Date posted: 1/12/2016 8 min read

Bob Geldof on world order and the need for change

With huge political and economic disruption, now is the time to make changes says pop star and humanitarian Bob Geldof

In brief

  • Geldof believes the refugee crisis has exposed the limitations of the traditional nation state
  • He anticipates a future in which states cooperate to meet the challenges of global issues
  • A fundamental shift in the global order and economy is taking place

Photography by Francois Berthler

Bob Geldof acts while others talk.

Rather than sit on the sidelines of Europe’s refugee crisis, the popstar, entrepreneur and celebrated charity organiser — Live Aid, anybody? — has offered to house four Syrian refugee families in his homes in Kent and London.

He also challenged other wealthy Britons to take personal responsibility for the humanitarian crisis on Europe’s borders.

The man who famously asked us all to “feed the world” with 1984s Do They Know it’s Christmas? these days expresses a more sophisticated philosophical view. It’s not that his concern for the world’s helpless and dispossessed has faded, more that an older, wealthier and more politiIally connected Geldof — he has been knighted and his wedding to long-time partner Jeanne in September included Richard Branson and the Duchess of York on a star-studded guest list — now has the opportunity to speak in more than soundbites or catchy choruses.

Ahead of a visit down under for the CharteredAccountants ANZ Leadership in Government Awards, Geldof told Acuity that the refugee crisis lays bare the limits of power of the traditional nation state when confronted by problems of global proportions.

“We live in a new world of multi-level, multi-nodal ad hoc co-operation and competition which states and companies find difficult to deal with,” he says.

And he sees the prospect of a worldwide political disruption (similar to the disruption experienced in communications, social media and trade) as governments seek to work more closely together on the major issues of the 21st Century such as global warming, immigration, and tax base erosion and profit shifting.

“Formal power resides in the nation state at the precise moment when the nation state is incapable of dealing with its own problems unilaterally,” Geldof says.

“You cannot deal with climate change, nuclear proliferation, the global economy, epidemics or poverty etc, etc, on your own. That world has gone.”

Threat and fear

As Europe grapples with the challenge of migrants seeking better, safer lives within its borders, he has a message that will resonate with many in Australia, where the legality and morality of the government’s detention of illegal immigrants was being challenged in the High Court as this edition of Acuity went to print.

“Like Australia, Europe is torn between what it believes it is obliged to do, what it should do, and what it can do,” he says.

“The sub-text, however, is to do with fear of Islam and an atavistic ‘racial dilution’ viz Hungary etc.

“There may be some radicals amongst them [Middle Eastern and African refugees] perhaps, or some may radicalise, but in general we can deal with that as we try currently to deal with the jihadists amongst us now. It will continue to be a struggle but not exacerbated by new arrivals; indeed one could argue that they may have a diluting affect on radicalism given they are fleeing that very phenomenon.”

Geldof argues that humanitarian concerns must be given priority.

“These people are terrified, brave and helpless. They are not a threat. Either their numbers or their culture.”

And he pooh-poohs the idea immigrants present an unsustainable drain on economies.

“Europe is a continent of nearly 400 million. It is the wealthiest of all the continents. 97 per cent of the UK is rural. There is space on the land for them.

“There is work for them. There is no such thing as a finite amount of jobs. Jobs expand to meet the economic needs of the population.

“Take them in. We have the physical space. We should be able to find the moral one also.”

These people are terrified, brave and helpless. They are not a threat. Either their numbers or their culture.

Climate of change

Perhaps the climate change summit in Paris will offer a glimpse of a future in which states cooperate to meet the challenges of global issues. Geldof expects to see an agreement reached that could be considered significant “in terms of these great international gabfests”.

“It will certainly be more effective than anything previously. Having said that, it will not be enough given current circumstances.”

Those circumstances include a consensus among many scientists that it is already too late to avoid the effects of man-made climate change. The challenge now is to restrict greenhouse gas emissions so as to avoid a potential climate change “tipping point” of sudden, catastrophic change.

“Unless there is a mandated carbon price allied to an agreed cap-and-trade policy nothing will be effective. We are close to crunch point,” Geldof notes.

So what should governments do in this increasingly internationalised world? Or to put it another way, how can a government measure its success?

“Given the limited ability of contemporary government to function in the developed world, all that is largely required of it is economic managerial competence.

“Come election time we want them to promise us the world. They do. We elect those who appear most likely to do this given a plus or minus ideological 1 per cent. Everyone rushes to the centre ground given the preponderance of the middle class voter. When a government of whichever stripe inevitably fails to deliver on the electoral promise we become cynical and want them out in order to put in the next lookalike mob who in turn repeat the exercise.

“This is our fault. They know they have to lie to get our vote. We know they’re lying but we want to hear those exact lies. When they fail as they must we castigate them. It’s silly. We are all engaged in a knowing lie. It’s our fault. Not theirs.”

But as he has grown older Geldof has seen changes that give him hope there can be genuine progress in world affairs during his lifetime.

“The thing about progress is not that it’s impossible; rather that it is endless,” Geldof says.

“It depends on how you measure it.

“In general, things are much better now for some people [than when he was younger]. Other parts of the world are worse off.

“I do feel, though, that we are living in historic times where a fundamental shift in the global order and economy is taking place — which of course causes confusion.

“It is real and now and is setting the template for the next few hundred years, should we make it, and will be discussed in the history books of the future.”

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.