Gordon Brown: Global ethic vs. national interest
July 22, 2009
Can the interests of an individual nation be reconciled with humanity's greater good? Can a patriotic, nationally elected politician really give people in other countries equal consideration? Following his TEDTalk calling for a global ethic, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown fields questions from TED Curator Chris Anderson.Gordon Brown
- British Prime Minister
Britain's former prime minister Gordon Brown played a key role in shaping the G20 nations' response to the world's financial crisis, and was a powerful advocate for a coordinated global response to problems such as climate change, poverty and social justice. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Chris Anderson: Thank you so much, Prime Minister,
that was both fascinating and quite inspiring.
So, you're calling for a global ethic.
Would you describe that as global citizenship?
Is that an idea that you believe in, and how would you define that?
Gordon Brown: I think it is about global citizenship. It's about recognizing
our responsibilities to others.
There is so much to do over the next few years
that is obvious to so many of us
to build a better world.
And there is so much shared sense
of what we need to do,
that it is vital that we all come together.
But we don't necessarily have the means to do so.
So there are challenges to be met.
I believe the concept of global citizenship
will simply grow out of people talking to each other across continents.
But then, of course, the task is to create the institutions
that make that global society work.
But I don't think we should underestimate the extent to which
massive changes in technology
make possible the linking up of people across the world.
CA: But people get excited about this idea of global citizenship,
but then they get confused a bit again
when they start thinking about patriotism,
and how to combine these two.
I mean, you're elected as Prime Minister
with a brief to bat for Britain.
How do you reconcile the two things?
GB: Well, of course national identity remains important.
But it's not at the expense of people accepting their global responsibilities.
And I think one of the problems of a recession
is that people become more protectionist,
they look in on themselves,
they try to protect their own nation,
perhaps at the expense of other nations.
When you actually look at the motor of the world economy,
it cannot move forward unless
there is trade between the different countries.
And any nation that would become protectionist over the next few years
would deprive itself of the chance of getting the benefits
of growth in the world economy.
So, you've got to have a healthy sense of patriotism;
that's absolutely important.
But you've got to realize that this world has changed fundamentally,
and the problems that we have cannot be solved
by one nation and one nation alone.
CA: Well, indeed. But what do you do
when the two come into conflict and you're forced to make a decision
that either is in Britain's interest,
or the interest of Britons,
or citizens elsewhere in the world?
GB: Well I think we can persuade people
that what is necessary for Britain's long-term interests,
what is necessary for America's long-term interests,
is proper engagement with the rest of the world,
and taking the action that is necessary.
There is a great story, again, told about Richard Nixon.
1958, Ghana becomes independent,
so it is just over 50 years ago.
Richard Nixon goes to represent the United States government
at the celebrations for independence in Ghana.
And it's one of his first outings as Vice President to an African country.
He doesn't quite know what to do, so he starts going around the crowd
and starts talking to people in the crowd
and he says to people in this rather unique way,
"How does it feel to be free?"
And he's going around, "How does it feel to be free?"
"How does it feel to be free?"
And then someone says, "How should I know? I come from Alabama."
And that was the 1950s.
Now, what is remarkable
is that civil rights in America were achieved in the 1960s.
But what is equally remarkable
is socioeconomic rights in Africa
have not moved forward very fast
even since the age of colonialism.
And yet, America and Africa
have got a common interest.
And we have got to realize that if we don't link up
with those people who are sensible voices and democratic voices in Africa,
to work together for common causes,
then the danger of Al Qaeda and related groups
making progress in Africa is very big.
So, I would say that what seems sometimes
to be altruism, in relation to Africa,
or in relation to developing countries,
is more than that. It is enlightened self-interest
for us to work with other countries.
And I would say that national interest
and, if you like, what is the global interest
to tackle poverty and climate change
do, in the long run, come together.
And whatever the short-run price for taking action on climate change
or taking action on security, or taking action to provide opportunities
for people for education,
these are prices that are worth paying
so that you build a stronger global society
where people feel able to feel comfortable with each other
and are able to communicate with each other in such a way
that you can actually build stronger links between different countries.
CA: We're in Oxford, which is the home
of philosophical thought experiments.
And so here is one that kind of goes --
I still just want to draw out on this issue.
So, you're on vacation at a nice beach,
and word comes through that there's been a massive earthquake
and that there is a tsunami advancing on the beach.
One end of the beach there is a house
containing a family of five Nigerians.
And at the other end of the beach
there is a single Brit.
You have time to --
you have time to alert one house. What do you do?
GB: Modern communications.
I do agree that my responsibility
is first of all to make sure that people in our country are safe.
And I wouldn't like anything that is said today to suggest
that I am diminishing the importance of the responsibility
that each individual leader has for their own country.
But I'm trying to suggest that there is a huge opportunity
open to us that was never open to us before.
But the power to communicate across borders
allows us to organize the world in a different way.
And I think, look at the tsunami, it's a classic example.
Where was the early warning systems?
You know? Where was the world acting together
to deal with the problems that they knew arose
from the potential for earthquakes,
as well as the potential for climate change?
And when the world starts to work together,
with better early warning systems,
then you can deal with some of these problems in a far better way.
I just think we're not seeing, at the moment,
the huge opportunities open to us
by the ability of people to cooperate
in a world where either there was isolationism before
or there was limited alliances based on convenience
which never actually took you to deal with some of the central problems.
CA: But I think this is the frustration that perhaps
a lot people have, like people in the audience here,
where we love the kind of language that you're talking about.
It is inspiring. A lot of us believe
that that has to be the world's future.
And yet, when the situation changes,
you suddenly hear politicians talking as if,
you know, for example, the life of one American soldier
is worth countless numbers of Iraqi civilians.
When the pedal hits the metal,
the idealism can get moved away.
I'm just wondering how --
whether you can see that changing over time,
whether you see in Britain
that there are changing attitudes, and that people are actually
more supportive of the kind of global ethic that you talk about.
GB: I think every religion, every faith,
and I'm not just talking here to people of faith or religion --
it has this global ethic at the center
of its credo.
And whether it's Jewish or whether it's Muslim
or whether it's Hindu, or whether it's Sikh,
the same global ethic is at the heart
of each of these religions.
So, I think you're dealing with something
that people instinctively
see as part of that moral sense.
So you're building on something that is not pure self-interest.
You're building on people's ideas and values --
that perhaps they're candles that
burn very dimly on certain occasions.
But it is a set of values that cannot, in my view, be extinguished.
Then the question is,
how do you make that change happen?
How do you persuade people
that it is in their interest
to build strong ... After the Second World War,
we built institutions, the United Nations,
the IMF, the World Bank,
the World Trade Organization, the Marshall Plan.
There was a period in which people talked about an act of creation,
because these institutions were so new.
But they are now out of date. They don't deal with the problems.
As I said, you can't deal with the environmental problem
through existing institutions.
You can't deal with the security problem in the way that you need to.
You can't deal with the economic and financial problem.
So we have got to rebuild our global institutions,
build them in a way that is suitable to the challenges of this time.
And I believe that if you look at the biggest challenge we face,
it is to persuade people to have the confidence
that we can build a truly global society
with the institutions that are founded on these rules.
So, I come back to my initial point.
Sometimes you think things are impossible.
Nobody would have said 50 years ago
that apartheid would have gone in 1990,
or that the Berlin wall would have fallen
at the turn of the '80s and '90s,
or that polio could be eradicated, or that perhaps 60 years ago
nobody would have said that a man could have gone to the moon.
All these things have happened.
By tackling the impossible, you make the impossible possible.
CA: And we have had a speaker who said that very thing,
and swallowed a sword right after that, which was quite dramatic.
GB: Followed my sword will swallow.
CA: But, surely a true global ethic
is for someone to say,
"I believe the life of every human on the planet
is worth the same, equal consideration,
regardless of nationality and religion."
And you have politicians who have --
you're elected. In a way, you can't say that.
Even if, as a human being, you believe that,
you can't say that. You're elected for Britain's interests.
GB: We have a responsibility to protect.
I mean look, 1918, the Treaty of Versailles,
and all the treaties before that, the Treaty of Westphalia and everything else,
were about protecting the sovereign right of individual countries
to do what they want.
Since then, the world has moved forward,
partly as a result of what happened with the Holocaust,
and people's concern about the rights of individuals
within territories where they need protection,
partly because of what we saw in Rwanda,
partly because of what we saw in Bosnia.
The idea of the responsibility to protect
all individuals who are in situations
where they are at humanitarian risk
is now being established as a principle which governs the world.
So, while I can't automatically say
that Britain will rush to the aid
of any citizen of any country, in danger,
I can say that Britain is in a position
where we're working with other countries
so that this idea that you have a responsibility
to protect people who are victims of either genocide
or humanitarian attack,
is something that is accepted by the whole world.
Now, in the end, that can only be achieved
if your international institutions work well enough
to be able to do so.
And that comes back to what the future role of the United Nations,
and what it can do, actually is.
But, the responsibility to protect
is a new idea that is, in a sense,
taken over from the idea of
self-determination as the principle governing the international community.
CA: Can you picture, in our lifetimes,
a politician ever going out on a platform
of the kind of full-form global ethic, global citizenship?
And basically saying that "I believe that all people across the planet
have equal consideration, and if in power
we will act in that way.
And we believe that the people of this country
are also now global citizens and will support that ethic ..."
GB: Is that not what we're doing
in the debate about climate change?
We're saying that you cannot solve the problem of climate change in one country;
you've got to involve all countries.
You're saying that you must, and you have a duty to help
those countries that cannot afford to deal with
the problems of climate change themselves.
You're saying you want a deal with all the different countries of the world
where we're all bound together
to cutting carbon emissions in a way that is to the benefit of the whole world.
We've never had this before because Kyoto didn't work.
If you could get a deal at Copenhagen,
where people agreed, A, that there was
a long-term target for carbon emission cuts,
B, that there was short-range targets that had to be met
so this wasn't just abstract;
it was people actually making decisions now
that would make a difference now,
and if you could then find a financing mechanism
that meant that the poorest countries that had been hurt
by our inability to deal with climate change
over many, many years and decades
are given special help so that they can move
to energy-efficient technologies,
and they are in a position financially
to be able to afford the long-term investment
that is associated with cutting carbon emissions,
then you are treating the world equally,
by giving consideration to every part of the planet
and the needs they have.
It doesn't mean that everybody does exactly the same thing,
because we've actually got to do more financially
to help the poorest countries, but it does mean there is equal consideration
for the needs of citizens
in a single planet.
CA: Yes. And then of course the theory is still
that those talks get rent apart by different countries
fighting over their own individual interests.
GB: Yes, but I think Europe has got a position,
which is 27 countries have already come together.
I mean, the great difficulty in Europe is if
you're at a meeting and 27 people speak,
it takes a very very long time.
But we did get an agreement on climate change.
America has made its first disposition on this
with the bill that President Obama should be congratulated
for getting through Congress.
Japan has made an announcement.
China and India have signed up to the scientific evidence.
And now we've got to move them to accept
a long-term target, and then short-term targets.
But more progress has been made, I think, in the last few weeks
than had been made for some years.
And I do believe
that there is a strong possibility
that if we work together, we can get that agreement to Copenhagen.
I certainly have been putting forward proposals
that would have allowed the poorest parts of the world
to feel that we have taken into account
their specific needs.
And we would help them adapt.
And we would help them make the transition to a low carbon economy.
I do think a reform of the international institutions is vital to this.
When the IMF was created in the 1940s,
it was created with resources that were five percent or so of the world's GDP.
The IMF now has limited resources, one percent.
It can't really make the difference that ought to be made in a period of crisis.
So, we've got to rebuild the world institutions.
And that's a big task: persuading
all the different countries with the different voting shares
in these institutions to do so.
There is a story told about the three world leaders
of the day getting a chance to get some advice from God.
And the story is told that Bill Clinton went to God
and he asked when there will be
successful climate change and a low carbon economy.
And God shook his head and said, "Not this year,
not this decade, perhaps not even in your lifetime."
And Bill Clinton walked away in tears
because he had failed to get what he wanted.
And then the story is that Barroso, the president of the European Commission,
went to God and he asked, he said,
"When will we get a recovery of global growth?"
And God said, "Not this year, not in this decade,
perhaps not in your lifetime."
So Barroso walked away crying and in tears.
And then the secretary general of the United Nations
came up to speak to God and said,
"When will our international institutions work?"
And God cried.
It is very important to recognize
that this reform of institutions
is the next stage after
agreeing upon ourselves
that there is a clear ethic upon which we can build.
CA: Prime Minister, I think there are many in the audience who
are truly appreciative of the efforts you made
in terms of the financial mess we got ourselves into.
And there are certainly many people in the audience
who will be cheering you on as you seek to advance
this global ethic. Thank you so much for coming to TED.
GB: Well, thank you.
- British Prime Minister
Britain's former prime minister Gordon Brown played a key role in shaping the G20 nations' response to the world's financial crisis, and was a powerful advocate for a coordinated global response to problems such as climate change, poverty and social justice.Why you should listen
During his long term of office, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown became one of the world's most experienced political leaders, with a deep understanding of the global economy based on 10 years' experience as Great Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has been a key architect of the G8's agreements on poverty and climate change, and has provided a passionate voice to encourage the developed world to aid struggling African countries. He is an advocate of global solutions for global problems -- through both the reinvention of international institution and the advancement of a global ethics.
While prime minister, Brown promoted technology as a tool for economic (and environmental) recovery. With his charge to "count the carbon and the pennies," research on electric cars and residential energy efficiency are slated to become a major part of the UK's recovery plan. He pushed for universal broadband and a general increase in spending on science. And he sought to use new communication tools like Twitter and YouTube as a means to communicate government policy.
The original video is available on TED.com