As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Coll. Mr. Coll is president of New America Foundation and a staff writer at The New Yorker.
DEVIN STEWART: I'm here with Steve Coll, head of the New America Foundation.
Steve, thank you very much for coming.
STEVE COLL: My pleasure.
DEVIN STEWART: We're doing these irresponsibly big questions, crazy questions, as you might have seen. The first question is, what is distinct about the age we live in?
STEVE COLL: The connectivity, the pace at which computer power and telecommunications are changing the way information flows, the speed at which it flows, the amount of information that's available, and its effect on public life.
DEVIN STEWART: And what are the implications?
STEVE COLL: Volatility, I think, is one implication. You pull a lot of people together into a single network and you feed them with a great deal of information and you speed up the way that they can communicate with one another. You create volatility.
Another implication is that you create a dilemma of common community out of diverse elements that is new to many of the participants.
DEVIN STEWART: Is this a moral question?
STEVE COLL: It has moral implications, because we are moral animals and this is the new public sphere in which moral dilemmas will be addressed.
DEVIN STEWART: Are things getting better or worse, in your eyes, in the world?
STEVE COLL: Better. More people are living longer and enjoying better health and enjoying the prosperity that has come with industrialization for some. There are still too many people left behind, however.
DEVIN STEWART: Looking at the big trends facing the planet, which one do you think about most?
STEVE COLL: Poverty and inequality, the gap between those who have benefited from globalization and industrialization, and those who have not.
DEVIN STEWART: What does moral leadership mean to you?
STEVE COLL: The construction of a common vision of our shared public spaces and our shared planet. Leaders of institutions have an obligation to think beyond their institutions about the whole that we share.
DEVIN STEWART: One of the things that we're trying to do in this project is to examine a global ethic. Do you believe there is one? If so, what is it?
STEVE COLL: I do believe there is a global ethic. It has to do with the dignity of individuals, the right to security and liberty, both. I do believe that the human condition in its social setting is universal enough to give rise to global rights and global ethics.
DEVIN STEWART: What is the greatest ethical challenge of our time?
STEVE COLL: Equality of opportunity, addressing the widening gap between the 4.5 billion people on the planet who have a reasonable degree of opportunity and the billion, billion-and-a-half who still live in unacceptable conditions.
DEVIN STEWART: Is there a way we should prioritize our policies or our actions, or are all things important?
STEVE COLL: I think we need to prioritize the kinds of policies that arise from new dilemmas, and which are therefore neglected and underdeveloped, particularly policies that address the very connectivity and volatility that we have identified as a new feature of the public square.
DEVIN STEWART: Does this create an actual dilemma for policymakers?
STEVE COLL: Yes, because many of the problems of the new age are global and many of the systems that produce policy are national. Reconciling that has been a struggle since the Second World War and remains so.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you have any suggestions on how policymakers could go about resolving that dilemma?
STEVE COLL: I think we've learned that states are not adequate to resolve it and that we will require populations and nongovernmental organizations to bring us forward to some kind of sustainable vision of shared space and shared public spaces.
DEVIN STEWART: And if we don't respond, what should we expect in the future?
STEVE COLL: Division, war, misunderstanding, and setbacks, and also the persistence of large numbers of people who live hard and die early, unnecessarily.
DEVIN STEWART: Are there any scenarios that you foresee in the immediate future or the longer-term future? People are reluctant to make predictions, but are there scenarios that you think about?
STEVE COLL: Well, I think it's safe to predict, barring some cataclysmic disruption like nuclear exchange, that many, many hundreds of millions of people previously excluded from the opportunities of middle-class security are going to enjoy them over the next 20 or 30 years, and that this is a rising generation, which is both new in its geographic characteristics and new in the sense that it represents young people coming of age in an era of information that has little precedent. That change will define the public space that we all share on this planet over the next 30 or 40 years.
DEVIN STEWART: Is this the big policy that's being ignored that you talked about earlier?
STEVE COLL: I think what's required is to think more deeply and more accurately about the consequences of these rapid structural changes, particularly interconnectivity and the speed and the amount of data that is available across borders. Network scientists will tell you that when you create a network with the characteristics that resemble modern globalization, you get extraordinary volatility. It's built into the physics of the network.
So you might think of the financial crisis and some of the other dislocations, including the Arab Spring, as almost inevitable expressions of these network characteristics. What does that mean for governance or for the way we understand our shared commons?
DEVIN STEWART: Are there structural roadblocks to addressing these problems?
STEVE COLL: States and institutions. The UN is the best experiment that has been attempted by states to negotiate across borders and with an eye on common global issues, but it's also a roadblock today to successful global governance.
DEVIN STEWART: How so?
STEVE COLL: It's ineffective and it no longer reflects the distribution of power in the world.
DEVIN STEWART: So we need a more inclusive UN or a different organization?
STEVE COLL: In a perfect world, the UN would reform itself to take account of updated realities, and in doing so, would better approximate the distribution of expectations and authority that the world actually possesses.
DEVIN STEWART: Last question: Who is ultimately accountable for these problems?
STEVE COLL: We all are. I don't think the problems that are arising are the problems of a single state or a single leader. They're the problems of the evolution of the global community.
DEVIN STEWART: Mr. Coll, thank you very much for the interview. It was fantastic.
STEVE COLL: Thanks for having me.