Cultural Vistas Book Club Explores Solutions for Global Engagement in a Post-Pandemic World

As a career diplomat with a lifetime of international experiences, I’m proud to be part of the global network at Cultural Vistas, an organization dedicated to enriching minds, advancing global skills, building careers, and connecting lives through international exchange.

I joined my friend Jennifer Clinton, President/CEO this week to lead a virtual book club discussion of 10 Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, the latest book from Fareed Zakaria, CNN Worldwide host and best-selling author.

Earlier this year, Zakaria delivered a keynote address on closing the gap in global leadership at the Cultural Vistas Virtual Awards Benefit.

“The path can be complicated,“ Zakaria said when discussing the future of our global society. “What Cultural Vistas is doing is to remind people is that there’s a world out there, that it is rich and diverse, that it requires an enormous amount of energy and attention and in doing this, what you are doing is strengthening the ultimate goals.”

His book outlines events in our recent history that demonstrate significant asymmetric influences. From 9/11 attacks carried out by a handful of individuals to the financial crisis of 2008 sparked by mortgage derivatives to the coronavirus pandemic transmitted by bats, asymmetric influences can have vast negative consequences. On the other hand, we believe that international exchanges have positive asymmetric impacts. Exchanges open peoples’ eyes to other societies, but far more from that, exchanges open the eyes of the participants to a world context, and provide them a new self confidence in their ability to effectively change the world. That’s why exchanges matter, they have an asymmetric impact.

Beyond this, the book and our discussion explored the growing role of artificial intelligence and digital connections on our collective futures. In this regard, despite early skepticism of virtual exchanges, I’ve recently witnessed success in technology bridging the gap during times when travel has not been possible. The organizations involved have found ways to make virtual exchanges an adequate instrument to carry out their role. It’s clear that exchanges in the future will contain virtual elements and we should be thinking broadly about ways to meld virtual and in person exchanges.

Zakaria notes in his book the rapidly expanding role of  artificial intelligence all around us. There are risks as well as opportunities, but we are just beginning to grapple with the potential of AI.  It is coming at us very quickly and it would be worthwhile to explore how the exchange world is already impacted by AI, and how it can exploit AI as a an effective instrument in managing exchanges and making them more meaningful.

After a bit of general discussion, the book club group broke into four sessions and explored four different chapters in the Zakaria book. Below are a few of the takeaways from those discussions.

Lesson Four: People Need to Listen to the Experts, The Experts Need to Listen to the People

We are not listening to one another because of the political divides facing our country and the world. This chapter highlighted the many divides between the experts and global citizens as distrust in institutions and misinformation campaigns have run rampant in a time of deep crisis.

We see a need to help build relationships and trust to foster understanding between different points of view. Cultural Vistas is a bridge builder and should have a role to play in bringing divided groups together domestically. By using the fundamentals of international exchange on a local level we can build people to people relationships and facilitate understanding within our own country so that we don’t continue on a path where people are rejecting expert advice at their own peril.

Lesson Five: Life is Digital

All of us have experienced first-hand lesson five of Zakaria’s book – life is digital. In this chapter, Zakaria breaks down the shifts that have occurred in the arena of connectivity. By 2018 the majority of the world was “connected,” but it took the global pandemic to obliterate the last remaining obstacle to a digital future: people’s attitudes. In the past few months the shift to remote work and telemedicine has been seismic. Artificial intelligence is also becoming increasingly present in many aspects of our lives., In short, the movement to digital life is broad, fast and real – and can enhance our lives if we let it.

For Cultural Vistas, this lesson is a reminder that our new virtual approach to international exchanges will be a path forward for the foreseeable future. While virtual activities can never replace the power of in-person exchanges, technology exists to connect cultures more than ever before and we should seek to leverage the new resources made available by the creativity of our pandemic era.

On the other hand, the digital space is an area where the chasm of inequality has widened. Many communities we seek to serve may not have the same access to technology that we do. We must be mindful of this inequality and work to build bridges in the work we do by planning for gaps in technology that we can play a role in addressing.

Lesson Seven: Inequality Will Get Worse

Zakaria reminds us in his book that we have made great strides globally to eradicate extreme poverty and that while the economic effects of COVID-19 will see some of that slide back, we know that we have the tools to continue to reduce the number of people living in poverty. However, the inequality that results from access to healthcare and quality of healthcare will continue to grow and the most glaring inequality will result between the healthy and the ill.

This group discussed how healthcare is increasingly becoming local from the environment in which you live, to the availability of medical facilities and care, and even to attitudes on health. Local communities benefit by coming together to take care of their members and this benefits the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick. Cultural Vistas might utilize its network help build more welcoming and resilient communities with a focus on health around the world. Previously, Cultural Vistas administered a transatlantic exchange on building Welcoming Communities and through this network and these principles, we have the tools to build on this model and expand it across the globe. Virtual platforms allow us to conduct exchanges between experts, community leaders, and their constituents, connecting them to counterparts around the world to learn from each other and to be more inclusive in our approach to community health.

Lesson Nine: The World is Becoming More Bipolar

Our world is becoming increasingly bipolar with the United States and China as the two major powers. These two countries will be the world’s superpowers for at least the next 50 years. We in the United States need new language and strategies to navigate this political reality beyond relying on the metaphor of a “new Cold War.”

For Cultural Vistas, this lesson can translate to an increasing need to understand more about China. As an organization we can explore how we can better relate to China by embarking on a modest market study on how to expand our work related to this vast country that is often deeply misunderstood. Leaning into our network of alumni in China and the large number of Americans who have taught English in China over the past several decades can serve as a starting point for us to gather more insight into each other’s political and cultural contexts.

A full recap of our Cultural Vistas Book Club Discussion can be found on YouTube.