02/02/2011 09:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Do No Harm

Does fairness matter in today's world? Is there a global code of conduct that everyone should follow? Do we have any responsibilities toward those who are not our compatriots? If you think contemplating the answers to these questions is a fool's errand, I suggest you think again.

Imagine someone in the Middle East who stumbles upon information on the next plot by Osama Bin Laden, or a Health Minister in Africa weighing the costs of keeping quiet or informing the world about a possible pandemic. Then, imagine the millions in Asia who will soon join the ranks of the global middle class and their mindset as they make countless choices over consumption. Would we like them to believe that fairness and decency do not matter, and that power does? Would we be better off if they decide that might makes right, or if they find some minimal benchmark of decent conduct that most have lived by, and opt to abide by that same benchmark?

There are many forces pushing us closer and closer together. While we have been aware of our increasing global interdependence, we have so far pretended that ad hoc fixes and smart institutional designs would take care of many of our transnational problems. Yet, what we are in effect negotiating are the rules of living together in a world of greater interdependence. Technocratic ingenuity will not provide us the answers, but a global conversation about global civics will.

Consider the way we drive: Every day millions of people drive at high speeds encased in a ton of metal, and they do so extremely close to others who are doing the same thing. A slight move of the steering wheel in the wrong direction would wreak havoc, but we cruise carefree, because we have reasonable expectations about the behavior of other drivers. Our expectations of other drivers, which serve to mitigate the theoretical risks of driving, can exist because people adhere to a framework of laws, habits, and conventions about how to operate automobiles. When fog or mist descends, we become less capable of counting on our peers, and we naturally slow down. In an increasingly interdependent world, we need a corresponding global framework and sustained predictability to put our minds at relative ease. That framework has to be based on global civics, a system of conscious responsibilities that we are ready to take on -- and corresponding rights that we are ready to claim -- after due deliberation.

Many reasonable people are skeptical and even cynical of the idea of a shared global civics because advocates of global solidarity frequently make lavish demands. For example, some advocates argue that we should give up all wealth and sovereignty until the last person on the planet is not worse off than we are. Such measures are clearly not feasible, and more importantly not even necessary. Rather, the formula for decent conduct has to be simple, and should command near-universal appeal. One such alternative may be "do no harm" -- an oath that doctors have gone by for many generations. A global "do no harm" approach would be minimalist enough for many to subscribe to, and yet effective enough in providing us with bearings.

A "do no harm" approach assumes that external interventions should be the exception, and the status quo has a natural tendency toward progress. The current state of the world fits this assumption. The current generation is the most fortunate generation in human history. We lead longer, healthier and more peaceful lives than any other generation in human history. Many capabilities of the average person today would have been the envy of rulers and tycoons from previous centuries. Yes, there are huge income and wealth inequalities among households in the world, but they are not getting worse and global disparities in life expectancy and schooling are actually decreasing.

A key challenge for this generation will of course be climate change. On climate change, the "do no harm" approach would require us to be prudent about the atmosphere's capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, and to distribute the limited global capacity equally among all residents of our planet and then allow for emissions trading. Another key challenge is to ensure meaningful safeguards against genocide and other severe human rights violations. A version of the "do no harm" approach would require us to strengthen the International Criminal Court and not stand in the way of a U.N. volunteer army due to parochial concerns. Do-no-harm would also mean not waging war without an endorsement by UNSC, or, at the very least, by the overwhelming majority of the global public opinion. The same maxim would require us not to plot against the next Allende or Lumumba.

In the end, we may find better maxims than a global do-no-harm; the key is to start an inclusive conversation about, and the pursuit for, that maxim. Without a maxim for global civics, we are severely impaired in navigating our global interdependence.

Hakan Altinay is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor of a new book, Global Civics: Responsibilities and Rights in an Interdependent World.