What the World Needs Now

by George Soros

In These Times magazine, October 1999


The NATO intervention in Kosovo forced me to reconsider some of my most cherished preconceptions.

We cannot go on reacting to crises as they arise, especially as our actions can have unintended, adverse consequences. (And I am more aware than most people that actions have unintended consequences.) We must bring a positive, constructive vision to bear, a vision like that which created the European Union, where the state plays a less dominant role and the importance of borders is diminished.

The way to peace and prosperity is to create what I call an "open society"-a society that enables people with different views, identities and interests to live together in peace. The open society concept is based on the recognition that no one is in possession of the ultimate truth and that people act on imperfect knowledge. Perfection being unattainable, we must be satisfied with the next best thing: a society that holds itself open to improvement. An open society transcends national boundaries; it allows intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states because people living under an oppressive regime often cannot defend themselves. But the intervention must be confined to supporting the people living in a country to attain their legitimate aspirations, not imposing a particular ideology or subjugating one state to the interests of another.

I have no doubts that the situation in Kosovo required outside intervention. The case for intervention was clearer there than in most other areas of ethnic conflict. My doubts center on the ways in which international pressure can be successfully applied.

In our increasingly interdependent world, there are certain kinds of behavior by sovereign states-aggression, terrorism, ethnic cleansing-that cannot be tolerated by the international community. At the same time, we must recognize that the current approach does not work.

We need a new international authority that transcends the sovereignty of states to promote an open society. We have the United Nations, but it is an association of states-some democratic and open, others not- each guided by its national interests. We have an association of democratic states, NATO, that intervened in defense of democratic values, but it is a military alliance incapable of preventive action. NATO needs to be complemented by a political alliance, capable of acting both within the United Nations and outside it, that is dedicated to an open society.

Such an alliance would work more by providing rewards for good behavior than punishment for bad behavior. This would encourage voluntary compliance and defer any problems connected with the infringement of national sovereignty. The first degree of punishment would be exclusion; only if that fails would other measures be considered.

The greatest rewards would be access to markets, access to finance, better treatment by the international financial institutions and, where appropriate, association with the European Union. There are a thousand little ways that diplomatic pressure can be applied; the important thing is to be clear about the objectives.

I am sure that the abolition of Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 could have been reversed if the international community had been determined enough about it. Similarly in Croatia, the international community did not do enough to assure the existence of independent media. In Latvia, however, international pressure led to a reform of a naturalization law that could have caused conflict in Russia.

Ironically, it is the United States that stands in the way of a political alliance, with a membership much broader than NATO, dedicated to the promotion of an open society. We are caught in a trap of our own making. We used to be one of two superpowers and the leader of the free world. We are now the sole remaining superpower and we would like to think of ourselves as the world's leader. But that is where we fail, because we do not observe one of the basic principles of the open society. Nobody has a monopoly of the truth.

We are willing to violate the sovereignty of other states in the name of universal principles, but we are unwilling to accept any infringement of our own sovereignty. We are willing to drop bombs on others from high altitudes, but we are reluctant to expose our own men to risk. We refuse to submit ourselves to any kind of international governance. We were one of seven countries that refused to subscribe to the International Criminal Court; the others were China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar and Yemen. We do not even pay our dues to the United Nations. This kind of behavior does not lend much legitimacy to our claim to be the world's leader.

To reclaim that role we must radically alter our attitude toward international cooperation. We cannot bomb the world into submission, but we cannot withdraw into isolation either. We cannot and should not be the policeman of the world; but the world needs policemen. Therefore, we must co-operate with like minded countries, and, abiding by the rules we seek to impose on others, work together to build an open society.


George Soros, chairman of Soros Fund Management, is the founder of the Open Society Institute (www.soros.org).

Reforming the System