WAMC Radio's Alan Chartock Interviews Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal

Feb 24, 2011


Jan 6, 2022

Credit: Neon Mic. (Creative Commons)

This interview was posted with kind permission of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It was first broadcast on February 24, 2011.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Hi. This is Alan Chartock. Joining us today is Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, founded in 1914 as one of Andrew Carnegie’s original peace endowments.

Rosenthal, who earned a Ph.D. at Yale, serves as editor-in-chief of Ethics & International Affairs and is the author of Righteous Realists.

Joel Rosenthal, it’s a great pleasure to have you here. We’re flattered that you’ve come. Thanks so much.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I’m delighted to be with you. Thanks for the opportunity.

ALAN CHARTOCK: The first thing I want to know is a little bit more about you. How did you get to where you are?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Interesting question. I’m an academic by training and profession. I earned a Ph.D. in American studies with a history focus.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Yale University. My field of inquiry was U.S. foreign policy, international relations, and some political and diplomatic history as well.

ALAN CHARTOCK: What did you write your thesis on?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That’s what really brought me into the field of ethics. My thesis was on a group of thinkers who were important to the formation of American foreign policy after World War II, self-identified as realists, and at the beginning of the Cold War, how were we going to deal with the world after World War II.

As I looked at these so-called realists, I came to a realization of my own, which was that for a group of people who said it’s all about power politics and we have to find our way in the world after this great war, they were the most moralistic people I could find. They were deeply concerned with moral and ethical questions.

The protagonists in this story were people like Hans Morgenthau, a political theorist; Reinhold Niebuhr, who was a theologian; George Kennan, who was actually the person who coined the term “Cold War” and containment. As I looked at these people, I began to think and write about them, which brought me to this whole area of ethics.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Were you raised in the kind of family that taught you about all of this?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Yes and no. I had a very conventional suburban background in Massachusetts and always had an interest in the broader world and in history and in travel, but nothing extraordinary in terms of my own personal experience that way.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Let me then go from your background to Andrew Carnegie’s, which I find fascinating. Here’s a guy who left a lot of his wealth to public libraries, endowments, and the Carnegie Council, which led to the establishment of what we know and has saved my life as TIAA-CREF, so that we professors could go from one place to another. Tell us about Carnegie.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: He was an extraordinary man. Maybe the first thing to know is that he was a self-made man. He came to the United States as an economic refugee, literally with just the shirt on his back. Through his own force of will and his own experience, he became the richest man in the world, and he was known as the richest man in the world in his own time.

He had a public profile probably much like Bill Gates has today, widely recognized, a celebrity figure. And, like Bill Gates in many ways, he realized that with great wealth he had great opportunity. He spent the last full third of his life giving away his money in philanthropy.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Remind everybody how he made that money.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: He was the founder of the U.S. Steel Corporation. It was really through a series of his work in coal, steel, and in the building of the railroads, which led to the founding and eventual sale of the U.S. Steel Corporation.

ALAN CHARTOCK: So many of us have spent a good deal of our lives in public libraries. He did a lot for them.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: When he got to this point in his life where he was trying to figure out, “I’ve amassed this great wealth, how can I use it to better the plight of people everywhere?” he really had two big ideas of what he might do.

The first, as you’re suggesting, was the public library system. He himself had been the beneficiary of a subscription library in Pittsburgh and became self-educated in that library. He thought, “We really should be able to create a new system where people everywhere would have access to knowledge, to information, to books.” It was a very simple idea, but it was a profound idea, that we could come up with a new way of doing this. So he started to fund the building of public libraries all throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, and by the time he was finished he had funded 2,500 public libraries.

ALAN CHARTOCK: What led him to peace?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: He had this view that society was constantly improving. It was a social Darwinist kind of view, that we’re always improving, we’re always evolving, we’re becoming more civilized as time goes by. He thought that war was something that human society would eventually outgrow, that we would come to a point of maturity where war would seem irrational and immoral. And, much like we see something like slavery now, or dueling, where gentlemen had to duel to maintain their honor, that war would be seen in a similar way, that it was an outmoded way of thinking and that we would evolve away from that.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Was he right?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: No. I think that was a problem. His fundamental view of human nature was a little bit overly optimistic, a little bit naïve, if you will. He kind of misunderstood in some way the role that conflict plays in human society.

He was not totally wrong, though, in the sense that we can find ways, build institutions, come up with norms or rules that could lead to a more peaceful world. That’s where he started to make his mark, and this is the relevance that he still has today.

In his day, the idea as it relates to war—how would you mitigate war?—was a simple idea: When two parties have a dispute, they bring it to court, a mediation, or an arbitration. He thought, “We do this in civil society, in domestic society; why can’t we do that in international society?”

He helped to build the Peace Palace at The Hague—”We can build an institution to help us to do better in this area of human conflict.“ He also was supportive of the idea of a League of Nations—again, “We can build an institution, we can change the way people think about how nations behave.” This obviously led to the whole field of international law and organization, which is still very important in international relations today.

ALAN CHARTOCK: While we’re talking about Carnegie, to think in terms of peace in the world, was there any personal motivation that you know of? Was somebody close to him killed in a war, or was there something that made him want to devote himself as part of his legacy to the concept of peace?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: He had lived through the Civil War. He was not a soldier in the war, although he did play a small role in some of the buildings and the railroads around the time of the war. But that experience, of seeing the beginnings of industrial war and the tremendous human cost and casualties was certainly a factor.

Curiously, it was very much against his business interests to be such a pacifist. There was a lot of money to be made in the building of ships and artillery.

It was something in his own personal experience that led him in this direction.

But it goes back to something I said before, which is this idea that society was improving and that we were becoming better as a species and that war was just an irrational act, and this was something that he felt he could address through his philanthropy.

ALAN CHARTOCK: You run the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. What do you do?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Our offices are here in midtown Manhattan, on East 64th Street. We run a series of educational programs, public affairs programs, also programs for college and university professors; we run a publications program and a website—all devoted to creating educational resources on the intersection between ethics and international affairs.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Give us an example of that intersection in terms of what you study.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: This afternoon we will be having a discussion with Gideon Rose, who is the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, and he’s employed by the Council on Foreign Relations. He will be talking about his book, called How Wars End. That’s a very profound question about how wars end, in the sense of why is it that some wars end with a just and sustainable peace, and why do some wars devolve into a series or a cycle of conflict.

ALAN CHARTOCK: So what would he say about World War I?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That was a war that ended badly. It was a war that helped to create, or at least sustain, a cycle of violence which had begun in the previous century.

What’s interesting about that would be to look at the differences between the way World War I ended and the way World War II ended. It was a question of taking into account the interests of the defeated parties. The whole founding of the European project, the beginning of the Coal and Steel Community, the beginning of the European Community, which ended up with the European Union, there was a whole change in approach. It was interest-based. There was an understanding that there was a common interest in creating this new community, and leadership got behind this idea. It’s really a very profound thing.

When people say, “We’re destined to live with conflict and we’re destined to live with war”—well, yes that’s true, perhaps up to a certain point, but we can learn lessons. If you think about Europe, 100 years ago if you’d said, “We’re going to come to a place where war in Europe would be unthinkable,” that would be hard to imagine. But you can see how it is in fact possible.

ALAN CHARTOCK: World War II we thought about those who lost the war. World War I we punished them. Is that the thesis?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Correct. It was really an unsustainable, and to some extent vengeful, peace. When we think about it today, we can see that in trying to get to a sustainable, peaceful resolution of conflict we do have to take into account the interests of all the parties and to try to find a way to move forward.

ALAN CHARTOCK: If we were to take a look now at a contemporary “war” that has ended relatively well by comparative standards, would we look at the Irish experience?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That’s ongoing, but it’s a good example, in the sense of creative thinking, going back to the simple point I made before, taking into account the legitimate interests and views of all the parties; thinking about the distribution of power, and necessary evolution and change in that; thinking about demographics and how these change and how these can be used in a positive and not necessarily in a negative way. So there is a lot to be learned there.

I would caution, though, that all conflict is different. There are different dynamics. There are so many different variables at play, so many different personalities, that we can draw some general lessons, but I don’t think there’s a simple formula that can be learned and then applied.

ALAN CHARTOCK: What about the demonization of the enemy? We look at something like Iran. While the people of Iran seem to me to be generally good people, we have demonized their leadership, and basically there is a sense, either with the North Koreans or some of the leadership in Iran, that they have the bomb, that they’ll use the bomb, and that because they’re nuts—this is not my thinking, by the way, but this is what you hear—because they’re nuts, they will drop a bomb and go down with it like Dr. Strangelove.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: This is a profound theme, the idea of demonization of the enemy. That is a lesson that we should learn from the past. This is the path toward destruction and destructive behavior, and it is something that we can and should address.

If you look at any catastrophic genocidal kind of activity, war at that ultimate level, it always begins with the demonization and, perhaps even a better word, the de-humanization of the other. That is really the beginning of the end, when you see the other as somehow either less than human or somehow evil, an evil that has to be eradicated in some way. That’s right there at the beginning of the slippery slope.

ALAN CHARTOCK: You mentioned Hans Morgenthau earlier. But I’m thinking about Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau in the Roosevelt Administration and the idea that the Germans could never, ever be trusted; let’s put them back and make them an agrarian society and never let them become either urbanized or a society that can deal with complex subjects. Roosevelt said, “No.”

Do you ever think about that one?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: The Morgenthau Plan is a good example of a bad idea. Wiser heads prevailed. Why? Because by trying to make Germany into something that it is not, to try to tie its hands, and to try to subjugate it in that way is a counterproductive notion.

So instead what happened? The European project was to give Germany a stake, to make it in its interests to become not only part of, but the engine of this new dynamic, a bigger economic and then political and cultural community.

When we think about society, we have to take into account these interests and to work with them, not against them.

ALAN CHARTOCK: When I went to college a long time ago, the historians that taught me would delve into the question as to whether there is such a thing as a national character for a country. Then it sort of got discredited. I’ve always been fascinated with the concept.

Do you think countries have a national character? Do you think the Germans will always be the Germans, for example? Do you think the Austrians will always be the Austrians, or will the children of the children be different?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That’s a great question. There’s a certain danger to this national character, which then equals national destiny.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Stereotyping.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Yes. I prefer to think about core founding principles. A lot of our work here is to see and to explore what’s common. You can see certain kinds of peculiarities or characteristics that come out of historical experience, geography and so on. But the longer I look at this, the more I see that the real story is about how there is so much universal in the human experience rather than difference. There’s a real danger in moving almost in the direction of stereotyping certain kind of national characteristics.

ALAN CHARTOCK: I hope you’re right.

One of the Carnegie Council’s goals is to end war. Is that ever going to happen?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Not to be too cute about the answer, but it depends on what you mean by war. The whole concept of war has really changed and evolved.

I do not think—and this is where I disagree with Andrew Carnegie—I do not think that there is this peaceful end-state that’s there for us waiting to be discovered. Conflict and violence is part of the human experience.

But he was correct in a way to think that war, in the way that we think of it in its most conventional way, is possible to change. We’re moving into a new area now. The way we think about war has changed. The whole idea of industrial war and large-scale armies and invasions, seems quite outmoded.

The real question is: What do we mean by war? What will violent conflict look like? What will interstate conflict look like? Can we move into a world where, when we think about conflict, it’s more like the way we would think about creating a peaceful and ordered society rather than a war society?

ALAN CHARTOCK: You’ve given me a lot of places to go. I don’t know where to go first.

President Hu was recently in the United States. Is competing systems part of a war, based on what you’ve just told us?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I don’t think so. We’re certainly not in a shooting war. That’s the first threshold question. The idea of competition between countries is part of it. That could be seen as a healthy thing in some ways; it’s not necessarily something to be avoided.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Yet I recently talked to a congressman on our Congressional Corner program who came from a district in Connecticut, and he was for building more nuclear submarines. I asked him why we had to do that. He said, “Because the Chinese just built one.” So there’s a certain kind of competition that’s going on.


ALAN CHARTOCK: But on the other hand, armed nuclear submarines?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: There is a real question about what’s required to provide basic defense for our country. Also, an even more interesting question too, about what sort of responsibility do we, the United States, want to take for global security, beyond just what’s in our narrow national defense interests?

There is an argument to be said that we want to remain the preeminent provider of global security so that we can take care of not only ourselves but our friends and our interests that extend globally. Whether that requires the building of more nuclear-powered submarines is an interesting question. I tend to think we’re going to go in the opposite direction. Less is going to be needed than people say.

ALAN CHARTOCK: What do you make of the confrontation that lasted for all those years when everybody thought we had to hide under our desks because either we or the Russians would be sending A-bombs and H-bombs at each other? It didn’t happen because there was an awareness of the potential for destruction. What do you make of all that?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Deterrence has worked. We need to figure out where we go from there. Most people feel that that’s a very uncomfortable compromise, to say that we’re going to threaten to obliterate any enemy that we might have and this is what’s going to create stability.

The idea of moving to lower and lower levels of capability is certainly within our grasp.

ALAN CHARTOCK: I’m sorry. I don’t know what that means.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Well, meaning do we really need as much the ability, what was called overkill. How many submarines, bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, do you really need to get to the level of stability that we’re talking about—deterrence?

Some of the initiatives that are going on now to reduce levels of nuclear weapons just make logical sense. Why do we need this overkill capacity in today’s world?

ALAN CHARTOCK: The genie is out of the bottle. Clearly, the argument we’re making to North Korea and Iran is, “You can’t have them; but we’ve got them.” And they’re going to have them. Israel has them, and so many others.

What if, in the name of an entity, a god, somebody says, “It’s our duty to lob a weapon at the Japanese from North Korea”? How would society react to basically a mad act? You’re assuming that that mad act won’t happen because it’s self-defeating. But what if somebody really believed that you go to heaven because you do that, and, “We don’t care if we die,” just like suicide bombers don’t? Does this add a level of complexity to your work?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Absolutely. Again, this is going back to Carnegie’s original vision. We’re talking about the rational actor, the rational person, the rational man. It’s very hard to deal with those who are working under a different belief system. That’s exactly the anxiety that we see now with a theocracy like Iran, or perhaps an irrational actor like North Korea. Do they see the world the way we see it, and does deterrence work? That’s an open question.

ALAN CHARTOCK: You mentioned just a little while before that we may be seeking our own safety and also to assure the safety of the rest of the world. What’s the difference between that kind of thinking and that of Alexander the Great?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: It’s a question of intent. Is it an imperial enterprise? Do we seek a certain kind of conquest or privileges that come along with the extension of our power? I don’t think so.

I’d like to think that we see the benefits of a stable, predictable global system which facilitates trade, the movement of people, the movement of money, and the improvement of people’s lives.

ALAN CHARTOCK: But somebody’s yelling at the radio now, “Alan, ask him. Say to him, ‘Yeah, but Eisenhower talked about the military-industrial complex, we’ve got to feed the beast, that that’s what this is really all about.’”

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That’s legitimate. We’re coming up to 50 years since that speech and, sadly, it seems prophetic. We have had one war, one conflict, after another, and if we keep looking for them we will certainly find them. The open question for the United States right now is to think about the goal, which is to have the most peaceful, stable, predictable world that we can have.

It’s a question now of what is our role. Do we need to still outspend everybody by whatever the numbers are and have so much more capacity than any other, or can we move to a world where there is burden sharing, where there are others who have a stake and where there are others who will do some meaningful work?

ALAN CHARTOCK: What makes that happen? The “coalition of the willing,” according to George W. Bush, and “We’re going to put this together and we’re not going to be alone in this”—but in the end we certainly were. We had a little help, but we certainly were. What makes others take a stake? Do we have to step out?

I keep worrying about the poor women in Iran who get whipped because they show ankle or a face, and the United States says, “Okay, we can’t do that anymore. They don’t want us over there in Afghanistan, they don’t want us in Iraq. We’re not going to be there anymore.” And then we watch these horrible things happen.

Joel, what is our responsibility?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: As the preeminent power, we certainly have some responsibility, but we don’t have it all, and it is our responsibility to lead. One of the weaknesses in our leadership has been our inability to get others to do their part.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Why should they if they don’t have to?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: We’re going to move into a new world, and that new world is going to be dictated by the resources that are going to be available to the United States.

Secretary Gates has already made it clear that we’re not going to be able to sustain at the level that we are now, and the numbers and the resources are going to come down. There will be some movement in that direction. Whether we can get others to step up or not is an open question.

ALAN CHARTOCK: You personally, Joel, are an expert on brokering peace, terrorism and insurgency, and military ethics.

Let’s go first to the concept of brokering peace. Who’s doing it and who’s doing it well right now?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I’m a realist in the sense that peace has to be made between the parties. If there’s a broker, a broker can only help to shape the environment perhaps, provide a few marginal carrots and sticks. But it’s a dangerous game to think that third parties can come in and make it happen.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Didn’t Theodore Roosevelt get a Nobel Prize for doing exactly this?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Yes, in 1904, in the Russian-Japanese War. As a rising power, the United States saw it to be in its interests to try to assert itself in the changing balance of power in the Pacific Ocean.

There are times where you see changing power dynamics where parties can come in and help to shape the environment, help to provide some kinds of assurances to the parties, and finish off the deal. But we have to be careful about the limitations.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Who’s on the scene right now who’s doing it? Kissinger got a lot of credit for it—whether or not he really deserved it by the time it was done, I don’t know. But who’s on the scene doing exactly that right now? You got a name and a face?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Not one right off the top of my head, to be honest with you.

ALAN CHARTOCK: What about Hillary Clinton?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I was going to go in that direction. Sometimes maybe we hold the bar a little bit too high. Sometimes it’s the dog that didn’t bark, right? There are a lot of flashpoints, hot spots, some pretty scary places out there. We may not be satisfied with the result, and yet sometimes status quo might be the best you can do.

The United States has not gotten enough credit and gotten way too much blame for its efforts in the Middle East. You could even say the same in the Korean Peninsula. Those are two flashpoints that are frightening to many. All sorts of bad things can happen. There are a lot of good people who are doing a lot of good work to avoid the worst.

ALAN CHARTOCK: And yet, in the Middle-Eastern situation, is it not so that about a billion Arabs perceive the United States as being anything but an honest broker?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Again, that’s what you were saying, this idea of brokering peace. I don’t think the United States is necessarily an “honest broker.” The United States has made it very clear that its ally is Israel, and it proceeds on that basis unapologetically. That said, the United States has great interest and has devoted great resources—time, effort, energy, prestige, money—in trying to do its part to find a solution.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Let’s go to the next war, the next other kind of war which we mentioned before, which is terrorism. That’s the new war.


ALAN CHARTOCK: A group of people who have issues start killing people, they start bombing the World Trade Center, they do this kind of thing. But it’s not Pakistan. They may come from Pakistan, they may come from Saudi Arabia, but what does a country do in terms of protecting its national interest? Does it bomb Pakistan and say, “Okay, you came from Pakistan; therefore, we’re going to bomb it and take whatever collateral damage we can”? Or what are the strategies?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: This gets back to the whole question of what do we mean by war. We’ve made a big mistake in terms of if you want to go back to the so-called war on terrorism. The whole war framework might be the wrong way to go.

My position on the al Qaeda problem post-9/11 was to see al Qaeda for what it is, which is a criminal syndicate, a network. I can’t for the life of me figure out why the strategy wasn’t to take it out, much like we took out organized crime.

That’s not to say we have to do this with hands tied behind the back, not use violent force. There are ways to do that.

But to try to put this into the framework of conventional war—the way you think about war, there’s usually a defined theater. In the global war on terror, the theater is everywhere from Yemen to Somalia to Pakistan to Afghanistan to wherever we find a terrorist. And then the idea of war also has a timeframe—it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

We’ve set this thing up the wrong way. We’ve got a global theater that has no limits and we have a timeframe with no end. That’s the wrong way to look at it, whereas if you look at it more like a criminal enterprise, that gives you a much better framework for dealing with it.

ALAN CHARTOCK: I’m so glad we have you here, Joel, because you’re the expert—I’m certainly not—and I know you’ll answer this very simple question from me.


ALAN CHARTOCK: Why did George W. Bush bring our troops, if what you’ve just said is so, into Iraq? What was the motivation for that?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I take George W. Bush at his word. His word was he felt that, in the wake of 9/11 and when it came to this notion of who had access to weapons of mass destruction and who had intent, he said very clearly—and this is in relation to Iraq—he said, “The risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action.” He made a very simple calculation that we’re not really sure, but close enough. That was number one.

Number two, I am convinced that Iraq was chosen as a demonstration effect. I say this sadly. I think it was a terrible decision. But the idea being that after 9/11—and we see that there are groups out there with this kind of intent and this kind of growing capacity—that the United States wanted to show the world what it was willing to do. What it was willing to do was to take down regimes that would show this kind of intent and not retreat from it.

If you read what Bush says and what other people have said, I don’t think there’s any great mystery to it. That’s why they’re not all that concerned with what the report said about weapons of mass destruction. Their view was: “Close enough. These guys had it, they had it in the past, they said they wanted it, they said they were working on it, and they said they’re use it. Close enough.”

ALAN CHARTOCK: They weren’t the guys who did it. The guys who did it came from other places. We could have shown that will by bombing or going to war with Pakistan.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Right. That was a much harder job.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: As was anything having to do with Iran, those were harder jobs. This was something that they could do, and they took the decision to do it. The damage was self-evident in a way, but also the greater damage, which was the loss of cooperation and goodwill of anybody who was really on board with us inSeptember of 2011. We lost the opportunity to lead a genuinely global effort of cooperation to take out this network.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Let me ask you this, Joel: When you wake up in the morning, do you ever say, “Oh, boy”?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I have a friend who says, “You must take optimism pills every day.”

Again, I do have a somewhat realistic set of expectations. There are means within our grasp, particularly as Americans, and it’s our responsibility to be thoughtful about what we can do to make the world a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous place.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Want to give us a list?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: One—we’re already doing it a little bit here—we do have to rethink the use of force and the future of war. We’re living through a profound time right now, all the way from at one end of the spectrum the whole question of living with nuclear weapons. In fact, it’s a great time right now. We have the luxury in some way to take a breath, sit back, think about it, talk to our friends, our allies, about what the real needs are. There is room to maneuver that we didn’t feel that we had in the past, and how can we move ahead with this whole question about nuclear weapons.

Related to that, what are we teaching our kids about nuclear weapons? You’re talking about your age and mine, and we’ve had a certain cultural experience about living with nuclear weapons, and we’ve drawn certain conclusions from that. If you think about kids who are born in this century—Hiroshima is literally the distant past. It’s a profound question: What are we going to teach our kids about nuclear weapons and their capacity and what we’re going to do with them?

The whole question about war, its future, the use of violent force, is an open question.

The other issue is thinking seriously about globalization, again something we take for granted now. We live in a set of global systems. We can’t just retreat from the world. Whether it’s the economy, the environment, flows of people, flows of information, we live in a series of global systems and we’re going to be playing a role in that. We need to think about how we’re going to deal with that from an ethical perspective.

ALAN CHARTOCK: You’re an ethics expert. I was going to ask you about this, because certain words come to mind—Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib. You have to watch from your perch the way in which other people think about us.


ALAN CHARTOCK: Some of these were really terrible experiences for Americans—dogs jumping on naked people, pulling people away from their homelands and sticking them on a plane and bringing them somewhere else, and all of the rest. What’s the risk for the United States in doing all of that?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: There’s a great risk. This is why the decision for war was so traumatic in a way, because this is all 100 percent predictable. We know what’s going to happen when we cross that threshold.

But the opportunity for us now is the capacity that the United States has for self-reflection and self-correction. This is the openness of our society, the fact that we’re having a conversation like this and that we can have conversations like this with our political and military leaders. People around the world do at some level understand that. At the Carnegie Council that’s a small role that we can play.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Maybe you are taking optimism pills, Joel. I see the glass as half-empty, certainly, that we’re not doing that, that we’re going in the other direction, that we are rewarding people who take a warmongering position.

It’s wonderful, your perch and what you’re doing, and the Carnegie Council. But in the end I take a look at the whole thing and I just am scared to death.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I draw a little bit of inspiration—actually, President Obama has made some very important speeches directed at the world in what I would consider an American voice, one of understanding our responsibilities as the preeminent power, but also with a sense of humility and a sense of trying to reckon with any past injustices and move forward. We don’t have any choice but to do that as well.

ALAN CHARTOCK: How do you deal with that? There are those African-Americans who believe that—you spoke of the Civil War before and Carnegie living during the Civil War—that we should pay back for the indignity of putting people on boats and then treating them like garbage for years and years. There’s always somebody who will say that we have good cause for doing this—and they might.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: There are different ways of reckoning with the past or with past injustice. The first thing is to face it and to understand that, yes, we were a country that was born flawed, but, to channel Mr. Carnegie for a second, we’re evolving. Yes, when we were born women didn’t have the right to vote, there were slaves, there were all kinds of problems. But we also had within the DNA certain principles and ideals, and we’re working on them.

To take any other view is to be unduly pessimistic. If you look at the history—even within your own lifetime, think about where we’ve come in terms of rights for women, civil rights, and rights for the disabled. Within one generation our whole concept of what a fair and just society is domestically has changed in ways that were unimaginable. That is, again, within part of your lifetime.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Corporations have now been made citizens by virtue of the Supreme Court, or some would say even the Constitution, and many of those corporations are now international entities.

Governance is not the governance of the United States so much anymore, as these corporate folks who own so much of the world and who don’t have to listen to either the Congress or the president. What’s your thinking about that?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That’s a great question.

First of all, they have to listen to themselves. If I’m a leader of a corporation, or even part of a stakeholder in a corporation—a corporation is an entity, it has a collective identity, and it’s a reasonable question to ask what are its responsibilities.

ALAN CHARTOCK: But that sounds so goody-goody. Ever since early films about this, one of the stockholders stands up at the stockholders’ meeting and yells at them, “Stop this behavior,” and they’re treated like a nut, and then in the end of the film she’s treated as a heroine for having done that. But that isn’t the way it works.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That’s right. It’s the government’s requirement and job to say, “Listen, this is the floor, this is what you’ve got to do.” The government bears tremendous responsibility to say, “If you want to have the rights of a corporation and the kinds of protections that you get, we’re going to protect you with our army, our police force, and our force of law. Well then, you have these following responsibilities.” That’s basically the legal aspect of it.

But thoughtful people will understand there’s a difference between law and ethics, that there are things that—”Okay, we can do these things legally, but is this something we want to do as a group? Is this ethical? Is this desirable?“

ALAN CHARTOCK: The Carnegie Council interviews famous political scientists and historians and asks them what their thoughts are. But how do you multiply the important work you’re doing so that there’s any kind of real consciousness of it?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: We try to create educational resources in a very traditional way, which is to invite people to reflect on their experience, share their knowledge, share their understanding, and they do it in a very conventional way, which is to give a talk, participate in a workshop, write an article, or appear in an interview.

We download that information and then we try to distribute it as broadly as possible.

We have a large web of people in the New York area who are able to come here and to participate in the programs.

But increasingly, through the wonders of digital technology, we are able to distribute this information, whether it’s in video, audio, or written form, through the Internet. We have viewers, listeners, and readers all around the world.

ALAN CHARTOCK: How do we know, those of us who are listening to you right now, Joel, that you won’t get co-opted, that the system won’t do what it has done with so many other people—basically eat you up, say, “We’re going to put Lady Van Snoot on your board, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that,” and then, sooner or later, you have to behave.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: It’s getting back to this idea of openness and competition of ideas, the fact that we’re out there. We are here as an open forum. People can come, they can participate, they can have their say, they can be part of it. That’s really our answer. We are really a convening place, a forum. It’s not for us to bring peace or to create or manage policy. We’re here as an educational institution.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Would old man Carnegie have liked to hear you say that?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I think so. He had an interesting view of his philanthropic efforts. He believed that the efforts themselves needed to change, grow, and evolve in an organic fashion over time.

The main point of this organization was to educate people so that they understood, especially in the United States as a rising power, that the United States had international responsibilities and that we wanted to foster a more peaceful world.

If old man Carnegie walked in today, what would he say? I think he would say, “We want to educate, we want to bring in as many people, voices, as we can, and we want to distribute this information as broadly as possible. If we can have some small influence on the way people think in this direction, that would be a good thing.”

ALAN CHARTOCK: Joel, I take it as the head of the Council that you travel the world. When you go to other countries, what is your sense of their reception to the idea of making peace?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: It’s interesting. The Carnegie name actually does travel very well. It’s well recognized. Not everybody knows the story or the history, but it is a respected brand. We’re certainly seen as American, but not official in the sense of official government. And it’s a bit of a magnet—people do respond to it and they see it as intellectually sound, they see it as sort of as close to an honest broker as you can imagine.

My sense is that people around the world want to be heard, they want to be part of something like this, a global forum for the discussion of these kinds of issues.

In some ways they’re delighted, and sometimes disarmed, by the fact that we genuinely want to have open conversation and dialogue and want to hear different voices. In that way the response has been very positive.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Tunisia—we’re going through it right now. All of a sudden, there is a Jasmine Revolution and people rise up. What’s to be learned from this?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: What’s to be learned is that the whole idea of legitimacy is essential. This is an ethical proposition. Governments fall when they are perceived as illegitimate, when they lose their authority. How do you gain authority? You gain authority by serving the people, by looking out for their interests, by providing for them security and certain kinds of freedoms and liberties.

In that sense, the battle for legitimacy—what is considered right, correct, better—those are ethical and value questions.

What I take away from Tunisia is you see a society that has real problems and its leadership has suffered because it hasn’t performed.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Russia right now, journalists are being killed, political parties are being discouraged. There was a major democratic revolution, an ex-KGB man takes over, and the country more and more reverts to what it used to look like. That’s pretty discouraging, isn’t it?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: It is. But on the other hand, the performance isn’t what we would want it to be, but are we better off now than we were in the days of the Iron Curtain? We are. We’re moving generally in the right direction. Very dissatisfied with the performance and so on. But there has been some progress, at least at the rhetorical and theoretical level, that there are certain kinds of rights that are expected and that the government has to recognize.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Does our government ever come to you and ask the Carnegie Council to help them?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Not directly. We have no direct influence at all. From time to time we will participate in government-sponsored activity. We have done a lot of work with institutions that are government-sponsored, like military academies, service academies, war colleges, and State Department kind of initiatives. But we participate just as participants in any of those programs.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Would you take money from them?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: We’ve taken grant money from the United States Institute for Peace, which is an educational institution. We’ve taken funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities for educational programs for the public. We have worked with the United States military in professional military education, ethics education primarily for military officers and officers-in-training. We’ve had that kind of relationship with the government.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Has there ever been what you would consider to be an untoward suggestion that you come up with the programs or conclusions that they would like as opposed to what you would think would be more honest?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: No. That’s easy for us, because we operate by the principles of academic freedom. Again, we are conveners. So when we work with a government agency, we bring in people who have various expertise, whether it’s academic or practical and they do their thing under the auspices of academic freedom. They’re free to speak their minds and they’re expected to.

ALAN CHARTOCK: Our guest today has been Joel Rosenthal, President of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Under Rosenthal’s direction, the Council sponsors educational programs for worldwide audiences. The Council’s lectures, publications, and educational programs focus on issues relating to ethics and war, the global economy, and cultural difference.

He has co-edited several collections of articles and written numerous articles of his own, including “Ethics”, in Bruce W. Jentleson’s, et al., Encyclopedia of US Foreign Relations. His work in progress includes, How Moral Can We Get? Essays on the Moral Nation.

Among his professional activities, he serves as senior fellow, Stockdale Center, U.S. Naval Academy; adjunct professor, New York University; chairman of the Bard College Globalization and International Affairs Program in New York City; committee member for the journal Review of Ethics & International Affairs, Shanghai International Studies University; and honorary professor in history, University of Copenhagen.

I want to thank you, Joel Rosenthal, for joining us today. We are very flattered that you have taken the time to come and be with us. It’s just terrific to have you here.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Alan. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Privacy Policy

You may also like

FEB 27, 2024 Video

A Carnegie Council Conversation with the UK Home Secretary

In this speech, the UK Home Secretary outlined the range of opportunities and challenges faced by countries as a consequence of migration.

Left to Right: Abiodun Williams, Erez Yoeli, Joel Rosenthal. October 18, 2023.

OCT 18, 2023 Video

Unlocking Cooperation: A Global Ethics Day Special Event

In this keynote event for Global Ethics Day 2023, Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal led a conversation on the psychology behind cooperation; ways that states, institutions, ...

Jerusalem at night. CREDIT: joiseyshowaa.

OCT 11, 2023 Article

Terror Attacks in Israel: A Complete Rout of Ethical Principles

Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal condemns Hamas' shocking terror attacks in Israel. What are we to make of such a complete rout of ethical principles?

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation