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Gordon Brown on global ethic vs. national interest

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Chris Anderson: Thank you so much, Prime Minister. That was quite 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's 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. You're elected as Prime Minister with a brief to, you know, 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: Indeed. But what do you do when the two come into conflict and you're forced to make a decision, you know, 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 interest, what is necessary for America's long term interest, is proper engagement with the rest of the world and taking the action that is necessary. Just look at the — There is a great story again told about Richard Nixon. 1958, Ghana becomes independent, so it was 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 in an African country. He doesn't quite know what do. So he starts going around the crowd and starts talking to people in the crowd and he says to people in his 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." (Laughter)

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 social and economic 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 and and 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 the national interests 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: 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's a tsunami advancing on the beach. One end of the beach there's a house containing a family of five Nigerians and at the other end of the beach, there's a single Brit. You have time to alert one house. What do you do? (Laughter)

GB: Well, modern communications. (Applause) Alert both. (Applause) 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'm 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, that the power to communicate across borders allows us to organize the world in a different way.

And I think — Look at this 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 perhaps a lot of people have, 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, for example, the life of one American soldier is worth countless numbers of Iraqi civilians. So, you know, when the pedal hits the metal, the idealism can get moved away. And I'm just wondering how, whether you can see that changing at this 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 that every religion, every faith — and I'm not just talking here to people of faith or religion — has this global ethic at the center of its credo, and whether it's the 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 their 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's a certain 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's in their interest to build — After the Second World War, we built institutions: the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, the Trade Organization, the Marshall Plan. There was a period at which people talked about an act of creation because these institutions were so new. But they're 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 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 a man could go to the moon. All of these things have happened. By tackling the impossible, you make the impossible possible.

CA: We have had a speaker who said that very thing and swallowed a sword right after that. Which was quite dramatic. (Laughter)

GB: Followed my sword will swallow. (Laughter)

CA: But surely a true global ethic is for someone to say "I believe that 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: But we have a — 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 concerns 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're at humanitarian risk is now being established as a principle which governs the world.

So while I can't sort of 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 responbility 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 has 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 of global ethic, global citizenship, and basically saying "I believe, you know, 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 that 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.

And so if we can get — Look, 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's a long term target for carbon emissions 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 fear is still that those talks get rent apart by different countries fighting over their own individual interests.

GB: Yeah, but I think Europe has got a position which is 27 countries have already come together. I mean, the great difficulty in Europe is that 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 have been made in some years.

And I do believe that there is a strong possibility that if we work together we can get that agreement at Copenhagen. I certainly have been putting forward proposals that would allow 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's 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 would 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'd failed to get what he wanted. Then the story is that Barroso, the President of the European Commission, went to God and 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. (Laughter) And it is very important to recognize that this reform of institutions is the next stage after agreeing upon ourselves that there's 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 today.

GB: Well, thank you for the time. (Applause)

Video Details

Duration: 16 minutes and 42 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 159
Posted by: tedtalks on Sep 30, 2011

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.

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