As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Victor Cha, D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and director of the Asian Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is also senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
DEVIN STEWART: How do you describe the world we live in? How is it distinct from previous ages and particularly in a moral sense?
VICTOR CHA: Well, I think that it's difficult to disconnect questions of morality these days from technology in the sense that, the rate at which information travels and the rate at which people can communicate now is so instantaneous. And I think the moral implication of that is that in one sense it's good, but in another sense it almost removes responsibility or accountability for ideas or for people taking care in what they say or write or enact.
So to me that's what distinct about the the age we live in now. I think that there's less responsibility and accountability for what people say and do.
DEVIN STEWART: So in other words, because of the uniqueness of technology and morality being linked, it's having an unintended consequence.
VICTOR CHA: Yes. Just look at blog sites, look at 24-hour cable news. It gets to the point where technology creates all this open space that needs to be filled. And if you leave space to be filled, people fill it by saying things that don't make a whole lot of sense and so there's less accountability in today's day and age and less care is put into what is said publicly.
DEVIN STEWART: What would be a consequence of that problem?
VICTOR CHA: For one it creates a lot of dissonance and divisiveness in today's world and moves, pushes the boundaries of traditional ideas like compromise and listening to others and this sort of stuff.
DEVIN STEWART: So it makes compromise less likely or less possible?
VICTOR CHA: I think it makes it harder because the debates and the environment becomes so contested. It's sort of like a snowball effect because technology creates all this space for people to say things. People fill that space and they're incentivized to be as provocative as possible to get the most attention. And that then contributes to an atmosphere of divisiveness. And that makes compromise very difficult.
DEVIN STEWART: Interesting. Now do you see things in the world getting better or worse?
VICTOR CHA: I see them getting worse in the sense that whether it's a tone here in Capital Hill, in Washington, or whether it's on the blogosphere in China, it's just becoming more and more dismissive and there is no regulation of what is said and what is allowed to flow through the airways or through the Internet as a result of technology. And so I actually see this as getting worse.
DEVIN STEWART: Are there other trends that you think about?
VICTOR CHA: You mean from a moral and ethical perspective?
DEVIN STEWART: Particularly, yes. But if not, are there others that you generally think about or plan to write about?
VICTOR CHA: I'm always concerned about the spread of technology. Weapons technology, obviously, is something that's quite concerning to someone like me who looks at national security views. But from a more ethical perspective, this may not be the most important moral issue but it's the one that bothers me the most.
DEVIN STEWART: The divisiveness.
VICTOR CHA: Yes, because of technology. And the problem is it's not really easy to solve the problem because it's not sort of in our DNA in the United States to try to regulate that, right? It's just not. It may be in other places like in China, but not here in the United States. It's not within our sort of legal framework or our constitutional DNA to try and regulate stuff like that.
DEVIN STEWART: How do you define moral leadership?
VICTOR CHA: That's a good question. It's a hard one to answer. I would define it as sort of exercising moral leadership on the global stage and that would mean two things to me:
One would be standing up for those who can't stand up for themselves, whether that's in the context of universal human rights, or development in labor policies, and afflicted, exploited portions of the population; children for example.
And then the other way I would define moral leadership is in terms of contributing to the public goods of the international system, whether the issue is climate change or freedom of navigation, exercising leadership. I would consider it to be moral leadership as well, the willingness to contribute to those public goods and not simply free ride or enjoy them without contributing to them.
DEVIN STEWART: Now that sounds like a comment directed at countries rather than people. Are you making that distinction?
VICTOR CHA: No, I think it's the case for both. I mean, for both people and countries. And I think in today's day and age these issues are not necessarily only in sovereign space with nation states. But it's something that individuals, NGOs, transnational movements all have become involved in.
DEVIN STEWART: Part of our project is to articulate a notion of a global ethic. Does that concept resonate with you and how would you define such a concept as a global ethic?
VICTOR CHA: I don't know. I'm just not well-versed in it. I would not define it that differently from what I think constitutes moral leadership. I think a global ethic would be consonant with these—I just pick these two because, I mean, you can come up with a list. But I think that if you had to pick two of these that are most important in terms of societies around the world, standing up for those who can't stand up for themselves and contributing to the public goods—those are things that are important to the entire international system.
DEVIN STEWART: And where do you see future conflicts emanating?
VICTOR CHA: Well, I think some of them derive from the lack of public goods provision. You can easily see conflicts emanating from environmental issues in a way that we may not have seen in the past: water for example.So that's one area.
And then the other is of course future conflicts, many of them can be internal. And I think there still are places in this world where their greater threat is from internal conflicts rather than from external.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you want to elaborate on some concrete examples?
VICTOR CHA: Well for example I don't see the next major future conflict emanating from U.S./China competition. I don't see great power rivalry being where the next conflict comes from. But they could come from things like scarce water resources, disputes over [inaudible] resources, things of that nature.
And then internally, conflicts can result in societies that are very unstable. Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea, these are just a few of the types of societies where it is not at all clear whether there has been an internal consensus reached on how the society should be governed. And those sorts of conflicts can create all sorts of headaches for others all around the region in their immediate vicinity.
DEVIN STEWART: Now in terms of the greatest ethical challenge facing the planet, is it the one you've articulated earlier or is there something more global that concerns you?
VICTOR CHA: I think it's the things I articulated earlier. And even here this question of responsibilities and accountability, in one sense at the macro level, there's an increasing tendency for whatever is defined as the public good, whether it's climate change or free trade or freedom of navigation.
There are fewer and fewer countries that are providing for that. In fact, the United States is probably the only one that really does provide for these things anymore and the next rising power in the system, China, does not provide for these sorts of things.
So at the macro level that's an accountability problem and a responsibility problem. And then at the micro level, as I started out with, increasingly individuals are less and less accountable and responsible. And so the combination of those two is not a good outcome.
DEVIN STEWART: Interesting. How should countries or the international community, if there is such a thing, prioritize adjusting these problems?
VICTOR CHA: Well first it requires recognizing it. Recognizing that it's a problem and it's not clear that people recognize it. I think within the United States there's not really an appreciation of the role that the United States plays in providing these public goods.
And outside the United States, I think that there's an assumption that the United States will continue to provide for these public goods. And that, too, is not a good combination. So the first, I think, is to recognize it both inside the United States and outside of it.
And then the next is one of the biggest challenges that the international system faces or the globe faces and that's how to shape rising powers. In this case, China, take on more of that role and more of that responsibility and accountability.
DEVIN STEWART: If we don't respond effectively what kind of future should we expect?
VICTOR CHA: I think it will become a future that becomes much more in sort of a vulgar realist tradition. Countries will become highly myopic and self-help motivated and will just be watching out for themselves and not thinking about a more enlightened, longer term good. I think we're kind of headed down that path right now.
DEVIN STEWART: But nevertheless, earlier you said that great power conflict was not your primary concern. Will it become more of your concern if—
VICTOR CHA: No, because I don't think it will result in great power conflict. I think what will happen is that you'll have countries like China that won't play that role. And the United States for whatever reason, or capacities, just won't be able to continue in that role. And then everyone will suffer because of that.
It won't necessarily result in conflict but will result basically in market failure, basically a breakdown of the international system. And then countries will start to simply look out for themselves and then we'll have to define a new order out of that mess and no one knows what that would look like.
But it doesn't necessarily mean there would be conflict. It's sort of interstate big power conflict.
DEVIN STEWART: So it basically means cooperation is less likely.
VICTOR CHA: Yes, cooperation breaks down. The cooperative system that was created after World War II starts to breaks down and in all sorts of different ways: on trade, capital flows and not just those sorts of things, but things like who cares for these people that no one—who cares for the child laborers that nobody else cares for, these sorts of things.
DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned earlier that it's not in our DNA to regulate the discourse, and I think that makes a lot of sense. How would you describe a path toward a brighter future? Would it be a systemic solution? Would it be lots of small solutions? Would it be something bigger, something smaller?
VICTOR CHA: I don't think it's going to come from the private sector. I think it's going to come from the public sector. There may be individuals that recognize it but it's really going to come from leadership that recognizes such a problem and then seeks to find a solution to it.
And I think it's going to require leadership from some of the major players in the international system. I don't think it will come from a group like the UN or other such international organizations or institutions. It would have to come from one of the major players in the system.
And it may not be recognized as the problem as I described it. It may be something else that does it. So for example, it may not be that all of a sudden leaders in the United States and China recognize this problem of an unregulated Internet and the moral lack of responsibility and accountability.
Maybe it starts with a conversation on cyber security and then that leads to questions about how to monitor—and not regulate but secure what is on the Internet. It may not come through the ways we expect it to come. But I think it would have to come from some of the major players in the international system.
DEVIN STEWART: Given the problems you've talked about, do you have advice for specific organizations, like companies or nonprofits, universities, individuals?
VICTOR CHA: I can speak best for universities. I think the responsibility of educating a future generation in viewing international relations and global ethics should be from this more holistic approach rather than from simply a sovereignty-based approach.
And to recognize problems as having many dimensions and not simply one dimension, not simply a security dimension or an economic dimension but also going back to some of the basics about questions of ethics and international relations, ethics in the way we think about interests and responsibility in the international system.
At least in the U.S., we don't teach that anymore. And that's a very important part of it.
DEVIN STEWART: I think you just sort of stated our mission, which is to bring ethics into international relations in the U.S. and elsewhere. So I'm glad to hear that.
Do you find the roadblocks to reaching the world's potential, are they structural in nature? Or are they a different type of roadblock?
VICTOR CHA: They're not structural. In many ways the obstacles to solving the problems that I've talked about are at the same time what is virtuous about, at least in our case, the United States; the notion that we keep pushing the bounds of technology and we seek technological innovation. There's lots of good that comes out of that, obviously.
It was literally still within the lifetime of one generation that international communication was really simply the purview of government because it was too expensive for individuals to do. And yet today individuals can organize transnationally, you know, instantaneously and at absolute minimal cost. So there's clearly lots of benefits that come from all this technology and technological innovation.
The aggregation of this has created some of these negative externalities. The answer would be to try to somehow regulate it but we just can't do that. I mean, we just won't do that.
And so in that sense, I think the obstacle to a possible solution for the problem in many ways is one of the reason why we are who we are. And so I think that makes it difficult. It's a dilemma in that sense.
DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. As you know, one of Andrew Carengie's greatest visions was of world peace. Do you think world peace is possible?
VICTOR CHA: Sure, of course it is. And in many ways the fact that we haven't had a system-wide war since 1945 is a sign that world peace is possible.
But it's not something we can take for granted. It's something we constantly have to work at both as individuals and as governments because we've had periods of peace in the past where people thought that it was sustainable infinitely and it clearly wasn't.
So yes, I think we can have world peace. And I think we have it in a sense today, in spite of the fact that there are wars that are taking place. We don't have the sort of system-wide war we had in previous centuries. But it's something that we should consider precious and not take for granted and constantly work to maintain.
DEVIN STEWART: And the follow-up question, I think you've actually answered it earlier but in case you want to reiterate. Who is ultimately accountable for the problems you've identified?
VICTOR CHA: Well, I think we all are. I think we're all accountable for it. Certainly at one level it is sovereign governments and they are responsible for it. But at another level, it's every individual in terms of how they think about and value world peace and being ethically conscious and being morally responsible.
DEVIN STEWART: Dr. Cha, that was fantastic. I really appreciate it.
VICTOR CHA: These are big thoughts. They're giving me a headache.
DEVIN STEWART: Well, I hope you can maybe have a cup of tea or something to rest!