“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” Is she right?

Margaret MeadMargaret Mead was a twentieth century anthropologist, whose work greatly influenced those campaigning for equal rights in the sixties and seventies. The above quote is perhaps her most famous, and in recent years this message has appeared all over popular media, and throughout much of twenty first century culture.

The 2006 music video for “If Everyone Cared” by Nickelback ends with her quote. It’s used in the TV series the West Wing. And it was essentially the central philosophy of Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign: “Yes we can. Change we can believe in. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Yet when we’re thinking about these quotes, we’re not thinking about the sorts of changes that President Obama has managed to realise (don’t misunderstand me here; I’m a huge Obama fan). We’re thinking about pivotal changes in human history; the sort that historians are likely to refer back to. In this modern world, can such momentous changes still be realised by a “few caring people”?

As an example, Liberal Interventionism has been one of the hottest topics in the media throughout this century. In 1999 the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his Chicago speech, outlined his doctrine of Liberal Interventionism. And a Liberal Interventionyear later the UK’s intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War was seen as a great success. Furthermore, orders for intervention in Sierra Leone did not come from a huge collective government, but in fact from a renegade Brigadier David Richards, who saw the chance to intervene, and took it without permission. So you could even argue that a few, or even one person, really did change the world here. Subsequent interventions have also been justified on moral grounds e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, with much less consensus as to the success of these missions. But more to the point, there has been a common thread throughout each of these interventions. And that thread of logic echoes the thought of American pragmatists, of Japanese leaders during WW2, of Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, and even right back to the works of Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, and is also cited as an intellectual forbearer of ‘realpolitik’. That thread of thought is quite simply, the importance, and dominance, of power.

Hobbes’ method of reasoning provides a good example of this realist motivation for intervention. He started his argument, in his famous work ‘Leviathan’, with a kind of Cartesian thinking. Similar to the way Descartes started with his base assumption that thought proves existence, Hobbes said that as little as we can be sure of, we can at least be sure that humans are attracted to pleasure, and repelled by pain. As we can be sure of this much, said Hobbes, it goes to reason that what we all seek, and will always continue to seek, is the power to act on these attractions and repulsions. It is why he reasoned that in a state of nature life would be “nasty, brutish and short”, since without any kind of civilisation we would all be out to increase our own power.

Why do I use these examples? Because the world’s focus on Ukraine is indicative of all the above. The message from western interveners is that the Russian intervention and referendum in the Crimea was illegitimate, and abused Ukrainian sovereignty i.e. we want to help people, and we believe that we can change the world and make it more peaceful. In reality however, such intervention is both an example of power politics, and also quite frankly playground politics. The Russian intervention bears a lot of similarities to recent Western interventions. It is debatably legal in terms of international law. And although the referendum in Crimea should have been organised in different times, and under the supervision of the UN, I have not heard Westerners suggest this. Instead, they simply reject any sort of referendum, and in a blatantly childish manner, simply assume that what’s needed is a good old fashioned, gun-slinging approach of anti-appeasement i.e. if we show we’re the stronger party, we’ll win; life is a competition and we want to be the biggest bully in the playground.

It’s unlikely much of this is blatant, or even realised. The simple fact that the EU managed to achieve unanimity in deciding that they would impose sanctions on Russia goes to show that Western decision makers do believe they are in the right, and are acting morally. But our resources, and our ability to act, is finite. And what about the places where we can really help? How many children need to be decapitated in the Central African Republic before we intervene there? The UN says there is a real risk of genocide. But how many rapes are needed? How many mutations and acts of torture? How many murders are needed before we even start to think in such a way?

We can't changeThere is no power to gain in the Central African Republic. There is in re-igniting old Cold War tensions. So what would it take for us to change this much? What would it take for countries to actually intervene for moral reasons, as opposed to reasons of power? If Margaret Mead is right, then a few caring people can achieve such a change in international relations, and perhaps, depending on whether you agree with Hobbes, even a change in human nature. Do you think she was right? Are these changes really possible?

5 comments

  • Lots of things to unpack here! First off, that moment in the West Wing where they use that quote was awesome.

    Second, kudos for applying philosophy to current affairs. That’s both interesting and badly needed.

    Also, I’m not sure how Russia’s intervention can be argued to be legal under international law. As I understand it, any use of force or even the threat of it is illegal at the international level.

    And then, I find you very charitable when you say that Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lybia led to “much less consensus” as to their success. I feel like the weak consensus points to failure.

    In any case, I think you are spot on to emphasize the role of power in international relations. And Nietzsche would be quite happy to emphasize the role of power in personal relations as well. At the end of the day, it’s very difficult to argue for any one base to ground morals on: so perhaps it’s not surprising that power wins at the end of the day. It’s interesting to imagine a world where power relations hold less sway than morality but I won’t hold my breath… Perhaps a balance of powers is the best we can hope for.

    And finally, that quote from Mead has been given a very positive spin in popular culture. But I think it can be interpreted the other way just as easily. Small groups of committed evil-doers can change the world just as well.

  • I think there are two points to make. Possibly there is a relationship between them, or maybe they are exclusive.

    The first is that the specific situation of Ukraine, must necessarily as you point out, involve power plays. If it was about law and sovereignty, then an awful lot of explaining would need to be done to justify Iraq, Libya, Syria, and numerous African countries.

    For the second grander point of the role of power in society, I think that not everybody looks to impose their will (power) constantly, and that it appears intermittently depending on both the individuals and the situations. I would presume many different societies and species would bear this out with anthropological evidence.

    I would support Matt’s idea that a balance of powers is a good safeguard against absolute despotism, but having two playground bullies isn’t ideal except when wider society benefits from the resulting balance. In this regard I think the Ukrainian situation at the moment is as good as can be hoped for.

  • Thanks for your comments guys! I think we all agree on the importance of power plays over what’s actually legal in terms of deciding what happens. I’ll respond to a few individual points below.

    “As I understand it, any use of force or even the threat of it is illegal at the international level.”
    Basically yes, under most interpretations of the law Russia is breaking it. However what you’re talking about is Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter, which prohibits states from engaging in any threats or uses of force against other states. Russia has argued that they entered after an invitation, didn’t make any “armed threats” because there were no shots fired, and acted with concern to a part of the state, and not Ukraine as a whole. Furthermore, international law legitimises the use of troops for self-defence, but leaves the definition of defence to be rather ambiguous. Within Russia’s pan-Slavic definition it encompasses ethnic Russians into this ‘self’.

    “And then, I find you very charitable when you say that Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya led to “much less consensus” as to their success. I feel like the weak consensus points to failure.”
    Lol. Yes I was imagining that readers would infer what you just said above. I’ll try to be clearer in future!

    “Perhaps a balance of powers is the best we can hope for.”
    Within a system of international anarchy I agree. But if this were true within a more structured system then we would see such balances within every entity on Earth. Indeed I would agree with Sean that “not everybody looks to impose their will (power) constantly”. There is of course a big debate to be had here however, for a lot of philosophers would disagree. Matt, do you think that all group relations and politics are fuelled by the desire to exert power over others? And if not, why would a balance of powers still be the optimal solution?

  • @Rob, your defining of “self” is interesting. As for the lack of violence and the invitation to the Russians, I’m skeptical. But I get your point.

    I feel like I’m talking over my head, but in any case, I would tend to agree that not all people or entities are constantly trying to exert power over others. I would argue that this only needs to be the case sometimes for a balance of power to be necessary. In a global system with one or two hegemons, you might argue that the hegemons are benevolent and not trying to exert power, but you can’t argue that for any possible future scenario. This points to a balance of power as a good way to guarantee stability and security in the long-term. The idea that the US is on our side—or that China’s rise is peaceful—does not comfort me much.

  • I’m glad for this last comment because it’s pulled us back to the initial point. Your concern is not for the ethics or benevolence of the many, but rather of the few. It sounds like what you’re saying is that although a few (with position) can change the world at present, we should implement a system where that power is limited; thus limiting risk which stems from the actions of the few (albeit also the potential gains). To some extent I do agree.

    No one can affect change from within a vacuum, since what would they be changing other than themselves? But herein lies the irony, for we need to work together in order to affect change, and yet it is ‘us’ (other humans) who always stands in our way.

    It’s a concern that we 3 commenters on this post can do very little to shift the focus of international affairs and thinking to highlight the genuine need for help in the Central African Republic. Perhaps we could do more to affect societal thinking. It’s so engrained into our thinking that even this discussion has focussed almost exclusively on where the power lies, rather than where the post said that focus should lie in a more ethical world. And it’s not just our thinking either. In the last couple of years I have become severely disillusioned with the media. You could pick up a paper every day, and after two months have learned nothing more than you already knew at the outset. They report trends that have been reported before, worries that we’re all aware of, and personal stories that are essentially the ‘soaps’ of the news. But all this time the real, largely unreported news in the C.A.R continues. There are 8000 Peacekeeping troops from the African Union and France, and yet they are failing to keep the peace. On Wednesday 28th May 15 people were killed by gunmen coming into a Church. On Friday 30th May between two and five (depending on which source you believe; protestors or Burundian troops) protestors were killed in the country’s capital. And what’s going to solve this?

    To be honest, even the most powerful people in the world would struggle to solve the problems in the C.A.R. The world is not a Cosmopolitan place. If Obama said that the US were going to intervene tomorrow, the liberals would cry out “imperialists!”, the nationalists would cry out “what’s in it for us?”, and the sceptics would cry out “conspiracy!” The US could not justify such an intervention, and on the grounds of democracy and legitimacy, they should not try.

    Would a balance of power help the situation? No. The balance of power argument has logic. But I support the international move away from it from the nineteenth century onwards. It is only organisations like the African Union (if severely strengthened) and United Nations (if severely reformed) which can really and legitimately solve the problems in the C.A.R (aside from the locals, who would resort to violence if left alone). Within those organisations a few can change the world, for the better or worse. But they act within structures that limit the risk of unethical behaviour. We all need structures to act within, even in the international arena. And the balance of powers is no more of a structure than waiting for the two biggest kids in the playground to have a go at each other.

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