Joel Rosenthal at the UN

Joel Rosenthal (second from right) at the UN, February 23, 2023. CREDIT: Permanent Mission of India to the UN, NY.

Gandhian Trusteeship: Empathy, Mutuality, and a New Realism

Mar 2, 2023

On February 23, 2023, the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in partnership with the University for Peace organized a high-level panel discussion on "Gandhian Trusteeship: Mission LiFE and Human Flourishing" at the UN Headquarters. Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal appeared alongside Ambassador Ruchira Kamboj, India's permanent representative to the UN; Ambassador Mathu Joyini, South Africa's permanent representative to the UN; Ambassador Trine Heimerback, Norway's deputy permanent representative to the UN; and Dr. Juan Carlos Sainz-Borgo, vice rector at the University for Peace. The event was moderated by Ramu Damodaran, the first chief of the United Nations Academic Impact and adviser at the University for Peace.

The event highlighted and deliberated on Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of "Trusteeship" and its relevance in today’s world. For more information, please go here. The following is the prompts and responses from Rosenthal.

We are fortunate to have a number of young and energetic minds in the room today, and many more joining us online. Could I ask you to try and reflect on when you first heard of Mahatma Gandhi and what was the facet of his life and character that commanded a meaning for you at that time?

I first met Mahatma Gandhi in my small town library in Massachusetts. I was probably about 10 years old. My favorite section in the library had a series of biographies of the great men and women in world history. Even to a 10-year-old boy, Gandhi stood out among the greats.

In that book, Gandhi was portrayed as a leader not only for his country, but for the world. His leadership was not only political, but also moral, ethical, and spiritual. As the story was told, his political leadership was based on deeply held moral principles. And his power derived from those principles.

Gandhi's life was particular to its time and place. It was shaped by empire, religious identity, and a caste system of hierarchy. Gandhi's principles followed from his circumstance: liberation from colonial rule, a commitment to religious pluralism in a multi-religious society, and a steadfast commitment to equality.

In reading about Gandhi, one could see that these ideas applied all around the world—including the United States!

My hometown played an important role in the American Revolution. The official town anthem had the words, “We were first in revolution" (referring to 1776), and "first and '61" (referring to 1861 and the American Civil War). Our small New England town had thrown off British colonial rule; stood up for the abolition of slavery, and became a model of ecumenical religious liberty. We had something in common with India!

I knew we were not perfect by any means. After all, it was the turbulent 1970s. But in Gandhi, I saw a powerful modern example of how civil rights are connected to human rights. I saw how the local is connected to the global. How power is connected to principle. And how individuals can be empowered by ethics.

I hope that book is still in the library to inspire young people.

In a speech at the University of Utah in 2012, you spoke of "human flourishing (implying) natural tendencies towards self-help as well as care to those whose lives are bound up with ours." Can you reflect on that thought eleven tumultuous years later?

Human flourishing implies natural tendencies toward self-help as well as care towards those whose lives are bound up with ours. The key ideas here are mutuality and reciprocity. No one acts alone.

Today we live in global systems that are gaining speed and intensity. Our most basic needs—jobs, health, and security—are now fully embedded in global systems that shape our lives.

From an ethical perspective, this observation should remind us of Adam Smith's emphasis on mutuality. I would submit that Smith’s most important contribution came in the first paragraph of his first book The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

In this first paragraph, we have the father of the discipline that gives us terms like "maximizing utility" and "rational choice modeling," beginning his entire enterprise with the idea of "sympathy." In fact, Chapter One begins with a section titled, "Of Sympathy."

According to Smith, the first thing we need to understand is that sympathy, empathy, and mutuality are the foundation of human society. We cannot understand our own interests unless we understand the interests of others. Let me repeat: We cannot understand our own interests unless we understand the interests of others. This seems the essence of Gandhi's message as well.

If we take seriously that global systems have more impact on our lives than ever before, then we also must take seriously that our responsibilities to others must evolve as well.

As Gandhi wrote in his letter to the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "All rights to be deserved and preserved come from duties well done."

Today, empathy and mutuality are losing out to identity politics, blood and soil nationalism, and winner-take-all economics. A return to the idea of human flourishing—echoing Gandhi—might help turn the tide.

But as we sit here at the United Nations, we have to be realistic that the past decade embodies the challenges that must be overcome.

Your first book Righteous Realists examined political realism in the United States in the post Second World War era—the United Nations era. Would it be fair to see ambition for what seems difficult to attain, but can be achieved, as the new realism today?

I do think there is potential for a new realism today. And that realism can be consistent with the post-World War II values as expressed in the UN Charter.

For me, the cardinal virtue of the Charter—and of Gandhi—is a commitment to peace and human rights. We have strayed so far from that ideal now. Russia's invasion and ongoing war in Ukraine is symptomatic of that breach. It is a trip back to the beginning of the 20th century—an industrial war of attrition.

Where is this war taking us? Russian aggression must be defeated, and its war crimes addressed. But the war should also signal the need to get us off this latest cycle of escalation and militarization while there is time. This will be the responsibility of new and rising Great Powers like India.

As India forges its own path, this is precisely the moment when India can leverage its new position to strengthen the multilateral order rather than weaken it.

If the multilateral system is perceived to be dominated by the West, now would be the time to infuse it with new ideas and fresh energy coming from the East and South. Gandhi would expect no less. He would expect us to build an inclusive structure of peace.

Without a Gandhian counternarrative that is truly global and inclusive, we face a next generation of boundless militarization. We’ve already launched into cyberspace and outer space. At the moment there seems to be no limits.

The second virtue of a new realism inspired by Gandhi is a commitment to pluralism. Our own rights are ensured by respecting the rights of others. And yet we are living through a new wave of ethnonationalism and religious intolerance.

Realism suggests that where it is not possible to agree on what is good, perhaps we can at least try to forge agreement on what is bad, and what is to be avoided.

Gandhi might have wished for more, but his political leadership would have accommodated this idea. The result would be much better than what we are seeing today in this new era of rising illiberalism and intolerance.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn, in the late 1920s. Public Domain via <a href="">Wikipedia</a>

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