Institute of the Weltethos Foundation
at the University of Tübingen

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Europe’s Democracies under Pressure: Global Ethic as an Answer?


A commentary by Dr. Christopher Gohl, political scientist and teaching coordinator at the Global Ethic Institute.

In 2022, liberal democracies find themselves in a threefold stress test: polarized from within, threatened by enemies of the system from without, challenged by megatrends such as climate and demographic change. There is no doubt that we are living, in the words of German President Steinmeier, in “probationary years for our democracy.” Its enemies are becoming more extreme, the crises and challenges greater, the mistrust deeper, the cohesion weaker, the tone harsher.

First, increasing polarization from within threatens the strength of liberal democracies: Their public capability for dialogue and learning. Social media platforms contribute to this with business models that promote emotions, group think, and black-and-white simplifications. But they also need people willing to go along with this polarization. It is true that left-wing and right-wing extremist parties have become smaller in the last federal elections in Germany. But the extent to which the extremes on the left and right oppress and despise the reason and moderation of the democratic center is evident in the reactions to autocrat Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression on Ukraine.

Secondly, we find ourselves in systemic competition with authoritarian states such as China and, of course, Russia, which is now threatening us in very concrete ways. This needs little elaboration these days: Such states are afraid of liberal democracies’ successful guarantee of prosperity, peace and freedom entirely without strong men or single parties. After all, this calls the legitimacy of their model of rule and governance into question.

Third challenge: We must continue, as before, to balance peace, prosperity and freedom. And we’ll have to change a lot of bad habits with bad consequences in oder to keep the peace of freedom and prosperity. The changes in climate, demographics and digitization are bringing about radical changes and new conflicts, with the potential for polarization remaining high – see above.

Which brings us back to German President Steinmeier. After his re-election on February 13 2022, he gave his most important speech to date, saying that the pressing changes toward sustainable lifestyles must be new beginnings for all of us. To achieve this, he said, we need to build many new bridges. Steinmeier had already described what he envisioned by this in his major Global Ethic speech in October 2019:

“Normative understanding thus means both: constant work on the peacemaking ability of our mutual international relations and, in unison with that, on the inner peace of our own societies. This is what we are thinking about here in Tübingen today. The genius loci of Tübingen was often and always characterized by the spirit of conversation, of scholarly disputation, of the peaceful confrontation of great minds. The famous triad of the collegiate students Hölderlin, Schelling, and Hegel exemplifies this. One of them, Friedrich Hölderlin, wrote some of the most wonderful poems in the German language before he spent the second half of his life in so-called mental derangement here in Tübingen. In his poem ‘Peace Celebration’ there is the line: ‘Since a conversation we are and hear from one another, […].'”

German President Frank Walter Steinmeier in his 2019 Global Ethic speech.

Steinmeier thus honors the city of Tübingen as a city of conversation; and this brings him to the Global Ethic Project. Just as there are places that have a paradigmatic significance for the idea of our democracy, “there are also special places of a thinking that is turned towards the world. The academic life of Hans Küng cannot be thought of without the city of Tübingen.” He continues:

“‘Since a conversation we are’: This seems to me to be an appropriate and also striking guiding idea for the possibility and reality of a Global Ethic. ‘Since a conversation we are and hear from each other’: This is how a civil, peace-loving kind of discussion is expressed in a very noble and reserved way, a conversation in ‘reasonable freedom’, as philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls it. A conversation between people of different origins, convictions and attitudes. (…) Real encounter changes those who meet, and this change brings the possibility of real commonality. A common ethos, which should underlie our living together in our own society, but also worldwide, enables and needs precisely such conversation and listening to one another.”

German President Frank Walter Steinmeier in his Global Ethic Speech 2019.

Here ethos becomes a personal attitude of conversational ability: a political, democratic ethos of “reasonable freedom.” It is precisely the force with which feelings are a dominant mode of cognition that makes the public use of reason a decisive achievement of civilization. This is, after all, a crucial point of Hans Küng’s Global Ethic project: the ability to engage in dialogue as a product of the values that have proven themselves time and again in human interaction in all religions and cultures throughout the ages. The essence of Küng’s ethos is to treat people humanely, using the Golden Rule to change our perspective and striving for truthfulness, justice, non-violence and partnership.

Those who practice Global Ethic values are capable of dialogue: Treating others non-violently, humanely, as equal interlocutors, seeking common truthful solutions in fair, partnership-based and open processes.Already in his book “Projekt Weltethos” from 1990, the founding document of the Global Ethic Project, Hans Küng emphasized dialogue capability with its own chapter. Already in his book “Projekt Weltethos” from 1990, the founding document of the Project, Hans Küng emphasized dialog capability with a separate chapter. In his conception, it combines standpoint ability here – knowing who one is and what one’s own certainties are – with curiosity and willingness to learn there: remaining open to others, to common search and learning processes. “The capacity for dialogue is the capacity for peace,” says Küng.

We at the Global Ethic Institute have built an intermediary step into our research: Dialogue capacity means learning capacity – it is, in the words of Institute Director Prof. Dr. Dr. Ulrich Hemel, a “program of pluralistic identity learning”. Learning ability in this sense means deducing from the experience of successes and failures the knowledge of how we ought to behave better. Leading us to new knowledge that frees us from old predicaments, it becomes a peaceful driver for development, adjustment, and synthesis. Frank communication about necessary, possible and desirable change – this is what makes dialogue capable of peace. The very source of a democracy capable of transformation is the ability to engage in dialogue.

Thus attitude is turned into action, ethos into a project of concern for our common democracy. Global Ethic is therefore an idea “of unheard-of historical urgency,” said President Steinmeier in Tübingen. There is in the global ethic “a categorical imperative that obliges people of good will, that obliges us all. And it commits us all to persistent, even arduous, goal-oriented work on understanding and peace, even if it often involves small steps. In untangling the most intricate knots. In listening to one another. In patient conversation.” More specifically:

“Conversation always has to do with patience, at least when it really is a matter of understanding and comprehension. This is true, as I said, domestically; it is even more true in foreign policy, in diplomacy; it is true in treaty negotiations, in cautious, respectful, unflinchingly solution-oriented dialogue. (…) How often I had to think of that pious picture, unique in the history of art, which can be found in Augsburg: a picture of the Queen of Heaven Mary as the untangler of knots. In her hand she holds a tangled ball of thread, a knot, from which she unties the threads of the seemingly inextricable knot with infinite, one could say: heavenly patience. Doesn’t the political ethos of responsible politicians consist of modest, unswerving, patient knot-tying? I see knot-tying as an ethical principle of political commitment, especially today. (…)

German President Frank Walter Steinmeier in his global ethic speech 2019.

Can our democracy grow with its tasks? Or will it give up its spirit in the stress test of manifold challenges and attacks? I believe we have good reason to be optimistic – if we take on the task of renewing democracy. There are many proposals for this, for which this is not the place. But a “learning democracy” which is upheld as a form of government, better organized as a form of governance, and deepened as a form of life will enable us to shape the future in reason and responsibility with and for one another. Where we are able to solve problems in a more sustainable way, we establish trust in the democratic ways of peaceful reconciliation. In this way, we can reduce polarization, survive in system competition and peacefully deal with the challenges of our time.

Just as the social market economy emerged as a third way between unregulated capitalism and planned socialism, learning democracy would be a third way between smart technocratic elite rule and authoritarian populist mass idiocy. Like fair competition in the social market economy, open dialogue would be a form of civil, productive, and shared exercise of freedom. In the end there is no peace ability without dialogue ability, no dialogue ability without learning ability – and no learning ability without the values in the center of the Global Ethic Project!