Former Laureates

Ian Buruma


Ian Buruma was born in 1951, the son of a Dutch father and a British mother. He studied Chinese literature in Leiden and then Japanese film in Tokyo, where he worked as a documentary filmmaker and photographer. From 1983 to 1986 he was cultural editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong. Later he was also foreign editor for the Spectator. He was chairman of the Humanities Center of the Central European University (Budapest) and is currently board member of the Einstein Forum (Potsdam) and of Human Rights in China (New York). Since 2003 Buruma has been Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College in New York. His journalistic and scholarly work in the 1980s dealt with Japan and the Far East. He has not abandoned this subject, but in recent years has broadened his orientation to include human rights and humanist principles in general. He regularly writes for the New York Review of Books on a wide range of subjects. Ian Buruma is a good example of ‘The New Cosmopolitan’, which was the theme of the 50th anniversary year of 2008 of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation. He is someone who combines knowledge and commitment with distance in order to reflect on social developments all over the world.


Ladies and gentlemen,

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Erasmus Prize. And every year, the selection and presentation of the award has been a major event. So a half century is perhaps an opportune moment to stop and consider its history.

When establishing the Prize in 1958, my grandfather and his fellow founders had in mind the ideal of a new Europe and a new European citizenship. So the Erasmus Prize was intended to serve as public recognition of the winner’s services to a united Europe. The cultural equivalent of the Nobel Prize, you may say.

In the intervening fifty years, Europe has not stood still. The European Union has been established and has united more countries than people in 1958 could have imagined. And as Europe changed, the context and objectives of the Erasmus Prize changed with it.

The European nature of the Prize remains its foundation, but it is no longer awarded on purely political grounds. The focus has gradually shifted to cultural and academic achievements. The Erasmusian values of undogmatic, critical thought and tolerance have become steadily more important and now form the primary motivation behind the choice of laureate.

If we look at the list of more than seventy laureates selected over the last fifty years, we get a good picture of the impressive personalities that have helped shape European culture. Creative, learned and unconventional, they reflect the values that the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has championed for half a century. A vibrant and distinguished tradition has grown up with the Prize. It heightens both the standing and the influence of the work of those to whom it is awarded.
It is hard to escape the name of the Netherlands’ most famous scholar – certainly here in Rotterdam, where it is cherished and embraced. Foundations, European Exchange Programmes, universities, schools, bridges and streets all bear his name. What would Erasmus have thought about this? Well, we have a rough idea. He did not care for outward displays or spectacle. He did crown himself Roterodamus – ‘of Rotterdam’ – but eventually distanced himself from the city of his birth with the observation that a country’s pride in a son who has risen through his own achievements should never turn into vanity. ‘What is more foolish […] than to be carried on the people’s shoulders as in triumph, and have a brazen statue in the marketplace?’, he asked in The Praise of Folly. So it is ironic that Erasmus, of all people, is immortalised in bronze in the square outside! He also found fault with the quality of education and the atmosphere in ‘s Hertogenbosch, where he studied for a while at the Latin School.

Erasmus worked in many cities, including Basel, Brussels, London, Louvain and Freiburg. When he was offered citizenship of Zurich, he refused on the grounds that, while every city had its attractions, he wished to be a citizen of the world, who could feel at home anywhere or, better still, feel no attachments at all. His motto was ubi bene, ibi patria: ‘my homeland is where I am at ease.’ For Erasmus, that meant wherever his books were. He was a cosmopolitan. A citizen of the world of the sixteenth century. A world in which borders were more challenging than they are now. In which distances were greater. In which knowledge of the lives and history of others was more limited. It was a world without commercial jets and mobile phones. A world, in short, that is difficult to compare with today’s world. And yet, here we are, talking once again – or should I say still talking? – about cosmopolitanism and world citizenship.

This ‘new’ cosmopolitanism, as we might call it, finds expression in economic relations without barriers, in international trade, in frequent flyer miles, in joint cultural productions, and cultural institutions such as universities, orchestras and sports teams. It finds expression in the global focus on human rights as a set of common criteria for a decent society. Seen in this light, intercultural personal relations and identities become self-evident in the modern world.

Indeed, they do seem self-evident. But this ideal is not without problems. And by choosing ‘The New Cosmopolitan’ as its theme this year, the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation is highlighting the conflict that exists between the moral ideal of the borderless society, unencumbered by barriers of nationality, religion or ethnic origin, and the everyday, practical reality. For the reality is often marred by our harsh experience of borders and barriers, and by tensions and conflicts, caused by the unequal distribution of information, resources and wealth, and by opposing sociopolitical systems and traditions, and other explosive factors that prevent people from living together peacefully.

So world citizenship is no easy ideal. Rather, it signifies an attitude, a realisation that despite people’s differences, cultural and otherwise, the world cannot be managed in segments, with isolated parts taking slices of responsibility. Environmental pollution, crime, climate change and human rights are global issues, and so require an approach that transcends individual states and communities. But this universal sense of responsibility must be rooted in something. Otherwise a cosmopolitan outlook can too easily turn non-committal. A sense of having roots, of feeling at home somewhere in the world, need not conflict with the challenge of cosmopolitanism. On the contrary, our roots, in fertile soil, can provide a solid basis for a cosmopolitan outlook.

The 21st century demands a more cosmopolitan outlook on the part of Europe’s citizens than in the past. We need to broaden our horizons, not only out of economic necessity, but also because it enriches us culturally, as we can see in film, music, literature and food. Increasingly, we should define Europe’s motives for union in terms of our curiosity and need for contact with other cultures, not smugness, or fear of being left behind. Erasmusian values do not square with a fear of ‘the Other’, or with excessive nationalism or unilateralism. Erasmusian humanist values must be our guiding principles in the ongoing struggle for human dignity.

Ladies and gentlemen, these introductory thoughts are merely a prelude to describing this year’s Erasmus Prize winner. A man who, in his own distinctive way, personifies this ideal of world citizenship. He is an Anglo-Dutch intellectual whose columns and essays regularly appear in foreign publications such as The Guardian and the New York Review of Books. He is Ian Buruma.

Buruma studied Chinese in Leiden and film in Japan, and he has worked in Europe, East Asia and America. His themes include Japanese and Chinese society, film and literature, the legacy of war in Germany and Japan, the West’s image through the eyes of its enemies, and the relationship between East and West.

If we look at Buruma’s career over the last twenty-five years we see a Dutch student who, thanks to a fascination with Japanese culture, developed into the world’s leading essayist on East-West relations. Buruma has continually sought not only to be informative toward the West, but also to propagate the values of a humane society for the Far East. To that end he has always stressed the value of the public debate, of accepting responsibility and of the existence of democratic institutions. He continues to point out that while people are part of a culture, their culture must not impose a way of life upon them, either in the West or the East. This is what he stands for.

Buruma is masterful at communicating his fascinations without pretension or demanding more than a modest grounding in culture and sociopolitics from his readers. His erudition and experience are obvious, and he allows his readers to share in them. He also offers a meaningful and measured historical context, which sparks our curiosity and our desire to read on.

His arguments are characterised by a combination of qualities, such as critical scholarly analysis and moral engagement. Not least is his capacity to place an issue within a broad global context and thereby consider it from a greater remove. He writes in an unadorned, direct style, which sweeps the reader up in his argument, without transparent rhetoric or scholarly displays, just a light touch of irony. Quiet, critical and sharp: these are the hallmarks of his style.

Mr Buruma, we consider this combination of qualities so remarkable, and we consider your oeuvre and the values you promote so important, that we wish to show our appreciation by awarding you the Erasmus Prize. May I ask you now to come forward, so that I can present you with the insignia of the Prize.

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses,

Thank you for this great honour. It appears that one of the reasons for my receiving this year’s Erasmus Prize is my alleged cosmopolitanism. Since cosmopolitanism, historically, was not always regarded as a badge of honour, I suppose this is a sign of progress.

Your Royal Highness, you and I have something in common. We were both born from parents of different nationalities. In this sense, our birth might be described as cosmopolitan. From the moment we could speak, we grew up realizing that people from different countries express themselves in different ways. This is nothing to be especially proud of; it doesn’t bestow on us any particular virtue. These days it is fairly commonplace. More so, at any rate, than when I was born in 1951. And besides, in your family, and in mine, for different reasons, it is hardly a new, or unusual experience. But it did create – in my case, at least – a lifelong sense of cultural self-consciousness, a feeling that nationality is not something one takes for granted, but rather something that can be examined, as it were, from the outside. I can behave more or less like a Dutchman, or more or less like an Englishman, depending on the time and place. But if I were to define myself in national terms, this sense of ‘more or less’ would be key.

Again, there is no special merit in this. Children of mixed marriages do not always behave in a cosmopolitan manner. Kaiser Wilhelm II  had a German father and a British mother. He chose, as though to compensate for this, to be anti-cosmopolitan, a super-German. People who make too much of their nationality are often from mixed marriages or areas on the margins of great nations. Napoleon and Hitler come to mind. But the fact that Winston Churchill’s mother was an American probably contributed to his sometimes over-romantic view of Britishness too.

Monarchs are now often required to act as typical models of their nationality, but this is a modern phenomenon. Most European kings and queens, even in the recent past, were foreigners in the countries whose thrones they occupied. Many of them were of course of German blood. But it was part of their aristocratic status to be above mere nationality. Their bloodlines transcended borders. They spoke the languages of the international upper classes: mostly French, sometimes German. They were as much at home in a German Schloss, as they were in an English palace, or an Italian palazzo. They were naturally cosmopolitan, in the narrow sense of being able to see the world from the point of view of their own kind in many different countries.

This is another thing, Your Royal Highness, that we have in common. My mother’s family was Jewish, as well as being of German descent, and natural cosmopolitanism is something many European Jews, because of migration and trade, shared with aristocrats. In modern times, they too sometimes have felt the need to act like super-patriots (the Wagner-worshipping super-German Jew, for example), for reasons that are too obvious to go into here. I did not know my two German great-grandfathers, who emigrated to England, but my grandparents, like Churchill, might be described as über-Brits.

The link between Jews and aristocrats, including monarchs, goes back a long way in history. Princes and dukes trusted their Jewish advisers precisely because they were outsiders, less likely to be involved in local conspiracies. And monarchs were often trusted by minorities because they were treated as equal subjects, and monarchs kept the majority populations at bay. Some of you might know the anecdote of Emperor Franz Josef, who was approached on a tour of imperial domains in Galicia by Yiddish speaking shtetl Jews. One of the emperor’s military officers said he couldn’t understand a word they were saying. “We do”, said the emperor. “What were they saying, Your Majesty?”, asked the officer. “That is between me and my subjects”, the emperor replied.

Cosmopolitanism, especially among the elites, can sometimes result in a certain degree of arrogance, of impatience with people who feel the need for narrower allegiancies. The postwar zeal to turn us all into ‘Europeans’ has been perceived as an effort to undermine national feeling, something which is now being successfully exploited by populists.

However, one good thing to be said for cosmopolitanism is that familiarity with different cultures and traditions tends to foster tolerance for perspectives one does not necessarily share. It has become fashionable in some circles to disparage this type of tolerance, and dismiss it as mere indifference, or, to use that wooden term, a form of ‘moral relativism’, or even nihilism. This is often said by defenders of so-called Enlightenment Values. I think this is regrettable, since tolerance was in fact one of the fruits of the Enlightenment.

But this line of attack on liberal tolerance has a history. Liberal democracy was despised by illiberal intellectuals in the early part of the 20th century because the liberal state, in their view, did not stand for ideals or values, for which people could sacrifice and die. In a liberal state, they lamented, there is nothing to believe in beyond material prosperity and comfort. I sometimes feel that some of our intellectual warriors for Western Values against ‘Islamofacism’ secretly rather envy their enemies, because at least the Islamists have something to believe in.

Now it is true that the liberal state does not presume to give us the meaning of life. Each citizen must find his or her own way to Jerusalem. This means that we must live with different choices, religious, cultural, or political, and be tolerant of other points of view. The only thing that is intolerable is the use of violence to impose them.

The common culture I still grew up with – pride in the war against Catholic Spain, and so on, problematic even in certain parts of The Netherlands, or a love for St. Nicholas – no longer offers enough social glue to bind our society together. Nor is the Erasmian vision of common Christianity an adequate response to the diversity of a modern European nation. Whether we like it or not, we will all have to become more cosmopolitan now.

This fills some people with dread, as though we are about to lose any sense of who we are. Or that democracy, as we know it, is at an end. But I do not believe that we need to conform to a common culture, or a common faith, to make liberal democracy work. What is needed in a cosmopolitan society is an agreement to abide by common rules of the democratic game. We must agree to obey the laws, created by our elected parliaments. We must learn to accept one another as equal citizens, whatever we choose to wear on our heads. This will not always be easy. But one thing is sure; without tolerance we are doomed to failure.


Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows: “Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, social sciences and the arts. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism and non-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation endeavours to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means. A money prize is awarded under the name of Erasmus Prize.”

In accordance with this article, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2008 to Ian Buruma.
The Prize is awarded to him on the following grounds:

- Through his essays in leading journals, he gives a sharp and illuminating reflection on developments in politics, arts and society.

- The way he conveys his knowledge of the Far East and his views on Japanese and Chinese societies both in essays and in book form stimulates the interest and opens the eyes of a broad readership to a world that is larger than Europe or America.

- In his style, Buruma seemingly without effort combines sharp analysis, subtle irony, both identification and distance, and great erudition.

- Central in Buruma’s views are the high appreciation of the public debate, the emphasis on the importance of democratic institutions, the rejection of ideologies and the underscoring of individual responsibility.

- The oeuvre of Buruma is nourished by a fascination for the world on yonder side of bourgeois narrow-mindedness.