Cambridge, Mass. — ON first glance, Sissela Bok's agenda for the 21st century appears to be crowded with items. In a gently spoken English flavored with the accents of her native Sweden, she touches on a whole litany of problems that will face humanity in the next century: nuclear weaponry, world poverty, disease, illiteracy, unemployment, poor housing, the breakup of the family, child abuse, the atmosphere's ozone layer, and more. But above these, she says, ``there are really two overarching challenges.''
``The first one -- which is absolutely crucial, because if we don't meet that we're not going to have a 21st century -- is the problem of violence,'' she says.
The second centers on the fact that ``our technological advances have been so extraordinary [that they] have to some extent left us behind when it comes to the wisdom of using all that we are now capable of using.''
Mrs. Bok is deeply interested in solutions -- in what she calls the ``underlying needs'' of the next century. Standing out clearly in her thinking are the twin needs of developing ``trust'' among individuals and nations and then of creating ``the actual institutions for resolving problems and negotiating difficulties.''
Reduced to its essence, her agenda has one item on it: the issue of trust. Why? ``Because trust is, if anything, absolutely as important as the ozone layer for our survival.''
Trust, to this student of ethics, has nothing Pollyannaish about it. She looks askance at the word when it is mouthed by statesmen who do not demonstrate it through their actions. To Bok, trust is something built up among individuals and nations by repeated actions -- a basis for relations that are deep enough to permit negotiated settlements of the world's outstanding difficulties.
``There are a great many problems in our society that we absolutely have to work together at,'' she says, ``and it is not possible to work together at them so long as there is so very much distrust.''
In a morning's conversation in the elegant library of her pre-Revolutionary home here, where poet James Russell Lowell once lived, she builds her case carefully and thoughtfully.
``In the 20th century,'' she says, ``we have had more brutal forms of persecution and of violence than possibly any other century has known.''
In particular, ``there have been people who have written about violence -- the greatness of violence, and of persecution, and of bias -- like Hitler and Mussolini,'' she explains. ``And of course,'' she adds, referring to the 20th-century use of concentration camps and the development of nuclear weapons, ``we've had methods [of violence] that no other century has known, either.''
But she notes that such violence ``has found a countervailing response that I think is possibly even more extraordinary, which is the practice of nonviolent resistance.'' Citing Gandhi, King, Aquino SHE acknowledges ``a long tradition, certainly in religion and in philosophy, of nonviolence.'' But she says that ``the new aspect . . . in the 20th century has been the conscious use of nonviolent resistance to counter oppression and injustice and persecution.''
She cites Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King -- and, currently, Corazon Aquino, whom she praises for trying to carry on the nonviolent tradition.
But Gandhi and King, she says, were concerned not only with changing the large issues that affected entire societies. They were also, she says, ``very, very much concerned . . . with personal change among a great many individuals. And they were concerned with trying to counteract violence in one's personal life, in one's community.
``Gandhi used the expression, I think, of `zones of peace,' '' she says. ``If one could make one's self into a more peaceful individual [and] if one could [then] try to extend that into one's family, one would already have done quite a lot. If one could do something within the community, and perhaps within one's society, and keep very much open to the possibility of trying, however hard it is, to do it for the entire world -- it's this idea of forming a small zone and pushing outward that I think is very impressive.''
Does this lead her to feel that pacifist movements will have a strong role to play in the 21st century?
``I think that almost all approaches that try to move toward peace have something to be said for them,'' she says. ``But one problem I guess I see . . . with many peace movements all over the world,'' she notes, ``is that they are so focused on weapons.''
``I certainly would say that we have to do something about weapons -- we have to move toward disarmament, absolutely,'' she explains. ``But that is far from the only approach that we have to take. I think, if anything, it's more important to work at the political attitudes that nations have toward one another, and the various political actions that they choose to take.''
``The only way it's going to be possible to face up to that [problem of violence], I believe, is somehow to manage to reduce the distrust that presently exists [and] that makes it impossible to seek collective solutions,'' she says.
She stresses a warning from the introduction of a book she is working on: ``Merely to call for greater trust and kindliness, as many do, however, is once again useless, so long as the present strong reasons for distrust remain. Clearly, governments are right in not taking anything at face value when the stakes are so high. Caution and distrust will always serve national self-protection, and lapsing into naive trust . . . would be the height of folly.''
But the reasons for distrust can be reduced. ``There are many things that governments do that diminish trust all the time,'' she says. ``And it's [in] those areas that I think we have to try to put pressure on governments to stop doing those things.''
Trust-diminishing actions, she says, include ``such things as being unreliable with respect to treaties, being unreliable with respect to information -- issuing disinformation, for instance -- [and] undertaking various forms of hostility, subversively or secretly, that can only increase the distrust between nations.''
``I think it's very difficult just to have [superpower] negotiations with respect to arms,'' she says, ``while you're constantly undercutting the country in all these other ways.''
Of particular concern to Bok is the fact that such actions, which in themselves may seem innocuous, produce a cumulative erosion and slowly create distrust.
``There are many people,'' she says, who have simply ``given up. They're not in the peace movement -- they're not in any kind of movement. They've given up on the question of world peace, [and] they have often given up on their government. They may not be voting.'' Such people probably constitute ``the greatest danger'' to the governments of the future. Why? Because ``being so passive, they will in the long run be much more easily manipulated.''
``It can happen that someone can come along who is . . . quite a charismatic person and a demagogue,'' she explains. Such a person ``can manipulate those people who had allowed themselves to be so uninformed, because they care so little [and because] they are so much in despair about world events. They don't even read the newspaper very often. They are so uninformed that if someone comes and tells them something that really is a barefaced piece of misinformation, they may believe it -- and they may get drawn into all kinds of forms of violence, or of hatred of nationalities or races.''
``The right attitude,'' she says, ``is [to] try to build [what Gandhi called a] zone of peace or trust -- and then not to assume that everything outside [that zone] is lies and broken promises and manipulation.'' That assumption, she says, ``really is a calumny on the many public leaders'' who are genuinely trying to create trust.
``In the 21st century,'' she says, ``if, as I do believe, the issue of trust is so central, then [government leaders are] going to have to systematically think through what kinds of actions increase trust, and what kinds of actions decrease it.'' Government and morality `WHAT that's going to mean,'' she says, ``is that [officials] will have to take moral principles into account -- whether or not they really want to.'' They will have to realize that ``the principles are important from their own point of view of survival -- whatever their own personal moral views are. They're going to have to realize that if they want to be trusted, if they want to be able to negotiate, if they want to try to solve some of these important problems that maybe they're going to manage to solve, they're going to have to do it on a basis of trust.''
And that, says Bok, leads to the ``other big change that we're going to have to undertake,'' the need to support international institutions.
``It's not going to be possible in the 21st century for countries to go it alone, so to speak, and expect that these vast overarching problems will be solved,'' she says. ``I feel that we have to be . . . much more supportive of international organizations and of what some people call interdependence -- the notion, the acknowledgment that we are dependent on really everyone else in the world.''
Needed, she says, is a strengthening of ``an international framework that now is very hampered.'' She worries that ``there's been a tremendous pulling back'' from international organizations by the United States.
``We need to support the World Court,'' she says, and ``to accept its decisions'' -- a reference to the Reagan administration's refusal to accept the court's jurisdiction in a case involving Nicaraguan charges against the United States in 1985. ``So should the Soviet Union, once again in its own long-run best interest.''
She also notes that ``we need to play an important role in the United Nations'' -- despite the fact that ``the United Nations is not all that one might hope.''
``All those international organizations, in all their many ways discussing all the different issues -- they are what we have,'' she says simply. `A virtuous circle' THIS interdependence -- and the realization that what seem to be separate items on the agenda are all interconnected -- is ``something that we've discovered more and more during [the 20th] century,'' she says.
That interconnectedness, for Bok, has two sides. On the positive side, she notes that her father, Gunnar Myrdal, a prime architect of the Swedish welfare state, called such interconnectedness ``a virtuous circle.''
``We know about vicious circles,'' she says, ``where everything just goes down and down and down. But there is also the possibility of sparking an action with respect to something, for instance, like civil rights.'' Such an action may reach far beyond its small beginnings and touch scores of interrelated problems -- housing, education, disease control, and so forth.
The dark side of this interconectedness is what Bok calls ``the danger of defeatism and passivity.'' If ``everything is connected with everything else,'' some people may ask, `` `What's the use of doing anything, where do I come in?' ''
``Here is where I think again it's so important to say [that] what any individual does will make some small difference,'' she says. ``If it is working for the homeless or working with the aged, working within your own family with a sick child, working to improve your relationship with a brother or a sister, or in the community or in the nation -- those activities, small as they may be, can have an effect, [if only] a marginal effect, on the largest questions.''
Next: Douglas Fraser, labor leader, Oct. 28.