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'Globerati' Try to Find 'Common Values'

World's eminent doers and thinkers met this month in Prague to ponder .' 'transcendence

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 1997


Put 10 Nobel laureates, five former heads of state, and a galaxy of moral authorities in picturesque Prague Castle for four days, and what do you get?

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For starters, plenty of talk about topics not often found in daily headlines: the "health of civilization" ... a "crisis of values" ... a "common moral minimum."

Such phrases kept popping up at this gathering of "globerati," held earlier this month and hosted by Czech philosopher-president Vaclav Havel. The conference was charged by Mr. Havel to study the need for a "change in the sphere of human conscience."

These particular globerati, a name given to global thinkers and doers who often meet to tackle The Big Picture, included such luminaries as the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, Helmut Schmidt, and Frederik de Klerk. The meeting's sponsor, Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation, wanted something different from previous international conferences about world-sized problems.

Such gatherings are hardly new. They emerged in the period after the Holocaust and Hiroshima, two 20th-century events that raised fundamental questions about humanity's future. Since the 1970s, a small industry of elite globerati have jet-setted from capital to capital dispensing all manner of advice and wisdom, usually with little result but plenty of paper.

Lately, the end of the cold war and concern about international institutions like the United Nations have forced a retrenchment from Big Picture talk about worldly solutions for such persistent problems as environmental decay and nuclear proliferation. Rather, the globerati have turned to otherworldly discussions about hard-nosed moral and ethical imperatives, or what many call transcendence.

In Prague, inside the ornate frescoed palace rooms overlooking this popular Central European capital from a high promontory, the informal council of elders were asked to find "reasons why humankind does nothing to avert the threats about which it knows so much," as President Havel put it.

In this skeptical age, the group did not think it was worthwhile to issue an action memo or written recommendations. Ideology is seen as no longer a driving historical force since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And democracy alone is unable to provide vision. So, many in Prague sought to find a hidden spring of transcendent values that people, governments, and religions can be held responsible for.

"There is a building mantra of 'responsibility' among elder statesmen," says Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, based in Los Angeles. "What's different about Prague is that these people are not just thinkers - they've done something. They've been in prison. They've been on the front line. They want to know if a common moral consensus is possible."

Not that the participants expected their views to be taken seriously in centers of power. Indeed, tensions existed between what were considered "realistic" and "naive" views in the group. Polish historian and Solidarity activist Bronislaw Geremek, and Timothy Garton Ash, chronicler of the Czechoslovak "Velvet Revolution," argued that the worth of such meetings was to leaven thought in larger cultural circles. The Helsinki human rights accords of the late 1970s, it was pointed out, were regarded at the time as irrelevant - but they shaped a discourse on freedom that helped topple the Soviet bloc.

"A lot of the changes for the better have come about through the so-called naive people, not by bureaucrats and state leaders," Jose Ramos-Horta, 1996 co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on East Timor, told the Monitor.