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It is one of the ironies of our time that the very process that is tying the world’s disparate peoples together is at the same time generating friction between them. Globalization may be spinning a vast web of relationships as it builds a single world market, but as it does so, citizens are accentuating the cultural and social differences that distinguish them from others.

It is perfectly understandable that people react in fear and cling more tightly to the past when confronted by historical and technological forces that threaten their identity. It is also futile.

Globalization is inevitable. The world will continue to compress. The future will remain unknowable. Worse, the pace of change will accelerate.

But, says Hans Kueng, the noted Catholic theologian, we do know that “the globalization of the economy, technology and communication results in the globalization of problems, from frightening ecological pollution to the globalization of organized crime and the trade in drugs and human beings.” Only if we mount a cooperative effort will there be any hope of combating those problems.

That is harder than it sounds. Working together requires mutual understanding. People don’t have to share the same values, but they do have to share an ethical framework: They must speak the same ethical language if they are going to have a basis for cooperation.

That sounds like a daunting assignment in an age of resurgent fundamentalism. No matter where one looks, there are growing numbers of militants in every religious faith. There is a very good reason why the book that has dominated discussions of culture in the post-Cold War era is titled “The Clash of Civilizations.”

Yet the prospect of finding common ground isn’t as far-fetched as it seems, Kueng argued in an interview this week. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Despite the very big differences among religions, they have very similar ethical standards. The principles of a global ethic exist already in all important ethical and religious traditions,” he said.

Kueng is quick to add that this is not a uniform ethical system. “I don’t talk about ‘ethics’ with an ‘s.’ I’m not like Aristotle, or Aquinas, or Kant. I am talking about an inner moral standard — a shared basic ethic for mankind.”

Kueng’s global ethic is “a necessary minimum of shared ethical values, basic attitudes and standards to which all regions, nations and interest groups can subscribe.”

The foundation of this ethic is simple. It’s the Golden Rule: What you wish done to yourself, do to others. From that, Kueng extrapolates four bedrock directives: Respect all lives (thou shalt not kill); deal honestly and fairly (thou shalt not steal); speak and act truthfully (thou shalt not bear false witness); and respect and love one another (thou shalt not commit adultery). It doesn’t seem too difficult.

Of course, getting from the rarefied air of the intellectual realm to the real world isn’t easy. Fortunately, there are signs of progress. In 1993, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, representatives from more than 120 religions adopted a “Declaration toward a Global Ethic.” In 1995, the reports of the U.N. Commission on Global Governance and the World Commission on Culture and Development each devoted a chapter to the subject. In 1997, former heads of state and government drafted a “Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities” which it then gave to all heads of state and government and the United Nations and UNESCO. And U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has selected an advisory group that includes Kueng, as well as former German President Richard von Weizsaecker, Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen and others, that will meet later this year to help him prepare for U.N. Year 2001, which will focus on the dialogue among civilizations.

More has to be done, however. Ultimately, the global ethic has to reach the ordinary citizen. Kueng’s Global Ethic Foundation is working to promote encounters among different civilizations. That will have only a limited impact until politicians take up the slack. Leaders have to lead.

At similar junctures in history, they have done just that. At the end of World War II, Western politicians came up with the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and created an international order — the Bretton Woods system — that had its own global ethos, open markets and liberal democracy, which served the world well for half a century. Kueng is asking the current generation of leaders to take up the same challenge.

But, as befits a theologian, he feels that the world’s religious leaders bear a special burden.

“There won’t be peace among nations without peace among religions, and there will be no peace among religions without dialogue. Unfortunately, religious leaders have to a great extent missed the occasion to educate their own people.”

Sadly, there are ample opportunities for them to do so. From Belfast to Belgrade to Bombay, years of violence have divided ethnic and religious groups. Politicians and civic leaders must try to build bridges between those communities.

That is another form of globalization — the dissemination of values like tolerance, respect for diversity and a recognition of each individual’s intrinsic worth as a human being. With a sustained effort along those lines, globalization will become less of a threat and more of an inspiration.

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