At the end of the 1980s, I was Chairman of the Board of the Socialist International while Willy Brandt was its President. Willy always liked to make our formal meetings in Bonn, where the Federal Republic of Germany had its capital, as short as possible so we could go to his regular restaurant on the hill, overlooking the Rhine. There we would sit and talk for hours.
Once he asked me: "Thorbjorn, do you see over there the bridge that crosses the Rhine? It was the last one standing when the Allied Forces arrived in 1945." He continued, "Why this unimaginable tragedy, young man?" before answering it himself: "There was unemployment, discontent with the Versailles Treaty, and the burden of debt incurred by Germany was great. But remember this: there is no excuse for what spread in Germany. There was a general belief that human dignity didn't need to apply to everyone. Jews were a pariah caste and a scapegoat for problems others had created. Therefore it was no longer necessary to treat them as people. But I say to you, young man, if human dignity does not apply to everyone, it applies to no one."
Willy Brandt's words have since become my political credo: no political and societal advances can be right and just unless they promote human dignity based on fundamental rights and security, the rule of law, and democratic governance. This is the essence of modern day democracies: society must exist for the sake of the individual and not the other way around. Today, no European state should use its citizens as tools for religious or political ideologies. The fundamental and universal values of humanity go beyond an individual country's national or cultural characteristics and bind us together. Today, this is the European core. But it has not always been the case.
The Lessons of European History
Europe has always been a unique place. For many centuries, it was considered the center of the world, its developments associated with the progress of human civilization, and its ideas, inventions, and political dominance reaching other countries. The view of the world, and in particular of its history, was for many centuries very Eurocentric. At the same time, Europe had held the world hostage to conflicts between European nations for many years. When those nations went to war, the rest of the world had to be prepared to suffer. Europe today can no longer claim to be the center of gravity for global development. Yet its history can teach an important lesson, and the way Europe has become a civilization can be a source of inspiration to others.
The pivotal change in Europe came about at the beginning of the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, which transformed society in Europe and in North America soon after. But the European Industrial Revolution would probably not have occurred without the revolution in people's minds known as the Enlightenment. It was the Age of Enlightenment that released the creativity and innovation in the minds of individuals and allowed these innovations to be put to practical use. Europe became the center of global civilization, not only because of its favorable climate or strategic geographical location, but because it allowed Europeans to think and act in this spirit of freedom. That freedom was the engine of development. This observation is particularly valid when we keep in mind the developments taking place in the world today. Many believe that the current financial and economic crisis is more than just a regular crisis in the cycles of economic performance; they claim that this crisis signals the demise of the West as such and the end of its moral authority. Indeed, the weight of the West in terms of global economic development has shrunk. The rapid growth of new economic giants like China and India has left a deep imprint on how we perceive the balance of power in the world. Yet history teaches us a very clear lesson. …