Carne Ross is the Global Solidarity spokesperson for the England and Wales Green Party and is a consultant, including working on the UN Summit of the Future. Previously Carne was a British diplomat and then ran a non-profit advisory service called Independent Diplomat.

Paul Ingram is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University where he focuses principally on policy issues around nuclear weapons and nuclear diplomacy including the global effects of nuclear war and geostrategic conflict.

This joint interview was conducted shortly after the start of the 2023 Israel-Hamas war, so that was inevitably the first topic of discussion.

When we think of the Middle East, we think of oil. Should the current war between Israel and Hamas be seen through that lens?

[CR] I am not sure any one factor will sort out the Middle East, which has multiple, quite different conflicts. Israel-Palestine is about colonial legacy, of Britain, and conflict between two populations over the same piece of land. The fact is that one now occupies the land previously occupied by the other. It is connected to some of the oil politics of the broader region but won’t be resolved by reducing the region’s dependence on fossil fuel income, which itself would have an unpredictable and arguably destabilising effect. This is the case elsewhere in the region too. For example, in Yemen where Saudi Arabia is aiding the Yemeni government who are fighting the Houthis who are in turn supported by Iran. While this conflict is not primarily about oil resources, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have considerably greater military strength because they are major oil exporters.

Taking oil out of the equation could arguably have a positive effect, but we can’t tell. The relationships in the Middle East are profoundly unstable. They are often violent. They are to a considerable degree determined by the use of force. They are anything but peaceful. And the regimes in the region are largely despotic and authoritarian, which does not lend itself to peace either. Most of the regimes in the region oppress their populations in significant ways, some more violently than others. So it’s a pretty grim picture.”

[PI] “The Middle East is a significant challenge but actually no different from elsewhere, a microcosm of the global challenge. The traditional response to conflict is to take sides. We must let go of the righteousness that drives so many conflicts. Continuing to engage in Israel, Ukraine, or other conflicts like this, choosing sides and arming them, damages our capacity to cooperate. The status quo is no longer an option. We must find a different way, to carry hope not pessimism and tackle the global challenges we face together. The imperative of degrowth reinforces the need for a real change in how we do geopolitics.”

How might one unwind these tensions diplomatically? Do you see a role for OPEC?

[CR] “I don’t think there is any silver bullet diplomatically, apart from urging outside powers, especially the US and Europeans but also the Russians, to align with more intensive diplomatic efforts. This includes Israel-Palestine, Iran-Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Kurds and also Syria, which is another intractable conflict. Diplomacy requires enormous patience and persistence, but diplomacy is on the back foot. 

The US has retreated from its predominant hegemonic role in the region and globally. This has had some positive stabilising effects – except for the likes of the Iraq war, and its unbalanced support for Israel. However, we are now moving towards a more chaotic situation where outside actors are less willing to get involved, although Russia is engaging militarily in Syria.

The science clearly demands we phase out fossil fuels far faster than we are doing now. Oil producing countries are unlikely to lead as they are backmarkers in the global climate process. OPEC is essentially a cartel to push up oil prices that has not really acted politically since 1973 and lacks coherence. Instead, the US, EU and others need to be much more aggressive in demanding fossil fuel phase out whilst very aggressively reducing our own dependence, putting dates on that. We can’t tell them to stop producing fossil fuels while we are still buying it.

This is where degrowth comes in. The only way to reduce our fossil fuel consumption fast enough is through degrowth, reducing demand. The IPCC is quite clear about this.

Carne Ross
Carne Ross

Employing supply constraints and decarbonising the energy system alone result in much higher rates of global warming than are unacceptable. This includes our current pathway to 2.8-2.9 °C, which spells global catastrophe. So it is clear, we have to reduce consumption.”

[PI]: “Degrowth won’t happen by simply outlining the challenge and then demanding people change. We need to also change some of the more fundamental stories we tell ourselves. This requires us to look at core narratives of our society – individualism – and how capitalism relies on the assumption that people acting rationally will act out of self-interest. We need to change the ethics and models that guide our lifestyles and take more responsibility from our communities to our wider global community. This is essential.”

[CR]: “I don’t think that you will get the political consent for degrowth unless you decentralise democracy and have greater participation at the local, or indeed at other levels. Such a participatory democracy will lead to the emergence of different priorities for the nation state and economy: society, community, solidarity, peace, wellbeing. Evidence, such as from Brazil, shows local participatory democracy reveals these different priorities over growth and consumption, as these things matter more to people. So it’s not a big shift to a degrowth narrative but a common sense shift to what people believe life is really about. Scale this up to a national level and you get a country that expresses its interests in a different way to other countries, which will lead to different concepts around the use of force and national interest.  So the local does become the national and the international.

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The narrative of national interest will need to change

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Carne Ross

This would affect geopolitics as countries reduce their consumption and dependence on imports, including fossil fuels. Fossil fuel producing countries do not want to lose their income and power so they use their considerable influence to slow down global climate talks. This will need pressure as countries follow their own interests. The narrative of national interest will need to change. As a diplomat I once falsely constructed those narratives myself. Such ‘national interests’ don’t accord to what people really want but often preference security and economic interests. These are artificially created prerogatives that are not the real interests of people.

Therefore, we need to question what the nation state is, at a fundamental level: how to organise and make democratic decisions domestically, what role to play internationally? We should question the primacy of the nation state in international relations as opposed to wider concerns around the salvation of humanity, from the climate disaster to managing the forthcoming vast flows of migrants. Neither of these lend themselves well to a nation state based analysis or behaviour. It needs greater listening and both a values-based and cosmopolitan approach, to understand other people’s positions before we take decisions. This does not require us to throw away values held in international relations, such as in human rights treaties. We are already moving to a new kind of dispensation, making that kind of shift.

Also, countries are becoming much more heterogeneous, multi-ethnic and diverse: a process that will only accelerate. That will mean different engagements internationally, increasing respect for other cultures and nationalities. Such an acceptance of greater complexity and diversity can only be a good thing.

Having a more cosmopolitan diplomacy with participatory processes will lead to people becoming more involved and questioning the logic of national interest, deterrence and interlocking nation states. Local to national participatory assemblies could bring about such change – rather than leaving foreign policy to elites, whether diplomatic or military. These must change ideas, and the ways people approach a discourse, do diplomacy, and run a country. Diplomacy that draws from the common interests of peoples, above all keeping the planet liveable and increasing shared wellbeing, instead of the discourse of competing nation states would be a huge psychological shift. That requires leadership, setting out examples that people can follow internationally, as well as local action.”

How do we engage with current conflicts differently, in ways that might lead us on a pathway to degrowth? Or might degrowth act as a pathway to peace?

[PI] “Engaging with empathy, listening to different perspectives and interests, and developing an attitude of open curiosity can build a culture of mutual learning and a sense of hope. This is not so much a radical shift as an expression of humanity that already exists but has been stifled at the international level by strongly held beliefs on the nature of the international system. We are talking in the midst of two conflicts, Ukraine and Israel. These are tough and difficult to resolve. We need to open to the despair and acknowledge that there are no clear answers rather than judge one side is right and another side is wrong, which dehumanises the opposition. Can we still listen to Russian views in the face of deeply unacceptable and outrageous atrocities, and explore conflict resolution in the face of unrealistic demands for absolute victory? When human nature inevitably draws us into dark places we need to help each other out by giving each other ladders out of the pit rather than by expecting others to transform whilst we ourselves dig in.”  

Paul Ingram
Paul Ingram

CR] “I disagree with the necessity to first step back for a deeper analysis of people’s motives. We often don’t have time to think things through and listen – as the bad guys act fast. Israel’s invasion of Gaza is causing massive civilian casualties. That happened fast. Putin invaded Ukraine, and we needed to react when that happened, rather unexpectedly. We can quickly respond and speak out based on the clear legal framework of international humanitarian law, the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions. These rules clearly set out what kind of behaviour is acceptable. They say you can only use military force in self-defence.

So, for instance, Ukraine is entitled to use military force to defend itself against Russia’s invasion. So there are clear guidelines around how Hamas and Israel should behave: nether should target or disproportionately harm civilians. We need to refer to and enforce these global minimum standards that have been agreed by pretty much all countries. We should aspire to a more cosmopolitan approach to understanding each other, and accept the heterogeneity of each other’s populations. But we should start by applying these minimum standards, which still provide a crucial guideline.”

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We can walk and chew gum at the same time

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Paul Ingram

PI] “Global drivers for conflict will rise over the coming decades. So we need to behave differently. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. Just like in the playground you must confront the bully whilst giving them an opportunity to engage constructively. We learnt in the Cold War that we could confront the Soviet Union whilst engaging them in arms control negotiations. But we seem to have lost that lesson. For example, at the 2022 Nuclear Non-proliferation Conference there was an insistence that Russia withdraw from Ukrainian nuclear power plants before any continuation of disarmament proposals. We can both confront Russia and ring-fence discussions relevant to our collective survival, engaging them on arms control, climate and emerging disruptive technologies.

We seem to have learned that we should not use violence against children to gain their obedience, not least because the lesson is that violence is legitimate. But internationally we still seem to think that violence and the threat of violence is the only game in town.”

[CR] “I agree with that. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to call out China’s human rights abuses, their genocide of the Uyghurs and aggression in the South China Sea against Taiwan, whilst at the same time engaging on climate change. We need to take a measured approach based on our common interests, which is where diplomacy comes in. Words matter. The Chinese government phrases itself very carefully when talking about its national interests and we need to phrase ourselves very carefully but hold onto our basic values, in all cases: democracy, protection of human rights, climate action. So how the United Kingdom is engaging and supporting Saudi Arabia’s autocratic regime with its continued production of fossil fuels and abuse of human rights is unacceptable. We need to condition our relationships on these values, in all circumstances. We need to change how we think about the world, frame nation states and do diplomacy, even in matters as sui generis as Israel-Palestine.”

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