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Thought Leader: Andrew Nathan

February 13, 2013

As part of the the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with China and human rights specialist Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and director of graduate studies in the political science department.

DEVIN STEWART: We usually begin these interviews with a description. We move from the description to prescribing policies and action.

When you look out at the world today, what do you see? What's unique, and specifically from a moral standpoint?

ANDREW NATHAN: We live in an era where the idea of human rights is a relatively new thing. It really came into its existence as a modern idea in 1948, with the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UNDHR]. Although the idea of the rights of man and natural rights and the sacredness of man and so forth, these ideas had been around for a long time, the notion of human rights as the rights of every human being that was owed to that human being by his or her own government and by international society and that was recognized by the sovereign states as obligations, that was a new idea in 1948.

The idea didn't really get going too much until the 1970s, for a number of historical reasons. Since the 1970s, this concept of human rights has been growing, has been changing, has been contested by different actors trying to interpret it in various ways.

Now I think at this moment in history we are at a time when the idea of human rights may survive and grow or it may fade out and have less vitality going forward. So I think it's a critical time for that concept.

DEVIN STEWART: Interesting. So what would determine whether it survives or fades?

ANDREW NATHAN: There are a lot of actors on the international scene who are in favor of growing the idea of human rights and making it more real, and there are a lot of actors who are in favor of weakening it and making it kind of pro forma. Some of those actors are governments or factions within governments.

Even within the United States, we have a big debate over, for example, torturewhat is torture; whether torture is sometimes permissible for other purposes.

We have a debate on the international scene about humanitarian interventionwhat it is; whether it is really just a smokescreen for strategic interests of certain countries; whether it's a violation of sovereignty to conduct intervention into sovereign affairs for humanitarian reasons.

We have a debate going on over freedom of speech and expression as that pertains to the Internet. The Internet is a new thing. It wasn't there in 1948 when the UDHR was adopted. It can carry good information and bad information. What's good and what's bad depends a bit on the view of the target as well. If it's being used to overthrow a government, that government may think of it as a bad thing. So there is an issue of what's the legitimate control of freedom of expression on the Internet.

There are debates about the right to life, the right to water, the right to a decent standard of health, and so forthwho owes these rights; how they can best be achieved.

So there are many issues out there, and it's not always the same "good guys versus bad guys" that are involved in these debates.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a sense of the direction for human rights in the future?

ANDREW NATHAN: Well, I worry that the challenges to it may weaken the human rights system. Fundamentally, the human rights system is a series of agreements among sovereign states, these various treaties and conventions, that are supervised to some extent by a number of institutions around the world, like the Human Rights Council, the International Criminal Court, the so-called treaty bodies that review the performance of states with respect to 10 of those main human rights treaties.

And then, the whole system is kind of pushed along by the human rights NGOs around the world, both the big elephants, like Human Rights Watch, as well as an unknown number, but probably tens of thousands, of little local human rights organizations that are concerned with specific issues in specific countries and that are scattered all over the surface of the globe. That system is kind of big and fractious and rather fragile, as I see it.

And working against the further institutionalization of the human rights system really are a lot of vested intereststhe vested interests of power holders in authoritarian regimes, and sometimes even in democratic regimes, that want not to be challenged; the interests of governments that are legitimately trying to protect their national security; the interests of men in all countries around the world who are reluctant to see the rights of women be expanded in certain directions; the interests of some religious groups who understand religious freedom differently from the way that the human rights framework understands religious freedom.

I think many people believe that the human rights system is very robust and it's established and that we can take it for granted. I worry that it is fragile and that it has powerful enemies and that it may give way to other ideologies.

DEVIN STEWART: A lot of this is about shifting the balance of power within the international system as well. There are more actors who have important things to say, and I think it is more and more recognized that a plurality of views should be represented at the table when making norms and institutions.

Do you see shared values across cultures; and, if so, what are those values?

ANDREW NATHAN: I think most of the core values in the international human rights framework have come to be shared across cultures as valuesnot always implemented, but shared as values.

Now, if you talk about cultures, sometimes it's kind of ambiguous whether you mean the big cultural blocs of the Judeo-Christian world, the Islamic world, the Buddhist world; or whether you mean national cultures like India, China; or whether you even mean subnational cultures.

But leaving that ambiguity unresolved, I think when it comes to, say, a value like torture, there isn't anybody whom I know of who advocates torture as a positive value in any culture, but there are certainly plenty of places where torture is actually practiced.

One way to square that is to say it wasn't torture. Another way to square it is to say it's torture but it's an exceptional circumstance. Slavery would be another example that nobody defends but that is actually very prevalent around the world, with different names attached to it, or people who just violate the norm against slavery saying, "I can get away with it and I'm going to do it." But usually people would say, "This is not slavery; it's voluntary."

Culturally, though, I think there are a couple of areas, maybe three areas, where there really is a lot of substantial disagreement.

One of them is about religious freedom. I think the Western idea of religious freedom, which is that, normatively at least, we respectespecially the American idea, which is distinctive even in the Westthat we respect every belief that presents itself to us as a religious belief. If somebody says, "My set of beliefs are a religious belief," we usually in the United States take that as granted. We don't say, "Is it a religion or is it a superstition or something like that?"they all deserve respect.

That view is not held, I would say, in the mainstream of the Islamic world. Of course, the Islamic world is extraordinarily diverse itself. But in recent years, I would say, a very powerful voice in the Islamic world is a voice that says, "There is only one God and there is one truth about that God." The other religious beliefs may be permitted to exist but are not to be respected as an equally dignified and honorable commitment on the part of the holders of that belief.

That same view is held by some communities in the Christian world and some communities in the Jewish worldnot the mainstream. But I would say that in the Islamic world the fundamentalist points of view are quite powerful in a number of countries and form the mainstream in a number of countries.

So religion is an area of real cultural or international disagreement.

I think the role of women is another area of very strong disagreement. That's connected to sexuality as well. But I think there are lots of cultures in which the idea of women being truly equal to men in their public role, in their social role, in their ability to express themselves sexually, and things like that, that that idea is not widely accepted. I think that's true probably in most of the world as a matter of fact, throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and many more traditional parts of Europe.

If you look the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is a very widely ratified UN Convention, and at some of the ways in which the treaty body, called the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, has interpreted the treatyif you look at the treaty itself and its interpretation by the treaty body, some of the stuff that they have said is stuff that I think is way ahead of global culture with respect to the rights of women to equal decision-making in sexual life, to the rights of women to abortion, the rights of women to equality in public life, things of this kind.

The third area where I think there is quite a bit of cultural disagreement really has to do with the zone of political freedom.

I think in the United States, because we have such a kind of meta-stable political system that survives when we have economic disasters, that survives when we lose wars overseas, that survives when we have domestic disordernobody in the United States is really advocating a different political system, a monarchy or a military rule or something. We can't think of another system. So the political system is quite stable. It means that when people advocate crazy political ideas and say crazy things, it doesn't matter that much. So we have a very broad scope of freedom of speech, freedom of association. Our First Amendment freedoms are bigger than they are probably in any other country.

But in a lot of countries that feel themselves to be more insecure, there is strong public support for more limitation on political freedoms than we have here. That would be a third area, I think, of cultural disagreement.

DEVIN STEWART: Despite these three areas of disagreement, is there a global ethic itself? Part of our project here with our Centennial Chair, Michael Ignatieff, is to explore this idea of a global ethic in a scholarly and robust way and analytically.

ANDREW NATHAN: Well, I think the closest thing I can see to a global ethic really is the international human rights framework because, for all of its ambiguity and debatability and fragility, it does exist.

The states have created it. That's what makes it so important. The states created the UDHR and they adopted it in the United Nations General Assembly. They created the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and they ratified them and acceded to them. They created the main human rights treaties, like the CEDAW and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the convention against genocide and against torture, and so on, and they created the International Criminal Court. So the states have created these things, and these are documents written in black and white that do instantiate the closest thing I think that we have to a global ethic.

At the end of the day, if you look on the website of the UN High Commission on Human Rights, there are about 100 documents that they list that constitute the international human rights framework. There they are, and the states have created them.

That makes them incredibly valuable for everybody who wants to promote a cause, because if you can show that your cause is covered, or should be covered, by this framework, then you are partway there. It means you don't have to create the advocacy case from the ground up.

So that's the closest thing I see now to an international ethic.

DEVIN STEWART: When you think about the challenges the world faces today, what would you say is the biggest ethical challenge? Is it these three disagreements, or is it more of a specific policy problem? What would you say is the biggest challenge?

ANDREW NATHAN: I don't know if I can pick one single biggest ethical challenge, because I think that global processes are full of ethical challenges. But I suppose that I see a lot of the practical policy problems that the world faces today have a distributional aspect.

We are the richest people here in the United States, and those of us living in this part of the United States's system; that is to say the American middle class, the American upper middle class, are the richest people in the world and the richest people in the history of the world.

Then, we face the disparate impact on the world's people of everything that is donewhether it's climate change, whether it's the way the world economic system worksthat you have people living in poverty with short life expectancies, with a heavy disease burden, suffering disproportionately from the impact of climate change.

So I think this whole question of the fairness of distribution is a big ethical problem that touches on many of the policy decisions that we have to participate in.

DEVIN STEWART: As you know, we're coming up to our Centennial next year. Andrew Carnegie is looking over us. We're thinking about the last 100 years. We are also thinking about the next 100 years. What would you like to see happen in the next 100 years? It's a long time span. The next few decades?

ANDREW NATHAN: I have young children, and I worry a bit about what's going to happen in their lifetimes. I guess right now, as we are right in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and Snowstorm Nemo and all these kinds of things, one of the things I would love to see solved in their lifetimes is the problem of global warming, of climate change, because I think we are going to be, even those of us in this very privileged sector of societyI mean where I live we're pretty safe; we're not being flooded, we're not being bashed by trees that are falling on our house, and the worst thing that we've been suffering is power outages. But I know that it is going to get worse and worse. I would like to see climate change arrested, if that's even possible at this point, and for technologies to be developed to deal with the more violent weather that we have been having.

I am a China specialist, as you know, and I would really like to see, and I am optimistic about seeing, the rise of China. I think the rise of China is a great thing. I'm very happy about it. I love to see more and more Chinese people living a good life, and I believe that that will be spreading in China and even more Chinese people will be living a good life. But I'd like to see, first of all, that to be accommodated without exacerbating climate change. This is a huge task for the Chinese, to reduce their emissions of these global-warming gases.

And I'd like to see China and the United States find a way to live together peacefully, for the United States to accommodate the rise of China, for China to come to trust the U.S. role in Asia. I think driving the United States out of Asia is not a good game plan. I don't think that would work. But I think if the United States is going to not leave Asia while China rises in Asia, then it definitely requires the two sides to come to an understanding, to respect each other's security needs, which in most cases I believe is possible, because I think the fundamental high level security interests of China and the United States are actually very compatible. So there I'm optimistic. I think it will be a process with some trouble along the way, but I'm quite optimistic about that.

I would love to see racism and tribalism in the world alleviated. But I understand, as a student of foreign affairs, that the American view that we have reachedonly after over 100 years of struggle with this problem of racismis, I think, a pretty good normative place. It doesn't always work itself out in social life, but I think the idea of the mutual respect of different ethnic groups and our concept that race is not a real thing, it's a constructed thing, that these are useful.

But, golly, those ideas are not familiar around most of the world and have people scratching their heads in other countries. So I think it will be a long time before all the different tribal and racial groups in the world can really get along, particularly because in many countries they actually are competing for survival with each other. It's not just prejudice; it's really about survival and resources. So I think it's a very, very tough problem.

DEVIN STEWART: How about moral leadership? What does leadership mean to you?

ANDREW NATHAN: There are times whenyou know, as a political scientist, I puzzle over the relative role of leadership and big social and historical forces in the unfolding of history.

In Tolstoy's great novel War and Peace, he has Napoleon saying, "It wasn't I who decided to invade Russia. The French people set out for Russia and I ran to follow behind them."

So it's a debate in history about leadership. But I think there are times at least when the situation allows a leader to get up and say, "We're not going to do things the way we have been doing them and we have to do something new." When the leader has enough credibility or the people are exhausted enough with doing the wrong thing that they have done, it can make a real difference.

The example that popped into my head, which I don't know how it's going to turn out, is the recent elections in Kenya, where in the last election they had the tribal groups battling one another and many, many deaths, and in this election, when the candidates were having a debate, they, the candidates, said, "We must not run this election on an ethnic basis and we must not have ethnic violence." That was a brave act. I hope it will have a good effect, but I don't know whether it will or not.

I think so often leaders are battling against the tide of objective circumstances, and they may fail to change the way that people think. So I'm skeptical about it. I think sometimes leadership is the answer, but I think in many cases it's the grind of history.

Another example I could give of how I think about these things is what has happened in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, say in a country like Egypt, where the old regime of Mubarak left in place such a mess and so much division among the population and hatred by the population for the police, that I don't think President Morsi can really stand up and make everything okay by giving a great speech or by working behind the scenes. I think that it will take probably dozens of years, if we're optimistic, for the Egyptian democratic system to stabilize and routinize itself and for the people to pull themselves together after the autocracy.

The same thing in Libya and the same thing in a country like Russia, where the establishment of democracy is extremely difficult. So often the old regime that goes out leaves structures in place and attitudes and divisions in its wake that take a long, long time to overcome.

DEVIN STEWART: As you know, Andrew Carnegie was a world peace advocate. Do you think world peace is possible?

ANDREW NATHAN: I guess that I think that major power war is avoidable. We've avoided it since World War II, which is quite a long time. But I don't think that world peace, in the sense of the absence of armed conflict, is realistically possible in any timeframe that I can foresee.

I think that the availability of weapons, the fact of real competition among states and among groups within statescivil wars have become more prevalent than international wars, civil wars in various forms, various forms of armed uprising and armed resistance in inter-ethnic clashes. I don't see those things going away in the foreseeable future.

DEVIN STEWART: Why not?

ANDREW NATHAN: Because I think there are often real conflicts over resources and situations in which a win/win solution really can't be envisaged, doesn't really exist, where somebody is going to lose. People then demonize the other side and feel that their back is against the wall, and they naturally have recourse to armed conflict.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned that you'd like to see climate change addressed in your children's lifetimes. Who is ultimately accountable for these big problems like climate change? How do you think about accountability?

ANDREW NATHAN: This is a real puzzle. I think, not only for climate change but for many other problems in the world, there is a pretty direct connection between me and the problem, between each of us and the problem. When I pursue my normal lifestyle, keep my house warm, drive a car, eat meat, wear clothing, wear shoes, and stuff like that, I am involved in climate change, I am involved in labor conditions in China and in Bangladesh and so on.

So one of the big cutting edge things in the human rights movement and in the climate change movement has really been the consumer movement in those areas, to try to get the consumer to bring pressure on the supply chain, to demand better labor conditions in factories or to demand more energy-efficient ways of protecting our lifestyle.

But when you think about would I want to just give up my lifestyle in order to go into the wilderness and live in the cold and stop contributing to climate change, I really don't want to do that because it would be uncomfortable.

I am looking for a social solution. I am looking for the political system to create a solution in which everyone will participate. Otherwise, my individual participation is not going to really make a difference. But then one tends to feel rather helpless about that. I voted for the party that I thought would attack this problem of climate change. But once I voted for that party, it's hard to know what else I can do.

Personally, because of my age I guess, I got started as a responsible citizen really in the 1970s, after I finished my graduate work. Human rights was the thing that was happening then, rather than climate change. You know, in the 1970s climate change didn't exist; never heard of it. So I guess I feel that insofar as I can do anything to help the problems that the world faces, I have a bit of a comparative advantage in doing human rights. Everything is connected. Human rights is also connected to climate change as well, but it's rather indirect.

So I put my effort into human rights. I am involved in a number of organizations and so on. In my academic work I teach a course on it and try to think about it. I think that's my own ethical solution to the problem. Human rights is a thing that goes from the world system that we talked about before and the groups that try to push that world system down to individual peopleasylum applicants in the United States and others whom one tries to help.

I think my bottom line answer to your question is each of us can do a little bit, and we have to pick a piece where we feel an interest and think we have a comparative advantage and try to work on that piece.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much, Andy. A perfect answer. Really appreciate it.

ANDREW NATHAN: Okay. You're welcome. Good.