The shock of September 11, 2001, produced some pretty strange bedfellows. No, I’m not talking about George Bush and Tony Blair. I’m referring to Peter Singer, the influential left-wing philosopher who regularly chides Americans for being self-absorbed and selfish, and Niall Ferguson, the brilliant Oxford historian who sees Americans as the world’s knights in shining armor. One quotes Marx and (John) Lennon, the other Churchill and Kipling. One refuses to wear a leather belt, the other looks like he stepped out of an Armani ad. One wants a world government, the other calls on America to wield power more boldly. Yet these intellectual oddfellows have a surprisingly similar perspective on what the rich and free owe the world’s poor and oppressed.
At a time when terrorism and the mounting toll of the Iraq war have many Americans yearning to retreat inside a Fortress America, Singer and Ferguson are among the most authoritative voices
urging more, not less, engagement beyond America’s borders. Though miles apart politically, both embrace globalization and both want America to take more responsibility for spreading its benefits and mitigating its ill effects. In One World: The Ethics of Globalization (Yale University Press, 2002), Singer shows why preventing genocide and famine, and cleaning up the environment far from home, are moral imperatives for the world’s sole superpower. In Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (Basic Books, 2003), Ferguson constructs a compelling case for nation building. Their cosmopolitan perspective, though quite possibly at odds with the current mood, is sufficiently pragmatic and practical to be useful to anyone who’s grappling with the big ethical and political dilemmas facing global business today. One World, in particular, seems destined to become a staple of b-school reading lists.
Business readers will also want to pick up two other recent books, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Doubleday, 2002), by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua, and The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), by Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek’s high-profile international editor. Despite their ominous titles, both volumes are internationalist in flavor. Their point is to expose some of the potential pitfalls of applying the Western model without sufficient attention to institutions — such as progressive taxation, protection of civil liberties, and philanthropy — that enable it to work so well at home.
The Case for Global Sharing
In One World, Singer, best known for his controversial views on animal rights and euthanasia, returns to the topic that got him interested in philosophy in the first place. The book, written in the crisp, concise prose that has won Singer a worldwide audience, begins with a question: What do the planes that reduced the Twin Towers to rubble and sport utility vehicles that emit greenhouse gases have in common? Both reflect “the way in which we are now one world,” says Singer, adding gloomily that SUV owners will “almost certainly kill far more people” than Islamic terrorists, by depleting the ozone layer. Like the one-worlders of the 1950s who saw global government as the only way to prevent humanity from incinerating itself with newly invented weapons of mass destruction, Singer argues for “the abandonment of the absolute idea of state sovereignty” and the closely related notion that national leaders ought to give “absolute priority to the interests of their own citizens.” What he really wants is for Americans, the world’s wealthiest citizens, to care more about the world’s poor. And that, of course, applies to America’s corporate citizens as well as its individual ones.