01/17/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

A World Without A Moral Guidepost?

On Describing The Age We Live In Today

Today, we are living in a global political order that has become unmoored from when the underlying trend was toward U.S.-led globalization. We have much less of a single moral guidepost.

We're losing some of our moral sensibilities -- and perhaps more importantly, it's a world where leaders will find it increasingly difficult to act on the sensibilities they do have. It's not in any sense a matter of good and evil; rather, it's a world where emerging markets matter a lot more -- over the past five years they have provided two-thirds of global economic growth -- but they carry starkly different priorities from developed states. After all, even if developing countries are the drivers of global growth, they are still relatively poor. That means they pay relatively less attention to Western values that they don't have the luxury of prioritizing: things like human rights and environmental standards. As a result, we are living in a world where global policy is less ethically driven than at any other point since World War II.

On Whether Things Are Getting Better Or Worse

I'm a political scientist. Looking at the geopolitical environment, the world is getting decidedly riskier. We have less order. Governments are less willing or able to respond to global crises.

While emerging markets are bringing many new citizens into the ranks of the global middle class, this positive trend comes alongside a growing gap between rich and poor around the world. Unfortunately, this trend isn't liable to reverse itself in the foreseeable future because corporate interests and powerful individuals have a hold on power, formal and informal, as well as on many of the wealth-creating technologies that will create an outsized degree of global prosperity in years to come.

Related to the growing disparity of wealth, we are seeing the legitimacy of the world's political elites wane. Social inequality, poor spending decisions and a perception that leaders are ineffectual -- combined with broad popular access to information, social media and politicized rhetoric -- are undermining trust in governments the world over. The bottom line: it broadens prospects for conflict within and between countries.

On Differences In Ethical Positions

Most differences in the world ultimately come down to differences on ethical questions. What are your values and how do you prioritize them?

On top of the ethical questions that come with nations' varying stages of development, there are other concerns that shape ethical priorities. Everyone would value a world that did not have rogue states with nuclear weapons. But the relative priority of that compared to, say, being able to get oil from a country, or maintaining stability on your border with a neighbor -- those priorities will change.

Those are ethical distinctions, and ethical distinctions are ones that we'll have a particularly hard time compromising on.

On Moral Leadership

Moral leadership to me means taking the long-term perspective for your own citizens rather than relying on short-term fixes and a "kick the can" strategy that results in larger problems -- for your successor. It's also important not to take a long-term perspective that is too self-centered or nationalistic -- it should come in conjunction with what's best for the rest of the world wherever possible.

On The Definition Of A Global Ethic

The idea of "a" global ethic increasingly does not resonate with me precisely because we increasingly can't do global.

Climate change is the most obvious and far-reaching global challenge that we face. Short of being invaded by aliens, it's hard to come up with a more comprehensive threat that just about every country would like to solve. We have had major climate summits now in Copenhagen and in Durban and in Cancún, and they have accomplished absolutely nothing. How many more global summits do we need to have before we realize that it's not the geography that derails negotiations -- it's just that we simply can't agree?

What we need is a next-best solution. That next-best solution will be a coalition of the willing. It will be a smaller group of like-minded countries providing piecemeal solutions that beat the alternative -- no progress whatsoever in the face of a monumental challenge.

On The Greatest Ethical Challenge Facing The Planet

The greatest ethical challenge that the planet has is distribution of scarce resources. That means across countries, and that means within countries.

I think one of the places that this will become most interesting is with regards to the data revolution. It empowers small numbers of individuals that have access to extraordinary concentrations of data and can use that for purposes of profit and for national security. That will be an enormous ethical challenge that is just on the horizon.

On World Issues That Are Being Ignored

The potential for China's relationship with the United States to deteriorate dramatically is an enormous risk. It's bigger than anything else out there. We are not spending enough time dealing with that issue.

On World Peace

Sure, world peace is absolutely possible; unfortunately, it's just overwhelmingly remote for the foreseeable future.

You tend to get wars when you do not trust, when you do not understand. It's not just fighting over scarce resources. It's when you come at it from different perspectives and therefore can't compromise.

We are seeing a world where powerful countries increasingly have those kinds of differences. But the world need not go in that direction ad infinitum.

On Who Is Accountable

Ultimately the United States is accountable. The United States is the world's largest economy, it's by far the wealthiest economy of any nations of scale, it has world-beating technology in all of the key areas of cutting-edge innovation, the best institutions of higher learning by a large margin and the world's strongest military. Yes, some of these relative strengths are eroding, but they are still substantial and will remain so for a considerable span.

When you are in a position of such exorbitant strength compared to other countries, that comes with responsibility. With strength comes responsibility. With responsibility comes accountability.

On Whether Technology Will Boost Trust

It depends. I think if technology continues -- in the last few years it has really, as I said, empowered small numbers of folks that have access to huge data. If that trend continues, technology will undermine trust.

Is the United States more empowered or less in terms of national security by the move from conventional weaponry to cyber? In 10 years' time, America might be able to knock everything out of the sky. This could actually super-empower the United States. That's very dangerous for individual trust because that doesn't have to be used responsibly.

But it might also be that cyber security completely undermines the United States because small numbers of individuals can just bring down things. We don't know yet. That's an interesting debate. We're not ready to have it.

This post was produced by The Huffington Post and Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs as part of the Council's Centennial Thought Leaders Forum. The series features thought leaders answering questions posed by Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Devin Stewart. For more information about the Carnegie Council, click here.