JENNIFER OTTERSON MOLLICK: Good evening. My name is Jennifer Otterson Mollick, and I'm the program coordinator for the Carnegie New Leaders program here at the Council.
I see a lot of familiar faces out here tonight. That's great to see. I would like to welcome you all to this Carnegie New Leaders event tonight. It's wonderful to have Carne Ross here with us.
I would like to begin tonight's event by introducing our moderator for this evening, Mr. Eddie Mandhry. Eddie is the associate director at NYU Africa House. He is responsible for managing Africa House's public engagement programs, which spotlight Africa-focused research conducted by members of the NYU academic community. He also manages seminars, conferences, and symposiums featuring local and international dignitaries, thought leaders, and practitioners.
Eddie is a Kenyan national, with a B.A. in political science and African studies from Hampshire College and a master of science in international relations from the London School of Economics. And, of course, Eddie serves on the steering committee of our Carnegie New Leaders program.
Thank you, Eddie, for moderating this evening. I would like to turn the floor over to you.
EDDIE MANDHRY: Thank you, Jennifer. Welcome, everyone.
We're very happy to have Carne Ross with us today. Carne Ross is a former diplomat who resigned over the Iraq War. Carne's second book, The Leaderless Revolution, was published by Penguin in 2012. Drawing from his experience as a diplomat, economist, and activist, it describes how governments are failing to address our most urgent problems, including mounting inequality and economic volatility, climate change, and terrorism. Instead of looking to authority, the book offers an inspiring message of empowerment and self-organized action: anarchism for the 21st century.
Carne is also the founder and executive director of Independent Diplomat [ID], an expert team of former diplomats and international lawyers. Independent Diplomat advises democratic but marginalized governments and political groups so that their views are heard internationally. ID advised Kosovo before independence and now advises, among others, South Sudan, the world's newest state, and island states on climate change negotiations.
Carne has also been heavily involved in Occupy Wall Street, where he has helped facilitate a working group that is aiming to set up a new kind of bank, a bank that is democratic, transparent, and, above all, accessible to America's 40 million unbanked and under-banked who are denied services by the for-profit banking industry.
Carne is a frequent commentator on international affairs on the BBC, Al Jazeera, NPR, and publications including the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Nation, and The Huffington Post.
Carne Ross, welcome to the Carnegie Council.
CARNE ROSS: Thank you.
EDDIE MANDHRY: We would like to begin, if you could, by just telling us some of your thoughts around what ethics have to do with leadership. The Carnegie New Leaders program focuses on ethics and leadership—a lot of young professionals here care about having some kind of impact on the world that's positive.
CARNE ROSS: Thank you for having me.
I thought what I might try and describe is what actually happened to me as a British diplomat, because if I have anything to say about ethics, I suppose it comes from that experience.
I'm reminded of a former advisor to the British foreign secretary when I was speechwriter to the foreign secretary, who said, "There are no such things as morals. There is just what you do." And I thought about that. I thought about that when he and his foreign minister supported the war in Iraq. I think there is a certain truth to it, because I don't think, actually, having ethical precepts or talking about ethics or morals or rules actually means a great deal, except in terms of guiding one's own actions, because it is actions that make the world. One is responsible for one's actions. One is, in a sense, made, in an existential way, by one's actions.
I guess I learned this through a career of what I now look back on as an egregious moral failure, in many ways. If my story has any lessons, it is about what not to do rather than what to do. So I don't feel particularly qualified to be up here, kind of lecturing on the matter.
Anyway, I became a diplomat in 1989, which was an extraordinary year to become a diplomat, because it was the moment of the triumph of the West, of the idea of liberal democracy and free markets. A man who I think has spoken here at least at couple of times, Francis Fukuyama, suggested—it seems entirely erroneously—that we had reached the end of history. With that kind of suffusing sense of supremacy, I was sent out into the world, along with my colleagues, to kind of preach these mantras to the benighted parts of the world, particularly in Eastern Europe, that had not yet had the benefits of liberal democracy and free markets.
Indeed, as a diplomat working for a government, you are not particularly encouraged to be questioning or self-doubting about the message that your government is transmitting to the world. Indeed, such is the kind of overwhelming and invasive sense of belonging to the state that you start to talk about the state as if it was actually you. So instead of saying, "Britain wants XYZ," you say, "We want XYZ." If you're in negotiations at the United Nations, for instance, over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, you would say, "Britain wants to make sure that inspections are allowed without interruption in Iraq." The French diplomat would say, likewise, "France doesn't believe this," et cetera, et cetera. It is a protocol. It's a habit of diplomacy.
I, looking back on that experience, have begun to feel that this was a way of distancing oneself literally from the self. In the process of being inculcated into the culture of diplomacy —and this took place during my instruction as a young diplomat—one is somehow encouraged to divorce oneself from the individual state of feeling oneself to be a person with agency into becoming something else, which is a person who is the agent of the state.
Literally, as a diplomat, you are the embodiment of the state. And that separation, to me, is a fatal one. It is one that is intrinsic to the system of diplomacy. It is one that is intrinsic to the nature of the state. It's why, in fact, I'm an anarchist today, because I believe that the state is fundamentally amoral and separates the individual, and particularly the exponents of the state, from their moral consciences.
How I came to realize that is a long story, which I have told many times in my various books, particularly the one about diplomacy, which is called Independent Diplomat. I had a really wonderful and extraordinary diplomatic career. I worked on all kinds of interesting things. I served in Germany, Afghanistan after the invasion, Norway. I worked on the Middle East peace process, global climate negotiations.
Ultimately, what turned out to be my final posting was here at the United Nations in New York. I was posted to the UK mission to the United Nations and I was part of the British delegation to the UN Security Council. My responsibility was the Middle East, and in particular Iraq, and in particular the issue of weapons of mass destruction [WMD] and how we would ensure the verified removal of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and how we would impose sanctions upon Iraq to coerce it to fulfill its obligations to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction.
This, I had thought, was a kind of apex of my career—or, rather, a step up this ascending arc of my career that would inevitably end in an ambassadorship or being a senior official back in London. But, in fact, this experience turned out to be the nemesis of my career. At the time I didn't really realize it, but looking back, the signs were all there, including the emotional state that I often found myself in doing that kind of work.
The main part of my work was negotiating sanctions on Iraq. I don't know how much people now know about sanctions on Iraq. It tends to be overshadowed by debate over the war, and did they lie or did they not. But, in fact, in many ways, sanctions on Iraq were a far greater crime than the war that subsequently followed, because we imposed economic sanctions on Iraq which affected, above all, the civilian population of Iraq and not the leadership, not the government of Iraq, who were the presumed targets. The sanctions and the economic deprivation that followed sanctions caused considerable civilian suffering.
We like to blame this on the Saddam regime. We said that if they fulfilled their obligations to allow inspections of weapons of mass destruction sites, then, of course, there wouldn't need to be sanctions in the first place.
We also set up this thing called the Oil-for-Food Programme, whereby Iraq was permitted to sell limited amounts of oil in order to pay for what were called humanitarian goods which would then be imported into Iraq to look after the civilian population.
I was extremely skilled in arguing this case. If you had met me at the time, if you had met me 12 years ago, you would have been tremendously impressed by the fluency and persuasiveness with which I put these arguments. But the fact that I was fluent and persuasive, I'm afraid, blinded me to what was actually going on, which was that we were punishing the civilian population and there was extraordinary civilian suffering as a result of sanctions.
Now, when I look back on that time, I feel considerably ashamed of what I did, because I was an absolute intrinsic part of it. I negotiated the resolutions that imposed sanctions on Iraq, line by line. I was known as a Rottweiler in the Security Council because I was so ferocious in defending the British-American line in the Security Council. In those days the Security Council was divided between the Brits and the Americans, who demanded strict sanctions and strict weapons inspections as part of our policy of containing Iraq, and those who took a more—well, they wanted basically to let Iraq off the hook. This was France, the Russians, and others.
Partly because the relationship in the Security Council between us and them was so incredibly antagonistic, it gave us a sense of kind of moral superiority, that we were defending the world against Saddam Hussein, that without us holding the line, Saddam would be allowed to rearm and commit mayhem all over the world.
But because I was by then a "we," I had long before lost the ability to actually interrogate my own moral conscience. I was surrounded by people who felt that we were doing the right thing. If I had ever raised my hand and said, "Actually, is it possible that we're doing a terrible thing rather than the right thing?" I would have been instantly marked as a sort of troublemaker and the worst kind of appellation that one can get in diplomacy, which is to be emotional, that one has emotions rather than the cold-eyed calculus of realpolitik and diplomacy.
Of course, I was an ambitious young fellow and I wanted to be a senior diplomat, and to admit to having emotions, to having a moral conscience about the actions that I was perpetrating for my state was something that was basically inadmissible. It would have been a career killer. It was somehow just not done, in the sort of class-based way that British diplomats still govern each other. It was very clear that indulging in emotional self-examination and moral philosophizing was completely infra dig ("beneath one's dignity," socially unacceptable).
One could tell this because occasionally we would get telegrams from some ambassador in some country who would say, with some passion, "It's terrible that we're allowing Israel to remain in occupation in the Palestinian territories," or some statement of policy which was not exactly in line with what the government was actually doing. I was literally with ministers and senior officials when they would read these telegrams. They would say, "Ah, Sir So-and-so has clearly gone off the estate." And from that day forward, that person would be ignored and be regarded as a loose cannon.
This was the term that we used in the Foreign Office, "loose cannon." There was nothing worse than being a loose cannon. To suggest that sanctions on Iraq were morally objectionable was to be a loose cannon.
Instead, we regarded ourselves as soldiers in the trenches of diplomacy hurling words and phrases and missives at the other side. It was brutal diplomatic warfare in those days. Everybody behaved incredibly badly. We all bugged each other. We all lied to each other. We all screamed and shouted at each other and made each other weep. It was very, very hard pounding.
I did that for four-and-a-half years, until mid-2002, when my tour ended. I went to The New School, in fact, and took a sabbatical and spent a year reading in the NYU library. During that time, of course, the Iraq War took place. Extraordinarily, on the day that Baghdad fell, I found myself in an antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., wondering what the hell I was doing there. I was still a serving British diplomat. I was on sabbatical, but I was still a serving British diplomat. I wondered what would happen if my colleagues would see me.
Anyway, that took place. At the end of my sabbatical year, I was given the choice of returning to London and serving in the Foreign Office again or doing something else. I felt so troubled and so upset by what had happened in the Iraq War that I felt I didn't want to go back to London.
During that year, I had drafted several letters of resignation to my permanent under-secretary, which I'm afraid to say I didn't have the courage to send. I was in a terrible quandary about what to do with myself and what to do with my life. I felt like my identity was actually evaporating, which, in a sense, it was. I even grew a little beard, which I think was a kind of sign that somehow I was lost.
I took a secondment to Kosovo, where I worked for the United Nations, because I really didn't feel I could go back to London and work in the department again. I didn't know what I really felt. What I felt was very unarticulated. I went to Kosovo instead.
Whilst I was posted in Kosovo, I received a memo from the head of my foreign service saying all of those who had worked on Iraq were invited to testify to the first British official inquiry into the war, into the use of intelligence in the run-up to the war—a very narrow, specific thing. Blair had very deliberately designed it as a very narrow thing, because he didn't want a full public inquiry into the war.
I negotiated with the inquiry that had been set up that I would deliver my testimony in secret. I did this because I wanted to protect my career. At that point I didn't want to give everything up. I felt that I could have it both ways, which was a kind of clear indication of my moral ambivalence—in some ways, my cowardliness.
But I negotiated to give my evidence in secret, and I'm listed as one of the two anonymous witnesses to this inquiry, the so-called Butler Inquiry. I sent my testimony off to London. It was quite a long, detailed document explaining exactly how the British government had exaggerated the case for war, exactly how it had ignored available alternatives to war—this is a very neglected subject; there were very much available alternatives to military invasion—but also how the war was illegal in terms of the resolutions that I myself had negotiated.
I was deeply steeped in the resolutions on Iraq. I knew them almost word for word. I knew a hell of a lot about WMD. I could tell you the degradation products of VX nerve gas when it had been sitting in a desert for 10 years. I could tell you the names of the special weapons regiments that Saddam's army contained. I could tell you the officers in charge of those regiments.
So I knew my stuff. I sent off this testimony. When I sent it off—I remember very particularly the moment when I pressed the send button on my word processor in Kosovo, realizing that there was something irreversible about this act. A couple of days later, I sent my testimony to the head of my Foreign Service as my resignation and said, "I'm not coming back." He didn't reply. In fact, it was to my foreign secretary. And he didn't reply.
I quit and sort of jumped off a cliff. I had no idea what I was going to do next, and eventually set up this thing called Independent Diplomat, which is a diplomatic advisory service for marginalized countries and political groups around the world.
Anyway, my evidence came out in 2007. I had been threatened with prosecution by my government and told by my union that if I made my evidence public when I resigned, I would definitely be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, which is a very draconian piece of legislation. But eventually, in 2007, I, with an MP in Parliament, arranged this little ruse whereby the evidence would come out and I would be covered by parliamentary privilege, because it had been requested from me by a committee of Parliament who I was testifying to about something else.
The evidence came out, and it led to calls for a full public inquiry, because it was the first time somebody who had actually been involved in Iraq policymaking had testified that the government's case was exaggerated, to put it politely.
I draw a couple of —I hesitate to call them ethical lessons, because I'm really very wary of making claims about ethics, because I think they are such a personal thing. But I think there were three things I learned in the episode of what happened to me.
The first is the sanctions thing. I have spent a great deal of time trying to work out why I did what I did, why I was involved in something that I now regard as really a terrible thing. It was because I was surrounded by people who did the same thing. I'm afraid to say I am a sheep, a herd creature, just like the rest of us.
Of course, there's ample evidence showing that people commit terrible crimes, including genocide, people who are perfectly ordinary in other circumstances. I recommend to you a book by Christopher Browning called Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Batallion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, which is about a group of ordinary men in Germany—bakers, teachers, postmen—who join this police battalion and, between about 400 of them, they are responsible for about 100,000 deaths of Jews on the Eastern Front. It's an extraordinary book about how ordinary people do terrible things when put in the right circumstances.
I think that being in government has a kind of amoral permissibility about it, which is a terrible, terrible thing—that you are not held accountable for your actions in any real way. I have never been held accountable for what I did on sanctions. The only time I have been held accountable is by Iraqis I have met, some of whom have accused me of genocide of the civilian population. That was uncomfortable, but wasn't real accountability. We're not accountable to anybody.
Indeed, even in a very decent foreign service that claims to believe in international law and human rights, there is a belief that the state is permitted to do whatever it likes in pursuit of the security of the state. My state did lots of awful things, apart from sanctions. It did lots of good things, but it did lots of awful things as well. None of the people doing it, I sensed, had any moral qualms about it whatsoever. I certainly didn't when I was doing it, or if I did, I kept them to myself. If my colleagues did, they certainly kept them to themselves as well. Not only was there a kind of aura of moral permission, but also there was no discourse about the morality or the ethics of what we were doing. There was no discussion of it.
It's kind of ironic for me, because I wrote a speech for the first Labour foreign secretary that was about human rights. That was a speech I wrote for Robin Cook. It was called "An Ethical Foreign Policy," which was kind of ironic, given what was later to happen.
The other thing that I concluded from my experience is that this idea of the heroic whistleblower acting on their conscience I think is, in most cases, pretty mythical, and in fact is very problematic as a kind of archetype of how people behave.
Certainly in my case, it wasn't a heroic act of conscience at all, as my story makes clear. I didn't resign at the time of the war. I didn't resign until 2004. And I resigned not because I thought, "My God, I'm going to wave a flag for truth. Somebody has to do the right thing." I resigned because I just felt I couldn't go back to London and work with my colleagues. I just didn't respect my colleagues anymore. I didn't want to sit with Jack Straw, the then-foreign secretary, or, potentially, Tony Blair with a smile on my face and pretend that I respected them, because I didn't. In many ways, I hated them.
By that time, this terrible episode had happened with David Kelly, the British weapons scientist. I don't know how many of you are familiar with this story. I won't go into it, but it was a terrible, terrible story about a man who told the truth and was driven to his death by the Blair government.
I think that heroic narrative of the whistleblower is very problematic, not least because it's very discouraging to people who might think of doing it. It sets out this kind of moral example of the sort of unimpeachable truth teller which I think doesn't reflect the rather more colored and confused and compromised reality of what we all are like.
Had I had children, had I been 10 years older, I wouldn't have done it. There's absolutely no doubt. I would still be in the Foreign Office today, serving my time out in some scummy little embassy somewhere.
The third thing I concluded from it was that the only way you can save yourself from doing terrible things for government is having a very clear sense of your values and having a group of people who hold you to account for them. Subsequent to my career, there have been various people who have had an extraordinary moral influence on me and helped me to account for my actions. Finding those people in one's life I think is tremendously important, but also stating to them what the moral maxims are, what the ethical maxims are that you intend to live by.
I do remember, before I became a diplomat—I was always a very political person, quite a radical, progressive person—saying to my sister, "I will resign if they make me do something terrible." And by "something terrible," I meant shooting Jews on the Eastern Front.
Of course, moral choices are never so clear. They're not black and white. Doing sanctions on Iraq—it didn't feel like a moral choice. It just felt like something I did for my job. Only latterly was I able to evaluate it through any kind of moral prism.
I don't think this is very easy to do, to create this kind of accountability. It requires one to be rigorous with oneself, and one's friends and family to be rigorous with you, too. I'm afraid to say I certainly did not display that rigor at the time. It's easy for me to preach about it now, but that's only because I know what happened, and I hope there are one or two lessons from what happened to me.
Anyway, those would be the three things I would suggest that maybe we might want to discuss a bit more. Thank you for listening.
EDDIE MANDHRY: Thank you very much, Carne.
You raised some really interesting issues. I would like to kick off the discussion.
President Barack Obama came to power with a campaign that reached many people around this message of hope and change, bringing democracy to the people in a way that was unprecedented, in some regards, rallying people in the masses to believe in their ability to make a difference. Now that he has been in office and now has a second term, what are your thoughts in terms of that message that he had in his campaign strategy?
CARNE ROSS: It fits into my kind of global analysis that government isn't working. He's clearly a very well-intentioned fellow, an extremely able chap; the highest respect for him and all that. But it's not working. Inequality has gotten substantially worse since he became president. Climate change has gotten substantially worse. Economic volatility has gotten worse. The banks have not been reined in after 2008. The list goes on. Health care reform—whilst it has some benefits to the underinsured and the uninsured, its main beneficiary is the health care industry.
Obama is not able to fix the corrupted state of American politics, where both major parties are deeply corrupted. And I think everybody kind of senses this. Everybody intuitively is very fed up with politics. We all kind of hate politicians. We hate theirs more than we hate ours. But there is a deep sense of disillusionment about politics. And it's not just here; it's in the whole Western world, frankly. That is, in my view, because governments are not sorting out these fundamental problems that concern us very deeply, and we realize that their rhetoric to solve them is basically bromides.
Yet we haven't drawn the correct conclusion from that, which is, what is the alternative to that? If the politicians are failing, what should we do instead? My conclusion is that we have no choice but to act ourselves, individually. It may feel like a tiny, tiny thing, but lots of tiny things make up big change.
That's the sort of general thesis I came to. Forgive me for making a lecture from a very straightforward question.
EDDIE MANDHRY: That's all right. So that brings me to the question around the role of the individual and agency, and the ability to make a difference, the ability to come to that moment where you realize, "I need to be doing something to change the situation," that moment of insight. Not too many people arrive at that moment. It took you a process.
How do you see that manifesting in terms of addressing some of the most challenging issues we have around the world, whether it's terrorism, whether it's poverty, climate change— all these different, really big challenges that some people say require international institutions, require people to work cooperatively on a macro level?
CARNE ROSS: I wouldn't disagree with the notion that people need to work cooperatively on a macro level and perhaps need institutions to do that. It's difficult for me to kind of pontificate about a process that happened to me almost arbitrarily and randomly. I was ejected from the British Foreign Service by this terrible event of the Iraq War. But thanks to that ejection, I was able to rediscover my political soul, if I can put it like that.
I was a very political person as a child and as a student, and I thought that I would remain political through my diplomatic career. God knows I worked on political things, from Palestine to nuclear disarmament. But somehow along the way, I had lost that sense of agency, of myself, of what my real political beliefs were, and it took leaving the foreign service to rediscover those things, to rediscover what my passions were.
So I think if one is locked in an institution and a particular cultural way of doing things, it is very difficult to discover what one's passions really are.
For me, it required literally ripping up everything that had gone before, kind of jumping off a cliff into the void, not knowing where the hell I would land. I didn't choose that. It kind of happened to me. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me, by far. It was an incredible personal liberation. It was an incredible kind of existential moment of finding myself. It wasn't like that [snaps fingers]. It took years. Perhaps it isn't even finished. I suspect not, actually. I suspect it shouldn't be.
But without that, without finding that passion, whatever it is—for me, it was about some of the deficits of conventional diplomacy. It was also banking, as I'm now doing in Occupy. Whatever it is, you have to find it. Without that, it's just some kind of empty exercise. You will never have the energy that it's going to take to fix these things.
To take the Occupy Bank as an example, fixing banking is quite a big challenge. There's a small group of volunteers in Occupy trying to do that. It's kind an absurd thing, that this group of volunteers would try to fix banking. But, actually, when you sit down and talk about it with people who are concerned and you educate yourself about what is wrong with banking and you come up with a proposal of what might be done about it, what institution might be built that might be better than the current existing institutions, then at least you have one thing: You feel that you're actually doing something rather than merely wringing your hands and looking up at the sky in great despair.
I feel moments of great despair and overwhelming frustration, thinking, "God, what on earth difference can we make about all these awful problems?" I think that's a very natural reaction. But the thing is, if you actually do something and find something that you really, really care about and just do that one thing, then, at the very minimum, you have something that engages you; you feel you can accomplish something. And god knows, it might make a difference. The fact that you're doing it might influence others to do the same thing.
So I couldn't recommend it highly enough, even though it happened to me by chance.
EDDIE MANDHRY: A little bit connected to the Occupy movement, the idea that we live in a more globalized world, we're more interconnected—Facebook, social media, Twitter, the Arab Spring—revolution sweeps a whole region, starting off with just an incident, an important incident, that captivated the imagination of a lot of people. Do we run the risk of having a situation where people are just armchair activists, feeling like they need to do something, and at the click of button, they can feel, "I've done something. I sent five dollars to a certain campaign," or, "I signed this petition"?
When you talk about doing something individually, what exactly do you mean?
CARNE ROSS: I don't mean any of those things. I really don't. I'm very, very hostile to techno-utopianism. I don't think the Internet is intrinsically a good thing or a bad thing. I don't think it's democratizing the world. I don't think it's making it more transparent. I think, in many ways, it's a very malign thing, and it's the best surveillance tool that has ever been invented.
But above all, I think political action means action. Unless you're actually affecting the thing directly that concerns you, then you are not doing anything.
I have this choice little image in the book which is called "Kill the King." The whole point of chess is to kill the king. If you're not progressing towards killing the king, then you're not doing anything. You do need to be rigorous with yourself about how you measure your impact. If a celebrity is telling you, "Sign here and help bring an end to the Lord's Resistance Army," or whatever, it's just crap. It's real crap, and despicable crap. I think it's using up this very precious resource, which is people's concern and their political energy, and wasting it—wasting it.
When you do things and you sit with others physically, not on the Internet, and talk about the things that concern you, it's a very, very powerful experience, one that is far, far richer than signing a petition or donating money. From that richness, one finds energy; one is educated.
The idea that you can be educated about poverty or the failure of banking or indeed international diplomacy by just reading somebody's appeal to you to act is rubbish. It's complicated. Things are difficult. We all kind of know that. If you're not finding it difficult,what you're aiming to do, then you're probably not doing anything.
EDDIE MANDHRY: Are we moving to a place where states become irrelevant? Or do you feel that's what might actually help address some of the challenges?
CARNE ROSS: I certainly do. I think the state is a problem. I think it's an impediment to the necessary action. I think it has anesthetized us all. State leaders and state institutions tell us that they have these problems in hand, when in fact they don't. I used to write speeches telling people that we had climate change in hand, or international trade. I would write those speeches, even though I didn't have a clue whether it was actually true or not. I would still write those speeches and my foreign secretary would read them out.
In any case, regardless of my lecturing views, I think the state is in decline anyway. I think it's in inevitable decline. We can already see that in all sorts of ways. It's called globalization. States have less and less control over transboundary phenomena, whether it's economic phenomena, physical phenomena, like the state of the atmosphere, terrorism. The state as an individual entity is losing control.
International organizations, where states aggregate themselves, are not sufficient. I don't believe the United Nations is capable of producing global rules to manage some of the most fundamental problems, like climate change. I don't believe there will be an effective UN global climate change treaty. They have been talking about it for years. The latest is that they have agreed that they will agree in 2015 to a treaty that will be implemented in 2020. This doesn't seem to me to be sufficient for the scale of the problem.
But it is indicative of that broader failure. We have a kind of category error. The individual state, the national state, is confronted with globalized problems. That seems to me to speak of a fundamental mismatch. I think people are realizing that, and I think it is inevitable that the state will decline. I fear that one of the consequences of it is that people who run states will try to hold on to things ever tighter, try to control things ever more.
I think you're seeing this in the United States a bit. It's very sad. I love this country. I think the spirit of this country is extraordinary and unique. But I think what's happening in terms of surveillance of the individual and the curtailing of individual liberties, the coercive force of the way people are punished here, whether it's stop-and-frisk or the Rockefeller laws—it's pretty repressive in its ultimate effect.
I worry that states are going to do that more and more. They are going to try and control things. I think you see this all over the place. I'm afraid, if you look at all kinds of states, this is what they are doing. The trend is not necessarily towards liberalism, towards liberating the individual. It is the other way around.
They've got all kinds of reasons to do it and they persuade us that they should do it and it's necessary for them to do it. But, nevertheless, the net result is less liberty.
QUESTION: My name is Larry Bridwell.
I teach international business at Pace University, and in one of my courses I use the Parag Khanna book, How to Run the World [Editor's note: Check out Khanna's 2011 Carnegie talk on this book]. Most importantly, my students read that book and are optimistic about the future, because there's so much energy that young people can make things more positive. I think your remarks could be perhaps interpreted as kind of bleak about the future.
My question is, since you worked for the British government and you worked at the United Nations, there are people who believe we need some form of global governance. Specifically, I raise the issue that two individuals by the name of Bill and Melinda Gates now spend more money on world health than the entire World Health Organization of the United Nations. What are the implications, that this international organization called the United Nations is now, in effect, not directly but indirectly, being guided and managed by Bill and Melinda Gates, two individuals who happen to have more money to spend on world health than the United Nations? Is this positive for the future or negative?
CARNE ROSS: To take the first point first, Parag is a good friend of mine, but I don't share his kind of optimism about the world. It is possible it will go well, and I'm inspired and encouraged by the energy and intelligence of, particularly, people who are younger than me—the millennial generation, whatever you want to call them—an extraordinary, cosmopolitan, engaged generation. I love them.
But I do think we stand between dystopia and utopia. I think things are getting very bad in a number of ways. I think the world economy is in an extraordinarily febrile state, where international legislation is not able to modulate it effectively. But above all, climate change is an absolute kind of terrifying catastrophe. It's hard to be optimistic when one sees the total lack of effective action to address it.
This is why I appeal to people to act. I do have great faith in humanity. People think that I'm a terrible cynic—"Oh, you're so cynical about government," "you're so cynical about the way things are." Actually, I believe passionately that when you release people to follow their ideals and their political passions, then extraordinary change is possible. We can fix these things.
So I'm not a pessimistic. I'm not at all pessimistic about people. But I do believe, if we carry on with systems designed for a much earlier dispensation, a much earlier set of circumstances, we're going to end up in deep trouble.
As for your second point, I was talking about this in Independent Diplomat the other day. I'm very critical of the current state of international institutions and diplomatic institutions like the United Nations, because they are so untransparent and they are so unaccountable and they are not open to the people they affect. But for one system of untransparent decision-making to be replaced by another in the form of a billionaire philanthropist is not a good thing. I don't see it as progress at all.
It's wonderful that Bill and Melinda Gates have committed so much of their enormous fortune to improving health. I commend that completely. But there are a couple of really serious problems with it. Number one, it's arbitrary. If they decided to stop contraception, they could be devoting their resources to that and we wouldn't be able to stop them.
Number two, the concentration of so much power in the hands of so few is itself intrinsically wrong. We are seeing the acceleration of the astronomical fortunes of a tiny number of people. We are all beholden to them. We're supposed to regard their opinions as somehow kind of tossed down from the mountain on tablets of stone when they write their books or issue their banal opinions. They have lots of money. They got lucky. Maybe they were good at business. But it doesn't mean they should have extraordinary political power. And they do.
The Gates Foundation has affected health policies across Africa and elsewhere. It may be for the good. I'm not a health expert so I can't judge. I'm sure it's well-intentioned. But I find that intrinsically antidemocratic and troubling, for that reason.
QUESTION: We're all at the point where we are shaping our careers. You went from being kind of an internal person with an internal narrative that you mentioned—really getting to know how diplomacy works and functions—and then rejecting it and criticizing it from the outside, to now criticizing a system that you have not worked inside of, from the outside. I'm curious which you find more effective, as we all think about maybe being change agents—whether to spend some time inside, then move outside, and have that flexibility in our own careers.
CARNE ROSS: I don't really regard myself as outside of diplomacy. I'm inside it still, just working for different actors. It's a very different perspective working for Somaliland or Kosovo or the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara than being a British diplomat. In some ways, it's a much richer one, because I have a kind of panoptic view of diplomacy. I see it from the perspective of many. I have attended the UN Security Council in four different delegations. I'm not sure many people have done that.
But the inside/outside question is a really, really good question. It is one that I thought about a lot before I joined the Foreign Office. I get asked that question a lot by folks considering joining the State Department or whatever.
I'm afraid my answer is pretty stark, which is that the institution changed me, not the other way around. It divorced me from my conscience and from my true self and from my political beliefs—and, actually, from my happy self. I'm much, much happier now than I was then.
I thought I was a kind of iconoclast. I would occasionally write something that was a little bit provocative, but always within a certain limit. I got a reputation for that. The UK-U.S. bilaterals on Iraq were sometimes called trilaterals, because they were UK-U.S. and Carne Ross. I was very proud of being what I call a bit of an iconoclast in the diplomatic service.
But in truth, I think the institution uses people like me to pretend that it's in fact eclectic and open and democratic and encourages debate, when in fact it doesn't. It is a deeply top-down organization. I found in my work that we were sent out to collect evidence for the top-down view, not to look at the world and form our own views about it and discuss what might be done about it.
In that way, I think it fundamentally altered the way I thought about things. I became highly hierarchical in my thinking. I became very committed to a certain set of views. I became unable to think about alternative views. I was very, very aggressive. I was quite rigid. I'm still not exactly easy, and I have pretty firm views about things. But I'm exposed to so much more now.
So I'm afraid to say that my answer is—it's not so much that you are outside. I believe that reform from outside is basically impossible. Power doesn't reform itself. People who have power don't give it up lightly. In fact, they don't give it up at all unless you make them. But I believe in actually setting up alternative ways of doing things that are better.
So I don't believe in reforming the banking industry by whining to my congressman, because that won't work. I believe in setting up new kinds of banks which are popularly supported. And who knows? If you hear about this, if you hear about the Occupy Money Cooperative, as it's called, then we will have succeeded.
QUESTION: Do you think there's value—you talked about taking down the king—is there value in knowing your enemy, in a way, in knowing what the system is so you can alter it?
CARNE ROSS: A brilliant point. That's absolutely right. I couldn't do what I do today in diplomacy unless I had been a diplomat. In fact, Independent Diplomat only recruits people who have been diplomats. It's very much the gamekeeper/town poacher model.
That said, we are working within the system of diplomacy as it is currently constituted. I sometimes worry that in Independent Diplomat, we're actually reaffirming that system by acting within it and not going outside and actually setting up alternate forms of communication, state-to-state communication. State-to-state diplomacy is a highly ossified, formal, protocolar business.
We're not really changing that. We say it must be more open and the marginalized must get a voice. We are changing that, to a degree. But it's a bit like me being the iconoclast in the Foreign Office. In some ways, I rather worry that the mere existence of organizations like mine reaffirms the validity of the whole system, when in fact we should be talking about alternative systems.
That is my theory of change these days. I don't think you should reform systems that embed power imbalances. You should set up alternative systems and recruit people to those systems. That is, in any case, a lot more fun. Begging the powerful to change things a little bit—it's not fun. It makes you feel like crap and humiliated—"Oh, can I have a little bit of that, please? Oh, thank you." It's not empowering. It's not empowering at all. It's much, much better to say, "Screw that. There is actually a better way, and I'm going to set it up." It is so much more fun.
EDDIE MANDHRY: When it comes to leadership, there's the question of democracy and people being able to participate. Do you believe in a participatory democracy, where individuals who are kind of tied to their contemporaries or their peers or other people who have similar interests can actually have an impact? What are your views on democracy?
CARNE ROSS: I don't believe we have democracy right now. I believe the contemporary form of representative democracy is failing. We still want to believe it's true, but we're increasingly aware that it's not actually working. It's not delivering results. We think it's corrupted. We know it's corrupted. So it's failing.
There is a better kind of democracy available. It is not anarchy. Anarchism is not to be dismissed as a mere setting of the hounds of hell loose upon the population. There are alternative methods of decision making, particularly forms of participatory democracy, where the mass decide the affairs of the mass. That is a plausible system.
In fact, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, they have had 10 years of that system, 50,000 people in the city taking part in debates on how to spend the city budget. The World Bank did a study and found that the results were clearly more equitable in terms of the outcomes, in terms of provision of city services—education, health, sanitation, all the rest of it. It is actually possible.
In certain New York council districts, they are starting to do it. There are participatory processes to decide the discretionary budget that each council member is given, a couple million bucks per council district. They are inviting people who live in the district to decide how to spend it. What an extraordinary idea. At the moment, there are only five council members, which makes you wonder what the rest of them are doing with their discretionary money. I think we can all guess.
But it is actually plausible. To say that this is the best system we've got and these ridiculous clichés that are said about it—this awful Winston Churchill quote, "Democracy is the worst system except everything else," or something—it's this sort of awful, facetious complacency about a system that is so obviously failing.
How can anybody look at Washington and say that's a good political system? You only have to take any issue—any single issue—and look at what the outcomes are and how totally misaligned those are with the collective interests of the population—any issue, you name it. There you've got it. That is a system that is not working, that is not delivering the right results for the people.
What would be better? Actually having the people themselves decide what is best for them. Extraordinarily enough, they do tend to know.
The question I often get when I propose participatory democracy is, "People are so ignorant. How can they possibly know what's best for them?" The truth is, they do actually know what's best for them. In fact, telling them they don't is the best way to make them hostile to you. People actually have a very good grip on their own circumstances. When you give them the chance to take part in decision making, what people tend to do is educate themselves.
There's extraordinary social research, particularly by a guy called James Fishkin at Stanford University, which shows that when you give people real decisions in a group, they tend to respect each other more and party politics, partisan differences tend to disappear, because when you give people a real decision, they realize that it really, really matters.
Say all of us in this room have to decide the future of, I don't know, the Carnegie Council. Say the employees of the Carnegie Council get to decide that. When you actually sat down and talked about it, it would be a very serious matter. You would look each other in the eye and you would realize you've got interests at stake, too, and we have to find some way where we all walk out of the door reasonably satisfied. Otherwise, there's going to be trouble.
It's kind of intuitively obvious that that should be the case. Yet we don't do that in our traditional form of democracy. We elect other people to argue it out for us, and then we wonder why they can't agree.
EDDIE MANDHRY: Thank you very much for some very provocative, thought-provoking remarks. We really appreciate having you here today.
CARNE ROSS: Thanks for having me.
JENNIFER OTTERSON MOLLICK: I'm just going to echo Eddie's thanks here to both of you for a thought-provoking discussion.