Paul Ingram is Senior Research Associate and Academic Programme Manager at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University. Previously, Paul was the Executive Director of the transatlantic British American Security Information Council (BASIC) 2007-19, focusing on nuclear deterrence and disarmament issues in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Since 2019 he has worked closely with the Swedish Foreign Ministry crafting the Stepping Stones Approach. Before that, Paul set up and ran the Trident Commission (2011-14) that considered Britain’s future nuclear weapon policy, and helped set up the Middle East Treaty Organisation in 2017. He hosted a weekly TV talk show (2007-12) on Iranian state TV and connected with the highest levels of Ahmadinejad’s Iranian government, helping facilitate back-channel negotiations that contributed to the nuclear deal.

To what extent does degrowth fit in with the status quo of geopolitics? Or does geopolitics have to change as well?

“People often focus on changing one thing, without changing the broader system. This is a fundamental error. For example, while it may be necessary to negotiate specific arms control agreements to manage arms racing, there is no solution for nuclear disarmament in isolation, as nuclear weapons are embedded in the current international order. Similarly, Europe cannot act on climate change alone, assuming no changes occur elsewhere. Degrowth needs to be seen in parallel with a move towards European and global governance structures that don’t depend on nuclear deterrents or on continued power struggles between states that occasionally descend into war.

Degrowth therefore needs to sit within a radical revolution in how states relate to each other, and possibly even in the idea of states. The European Union itself is a revolutionary act in nation states moving to surrender their sovereignty to a supranational body. That is an example to the rest of the world. And we need to be thinking far more about how we spread sovereignty across levels, using a principle of subsidiarity, that is operating at the most local area that is appropriate.”

How do you bridge from the idealistic world view to taking the practical steps needed to address the situations we need to confront now, such as in Ukraine?

“We need an idealistic stance. We need vision. But we also need practical steps to move us in that direction. For example, it is common to explore nuclear disarmament as an idealistic move. But imagine if US or NATO were to disarm unilaterally: there would be quite significant global problems in terms of the balance of power. Such changes require big shifts in collective thinking. We need to think ideologically and hold a radical vision for societal change and draw people into a debate on where we want to go as a society.

So in terms of talking, imagining and sharing we need to radical. But in terms of action we need to be fast and incremental. We need to be moving in concrete ways that draw people together into a process that is more collaborative rather than confrontational. For example, I set up the Stepping Stones approach to nuclear disarmament. Sixteen non-nuclear weapon states met at foreign minister level a number of times and developed concrete proposals to the nuclear states. One example was to strengthen negative security assurances: assurances to non-nuclear weapon states that they will never be threatened or attacked with nuclear weapons. Only China and India, who have no-first-use positions, give unconditional assurances to non-nuclear weapon states. We have been looking at how nuclear weapon states can tighten up their policies in this area – to take very concrete, specific, achievable steps that don’t impact on their overall nuclear deterrent posture but demonstrate positive good will and reduce ambiguity. When they take relatively minor early practical steps they change the culture and dynamics between states, which future action can build upon. It is an incrementalist approach but it also involves the radical changes that are needed at later stages, and builds up good will. This approach is needed across the board, across different issues, because issues are linked. 

Paul Ingram
Paul Ingram

We need to be thinking about the attachment we have to paradigms and dominant narratives that drive the current structure. And we need to be thinking together about how those shifts can be made in practical terms. 

For example, currently the West is very attached to capitalism. The capitalist - anti-capitalist debate looks very polarised. You are either for or against, just like nuclear weapons. But what we need to do is look underneath to see what is problematic about capitalism in terms of sustainability and the distribution of power. It has at its core a dominant narrative that people naturally operate from a place of self-interest, which with sufficient regulation can produce optimal outcomes in the whole system. That is plainly wrong. Not just because of externalities but also because the assumption that human beings operate from selfish incentives does not reflect reality, and distorts future action. There is a significant reward from collaboration. We should let go of the idea that humans are innately selfish, or that corporations by law have to operate for the enrichment of shareholders, or that national states inevitably must operate out of self-interest. These assumptions drive the problems that lead to the existential threats that we face today.

We need to operate at quite a radical level to tackle the deep assumptions, paradigms and dominant narratives that drive our society. We must think creatively and radically whilst taking early, incremental steps.”

What would a radical transformational pathway for geopolitics look like?

“I think that what we need is a dramatic revolution in the idea of what security is. One halfway house has been to expand the arena – such as from an exclusive focus on national security to also focus on human security. But I wonder if that is simply reinforcing the securitisation of the situation. I think we need to think far more in terms of mutual vulnerability

The idea of security is that you are safe. That sounds good, but it is interpreted as having sufficient capability to respond to any threats. So by continuing to use a security framing you have already lost the argument.

Consider nuclear weapons. Through the 1990s, when the strategic environment was relatively benign, there was a narrative around managing the current system, engaging in arms control and reducing the number of warheads to a reasonably low number, combined with controls on rhetoric, posture and the like. But this reinforced and solidified a commitment to an existing security paradigm where states remained attached to dominance and to maintaining systems that were essentially designed for the annihilation of millions of people. So when, more recently, the strategic situation has deteriorated we have not escaped the problem.

“ We need to accept vulnerability ”

On the other hand, one of the benefits of nuclear weapons in the Cold War was that it forced the idea that it was not possible to escape insecurity, and that we had some level of balance through mutual vulnerability. This informs something of what we need now in a world of increasing catastrophic risks from climate change, devastation of ecosystems and biodiversity, emerging disruptive technologies as well as the continued nuclear threat. We are all vulnerable. Individual actors trying to escape this vulnerability and chase absolute security drive the problem. Instead we need to accept the vulnerability that necessarily exists, see the destruction that is happening moment by moment, open to the despair of that and reach out to others who in the past we may have seen as a threat and draw them into cooperative processes. That is, to recognise our mutual vulnerability, and accept that we do not have all the answers, and that they are not all bad.

Even though they are an autocratic and deeply disturbing regime when it comes to human rights, there are certain aspects of Chinese culture that are very conducive to sustainable action. We could draw the Chinese into a more collaborative, open, curious dialogue about how we organise our societies and build sustainability. Similarly engaging with the Russians should, ultimately, build some kind of common security agenda that involves them as well as us.”

Do the values underpinning current geopolitics need to change?

“Values that we have grown up with in the West that feel distinctly positive, like human rights, individualism, the idea that ultimately governments are there to serve individuals and human security, actually have a number of unintended consequences because they are very atomised in their point of departure. This is what I mean when I say we need to reach out to cultures that are a lot less individualist, like China.

One of the tools that I use to train diplomats in the Stepping Stones approach is managing polarity. This is the idea in politics generally, and in diplomacy, where we often attach binary value to one thing or another. For example, what happens when those favouring disarmament, such as many Greens, who see this as always good and nuclear deterrents as always bad, meet people who hold the reverse position? These others might see nuclear deterrence as stopping hot wars, and thereby creating stability. According to this position, just getting rid of nuclear weapons will lead to all going to hell in a hand basket and war. Both of these positions have positive and negative dimensions. So there is value, for example, for those favouring disarmament to accept that sudden and unplanned disarmament can be very destabilising and that there are some positive aspects around nuclear deterrence. Such acceptance, and reaching across and talking to people that are attached to nuclear deterrence, will lead to diplomatic impact and influence that is much more powerful. There is real value in both positions. Avoiding a highly politicised binary approach helps to shift from conflict and confrontation towards more collaboration.”

What outcome for Ukraine is possible?

“Ukraine is fighting a war for its sovereignty and independent existence. But there are other dimensions in this war that complicate simplistic messaging. The war is frequently framed as zero-sum, and that anything short of total expulsion of Russian forces from all territory including Crimea and freedom for Ukraine to join the EU and NATO would be an encouragement to dictators elsewhere contemplating the use force. Whilst this sounds plausible, it neglects the fact that Putin’s gamble has already backfired, and the lesson to others is already stark: whatever the outcome of this conflict Russia has already lost – in treasure, men and sympathy within communities that previously were supportive.  Even were Russia to hold on to Crimea and territories previously in the south-east of country where before the war there were majorities in favour of close relations with Russia, this could well be a pyrrhic and short-term achievement. Seen through a long-term lens, it has been catastrophic for Russia, and the government is more fragile today than it has been since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“ Russia has already lost ”

In a large-scale nuclear war deaths from starvation around the world caused by nuclear winter would dwarf those from blast, fire-storms and radiation. Similarly, the damage from this war to the capacity for global governance could be far greater than the immediate effects on the ground. The failure of states to firewall this conflict in international diplomacy is damaging our collective ability to tackle climate change, nuclear disarmament, the regulation of biotech capabilities, and the pressing need to develop effective regulation of exponential technologies such as Artificial Intelligence. We cannot prioritise our continuing conflict with Russia and China this war being just a piece in that large puzzle over the need to tackle the biggest issues of our time, of which the obsession with economic growth is a key driver.

Great power conflict is both the largest driver of global catastrophic risk and deeply undermines the capacities of the international community to handle it. Our attachment to models of national sovereignty as a guiding mechanism to handle international relations is both illusionary and dangerous, deepens multipolar traps, and fundamentally undermines collective global governance.”

Should we have a European political community that develops into a security organisation? 

“We need to be careful about the tendency to have largely West European structures that are expanded to include more countries to the East, which can appear as an expansionist and imperialist agenda, even when it isn’t. Rather, I think we need to thinking about pan-European structures from the start. We need to be recognising that organisations like NATO might seen as attractive, particularly for states that border Russia, but they are also seen as threats. And for good reason, for NATO is the largest military alliance that the planet has ever seen, deploys nuclear weapons and has been operating out of area for the last couple of decades. This is a problem for an alliance that claims a purely defensive mission, when much of the rest of the world is sceptical. And let’s not forget the colonialist legacy driven from Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth century that is seen in many parts of the world as a continuity today.

If we could just imagine for one minute what that looks like from China or Russia, or indeed countries like Kazakhstan, or African countries, then I think we would have much more empathy and compassion when it came to their responses. Many African countries are not supporting the alliance against Russia at the moment, and countries like Indonesia are feeling quite sceptical about the Western European agenda. We need to be looking at global agendas that look at this across a number of perspectives, and recognise that our perspective, even when we think of it as benign, does not always look that way to others, undermining essential global cohesion.

What is needed is a broader European security, cultural and economic collaboration that involves something akin to a strengthened Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE has a pan-European structure that includes Russia. It does a lot that its predecessor CSCE did, including cultural exchange and election monitoring. We need to better draw Russians into this process, alongside a change in our approach to Russia that overcomes some of the systemic biases that have been baked into the relations throughout the post Cold War era, and gives them a larger stake in the management of these pan-European institutions.“

From a geopolitical point of view does this include doing things more locally or sharing power?

“In most countries it is up to the national government to decide who has power: when to delegate it and when to give it upwards. Governments have the right to exclusive use of force and legislation within their own boundaries, which they delegate to more local authorities when they chose to, and to defend their power against other countries when threatened. We are so attached the idea of that the national level has all the power, that it is really difficult to change our concepts. That is reproduced across the world with the concept of sovereignty.

The experiment of the European Union is a good example where there has been an attempt to share sovereignty and weaken attachment to that particular model that has dominated international politics for such a long time. There are some subtle but very powerful aberrations when it comes to imperialism, empires and the like. Having a shared sovereignty in Brussels enables better environmental regulations such as food standards and fishery controls.”

If the USA, China and Russia have spheres of influence, should Europe try to have one too, or if not what should Europe do instead?

“Europe needs to avoid the trap that it is often tempted by, to drop into competition with the others. Europe has done a relatively good job of avoiding that. As part of the Consilience project, Daniel Schmachtenberger talks about how, as global catastrophic risks build, and in response to the freedom and atomisation that drive this risk, there is a tendency to shift towards autocracy, domination and surveillance states. There is a danger that sphere of influence thinking leads us into this space.

“ We will change the whole system, whether it is by design or as a result of catastrophe ”

We are not going to address climate change by wrestling the power from other people and wielding it ourselves. We must encourage people to think radically about the complexities and to recognise that what is required are big, big shifts – ones that are so much bigger than winning elections, for example. We will change the whole system, whether it is by design or as a result of catastrophe (although there is no escaping catastrophe now, it is just a question of how big!). Through that transformation that is going to happen over the coming decades we have the chance of dreaming and imagining different societies and paradigms, new dominant narratives that give us a chance to use the pain that is around the corner to change the way in which we think and engage.

We need better approaches to understanding the messiness of complex systems, recognising and debating the positives and negatives, so that we start to see how we can chart a course that does not drop into autocracy or extreme liberalism. The idea of subsidiarity is one of the under-developed responses to that.”

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