Margaret 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 year 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?
There 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?