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Thought Leader: Lawrence Freedman

September 30, 2013

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies and vice-principal, strategy & development at King's College London.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much for coming today, Professor.

Please tell me how you see the world today. What is unique in a moral fashion? What is ethically unique in the world today?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: I think what's distinctive about the modern world is that people are much more aware of alternative views of morality. They may oppose them, they may find them puzzling, but they are aware that there's more than one way to view the world, that their own moralities can't be just accepted as being God-given and certain. Obviously some people do see the world still in those terms, but there's much more pluralism about moral discourse.

Secondly, I think this is a world in which, at least since 1945 and arguably before that, there is a sense of what damage we can do to our own world. Obviously, with nuclear weapons, mass destruction is a matter of, always, potential political choice. Governments could decide to unleash nuclear weapons.

Equally, there's also the growing sense of the effects of human decisions, multiple human decisions maybe, on the environment. So again we transform the world in which we live in ways that are often quite difficult to understand and control, but are nonetheless tangible.

DEVIN STEWART: You've named three things: pluralism, a sense of growing consciousness of our destructive capacity, and the growing impact of human action on the planet. What are the implications of these three things?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: I think the challenge that it poses is to political leadership and the role of politics, if you understand politics as being about how choices are made within societies, how different entities negotiate and deal with each other. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that all of this makes politics even more important. It also makes politics even more difficult. Because you can't speak with absolute moral clarity and certainty, you can't be sure that you can show a way that will solve definitively these problems. Politics becomes much more of a frustrating activity, because you're having to explain the importance of compromise and negotiation. Those whom you have to mobilize to get you into political office are going to be very disappointed by the actual pragmatic necessities of office.

To me, politics is essential, but I don't think there has been a time in democratic societies when politicians have struggled so much to get public support and respect.

DEVIN STEWART: One of our projects for our Centennial is the idea of looking at a global ethic. Is there such a thing, in your mind, as a global ethic?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: There are values that those of us from Western liberal societies hold dear and believe should be universal. But they're not. And that produces the challenges. If they were universal, then things would be a lot easier.

I think part of the political challenge, especially at a time when the Western world is not as important as it was in setting the terms for debate about global issues, is how we cope, asserting our own values in a world in which there are very many different values in play.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the greatest ethical challenge facing the planet? Is it that or is it something else?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: To me, ethical challenges are normally because good things are in tension with each other—or bad things sometimes are in tension with each other—and you have to choose. The point about politics and ethics is always one of choice. If morality were easy and showed a clear way forward, then we wouldn't have so many problems. But often you're posing one morality against another. You see terrible things happening in one part of the world and you feel you ought to intervene, but the intervention itself causes other problems. That's why it's difficult.

So I don't think there's a single ethical issue that dominates all. I think what you need are ways of interspersing ethics with political analysis.

I would go back to a famous lecture by Max Weber, German sociologist, in the chaotic aftermath of the First World War in Germany, where he spoke of an ethic of responsibility and an ethic of absolute ends. He appreciated the importance of people thinking about absolute ends, but he urged them always to think about consequences, the ethic of responsibility, and tried to point out how people, believing that they were acting on the highest ethical concerns, on the highest ethical principles, nonetheless could lead to bad things happening.

Whatever you do in acting in a complex and difficult world, I think it does behoove us all to think about consequences. That is an ethic in itself. It isn't just being pragmatic and even cynical. It's an important ethic.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking to the next 100 years—we're about to turn 100, next year—what would you like to see happen in the future?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Oh, growth, prosperity, happiness.

In human affairs, it's fascinating. It goes through twists and turns and cycles. It's very unpredictable. Therefore, to say what one would like to happen—you can be pretty sure something very different will happen.

What I think is the challenge is that we have seen in many countries a real movement that takes people out of poverty and produces economic growth, which gives people standards of living that previous generations didn't have. But it comes at a cost. I think the real challenge is to find ways of developing productive, satisfying societies that don't produce the environmental problems and don't have a lot of the stresses and strains that we face now. I think that's very difficult, but that's the challenge.

The second part, which is closer, I suppose, to the things I've always worked on, is trying to work out the meaning of the so-called responsibility to protect. How are we going to manage an awareness of awful things going on, which we may have some means of doing something about, when that challenges many of the principles of, in a sense, good neighborliness and non-interference in internal affairs and so on? We have struggled with this for the last couple of decades, when there has been some sort of expectation that there ought to be more intervention. At the moment, I think the pendulum is swinging away from that. But I don't think the issue will ever go away.

What I think is the case is that, again in a world in which the Atlantic countries, the countries most associated with the United States, aren't as powerful as they were in the past, where there are many others around—how can you do that more collectively? How can others get involved in this?

At the moment, it's striking that the so-called BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, China] countries don't see that they have a role in this. Indeed they are very opposed to this sort of interference, for reasons that it's not hard to understand.

But if that's the way we go, then are we just going to have to get used to some regimes doing terrible things or some apparently small-scale conflicts causing terrific hardship, as is happening in Syria at the moment, and the rest of us just watching on, feeling a bit helpless? I think that's going to be one of the most challenging questions—never mind for the next 100 years, but certainly for the next 10 or 20.

DEVIN STEWART: Your book on strategy—a lot of people at your event brought up the question of leadership. How do you view moral leadership?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: I think all leadership has to have a moral element. I think by and large people like to think that they are doing the right thing, as well as the prudent thing or the thing that supports interests. Any student of war knows that it's very rare for a leader to say we're doing this just to survive or just to protect ourselves. They always want to link it to a higher cause. That may be a cynical ploy, but that's what they like to do.

So I think the ability to integrate moral considerations with other considerations, and to be honest about moral dilemmas—I think one of the things that I find frustrating in a lot of political discourse is that there's always a desire to demonstrate that the course of action that you're proposing is not problematic, that all the good things will flow from your course of action, whereas all the bad things will flow from the others, whereas in practice it's rarely like that. If one course of action is followed, it may be the right one, but there will be penalties. Politicians seem to me to find it very difficult to talk in those terms. I think good leaders make people aware of the costs of a course of action, the difficulties of a course of action, rather than just oversell the benefits.

A friend of mine, Richard Ullman, remarked some time ago that there's no problem that can't be solved rhetorically. You see this very often: In a speech, apparently contradictory things will be pulled together and shown how they are both possible. And that, in the end—it may be a good device, but it's dishonest.

DEVIN STEWART: Here's a big one: Is world peace possible?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: No. What do we mean by world peace? If we mean a lack of interstate war, we're doing better on that than we have done before. But there will be violence. Not that it's a constant level of violence. You can follow Steven Pinker and say that there's less violence around, though I think that's in fits and starts. [Editor's note: Check out Steven Pinker's Carnegie Council debate with Robert Kaplan, "Is the World Becoming More Peaceful?"] We have seen how apparently civilized or organized countries can fall apart quite quickly.

I believe that some places, some parts of the world, there will be violence. It may not be totally catastrophic in terms of the survival of the species and the planet, but it may nonetheless be pretty catastrophic for those involved.

You can make progress. You can have better means of containing it, resolving it, picking up the pieces afterwards, and so on. But I don't think we'll ever be in a situation where you have tranquility and nonviolence. It may not involve states that much—

DEVIN STEWART: Why is that? Is it human nature?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Because of scarcity. I'm not a believer, actually, in the argument that people fight because they like to or because it's part of human nature. There are aggressive and psychopathic types and so on, but I don't think that's the problem.

I think conflict arises because of scarcity: There isn't enough food; there isn't enough space. There are conflicts of values. It's hard to imagine a world without scarcity or without conflicts of values, in which case there's likely to be something to fight about. Even if it's gangs in big cities, there will still be fighting of some sort going on about things that matter to those people, and it can become habit-forming and institutionalized.

I don't think it's a question of human nature. I think it's just a question of the structure of human affairs.

DEVIN STEWART: Final question: How do you think about accountability? Who is accountable for the problems you talked about today?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Accountability is an interesting question. In democratic societies, people, in the end, hopefully are accountable to electorates. I think in practice accountability could be much more diffuse, when people, leaders, are aware of how they're viewed and how their actions are seen. Some obviously aren't bothered by this at all, but quite a lot are.

So I think accountability is a formal constitutional thing in some respects, but I think it's also more social in other respects. By and large, most people, certainly in Western societies, would like to be thought of as having done the right thing. And they are quite conscious of the fact that this is not a generally held view.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Professor.