Of Circles and Centers

In politics, to lose is to allow the center of forces to move away from where one stands. This can lead to the familiar absurdity of watching politicians scamper from position to position to stay in power.

In Lyon at the summit of the seven leading industrial nations, we observed the heads of state maneuver for their own advantage not within the G-7, but primarily with their home constituencies. Facing rebuke for his stance on Cuba, President Clinton even before arriving in Lyon sought to put the focus on terrorism, the tragic loss of more US military lives in Saudi Arabia, and the quite understandable desire to comfort the soldiers' families. His message was for the American body politic, whose center is Washington.

Prime Minister John Major's political locus being London, all we heard in Europe for weeks during the summit runup was his row with the European Union over cattle-slaughter quotas. This peaked at the EU summit in Italy the week before. Major did pick up the "Karadzic must go" theme to help push the Bosnian Serb leader to relinquish power. But his first political task has been to argue that his London will never cede crucial rights of decision to the EU circle, here played out over "mad- cow disease."

As host, France's Jacques Chirac, easily the most charmant in the G-7 portrait, endured the distractions of his guests, an anti-austerity demonstration, and the subsequent loss by France's soccer team (and Italy's and Britain's) at the European championship in Wembley, England, won by the Germans.

Position and effectiveness

"Centering" in politics, knowing where one's home is, is but one aspect of a larger human theme. We want to position ourselves for effectiveness. Of minor note, from this 800-year-old farming village in Switzerland, just a rush downhill to the Rhne Valley and Lake Geneva, I am positioned for equal access to the French, German, and Italian spheres of influence in Europe. Measured by concentric circles 60 kilometers (37 miles) apart, I can reach France, Italy, and the Swiss-German cantons at the first circle; Paris, Florence, and Frankfurt at the sixth circle; Barcelona, Rome, and Rotterdam at the 11th; and Vienna, Berlin, and London at the 13th. Switzerland itself finds its identity in the press of countries and forces outside it, and is suffering from keeping its economy in some bearable relationship with the austerity economies around it.

The view from...

Every topographical point is an orienting center. Marseille, for example, looks out to the Mediterranean ports of Africa and the Middle East. Its back is to France, for which it is a port. As a reporter, I look to see how the rivers flow in regions I visit, where the agricultural centers lie. I like to ask, "What cities would you visit for a weekend?"

Languages describe spheres of influence. "English is the world's first language," says a British economist. "English is also the world's second language." Not only are the French annoyed. German linguists have just announced reforms to make German more effective.

Literatures can constitute spheres of influence. Dante, exiled from his beloved Florence, nonetheless established his native Tuscan tongue as the modern Italian standard with a single work, the Divine Comedy, itself a description of social, political, and moral circles from the underworld to heaven.

Conceptually and thanks to technology, each of us can claim to be a world center. Our greater effectiveness, however, is in keeping the circles of our politics, family, work, and geographical place in alignment.

*Richard J. Cattani is the Monitor's editor at large.

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