Why Democracy vs. Autocracy Misses the Point, with Jean-Marie Guéhenno

Apr 19, 2022

The advent of the age of data is a formidable accelerator of history. As society faces a crisis of politics compounded by the emergence of powerful virtual communities competing with territorial communities, are we on the cusp of an earthquake in the history of humanity? In this "Artificial Intelligence & Equality" podcast, Senior Fellow Anja Kapsersen is joined by Professor Jean-Marie Guéhenno for a thought-provoking conversation about his new book "The First XXI Century: From Globalization to Fragmentation."

ANJA KASPERSEN: In today's podcast I am delighted to welcome an old friend, Jean-Marie Guéhenno. Jean-Marie will share with us profound and thought-provoking insights from his new book, The First XXI Century: From Globalization to Fragmentation, as well as reflections on current events based on his long and distinguished career in international diplomacy.

Jean-Marie Guéhenno is currently an Arnold Saltzman Professor of Political Practice and director of the Kent Global Leadership Program on Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in New York. He previously served as United Nations under-secretary general for peacekeeping operations for almost a decade, during a very defining time for international relations and global peacekeeping efforts. Before joining the United Nations he held many top-level positions for the French government. He also served as the president and CEO of International Crisis Group, an independent organization providing analysis and advice on how to prevent, resolve, and manage deadly conflicts.

A huge welcome to you, Jean-Marie.

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Thank you. Very happy to be here today.

ANJA KASPERSEN: I am really looking forward to diving into the many themes of your recent book, Jean-Marie, and your timely and astute analysis of current precarious events, especially why you caution against the temptation to define issues of our time as merely the struggle between democracies and autocracies, what has led us to this particular fork in the road in your view, and how we can move past it to creating genuine common ground. But first, to allow our listeners to get to know you a bit better, let's start with what sparked and sustained your passion and interest to pursue a long career in international affairs and diplomacy?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: I was very lucky in my youth to have parents who immediately connected me to the world of ideas. If there is something I really cherish, it is the independence of the mind. I think that it is very important to think by one's self.

My father had been shaped by World War I and World War II. These were the defining experiences of his life. My mother was a Free French fighter in World War II in the resistance. That gave me both a taste for ideas and a taste for fighting, so to speak. I think you need to fight for ideas. For me academia was not quite enough. I could have become a teacher, but I felt I had to do more than being a teacher. I had to gain the kind of experience that you acquire in the world of, in my case, diplomacy.

ANJA KASPERSEN: Jean-Marie, I have heard you on a few occasions describe yourself as a "lifelong contrarian." What do you mean by that?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Yes. I am a contrarian. I was a contrarian in 1989 when everybody was talking about the triumph of democracy, and I wrote End of the Nation-State because I thought it was more the collapse of a spent system, the Soviet system, than the triumph of democracy.

Now I am again a contrarian with my new book because everybody talks about the confrontation between democracies and autocracies, and I think that prevents us from looking into ourselves and seeing the fragilities of our own democracies and also in seeing that there are other challenges, especially the challenge of the age of data, and that we are on the cusp of a deep, deep revolution, and just thinking in the old categories of democracies versus autocracies misses all the new challenges that our institutions have to face today.

ANJA KASPERSEN: You just mentioned your first book End of the Nation-State, which was published more than two decades ago, in which you speak of the limitations of the nation-state, even its demise.

Fast-forward. In your recent book The First XXI Century: From Globalization to Fragmentation, you argue that nation-states continue being challenged on multiple fronts. What has changed, how, and to what end in your view?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Yes. Actually the first title of my book in French was La Fin de la démocratie, The End of Democracy, but the title was too much to swallow for an English or an American audience. My idea was broader actually than the end of the nation-state. This was the first book to reflect on the impact of globalization in a way on communities. When I wrote it I did not have the sense I have today of the importance of being part of a community. I thought it was just fine to be a world citizen.

Having gone through peacekeeping, having been the head of peacekeeping in the United Nations and having seen societies torn apart, I see much more the importance of having boundaries, of having a horizon you are familiar with, and that has in a way given me a greater sense of the precariousness of societies than I had when I wrote my first book and also a greater sense of a need to have a community, to be rooted in a community, and the challenge in our world of being rooted in a territorial community. We are still people who live in a physical world. We live in three dimensions, so proximity, friends, the comforts of seeing things you are familiar with, still matter.

At the same time, we know that this limited physical community is not all that we need in a global world and that these physical communities are also now in competition with virtual communities. That is a completely different new world, this competition of the virtual, that I had not anticipated in my first book.

In my first book I saw how our destinies could not be just bound by the limited territory of a nation, but I could not see that we were no longer living in a world of three dimensions but would be living in a world of four dimensions. That is something that we have to get accustomed to, and that profoundly changes I think the way politics are being managed and the way legitimacy is created. This is a revolution that has just begun, and we have not yet fully understood all its implications. That is what I am trying to do in my book in a way.

ANJA KASPERSEN: There is a quote in your book that stayed with me. You write: "With both the Internet and artificial intelligence (AI) shaking up the hierarchies of knowledge and power"—and to paraphrase you—we are entering a transformative period, even a "perfect storm," an age of revolutions, if you may. You even go as far as to argue that it could lead to a second Renaissance, rich in promise yet equally rich in peril and potentially also conflict. Can you please elaborate for our listeners?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Yes. We remember the first Renaissance when we visit museums, when we see Leonardo da Vinci and all the great artists of that period. We forget that this period was also the period of the wars of religion. It was a period of violence that lasted for more than a century.

Today we are in an age of weapons of mass destruction, so we cannot afford a kind of trial and error where we fight and then we find the right solution. We have to really address the issues of today in a much more diligent manner.

What strikes me today is that we are in a way facing a double revolution, a revolution that is comparable to the invention of the printing press, which showed its impact over the course of centuries because in a way you can say that, for instance, the invention of the bourgeoisie as a ruling class was very much linked to the dissemination of knowledge, and that really happened in the 18th and 19th centuries. What happened at the very end of the 15th century developed over several hundred years.

With the Internet it is a matter of years and decades, not centuries. So the pace of transformation is enormously faster than what we saw in the past. That is the first revolution, a revolution in the foundation of legitimacy brought about by the Internet and what I call the "age of data."

The second revolution, which is comparable to the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries, is that this new age of data redistributes wealth and power. You see it in the stock market. You see how all the biggest companies of the world now are data companies with capitalization way above the traditional stock market value of industrial companies. The redistribution of wealth through the age of data, through this new technology, is just enormous.

At the same time it is a redistribution of power because—indeed we see every day the capacity to collect and then to manage—managing data gives a power that is unprecedented, that cannot compare to any power in the past. The challenge of course is that the volume of those data keeps growing exponentially because now at every second of our life we leave a trace, we leave data which can be collected, which can be stored, and which can be managed. That mass of data cannot be managed by human beings. It is just too much. You would have half the population of the world managing the other half. It doesn't work that way.

That is where artificial intelligence and algorithms come into the picture. That is where it is also a revolution of power because when we think of power in traditional terms we think, Oh, there used to be the heads of the steel industry, the big industrial companies that were the masters of the world, in sort of a Marxist view of power. Now you cannot even say it is the owners of Google, Facebook, or Amazon who are the masters of the world because they themselves while they are not prisoners they depend on the data they manage.

The same applies to states. You can say: "Oh, the Communist Party of China collects an enormous amount of data on Chinese citizens. It is going to be all-powerful as no dictatorship ever was." That is true only up to a point because the Communist Party of China cannot manage by itself all those data. It has to depend on algorithms, and those algorithms themselves are self-learning. It is not as if a central committee would decide what is the right algorithm. The power that is being created in a way dominates those who have created it.

This combination of a double revolution—a revolution of legitimacy comparable to the printing press and a revolution in power and wealth—is an earthquake in the history of humanity which I think happens very rarely. It is one of the major turning points of the last two millennia.

ANJA KASPERSEN: What do you feel will be the direct impact?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: First, we are just on the cusp of it. I would like to be 20 years old to know how it will look 50 years from now because I think no human mind can really anticipate the extent of the transformations that are going to happen. But from what I can see today, first I think the institutions that were built for the pre-data age, the institutions on which we rely, are completely overwhelmed by this revolution.

They are overwhelmed in many ways. They are overwhelmed because the data revolution changes the way people relate to each other. For the moment we see largely the negative side of it in the sense that we see how it helps create self-contained tribes, self-referential tribes that do not speak to each other. You see how the Internet facilitates the creation of such groups, and in that sense it destroys the common ground which is the foundation of any democracy. You see in all democratic countries how people have a harder and harder time talking to each other. They talk to people just like them. The notion of the difference, of the debate, is weakening.

So our institutions, which have been founded on the idea of debate and of a common ground, struggle with that. They don't know how to handle that fragmentation of society. That is why the subtitle of my book is From Globalization to Fragmentation. The data revolution encourages an enormous fragmentation of society.

In a way it's a paradox. At the same time it is the World Wide Web, it's global, but within that globality you see how groups form to relate to each other on the basis of a kind of a glorified selfie rather than accepting people who are different. That is the first impact. The society that is produced by data is profoundly different from the society in which the institutions that we live with were created, and the adaptation is lagging behind badly.

Another aspect is that indeed this new way of relating means that non-territorial links can be as strong and sometimes stronger than territorial links. Proximity always has a moderating influence, because if you see people every week, every day, it creates a kind of peer pressure to adjust, to respect—if you see people that you have just chosen, if there is not the surprise of meeting someone you don't know, if it's only people that you choose on the basis that they are just like you, then you don't have that moderation that is brought by diversity. That is the first impact, a profoundly transformed society.

The second thing which is fundamental is that the management of data creates enormous power, as I said. How to control that power? For the moment we see the debate in Europe—with the directive on the protection of personal data and the General Data Protection Regulation—is largely about limiting the power of monopolies and protecting each individual as if he was the owner of his or her own data, which is an issue, no question, but at the same time it raises more questions than it answers because the data are all created through relation to someone else.

When we have a conversation am I the owner of the data that are generated by this conversation? Are you the owner? These questions are there every day, and we all know when we are asked—if you consult a website in Europe, you have to tick a certain number of boxes. Most of the time we just tick all the boxes because we don't really have the patience to protect our data. So this notion of just protecting the individual as the master of his or her own data is a very narrow part of the issue.

The deeper issue is, how are you going to supervise to have some control over the management of the data? Who is going to look at the algorithms and whether the algorithms are fostering, let's say, hatred or they are fostering harmony? What is the societal answer to that? It is all the more difficult because, as we discussed, they are self-learning algorithms.

Let's assume that some committee approves an algorithm. Does it approve the evolution of the algorithm? Does it approve the initial algorithm? This is an open question that would need to be answered.

This control of the power of data raises a fundamental issue, which is the relationship between knowledge and democratic accountability. We live in a world where knowledge takes an increasingly important place, and data are just one particular aspect of that. In every minute of our daily lives, whether it is our phone or something else, there are lots of things that we don't really understand but that we use.

There are also lots of things that actually are better managed by knowledgeable people than just by the lay citizen, who is overwhelmed. Nobody can master the enormity of the knowledge that is accumulating every day. You can be a specialist in biology, you can be a specialist in electronics, but there is no Renaissance man—le Pic de la Mirandole—who would have the whole world in her or his mind. That is beyond reach. It has been beyond reach for now a few centuries, but today knowledge is growing exponentially. It becomes a challenge to democratic accountability. The question of how to balance the legitimacy of knowledge and the legitimacy of democracy is something that we haven't really resolved, and the issue of the control of data puts it in a very stark light.

Let me take an example to make that a little more concrete. We have this COVID-19 pandemic. Governments which are well-managed have usually created scientific committees to give them advice on how to handle the pandemic. But what is striking is the confusion over the role of such scientific committees.

I have heard many politicians say, "Let science decide," which is reassuring and misleading because indeed science can give you a better opinion than a lay person about the risk of catching the virus or dying of it. That is a scientific issue. There may be a range of opinions, but science will help narrow down that range.

Does that tell you what the policy should be vis-à-vis COVID-19? Absolutely not. Science is good at defining the risks. Is it good at telling you what risks you can take? No. That is an essentially political decision, and the political decision is really balancing different risks. There is an economic risk, there is a health risk, and there is just the amount of risk that a society as a society is prepared to take or not to take. That is not a question that the best scientists can answer. That is a decision for a community of human beings to decide.

I use the example of COVID-19 because it is something that is on the mind of all of us because we have been through it now for more than two years, but you can apply that to any aspect of society, including the data situation. Talking about risk you can say—and this is now a very live concern—there is a risk of terrorism, there is a risk of a data breach that can create economic havoc. There are lots of risks that can be identified by specialists and by technicians. But the balance between those risks and the society, that is a political decision, and when it comes to the control of the power of data that is a decision that needs to be informed by knowledge because the average person will have no clue.

I wouldn't have any clue. If I am given an algorithm and the sequence of equations that define that algorithm, I will be at a loss. I don't have a Ph.D. in mathematics or computer science. I will be at a loss. I need the expertise of the specialist. At the same time, the balance between privacy and collective goods, the balance between competing values that define a society, is in essence a political decision.

You ask me what are the implications for institutions. Well, the institutions that can control that new power are not yet really in place. Yes, there are authorities here and there, but the relationship between the democratic institutions and the institutions of knowledge is still to be defined, and I think this is going to be one of the great debates of the future.

It goes beyond actually the question of data. It is the question of in a society where knowledge is becoming more and more important—biology, genetics, etc. We are going to see more and more the importance of knowledge, but the balance between the legitimacy of knowledge and the legitimacy of collectivity of a democracy is something that will need to be fixed.

I think the malaise that we see in contemporary institutions owes a lot to that. We see the reaction of people who either slavishly embrace science, including false science, crackpot science, or on the contrary say, "Oh, you can say the earth is flat, the earth is round, every opinion has to be accepted," so it is a tension between a complete misunderstanding of what science is or a complete dismissal of science, and both are bad. It is a reflection of the lack of an intelligent, thought-through relationship between the legitimacy of knowledge and the legitimacy of democracy and collective bodies.

ANJA KASPERSEN: And the legitimacy of intelligence.

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Yes. One problem of our societies is that you have a lot of half-intelligent people. We all are a bit like that because we have read in newspapers about all of the things that are happening in the technological front, so we form half-informed opinions, and that is the most dangerous thing. I think it is the Spanish intellectual Ortega y Gasset who really was worried about the way specialized scientists could in some ways completely miss the point and miss the real nature of science. Science is not just providing the answers. It is providing new questions. I think most people see science essentially as providing the answers, as if the world was a closed room and you have a nice broom with which you are going to brush the dust of ignorance, and at some point you will have finished and the room will be all clean with knowledge.

That is not the way knowledge works. Knowledge is more like a sphere perpetually expanding, which means that the surface of contact with the unknown keeps increasing. If you know very little, there is very little you want to know, because your surface of contact with the unknown is very limited. It is limited by your knowledge. If you know a lot—and this world knows a lot—there are more and more questions that arise.

So the more you know the more you understand that science is problematic, that science is the art of asking new questions. It is not cleaning up the room so that at the end everything is answered. That is why you can say Newton is a great scientist, but then comes relativity, comes Einstein, which asks new questions, and someone will come after Einstein who will ask again questions that Einstein did not answer. That doesn't make Newton or Einstein wrong. It shows how this expanding sphere of knowledge keeps creating new questions.

This looks like a very abstract discussion, and it is a bit, but the reality is that it is very important for the way our societies work because if you don't see knowledge as something that creates questions very quickly you turn to fanaticism, you turn to a nonproblematic view of society where you think that problems only have one answer and that you are aiming at an all-powerful answer that will just close the discussion. If you understand the fundamentally problematic nature of knowledge, you are prepared to accept that there are competing answers to a question and that it is a very arrogant position to think that there is one answer that should dominate all the others. Personally I believe that in our very diverse world if we want to have a world that is pluralist it is very important to have that problematic view.

Otherwise—and I come to my first book, which was in a way a challenge to Fukuyama and The End of History and the Last Man, so everything comes together here—if you believe that there is just one answer, that creates intolerance, and that is in this world completely unacceptable to many people. You have to accept that different societies will have a different balance between competing values. Isaiah Berlin said very well that there can be good values that are in competition with each other, but each society balances those values in a different way. You can have a society that puts a lot of value on the collective and less value on the individual. You can have another society where it is a different balance.

Is one better than the other? That is a judgment that I refuse to make. That is why the notion of liberal democracy as the system that ends history, that is the conclusion, I think is not only unrealistic, I think it's dangerous. Today now with this horrible war in Ukraine and the way many people try to pitch it as the final struggle between democracies and autocracies, this is in my view a very simplistic way of describing the world, and it is a simplistic way that ignores all the discussions within our own societies, what we have been discussing until now.

What is the right balance between all those competing values? There is not one single answer. I deeply dislike autocracies, but I think this simplistic opposition makes no sense and prevents us from looking into ourselves.

When the Soviet Union collapsed we were so proud of what we thought was our victory when in reality it was more the collapse of an exhausted system. We were so proud of our victory that we did not look into ourselves. Now with Russia pushing its ethnonationalist agenda—"It's the Russian way, it's the Putin way" of addressing the fragmentation of societies, a very dangerous way—we can happily say: "Oh, we are the good guys because we don't have that agenda. We are democracies."

But that does not answer a much more fundamental question: What keeps us together? What holds our society together? Having just an enemy as the best way to keep our societies together is a very bad and insufficient answer, especially at this moment, in the new age of data, where we have to rethink so much of our societies. I am afraid that if we take that kind of reductionist and very narrow view of what the world is today instead of looking at all the issues, the new institutions, and a new way of organizing ourselves that the age of data should force us to do, we just are going to be smug and think we have all the answers because we are not Russia.

It is good that we are not an ethnonationalist country, but that is just the first step. There are so many others that we have to take if we want to have appropriate answers.

ANJA KASPERSEN: You spoke of something that is near and dear to my heart as well, which is the importance and skill set of asking and refining questions and how asking questions is part of creating healthy pluralist societies that embrace a diversity of views and opinions, creating common ground rather than retreating into hubris, if you may, focusing merely on coexisting. It brings me, however, to the how: What is to be done, in your view?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: I think the way we organize education is absolutely essential, education on science, education on history. Of course you need to be good at math and physics, and it is important to have the basics of key components of modern science. But I think it is important in school to learn a bit about the history of science so that you understand what I describe as the problematic aspect of science.

I also believe very much in history because we have a tendency to have a non-historical view of things. We judge the past from the tribunal of the present, so to speak. We don't see the present as something that is built on all the efforts of the past, the efforts, misconceptions, failures, things that looking at the past from today we say: "Oh, how narrow-minded were they? They tolerated slavery. How could they do that?"

This is not to say that slavery was good at the time of Plato and is bad now. Slavery was bad at the time of Plato as it is bad now. It is not about being relativist on the question of slavery. But this is recognizing that if today we see something as self-evident, that enslaving other human beings is something abhorrent, it is built on centuries of thinking and refining thinking, just as Einstein would not exist if there had not been Newton before him and before Newton there had not been Archimedes and others. I think this notion that the human condition is built on all the efforts of centuries of asking new questions and refining the questions and developing new answers to those new questions is what we need to learn.

I think teaching history in class and history in that sense, having an understanding of how people thought in different centuries and how that thinking has been gradually transformed is very important. Otherwise we have a non-historical view of the present, and if we don't have an understanding of the past we won't be able to have an intelligent understanding of the future because again we won't have the sense of the variety of possibilities, that nothing is preordained and that it is a continuous effort.

There is always that tendency because we hate uncertainty. Human beings are not wired to deal with uncertainty. Most human beings hate the probabilistic way of thinking. We like yes or no. Probabilistic is a concept for mathematicians. It is not a concept for lay people. Yet if you want to live in a livable society you have to accept that variety of possible outcomes and to nurture that rather than pretending that there is one outcome. History there can help us understand that I think.

ANJA KASPERSEN: You have been a very strong proponent that the story of technology is also the story of humanity, of being human. You alluded to earlier this danger of reductionist narratives.

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Absolutely. The steam engine multiplied our physical power. You see in the long-term curves of production how suddenly at the end of the 18th century the curve of production outpaces the curve of population growth, and that is how people become richer and the world gradually begins to emerge from extreme poverty.

With AI, with a data civilization, our brainpower is being multiplied in a fantastic way. But it will be what we do with it. With the steam engine, it helps make tanks and it helps makes cars. It makes all sorts of good things and more dangerous things. I think it is the same with the brain power.

The one thing where I think we don't have the full answer—I am not sure I am completely in agreement with you, I think we are groping for the answer—is that indeed we want AI, we want this new technology to be our instrument, our slave as a machine is supposed to be our slave, but when it comes to brain power it is a bigger question because we are not sure whether the slave could become smarter than us and outwit us. There are all sorts of books of science fiction on that. Actually the debate is open between the specialists who know much more about those issues than I do on how you keep the ethical control of these virtual machines or the software that we are creating.

It brings us back to a point I have made on the balance between knowledge, politics, and risk because it is really about defining the sphere that has to be left to the machine and to science and the sphere where it is about human values and ethical choices. The machine can help inform some ethical choices, but it should not make them for us.

That is a debate which should take us away from our individual self. That is a debate that has to be had in a collective way because it's about our vision of a society. It is an arbitrage between the individual and collectivity. It is also an arbitrage between the present and the future and what value we give to the future, and that value varies from one society to another. It is almost a religious issue, the rate of discount of the future, what value you give to the future.

I remember a discussion I had in Timor-Leste on the wealth fund that Timor-Leste was creating under the advice of Norway. It was very good advice to give to the Timorese. At the same time, with the Timorese life expectancy of a child there was a high risk that the child might die before reaching five years old. The future does not have the same price in a very poor country like Timor-Leste and in a rich country like Norway, where life expectancy is 80 or more. These are value judgments that have to be made by a society that collectively decides what price it gives to the future and what risks it is willing to take or not to take.

ANJA KASPERSEN: If I understand you correctly, Jean-Marie, shall we be prepared for more so-called "black swan events," or shall we really focus on strengthening our ability to think the unthinkable?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Black swans by definition are unexpected, so if I say there are going to be fewer black swans it doesn't say anything about black swans because it means that I don't predict what is not predictable. The honest answer is I don't know. But I do think actually that the transformation is happening on such a wide front because the age of data and the knowledge that can be acquired by managing data has use in all disciplines.

I was visiting a lab in Paris on biotechnology where they used artificial intelligence to manage myriads of processes that happen in the brain, for instance, where you have to take a statistical approach and you have to use artificial intelligence to detect patterns. This is just an example of how one part of science, data science, helps collect massive data, statistics helps manage those data, and then biology studies the functioning of the brain, they come together, producing new knowledge. This is just one example. I think this is happening in dozens of new areas. That every once in a while these connections between different areas of knowledge produce something completely unexpected I think is a distinct possibility.

I would think at the end of the day that the possibility of surprises, of black swans, is real, and that is another reason to have a pluralist view of institutions because we are in such a fast-moving world that the very notion of having a sort of static vision of what are the right institutions for that world is hubris, is wrong, because the world is a fast-moving target. So the best institutions are the institutions that will be the most adaptable to that world which is continuously changing.

So we have to have institutions in a way for a black swan world, for a world that will keep surprising us, and that is why we have to accept that different societies will provide different answers because of their history and because of their different memories. They will produce different answers, and as the world keeps changing we will see that some answers are better than others, but it will keep moving, and that is a good thing rather than trying to find the ideal answer that does not exist.

ANJA KASPERSEN: You mentioned earlier the importance of data to help us understand these new shifts and also how data can help us mitigate negative impacts and outcomes. We indeed possess and access unprecedented amounts of data about each and every one of us, including states and states' behavior. We can create computational models unthinkable even a decade ago. We can bridge fields of science that previously were either too labor intensive or not possible. You mentioned bioinformatics as one very clear illustration of such a field.

These are arguably systems of knowledge as much as systems of power, and I sometimes wonder if we are faced with black swan events or intellectual hubris. Are we so blinded by the promise of technology that we are not really attending to our blind spots, deploying and embedding systems that do not even have the level of maturity required to function properly? What are your thoughts on this?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: I think that is a very good question, and it is a real worry that one can have. On the one hand we have a very fast changing world. I said it changes in a matter of years and at most decades while the previous revolutions took centuries, so we have a very fast pace. Any human institutions by nature are "sticky," so to speak. They cannot change overnight. So there is a real risk that we hurry answers that are not appropriate and that freeze an issue in a way that is wrong, so it is a kind of dilemma. Either we don't have the answer, then we have this gap between institutions that are not really fit for purpose for the new challenges created by this new economy, or we think we have created the right institution but we did it too quickly and it doesn't work, but we are stuck with what we just created. I think that is an argument to recognize that in some ways small is beautiful, that it is good to have a variety of attempts and responses in the world because then we will have a better chance of seeing what works and what doesn't work.

The difficulty of what I am saying here is that indeed because the world is so connected there has to be some kind of interoperability between various structures and answers, so it is not so simple to say, "Well, there is a European answer, an American answer, and a Chinese answer," because they have to connect with each other. There have to be protocols to help them work together. That is one of the beauties actually of this world.

I am well aware that saying we have to have plural ways of answering those very technical issues is easier said than done. Nevertheless I think that is the direction we should aim toward.

ANJA KASPERSEN: In your recent book you outline some not-so-pleasant scenarios, yet you end on a surprisingly upbeat note, speaking of a new future and suggesting a response that restores the balance between the empowerment of the individual and the need for a collective dimension of life. You spoke about the multi-layered ways of looking at human life. Such a response, however, you argue will require new modes of representation and governance. You alluded to some of them already, but can you elaborate on this a bit more?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Yes. It is really a core concern of mine, this balance between the individual and the collective. I believe that all societies that work have a balance between the dynamism of the individual—and that has been the strength I would say of the Western tradition, the idea that each individual is the master of her or his life, that every human being is a new beginning, so to speak—and at the same time an individual that only looks after herself or himself: that's the age of the selfie, and that is not a society, and that is terrible. It is this balance between having a strong sense of one's independence of mind—I said how much I value the independence of mind—and at the same time the independence of mind has value only if it does not serve just you but if it serves something broader than you. That is for me the essence of a good society. As I said, there are different ways of balancing the individual and the collective.

How does one do that? I think today there is clearly a crisis of representation, and in some ways it is accelerated again by the age of data. On Facebook you can like a post or not like it. There is this false feeling that the world has become a kind of a universal parliament, that you can express an opinion at every second of your life on whatever catches your fancy. There are some practical aspects. You want to buy a television, you look at various opinions of consumers. So the world is a permanent voting machine now through the Internet.

ANJA KASPERSEN: Or perverted agora.

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Yes, a "perverted agora." That is a great expression.

So the notion that you elect a representative and that representative will have her or his own views, that you are not going to tell your representative how to vote on each and every issue because that would kill the debate in parliament. That idea of electing your representative, of freezing your capacity to choose for several years looks almost quaint in this world of daily if not minute-by-minute choices and the false sovereignty of the individual.

There is a real crisis of representation which in my view is going to be very hard to solve. I think it starts from the bottom up. I think it starts from smaller communities where you have a greater sense of the link with the representative, but I also think that it requires what I described earlier, a different balance between what is knowledge and what is democratic accountability. I think that separation and that relationship is something vital to recreate a certain sense of legitimacy of the people who represent you. That is one thing. There is a crisis of representativity.

There is also a crisis of authority, which is linked to the crisis of representativity. Today you want a leader to be just like you actually, hence the success of Trump, of a certain level of vulgarity. You don't want a leader that you admire. You want a leader with whom you feel you could have a beer.

There is nothing wrong you could say with that, but at the same time there is something dangerous in the way that it perverts the idea of leadership, of someone who is again prepared to think by herself or by himself. You want to lead the leader, and that is a contradiction in terms. Hence this transformation of politics where more and more you have leaders who are more clowns than leaders.

Institutions must be eminently adaptable. Anybody who claims to have the final answer today is wrong and dangerous. There is no such thing as a final answer. In my book I don't claim to have definitive answers. I think there are some areas where one can explore new solutions, and I think also there are some wrong solutions.

Let's start with the wrong solutions. I think the notion, for instance, of direct democracy is very appealing in the age of the likes of Facebook and the age of a continuous parliament where you vote on everything at every minute of your life, so it appeals to people who don't want to freeze their views for five years while their representative votes for them.

I think direct democracy can work in small communities. I think it can work on some clearly defined ethical issues, let's say a question like abortion, a question that really engages a whole society. I think on many issues direct democracy, when it moves away from the immediate concerns of the people, is rather dangerous because the deliberation will not be very solid because it is impossible in a big body. You cannot deliberate with millions, so it ignores what is the most important thing in democracy, which is not the vote but the deliberation before the vote.

One way around that according to some is to have democracy by lots, where you have a group of citizens drawn by lots who will deliberate on various issues. I personally have my doubts on that except again for some issues which engage every member of society, but I think on a number of issues it allows for manipulation by interest groups, not that parliament cannot be manipulated by interest groups but at least parliamentarians are professionals so they are in some ways better prepared not to be manipulated.

I saw in France President Macron had a climate convention. I personally think that convention was very much manipulated by a number of people, and some of the proposals they came up with made some sense and some did not, so I don't think it is a very good answer. I think it is possible only on some issues where there are deeply held beliefs among the people, and then you can have a discussion. But on issues where the question of knowledge again is very important a faithful representation of a dysfunctional society will be as dysfunctional as the society it represents. It is not by being more accurate than the people who are elected that you are going to make it better. The real issue is the quality of the discussion, and there we come to what we have discussed before, the balance between the legitimacy of knowledge and democratic legitimacy.

To sum up, in answer to your difficult question on the institutions of the future I don't think there is one single answer. I think in some cases for small communities some degree of direct democracy where you can have a debate on the scale of a village is possible. I think on some issues you can have democracy by lots, but you have to pick the issues very carefully.

I think on most issues the importance is to clarify the relationship between independent authorities whose legitimacy is really based on knowledge and the democratic sovereign, and it is for the democratic sovereign to discuss, debate, and decide on the level of risk society is prepared to take. It is for the expert institution to enlighten that discussion.

That is true for many institutions. Think of central banks, for instance, monetary policy. The average citizen does not have a clue on M1, M2. This is not something that most of us are familiar with. What is the political decision? You see, for instance, in the United States the Federal Reserve has as a goal full employment. In the European Union the only goal of the Central Bank is the stability of the currency. That is a political choice. Then the bank does its business of trying to achieve that political requirement. I think for many specialized entities this is a good way to go. So I think the institutions of the future, yes, a measure of direct democracy, a measure of democracy by lots, and a better balance between the logic of the knowledge and the logic of democracy.

The last issue of course is, how do you connect the local to the global? That is one of the hardest issues. I think probably the best way is precisely by having a clear distinction between the logic of knowledge and the logic of democracy because you are not going to have a global democracy. There is no such thing as a global community, and it would not be a good thing. It is utopian, but it is not even desirable because it would kill the notion of pluralism, of a variety of answers.

But what you can have is a clear articulation between different levels. In my book I have a long chapter on the European Union. I started my political life being quite a federalist on Europe, and I have changed. I think that is too much. It ignores the fact that people are rooted in a particular community, and I think the beauty of the European Union is that it tries to articulate legitimacy of expertise that is embodied in the Commission, which is far from perfect and which sometimes emphasizes too much what was not expertise but a particular doctrine of the moment rather than real expertise but in some other cases has done a better job. So there is a legitimacy of expertise and there is democratic legitimacy, which is embodied not just in the European Parliament, but in the European Commission and a variety of institutions.

That is still very much a work in progress, and Europe will be probably in the future a kind of variable-geometry animal. It already is. Not all Members of the European Union have the euro as a currency. Some Members of the European Union are part of the defense policy of the European Union and some are not. It is evolving. Now we see Denmark changing its position. I think that kind of flexibility is an intelligent way to connect the local with the global.

Of course I worked many years of my life in the United Nations, and I have to reflect on what is the future of the United Nations in such a world. I think probably the best way the United Nations can contribute to bringing the connection between the local and the global is in providing a forum where some common goals are defined. You see it, for instance, on the critical issue of climate, where there is a process through knowledge with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and at the same time there is a political negotiation to define some shared goals.

In a world where it is so difficult to "find the North," having an institution that helps identify a common shared goal, even if it is messy, long, and complex, it is an important function that leaves each nation and each smaller group master of the implementation but creates some sense of coordination, cooperation, and common purpose. I think these are the kinds of nuanced and messy answers that will help also reclaim a bit of legitimacy for politics.

One of the reasons we have not discussed why politics are in crisis today is that indeed people—and they are not wrong—when they vote for their leaders they feel that their leaders have only a limited capacity to influence their future. Even the biggest countries are not fully—China depends on what will be the economic policy of the United States and vice versa, and these are the biggest countries in the world. That is even more true for smaller countries.

I think this way of organizing the different layers of action is a way to reclaim a sense of agency among the smaller actors, and that sense of agency in turn recreates a measure of legitimacy for politics, and that is very important because the legitimacy of politics is what helps rebalance the individual and the collective, and if you don't have that then you only have a fragmented society. We need politics. We need to revitalize politics, but we need to have a more rigorous view of politics where politics do not claim to do what is better answered by science, but at the same time the scientists do not claim to dictate their answers to the politicians.

ANJA KASPERSEN: Let us shift to a topic that I know is important to you, leadership. In your previous book The Fog of Peace: A Memoir of International Peacekeeping in the 21st Century, which is essentially your memoirs of your time leading global peacekeeping efforts and also leading them through a very painful and as a result transformative period for international peacekeeping more broadly, you provide a simple yet profound lesson on being a leader in the United Nations in your book, responsible for the lives not just of those deployed in the service of peace but also responding to the millions putting their hopes in what could be accomplished by these endeavors.

Let us read a short passage from your book, which really speaks volumes about the intricacies of being a leader for a big global organization but also about your leadership style:

"Before I became the head of peacekeeping I had a reputation as an intellectual rather than as an operator. I never thought that being characterized as an intellectual should be taken as an insult although I know that it usually does not help a career to be called an intellectual or a thinker. It suggests that you cannot operate but does not guarantee that you can really think.

"Having had to become an operator, I have not lost my respect for thinking, but I do believe that a lot of the thinking that goes on is useless for operators. The most useless way to pretend to help is to offer detailed, specific solutions or recipes. There are dozens of political science books that look like how-to books. They do not have the texture of life and therefore fall off the hands.

"What I needed was the fraternal companionship of other actors before me who have had to deal with confusion, grapple with the unknown, and yet had made decisions. What I also needed was the solidity of true abstraction and the harmony of good visual art. What I needed was in times of difficulty distance of the mind.

"The unfortunate truth is, however, that when you are immersed in action you live mostly on the intellectual capital that you acquired beforehand. You draw on it. You may be accumulating in some corner of your brain new patterns, new chains of thinking, that will eventually help you, but you are not really aware of it, and you certainly do not have the time to reflect on it.

"What helped me, what I cannot find in any note, was the philosophical and ethical framework I had acquired in my classical studies."

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Yes. I think in life you need some anchor. It is very important not to get lost. The title of this book was The Fog of Peace in reference of course to Clausewitz's "fog of war" but also the fact that the way we define a society, the way we define the goals of a society, and certainly the way we define the peace process in the particular case of peacekeeping, all that is full of uncertainties, and life is about managing uncertainties. As you manage those uncertainties you can drift or you can try to have a compass, and that is why I talk about philosophers, I talk about the abstract side of the mind because it is what helped me keep that sense of purpose and direction in the fog of action in which I was immersed.

When I reflect now on what a leader is I think it's absolutely crucial that it brings us to this question of the individual and the collective. It is crucial to give a sense of direction not only for you but for the people you lead. That is the most important thing. When I was at the United Nations I used to tell my staff sometimes, "Remember the first day you joined, when you were full of hope." That is the important thing.

I think for a leader, yes, you need all sorts of qualities like common sense, hard work, and all the basics of doing a decent job, but in some ways the most important dimension is to make people proud of what they are doing, to feel that they are doing something that is bigger than themselves, that there is something that is more important than themselves, and that their life, as valuable as it is, also encapsulates other people's lives and helps other people's lives. That is what I believe in when it comes to leadership. It is not something that you can really learn in a manual. It is something that has to be grounded in your personal experience.

In my case my parents played a big role in that. When I joined the United Nations under Kofi Annan I think I was very lucky because I was serving someone I admired. In life admiration is probably one of the best emotions because admiration does not expect to be reciprocated. It is something you can have generously without expectation of return, so it is a very comfortable and very pleasant emotion to have. I admired Kofi Annan because he had extraordinary human skills. If I have learned something about leadership, certainly I learned it from him, the sense of embodying a certain vision and mobilizing people for the service of that vision and being a good listener at the same time, having the humility that comes with real leadership. The United Nations helped me develop that.

At the same time, when I was there at the headquarters in New York I often felt all the cynicism that exists in the world. Certainly the Security Council of the United Nations is not a place where you get optimistic, even less now, but when I wanted to move away from the risk of becoming a cynic I would go to a peacekeeping mission, and there I would see the people for whom I was working, the poor people whose lives had been destroyed by war. That meant that suddenly again I knew quickly what I was working for.

I think again leadership is connecting an ambition that is not a personal ambition with the lives of people who have no voice, and you give them a voice. There is no better feeling than a sense that you have given a voice to people who had no voice.

ANJA KASPERSEN: Do you feel, Jean-Marie, that we have the leaders and leadership structures that sufficiently have that moral compass that you talked about, able and willing to take a necessary ethical stance in politics?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: The issue today, to be honest, is that there is not much of a compass. The world today is dominated by the ideology of success measured by monetary success, so the first should be the richest and the last will just be nothing. That is the ideology of a society that is not a livable society. In that context political leaders are more and more often just identity entrepreneurs.

There are different ways of bringing people together. You can bring them together with a sense of an ambitious common purpose, of something to do together, or you can bring them together just by looking at themselves, what I call the "age of the selfie." I think many political entrepreneurs today, that is what they do. That is what Trump was doing with "Make America Great Again." It is a false collective purpose. In reality it is the vanity of each American that he was flattering with a myth of an America that never existed, and I am afraid Putin, when he wants to make Russia great again that is also what he is going after. So we have a lot of those political entrepreneurs.

Those who are not like that too often are caught up in the technicalities of politics, so keeping that ethical sense that we are together because we share values is what today is badly missing in many countries. That is I think where there is much work to be done, and it is not work to be done necessarily by politicians. That is why I wrote my book actually, because I think it begins with a better understanding of the world as it is.

I used to have some influence on the world by being an operator. Now I am not an operator, so I am trying to have influence by helping shape the debate, by helping people understand the world we are in. I think if we have a better understanding of the world as it is maybe we will have a better chance at changing it.

ANJA KASPERSEN: Just to add to what you said about political entrepreneurs, Jean-Marie, there is another trend which I am curious to hear your views on, which is tech entrepreneurs assuming political roles, which is something we have seen a lot of lately informally and formally.

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Yes. Because tech entrepreneurs have so much power concentrated in them they often have a kind of hubris that technology has the political answers, which is a fundamental error.

Again, technology is not a machine to produce ethical choices. It is not. But when you have the money and the power, it is a natural temptation. So you see entrepreneurs on the conservative side of politics like Peter Thiel, and you see others on the more progressive side, but I think it is a very dangerous way of looking at things, as if the machine, the technology, could have the answers. Technology helps us ask new questions, it does not give us the answers.

This new celebrity of tech entrepreneurs is also a reflection of the personalization of politics and of this ideology of success that I denounce because of course they are enormously successful people. If you have success in one order, you have the answers for every order. That is the sophistry that we see. Personally I think a good society is a society where there are several orders that can coexist.

It is very good to have good businesspeople who create wealth, who can really transform the economy and enrich all of us at the end of the day. We need them. I don't have the French prejudice against people with money. I think it is fine. But I think it is as important to recognize the people who may not be the smartest actually but who are very generous, who radiate their generosity and their humanity. It is another way to be successful and to have a good life without any money, and you have people who may not be that interested in generosity, who may not be that interested in money, but who have a passion for knowledge and will spend their lives for that. It is another order, another way of having a good life, and a good society is a society that allows these different goals. It is the definition of pluralism, to accept that people have different goals and there is not one order that dominates all the others.

Today we talk so much today about the "elites." The word itself is symptomatic of our crisis, as if whether you are a successful politician, a successful businessman, or a successful scientist, you are a success first, and it is the success that defines you rather than the goal you pursue. That is a bad thing. It lumps together people who have very different ways of looking at life. Each way is legitimate, but when you oppose the elite, lumping together that very diverse group as opposed to all those who are not the elite, you are reinforcing this ideology of success where everybody is ranked and there is a first and there is a last and there is only one way of ranking people.

That creates an enormous backlash because for the people at the bottom of the pile, if they are poor, in a way they deserve it in that ideology, and they cannot be recognized and their humanity, their dignity, is not recognized. That is a society that can create only very violent revolt because it is a society that fundamentally ignores the dignity of each and every human being. I think we must fight that.

ANJA KASPERSEN: I guess there is also a question of if you have plurality with or without accountability.

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: Yes, of course, because the only accountability then is the accountability of success, and you see how elections become that. In a way, if you are a winner, in the caricature of democracy that we have today, instead of seeing democracy as a way to organize deliberation we see democracy just as the deciding mechanism, so you win—you win the debate, you win the election—you are the best. That is not how it should be.

There is this sense that whether it is a determination of a price or whether it's a vote it is all the same order. You sell a good, you sell an idea, you sell a political program. The market of ideas, of goods will determine everything.

There are things that are not the market, and when you reduce even democracy to a market of ideas you exclude the idea that ideas can change with deliberation and there is not one idea that crushes the others. Ideas are improved by the shock of ideas. It is not about which idea wins. It is about which idea allows another idea to flourish.

ANJA KASPERSEN: My last question for you, Jean-Marie, touches more on your long career and firsthand observations and experiences with both the extraordinary compassion humans are capable of, the beauty of humanity, but also as someone who has really seen the "heart of darkness," to borrow a phrase from Joseph Conrad, the darkness of humanity. I wonder, what keeps you up at night, Jean-Marie, and what inspires you to this day and gives you hope?

JEAN-MARIE GUÉHENNO: What keeps me up at night now is the steady increase in violence in the last two decades. It is a violence that is blunting our sense of humanity. You have seen it in the wars in Syria, and now Ukraine very much looks like Syria with destroyed cities and with no respect whatsoever for basic principles of international humanitarian law. You see sieges, you see prisoners being killed, and you see all sorts of atrocities.

We are getting accustomed to it. I talk about Ukraine, but you could talk about what is going on in Ethiopia. You could talk about many places around the world where violence is a daily occurrence, and it is accepted as a natural way of managing affairs, of managing politics.

That international violence has its counterpart in the internal violence of societies, and I think the two are linked. The sense that we live in communities where we share values, where we share a sense of common purpose, that is disappearing. That is really what keeps me up at night, the sense that our world is getting more and more violent and that the fragile fabric of society is fraying. My experience of peacekeeping, of countries that have been broken by conflict, is that when that fabric of society frays it is very hard to stitch it back together.

At the same time that is what gives me hope frankly. What I have seen in conflict-affected countries is that it certainly reveals the worst of humankind, but it reveals also the best. I think it is a test of humanity. In lives where we are not challenged we can live in mediocrity. When we face the tragedies of war that reveals the best of humanity too. I believe that at the present moment there is a certain renewed sense of the tragic dimension of humanity, and I do hope that that will give us the moral strength to rebuild the societies that are fraying.

When I was in charge of peacekeeping at the United Nations I met some extraordinary people who in the midst of destruction and violence were showing that every individual can make a difference and were trying with all their moral strength to rebuild a society. In spite of all that is so dark and worrying in today's world, that is what gives me a sense that at the darkest hour there is a certain human resilience that will help us overcome the tragedies that we are presently facing.

ANJA KASPERSEN: Thank you so much, Jean-Marie, for sharing your time with us, your stories about what inspires you, excerpts from your new book, and deep insights and expertise. This has been a rich and, if I may say so, also very sobering conversation about the state of the world.

Thank you to our listeners for tuning in, and a special thanks to the team at the Carnegie Council for hosting and producing this podcast. For the latest content on ethics and international affairs be sure to follow us on social media @carnegiecouncil. My name is Anja Kaspersen, and I hope we earned the privilege of your time. Thank you.

You may also like

DEC 9, 2021 Podcast

Ethics, Governance, and Emerging Technologies: A Conversation with the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative (C2G) and Artificial Intelligence & Equality Initiative (AIEI)

Emerging technologies with global impact are creating new ungoverned spaces at a rapid pace. In this critical moment, frameworks and approaches to govern these technologies, ...

JUL 7, 2021 Podcast

Soft Law Approaches to AI Governance

In the latest Artificial Intelligence & Equality Initiative (AIEI) webinar, Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen speaks with Arizona State's Gary Marchant and Carlos Ignacio Gutierrez ...

The <I>Sea Hunter</I>, an autonomous U.S. warship, Oregon, 2016. CREDIT: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sea_Hunter_gets_underway_on_the_Willamette_River_following_a_christening_ceremony_in_Portland,_Ore._(25702146834).jpg">U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Public Domain</a>

FEB 11, 2020 Podcast

Killer Robots, Ethics, & Governance, with Peter Asaro

Peter Asaro, co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, has a simple solution for stopping the future proliferation of killer robots, or lethal ...