could spend S$100 billion (Euros 64 billion) to fight climate change. The US Army Corp of Engineers has proposed a US$120 billion sea wall to protect New York City from the sea. Most of the world will not be able to afford such protections. 

Hans: Only by decarbonising our economies and creating a “circular economy” can we prevent the worst from happening. The industrialised countries must lead the way and also strongly support poorer countries in this endeavour. This is already set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As a society, we also need to develop a global culture of migration in order to give climate refugees a perspective. The UN has started to do this.

Jeremy: Based on what you saw happen with the refugee crisis in Europe, what are your thoughts on climate migration?

Hans: Closing borders will not be a solution; the problem is too big for that.

Jeremy: There is a longstanding discussion about a global population limit. How can we enforce or influence people from not overpopulating the planet?

Hans: I think that if the major risks of life are covered for all people, if all have unemployment insurance, health insurance and pension insurance, which are adequate, the birth rate will fall of its own accord. In the richer industrialized countries, this has been happening for a long time, and in more and more emerging countries it is becoming apparent.

ON INNOVATING OUR WAY OUT OF DISASTER

Jeremy: Global inequalities and ecological disaster seems to be unavoidable if we continue to support the dominant form of global capitalism. 

Hans: An economic system that focuses primarily on private-sector profits destroys our natural resources and social cohesion. We need to redefine prosperity and what is meant by “good life”. This discussion has already started. Global commons and universal human rights must be at the heart of our economic system, and markets should serve to protect them.

Jeremy: The coalition government between Germany’s Social Democrats and the Greens (1998-2005) was a historical first-ever milestone for green politics in a major country. What are the lessons that the world can learn, in terms of political innovation for green interests?

Hans: The coalition of Social Democrats and Greens in Germany laid the foundation for the global energy transition by developing renewable energy sources. Only by combining social and ecological aspects, by creating new jobs through environment-friendly processes, i.e. when the future is perceived not as a threat but as an opportunity, will ecological awareness change our society permanently.

Jeremy: AI and automation will put many people out of jobs. We are already seeing it gradually now, and it is accelerating. For rich countries with a strong social compact like Norway or New Zealand, it is a big problem. For rich countries with a weak social compact like the US, it is an even worse problem. I am deeply concerned about those in poor countries with weak social compacts- which is where the majority of humanity lives.

Hans: It is too early to tell how many people will lose their jobs due to AI and automation and how many new jobs will be created. In any case, we need much more solidarity in our societies and globally to tackle these challenges. People will need to upgrade their skills so that they can change jobs more easily. We need adequate guaranteed minimum incomes. Trade relations between rich and poor countries need to become more equitable, so that poorer countries can better develop their economies. A lot has already been said and written about how to achieve this since Willy Brandt published the report “A Programme for Survival” on behalf of the UN. Above all, the exploitation of poor countries by their own elites and by industrialised countries needs to end.

Jeremy: What is the single biggest innovation the UN and G20 can make to fulfil the potential envisioned by their founders?

Hans: Specifically, in this time of pandemic, a global fund to finance the research, development, and production of vaccines and medicines around the world, and to ensure publication of all research knowledge about them. And a reformed WHO that guarantees fair distribution of all vaccines and medicines to all countries.

ON MOONSHOTS FOR HUMANITY

Jeremy: The term “Moonshot” refers to a wildly ambitious goal, it comes from John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put the first man on the moon. If you are graduating from university as a young man in the year 2021, what would be your moonshot for humanity and how would you go about achieving it?

Hans: My “moon shot” would be for all people to realize that we all live in a global village, that we are all responsible for the survival of mankind, for life on earth. This is something which you need to tell and explain to people, again and again.

Jeremy: “explain to people, again and again” – That sounds like we need a universal basic education to go along with a universal basic income. If there’s a passionate young idealist who wants to do a startup or non-profit to achieve your “moon shot” for humanity, what are the key skills required to make it happen?

Hans: She or he would have to be able to organize joint projects of people, initiatives, companies, civil society organizations from developing and industrialized countries that contribute to the peaceful coexistence and survival of mankind and can be multiplied. This requires credibility in speech and action, persuasiveness and organizational talent.

Jeremy: Thank you very much, Hans. You have been an inspiration to me for many years, and I am grateful for this sharing. I look forward to visiting you and Germany again, as soon as this pandemic allows.

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