As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with former British diplomat Carne Ross, founder and executive director of Independent Diplomat, a diplomatic advisory group.
DEVIN STEWART: What do you find is morally distinct about the age we live in today?
CARNE ROSS: I'm not sure that I see any real moral distinction about this age, that it's necessarily any different from earlier ages. Obviously, it's different in its nature, the nature of the world and human interaction is different, but I don't think, per se, that produces any moral difference.
DEVIN STEWART: How is it different just on its own?
CARNE ROSS: Globalization, in a word. But disaggregated; this incredible interconnectedness of humanity now through electronic means but also through better transport; the sheer number of people; the fact of a kind of awareness of global issues that was not the case even 10, 20 years ago. So it's an extraordinary new economic and political reality we have, physical reality—climate change, too.
DEVIN STEWART: What are the consequences?
CARNE ROSS: Of that interconnectedness? Well, I think it makes it harder and harder for individual nation-states' governments to manage the world, to arbitrate its problems. I think it, therefore, demands a new kind of politics to address political change, to address the problems that have arisen from globalization, which are in some cases very severe. It is pretty clear to me that the current models of governments cooperating internationally to address these problems is not sufficient.
DEVIN STEWART: This is obviously in your book [The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century]. How would you describe the new mode that's necessary?
CARNE ROSS: Well, it starts with the individual collaborating with others peacefully. Consulting those affected is a very inclusive process. But it's self-organized, it's self-generated. It's not looking to others, particularly to government, to solve the problem. It's realizing that the current mechanisms are not going to be sufficient because the nature of the problem is fundamentally different. The only way directly to alter the circumstance, to change the political problem, is to act upon it yourself, to address it directly yourself, learn about it, work with others, address it.
That mechanism of change has the possibility of creating extraordinary and rapid change across the system, which is a much more interconnected system. So the new nature of the world suggests a new kind of politics.
DEVIN STEWART: When you look at those new kinds of politics, would you say the world is getting worse or better?
CARNE ROSS: I think it's both. The empirical evidence of where the world is is very mixed. In some cases, people are getting considerably better off. People are being delivered from poverty in large numbers—in China for instance, also India.
But other indices are very much more worrying. Internally, within societies, most societies are becoming more unequal in wealth distribution. Climate change, I think, is a very severe problem that we have not yet come up with anything like an adequate solution to.
At the same time, there are new forms of political organization emerging, which are a function of a globalized age—al-Qaeda I regard as that; global criminal networks. And also, more positive, more benign political forces, mass movements that transcend borders. So it's a bit of both.
DEVIN STEWART: Going back to the inadequacy of global governance, is there a way that you would suggest to address that problem?
CARNE ROSS: I don't think reforming the system, reforming government or reforming the international system, is sufficient or necessarily particularly plausible. I think governments and international institutions have an innate resistance against reform of the kind that we really need to make them much more inclusive. I think that's the fundamental issue. These bodies want to preserve their supreme power, their legitimacy, as having power over others. So I think they are fundamentally difficult to reform.
Therefore, I think the change actually has to come from elsewhere, above all from us. I think we have to realize that these institutions are not sufficient and that we've got to act ourselves in new ways. I think that there is a lot yet to be discovered. I think it is an extraordinary opportunity for new forms of collaboration, new forms of action. I don't think we should be led necessarily by the political models of the 20th century or earlier.
DEVIN STEWART: What kind of emerging trends do you think about? We've talked about global consciousness as an idea. But do you agree with that? You've mentioned globalization and connectedness. Are there other trends that you think about that are sort of around the corner?
CARNE ROSS: I think there are some significant trends.
I think the idea of the supremacy of the Western model of representative democracy and capitalism is now under question. I personally think that model is in crisis.
There are a number of different factors behind that crisis. Financial volatility, of course, manifested most recently in the financial crash of 2008. But also the environmental degradation that we are experiencing, which is very severe and potentially disastrous for the planet. We are now at 400 parts per million of carbon, where scientists judged that the safe level was 350 parts per million, after which we may risk runaway global warming. That is a disastrous situation which we are now risking. So volatility, climate change.
And I think the fundamental promise of capitalism, of a better life for everybody, of progress towards something better, is really questioned now, because it is not true anymore. In developed Western societies, median incomes are static; median wealth is in many cases actually falling. So the idea of progress for everyone is a bit of a chimera. It's not really happening. I think that is leading people to question the model and say, "Maybe there are better ways of skinning this cat."
DEVIN STEWART: Going to a bit of a different area, have you thought about moral leadership? If so, what does that mean to you?
CARNE ROSS: Well, for me it's all about action. I think we live in an age of considerable and correct skepticism of rhetoric. There's so much of it about. You can find an opinion to suit every taste. The sort of rhetorical age of delivering political promise through speeches has been transcended by something else, which is about authenticity, that people need to feel a message is authentic if they are to give it any credibility at all.
And of course, the most authentic thing is what you actually do. I don't find it particularly authentic to see billionaire rock stars talking about poverty. I don't think many people find it very authentic or credible. What matters is actions to address that, people actually sacrificing their time, their energy, to address a problem directly.
That is, of course, borne out in social research and behavioral research, which shows that actually the thing that influences people most of all is what the person next to them is doing—not expert opinion, not government legislation, but actually the actions of those around us. What you end up with, therefore, is a politics of action, which has the potential to influence people through the connectedness of the world far away.
DEVIN STEWART: Just to clarify, when you say action, it's not activism per se.
CARNE ROSS: No, not at all. On the contrary, I don't really believe in activism.
I do believe in political activism in the sense of being politically aware and acting upon one's politics. But for me it is action, it is the doing of things, the construction of alternative systems, that matters most of all.
I don't think campaigning—or indeed voting—is that adequate any more. I don't think these trends are going to be altered by any particular politician. I think the politicians themselves know that. Indeed, I have met politicians who know that, even if they win office, they are not going to be able to affect these fundamental trends significantly. They themselves feel impotent.
So referring to those politicians, referring to government to change things, campaigning for government to change things, campaigning for others to do things, I don't think is effective. I think, as I've said, that your own example, your own actions, is the most plausible means of change, it's the most convincing form of change to persuade others.
But it's also direct. It's about directly addressing the problem. It's much more satisfying. It's a fully realized political act.
DEVIN STEWART: You know the term entropy.
CARNE ROSS: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: Political entropy in the West is an idea that it would preclude the ability of policymakers and politicians to act. Do you believe that the systems in the West are making it more difficult for people in power to take action?
CARNE ROSS: I think political systems are calcifying. I think they are becoming poisoned by special interests, and I think that poisoning will only get worse as wealth imbalances worsen. Power is about who's got money and who's got guns. If that power imbalance increases, then the susceptibility of representative democratic systems to co-option—or, rather, corruption—is ever greater. So I don't think that problem is solvable.
I also think that the fact that governments are not solving these kinds of problems is getting through to people. That is why you see the rise of protest parties. You see massive disillusionment with partisan politics. Voter turnout is lower than it has ever been.
People are not stupid. They see that government is not really addressing the problems that most concern then. The trouble is, they don't have an alternate political model in front of them.
I don't think "entropy" is quite the right word. I think we face entropy in the world, a kind of new disorder that in fact does have a kind of order. But it is not the order we are used to, or a government-dominated chessboard-like system.
But what we face in contemporary political representative systems is just failure. They are just not able to do it because they are the wrong kind of beast to solve the kind of problems we now confront. There's like a category error between them.
DEVIN STEWART: Part of our project for the Centennial is to illuminate this idea of a global ethic, which is kind of philosophical. Does that resonate with you at all; and, if so, what does it mean?
CARNE ROSS: I'm afraid it doesn't, because I don't really believe in morals or ethics. I believe what matters is what you do. People can talk the hind legs off a donkey about morals, and I have learned to be very skeptical of that kind of talk.
I worked for a government that claimed to believe in international law, a kind of moral version of the world, and yet was quite happy to break that law when it suited it. So I don't really believe in things like political morals.
I think it is very difficult to suggest universal moral rules that should be applied in all circumstances. You apply that categoric imperative to any kind of moral prognostication, it actually breaks it down. You know, there are no global moral rules that survive that test.
I think if there were one, though—and it is not really a moral rule; it's about a rule of how we conduct ourselves—it is an obligation of cosmopolitanism, the idea that we have to take the views and the positions of other people seriously. That seems to me an absolute obligation in a world society which is extremely heterogeneous yet all squashed together. We are all connected. We have no choice but to deal with each other. We can't deal with our problems in isolation. We can't just pursue our own projects. We have to consult. Therefore, a kind of duty of cosmopolitanism seems to me not only moral but also deeply pragmatic.
DEVIN STEWART: Where do you see future conflicts emanating?
CARNE ROSS: I see conflict within societies because I think society is in many ways turning against itself. The rage and resentment—I think we are seeing more evidence of it—and social behavior on the buses, on subways. There is a kind of decline in public behavior. There is a decline in public discourse. There is a decline in aesthetics, the sorts of things that we regard as culture.
This is not to be kind of conservative with a small "c," but simply to observe that things are getting uglier and they are becoming uglier between us. So that internal conflict within society is one form.
But another form is, I think, the more traditional kind of state-to-state conflict, conflicts within states, militarized conflicts within states. There I see two particular problems:
One is a very old-fashioned kind of approach to state-based realism (supposedly), in the classical sense of what foreign policy realism means, that the state must pursue its interests and arbitrate its interests for other states.
You see what is happening in the South China Sea. The emergent kind of paradigm of China and the United States set against each other in that region seems to me rather troubling, that we are setting up a mental framework for ourselves that will endure for a generation, which is basically an oppositional framework. It's one of colliding interests that need to be backed up by military force where necessary.
I think it is very, very unfortunate that both governments are playing into that kind of model. I don't think it is necessary. I think it is damaging to everybody. It is going to be extremely wasteful, not least in military resources.
But the other, more serious emerging conflict, I think, is enabled by new technology. It rather flies in the face of those who believe that technology is intrinsically a good thing, a politically liberating thing, like the Internet liberated Egypt.
These things are cyber-warfare and also remote warfare, drone warfare. In both cases, cyber-warfare and drone warfare, we seem to have got ourselves into a situation of perpetual conflict. It seems to have been decided by the authorities—we weren't consulted, of course—that cyber-warfare can be waged at all times, including in ostensibly peaceful times.
Cyber-attacks have been more or less admitted by the United States. They have more or less admitted that they have been using these against Iran. The United States, as far as I'm aware, is not at war with Iran. Iran hasn't even done anything, except potentially be on course for developing a nuclear weapon—potentially. As a result of that, the United States is waging a kind of form of covert warfare against it, which I find extraordinary and a very worrying precedent.
The same thing with drone warfare, remote-controlled attacks in countries with which the United States is certainly not in conflict, and where people are being designated as enemies, or potential enemies, in a very non-legal, arbitrary process, and then being assassinated. Again, that is a very dangerous precedent to set for the world. The United States is the first country to do it, but I very much doubt that it will be the last.
DEVIN STEWART: We also like to ask what is the biggest ethical question facing the world. You've granted us that you are concerned about cosmopolitanism as a type of ethic and taking other people's views into account, which might be called pluralism or something to that effect.
CARNE ROSS: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: If you want to entertain our question, would it be about pluralism and cosmopolitanism? Or is it something else?
CARNE ROSS: I've made my point about pluralism and cosmopolitanism, in a sense. It's also kind of banal. It's so obvious it doesn't really take us very far.
Personally, I think that the biggest challenge we are facing now is the crisis in capitalism and representative democracy. These are two sides of the same coin, of course. Economics is politics and vice versa.
We have an economic model that is not working. It is producing success in only a very narrowly defined way, of economic growth. That growth has not been fairly distributed. It is causing great damage to the planet. It is not working in a broader sense of what matters to us as humans.
We have not yet figured out what should replace it. We need a much, much richer discussion of what the alternatives are.
I believe also that the alternative to representative democracy, more horizontal participatory democracy, seems to me to be necessary now because the power imbalance between those with and those without within societies is now so great that I don't think representative democracy can promise to represent everybody's interests fairly.
I don't think that is happening now. I don't think we actually have something that can be accurately described as democracy. It's a kind of simulacrum facsimile of democracy that nobody really believes in but we pretend that we do.
DEVIN STEWART: These are really great themes, Carne.
How do we respond to these and how do we prioritize them? Some people want to say we should do everything, all of the above.
CARNE ROSS: I don't think we as a group can prioritize them. I think they are all important.
I do think, however, as an individual you have to locate what you care about. I think we have been acculturated into a view that our political actions are not very important, that what matters is what others do—what governments do, what the UN does, blah, blah, blah.
But actually, it is our own actions that are the most important. We are the most powerful agents of change. Therefore, we have to choose what to do. Locating your political convictions, your concerns, your passions, about what is wrong with the world—maybe what's right—is terribly, terribly important. That to me is the priority.
I have a basic faith in humanity, that collectively that sum of individual choices will be good ones. I know there are bad people out there. I know there are people who will make immoral, amoral, bad choices, harmful choices. But, in sum, I think the very large majority of people will choose good things.
If you say to that group, if you say to individuals, "You are empowered, give yourselves permission to act and change things," then actually extraordinary possibilities are available.
DEVIN STEWART: What would you recommend to organizations and businesses?
CARNE ROSS: The same thing really. Adopt a "politics of the everything," that everything you do is political, literally everything, because doing something that may not seem political is in fact, and therefore not doing something, that is political.
So you are actually making a political choice. To go to an art gallery you are making a political choice not to go and feed starving people a couple of blocks away. That is a political choice in my view. I don't think any of us are free of the obligation to choose politically.
The same thing for companies, organizations. Be conscious that everything you do has political consequences, and make sure that you have thought through what those consequences are and that they are in line with what your political beliefs truly are.
And again, I trust that if people actually did behave in accordance with their political beliefs that the outcomes ultimately would be good in aggregate. I can't promise you that, I don't know, I can't guarantee it, but my guess is that it would be.
DEVIN STEWART: If we don't respond in the way you've described, what are the consequences? What's at stake? What should we expect?
CARNE ROSS: I think a lot is at stake. Actually, we are at an incredible kind of turning point for humanity. I think we have a very dystopian future possible. We also have something much better possible. It's not beyond the wit of man, man's ingenuity and creativity, to create something that is rather wonderful.
But it is not like what we have today. It is not a nation-state-based system of representative democracy and capitalism in its current form. It will have to be different from that.
We've got to think that through. It is not going to happen of its own accord. It is not going to happen because of the dialectic of history. It is going to happen because we choose something better.
If we don't, if we let others make those choices, if we let the market dominate, then we are in real trouble.
DEVIN STEWART: Can you describe that better future?
CARNE ROSS: Only in the most general terms, because one of the beauties of it is it is actually to be determined. When people follow their political convictions, that future is yet to be written. I can't predict what it is. I actually don't know what a world would look like where people followed their political convictions—actually, not just their political convictions, but their fullest sense of what it is to be human.
I think we have been pummeled down into this little box that the economists call the utility-maximizing consumer. This is a pathetically narrow and arid version of what humans actually are and want.
I am saying let's permit ourselves to give ourselves full expression of what we are, whatever that is. Negotiate it with each other. We have an obligation to treat each other nonviolently, to consult each other.
But apart from that, I can't tell what that would produce in its total sum. I think it would be rather marvelous, a society very different from today, that would be sustainable, that would be more equitable, that would in my view be more cohesive than society today, because we would be negotiating directly with each other rather than just referring to some distant authority to sort our essential business out.
DEVIN STEWART: So if we are not utility maximizers or profit maximizers, which I think most people could agree with, what does it mean to be human?
CARNE ROSS: Anything. Everything. It doesn't need to be defined. It should not be defined. It is for us to define through our own actions. I am an existentialist in that view.
Actually, at the heart of this form of anarchist theory, which is what this is, is a belief that true self-determination, self-realization of the self, can only be fulfilled without authority. I am not saying just be utterly selfish and individualist, because I don't think we are that. I think we are actually more naturally collaborative and compassionate for each other.
The things that most concern us have nothing to do with money. They are about compassion. They are about finding meaning. They are about relationships with other people. You don't find people on their deathbeds talking about money as the thing that they most care about, the things they most regret. It is never about that.
And yet, we have a society that is built on that notion, that that is the most important thing. We've gone terribly wrong somewhere along the line and we need to get back on the right course.
DEVIN STEWART: A lot of people would agree with that. That's a great comment, Carne.
Andrew Carnegie, as you know—
CARNE ROSS: A somewhat ambiguous figure in all of this. We remember the Homestead Strike.
DEVIN STEWART: We have two more questions, Carne. We can do other things if you want, too. You can have a conversation with the portrait [of Andrew Carnegie]. Is that distracting by the way?
CARNE ROSS: Well, I did notice him earlier. I was thinking about him. I was actually thinking: Look at that old bugger. He looks down on us. He's actually dead. There's nothing more of him.
DEVIN STEWART: His 28 institutions and 2,600 libraries are something.
CARNE ROSS: Apart from that. [Laughter]
DEVIN STEWART: Andrew Carnegie's vision was of world peace. Despite his flaws—we all have flaws as human beings—he had a vision for world peace and education. Is world peace possible?
CARNE ROSS: I have absolutely no idea. That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep working for it. We will never know the answer to that question, I don't think. I rather doubt that we will arrive at a situation of perpetual peace.
And by the way, I don't think Kant was right in arguing for perpetual peace, his idea of a neatly interlocking model of democracies collaborating with each other. That is not working. I don't think it is going to work.
I think, actually, we need a much more fundamental review of how we organize our society at a microcosmic level as well as the national and the international. I think we've actually got to abandon a lot of the familiar old presumptions that we relied upon in the 20th century. Our world is fundamentally different today.
DEVIN STEWART: Finally, who is accountable for the problems you have described?
CARNE ROSS: All of us. We should be all accountable to each other. That to me is a system that might actually work.
The trouble is, we have a system now where those who should be accountable are not really accountable, i.e., governments. They are not genuinely accountable. Nobody has paid a price for conducting an illegal war on the basis of a lie, which was the Iraq War, which I was involved in. There has been no real accountability. People don't really believe in accountability anymore of governors, of the elite.
But, equally, we regard ourselves as we don't need to be accountable because we're not doing anything, we are not in charge of anything. But in fact we should be accountable. We are accountable for what we do.
Carnegie is much more accountable for what his employees did in the Homestead Strike, what Frick did. That's one of Carnegie's major moral lessons to the world, is what he actually did in his factories, rather than what he says today about world peace.
That to me is the accountability to each other that I am talking about. You are accountable for your actions. People need to develop a culture of accountability, of holding each other up to certain standards. In some ways you might call that a moral culture.
DEVIN STEWART: That was fantastic, Carne.
Do you have anything to add?
CARNE ROSS: No.
DEVIN STEWART: A lot to think about. A lot of really important themes coming out of these interviews—the double-edged sword of technology, the erosion of discourse, and treating people with respect. That was Victor Cha's main point actually, who was a Bush administration official. I don't know how you feel about that.
CARNE ROSS: Well again, it matters what they did more than what they say about it. I don't care if they're talking about issues like respect. What matters is they lied to the people and launched a war that didn't need to be fought. That's their moral record. I couldn't care less what they say.