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Mind Meld:  Independent Thought in an Age of Grievance, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jul


My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.  Jane Austen

When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.  Ralph Ellison

Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Bertrand Russell

The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.  Joseph Heller

When we stop doing things for ourselves and expect others to dance around us, we are not achieving greatness. We have made ourselves weak.  Pandora Poikilos

There are other words for privacy and independence. They are isolation and loneliness.  Megan Turner

It’s good to have a healthy fear of horror.  Anne Quirk

As most of you know, yesterday was Independence Day in the US, a day ostensibly for us to count our many blessings and remember those in our past who, despite their often considerable personal flaws, helped make at least some of those blessings possible.

At a moment defined by deep social division, grave economic uncertainty and a stealth virus, I’m not sure how many blessings were counted yesterday.   And yet, in my neighborhood, our verdant parks were filled with what seemed to be happy family gatherings, some in groups as large as 50, albeit with no masks to be seen or distances kept.  The otherwise majestic Hudson River at the West Harlem Pier attracted its own crowd of families, even as the waters were mysteriously punctuated with the smell of dead fish while military aircraft roared overhead, a precursor to the endless booms from fireworks, legal and otherwise, that dominated the city skies until well past midnight.

The media conferred its own messaging for the day obsessing, as it so often does, on the ways and means of the US president and his enablers, specifically their apparent willingness to fashion a re-election campaign based on some alleged “white grievance” that they feel can be successfully exploited for political purposes.

There was so much of this “Independence Day” I simply could not relate to, though not necessarily to my credit.   I felt dismayed by the unwillingness of so many people to protect themselves from a virus which has given every indication of its ability to double back on victims and mutate to further complicate treatment options.   I felt dismayed that as our national debt balloons to unmanageable levels and people cling to what little remains of their economic viability that we somehow still think that military fly-overs and taxpayer-funded political rallies (and golfing outings) are more important than clean rivers and health care access.   I felt dismayed that it is still possible for political candidates to run for office in this world based on the idea that “white people” represent some generic category of humans who have somehow or other been screwed over in the global commons, that “we” are endlessly entitled to more than our share and that it is appropriate that others “dance around us” while we delude ourselves about the sanctity and reliability of our commitment to all that is good and right in the world.

And I felt especially dismayed that notions of freedom and independence are exploited so shamelessly by those who often haven’t given a second thought to what that means or, more pointedly, what that requires of us in return. Thus many are left to believe that we are “free” merely when we get to do what we want; and this at a time when the well-worn truism that “freedom is for persons with incomes” has perhaps never been more relevant in our recent history.  While too-many of us grind our teeth and take offense at the thought of wearing a mask or keeping physical distance, more and more face economic hardship and difficult choices between home care for children and showing up at low-wage jobs that barely meet the caring threshold.  At the same time, more and more of us are having our consumer and political preferences manipulated and massaged in ways we refuse to acknowledge or, at times, even gleefully accept. More and more of us have misplaced useful distinctions between the aesthetic and the ethical, presuming that “what we like” is what is good for us and others, that our “tastes” in things remain our “guidestar” regarding how we behave and what behavior we are willing to tolerate in the rest of the human race.

Ironically, COVID-19 has exposed fashions and fault-lines in my country (and beyond) that have actually been trending for some time.  We cultivated wariness and suspicion towards each other long before the virus compelled most of us to “keep our distance.”   Millions of people were living on the economic edge long before COVID forced (and will continue to force) a shut-down of so many local businesses and economies.   Inequalities in the political and economic realms have long been grotesque and have only increased under our current viral cloud.  We have long struggled to minimize the scapegoating that has accompanied our dubious claims of “exceptionalism” long before so many of our current “leaders” turned responsibility-dodging into an art form.  Many have suffered from sometimes debilitating levels of loneliness and social isolation that have only been made more acute through a series of lockdowns and quarantines that, in the short-term at least, promise only episodic periods of relief.

On top of this, our almost generic lack of thoughtfulness about the urgent needs of our planet and our responsibilities towards generations to come is perhaps the most tragic of this moment’s incarnations.  On the whole, where the future of our planet is concerned, we are still taking away far too much and giving too little of ourselves in return.

In this difficult present, it is apparently fine for health care workers to risk their lives to save those reckless persons for whom mask wearing has become some sort of political litmus test.  It is apparently fine for some people to attribute evil intent to others who want their country to honor promises to equal opportunity and social justice. It is also apparently OK for some people of elite up-bringing and education to denigrate and exploit the alleged “unwashed masses” whose purchases line their pockets and to whose aspirations for life they couldn’t possibly give a second thought.

I’m not sure where the “freedom” is in all of this, aside from the freedom to be mean.  The current moment speaks more loudly of our emotional fragility and cultural isolation, our manifest unwillingness to escape the ideas and expectations of our tribes, our inability to see beyond our personal grievances – legitimate and not — to a broader grievance to which we have contributed in our own way and which blithely places millions of God’s children on the precipice of ruin and despair each and every day.

On this US Independence Day weekend, I’ve gone back to review a few of the many seminal thinkers and writers who would never endorse my feeble attempts at policy and cultural analysis but who have influenced me nonetheless.  And one of their most important influences is the fierceness with which they set out to examine and overcome the impediments to genuine freedom which we routinely place in our own way.  I so admire their fortitude to gaze upon a “pit of hell” largely of our own creation; their courage to face-down attempts to intimidate and silence; their wisdom to understand the relationship between freedom and self-discovery, its healthy and the unhealthy aspects, our hidden-truths and self-deceptions; the horror in the world for which they were able to cultivate both a “healthy fear” and a determination to make the world much less horrible –much less frightening — especially for those many vulnerable persons worldwide who know deprivation more intimately than they might ever know freedom.

There are certainly levels of loneliness and isolation that can accompany such an examination, even one that is liberally coated in kindness, empathy or appreciation.  We live in an age which seems to have largely solved the territorial dynamics of self-governance but not the dynamics germane to governance of the self. Ours is a time when the “freedom” to believe what you will has little reference either to evidence or to social consequences beyond our own circles; when the numerous errors and even cowardice associated with national and global policy are mostly banal but at times rather vicious; when so many people are content to celebrate platitudes of freedom and independence, but recoil from any independent assessment of social and economic trends that they dare not exercise themselves and that they certainly do not recommend for others.

Thus there is the need, perhaps more acute than has been the case for some time, for independent minds that can challenge both social order and personal hypocrisy, that can expose the dark spaces that we seem intent on proliferating but also highlight the people and settings which are, even now, paving the way for greater freedom and justice, minds reminding us of a more connected calling and helping us sift through the debris which still impedes our progress towards a world we can all be proud to celebrate.


Charter School: Recovering the UN’s Larger Purpose, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Jun

Eliasson and WHD

Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. Abraham Joshua Heschel

We all marvel at headlines and highlight reels. But we rarely discuss the marks and scars and bruises that come with breaking through glass ceilings. Elaine Welteroth

It’s easy to get discouraged about the marathon that you are only a fifth of the way through. Josh Hatcher

Tradition is a good gift intended to guard the best gifts. Edith Schaeffer

Today, we are divorcing the past and marrying the present. Today, we are divorcing resentment and marrying forgiveness. Today, we are divorcing indifference and marrying love.   Kamand Kojouri

As we fail our children, we fail our future. Henrietta Fore

Earlier this week, a European journalist whose work I greatly respect and who covers the United Nations as a regular part of his beat, wrote me to ask about how I was reacting to the UN’s COVID-restricted 75th Charter anniversary commemorations.

His own view, which I am mostly paraphrasing, is that multilateralism is in grave danger, that the UN now matters to fewer people than the UN itself imagines, and that the current round of introspective celebrations are unlikely to change much in the world at large.  There is reason to take these laments seriously beyond the fact that seasoned journalists have heard enough “spin” in their professional careers to render them suspicious of any claims of progress or reform, either at individual or institutional level.

The UN on VTC did in fact have a busy though not altogether reassuring week, culminating in Friday’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter, a document more referenced than read; one which lays out normative and procedural guidelines for the international community despite the fact that too-many members of that community, including at times its most powerful members, have treated the Charter with more indifference than reverence. Such indifference was manifest in two of the most challenging discussions of the UN week, both in the Security Council, one on the Middle East and the other on Children in Armed Conflict.

The first of these focused on the imminent threat by Israel to annex portions of what are widely recognized as Palestinian lands in the West Bank, a move sure to increase regional instability, a move roundly criticized by Council members (other than the US), Arab states and UN Special Coordinator Mladenov and which was justified by Israel based on “biblical claims” rather than on Charter values. Indeed, this move towards annexation was described by South Africa as simply the logical next step in a long sequence of illegal settlement activity which the Security Council has resolved to end but has taken few concrete steps to do so. As the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Palestine noted at this same meeting, if the Council had been responsible all along in implementing its own resolutions, peace in the region would likely “already be a reality.”

And then there was the discussion on Children and Armed Conflict, a thematic obligation of the Council that has long-attracted considerable interest and resources from other parts of the UN system. And yet, as Belgium (a leader on this issue) lamented during this past week’s session, “we have little to celebrate.”   Despite what our often our best efforts, abuses committed against children continue to rise in number.  The “annex” to the Secretary-General’s annual report focused on states that commit or enable such abuses continues to face accusations (and not without merit) that its reporting is “politicized.”   And the ultimate solution to what UNICEF director Fore referred to as the vulnerabilities of children to conflicts “completely beyond their control” is (as also noted by Indonesia and others) the elimination of armed conflict itself.  That the Council cannot even agree to support the Secretary-General’s call for a “global cease fire” is cause for considerable consternation regarding its ability  (and that of the UN as a whole) to, as Fore put it, return to children “what has cruelly been taken from them by conflict.”

Neither impending annexation nor the pervasive assault on our common future represented by conflict-related abuses of children were directly mentioned during Friday’s commemoration of the signing of the UN Charter. But it was clear that speakers understood at some level that the UN system is suffering from wounds that are not all about COVID-19 or the unwillingness of the largest powers (and their allies) to subsume their national interest to the global interest.

Indeed, some of what ails the UN is both broad-based and self-inflicted, owing in part to the fact that, much like in our personal lives, strengths and weaknesses often emerge from a similar source. As the president of the General Assembly rightly noted on Friday, we must “bring into the UN the many voices previously excluded from global policy.” And indeed the UN’s 75th year has been characterized by “global conversations” orchestrated by the UN and designed to bring more of the aspirations and expectations of the global community to the attention of diplomats and UN officials. And yet, these “voices” are themselves not often sufficiently representative, voices that are linguistically-sophisticated, well-educated and often attached to large NGO interests, voices that make for good video but don’t necessarily seal the deal in terms of how the UN bubble takes stock of those persons most in danger of “being left behind.”

And then there was the typically excellent presentation by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed who acknowledged that people often don’t understand what the UN does, the multiple ways in which it addresses human need and builds consensus for change.   But the flip side of this is that so much of the UN’s often-remarkable humanitarian activity is in response to armed violence which could have been but was not prevented, violence which the Security Council is mandated to address but which is dependent on political will and national priorities largely generated in national capitals rather than around the Council oval itself, priorities too often tone-deaf to the cries of the frightened and incapacitated.

Moreover, while an effective consensus on global policy can be the conduit to an equally effective implementation, such consensus can easily and often become an end in itself, a job half-finished that is treated as a completed product, as though resolution language alone can build political determination to address the multiple challenges that now literally threaten our common future, as though wanting change and making change are cut from the same cloth. As DSG Mohammed herself recognized during the Charter commemoration, we need to build consensus “but we need consensus with ambition,” consensus that leads to preventive or protective actions far beyond the mere acknowledgment of global problems which, in many instances are already inflaming unmanageable quantities of anxiety and discouragement.

We have long understood that assessments of persons and institutions are largely a function of the level of expectations we have of them. And it may be the case that in striving to “preserve multilateralism” we are in danger of raising expectations beyond capacity, that we now risk making more promises that we can likely keep and that are merely to be heaped on top of expectations already raised and then disappointed. Still it is right for the UN to seek to raise its levels of ambition, and there is evidence in areas from peacekeeping to food security that the UN is committed to doing just that, is determined to actively promote a human security framework that, as former DSG Jan Eliasson noted on Friday, is less about the endless acquisition of weapons and more about shrinking inequalities, increasing health care access and healing our climate.

This and more is surely worthy of celebration, an acknowledgement of progress made, problems fixed and lives extended. And indeed a case could be made — including in my own life — that we don’t actually celebrate enough. But a secure future for our children will require more than celebrations, more than resolutions, more than high sounding words and promises that appear emptier from the outside than those who make them imagine them to be. The key here, I am convinced, is less about infusions of resources (our current institutional obsession) and more about infusions of active reverence – reverence for the high calling we have chosen and assumed, a calling that stretches beyond the borders of state and NGO mandates, a calling which requires us to examine the ideas, structures, traditions and working methods to which we have long been betrothed and “divorce” those which are no longer worth “guarding,” those which impede and distract, which convert urgency into indifference and which allow us to believe that we have crossed the finish line of a marathon that in fact has many kilometers yet to go.

At this precarious moment with “scars and bruises” to spare and expectations running ahead of will and capacity, we would do well to recapture some of that “reverence and appreciation” which are the hallmark of genuine celebrations. These are the attributes – more than money, more than political resolutions, more than ageing multilateral structures, perhaps even as much as the grand Charter values and traditions still worthy of preservation and respect –which will allow us to push through this treacherous, angry, divided, skeptical moment in our history.

Moreover, the presence of such attributes may ultimately determine whether or not, at the end of this current bottleneck of human possibility, we will have failed our future.

Nightwatch: An Ode to Fathers and Their Complex Roles, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Jun

We are formed by little scraps of wisdom. Umberto Eco

Once, at the hardware store, Brooks had shown me how to use a drill. I’d made a tiny hole that went deep. The place for my father was like that. Elizabeth Berg

Dignity, he said, lifting his half-lasagna into its box, is no detail. Aimee Bender

He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust. Kurt Vonnegut

I’d only seen him as my father, and as my father I had judged him. There was nothing to do about that now but add it to the catalogue of my mistakes. Ann Patchett

We never get over our fathers, and we’re not required to. (Irish Proverb)

No, he would never know his father, who would continue to sleep over there, his face for ever lost in the ashes. Albert Camus

Today is Father’s Day, another opportunity for those in my society  (and others) to sentimentalize a role that is the focus of much attention but little understanding, a role about which we tend to have many expectations but about which we are, collectively at least, essentially incurious.

This day also provides a rare opportunity for me to write about men, not as genre or essence, not as an embodiment of some larger, nefarious, patriarchal imposition on the unwary, but as beings with many layers of complexity – of privilege and discrimination, as perpetrators and victims of violence, of the bearers of unearned power and influence and those many men whose lives and aspirations have been undermined and even ridiculed in both social and economic spheres.

While we rarely talk about such things in multilateral spaces, spaces in which “gender” has come to mean “female” or other, non-male incarnations; spaces in which we speak of “disproportionate impact” at every turn as though we know enough about “impact” to determine the who, how and what of that; it is clear, to me at least, that the wholly-appropriate attention to women’s inclusion has pushed to the side the uncomfortable reality that “leaving no-one behind” will also require much more policy attention to the lives of men and boys than we are currently paying.

The fatherhood that is, for many men, at the heart of their complexity is casually celebrated on this day and little regarded the rest of the year. Indeed, being a father still ranks as one of the easier things to become and one of the harder and more thankless things to do well. For those who willingly discharge their biological function but subsequently neglect the social and nurturing consequences, we have appropriate means of social approbation. But most fathers don’t fit that mold. Most want to do some approximation of the right thing by the children they sire, even if they are at loose ends regarding what that might imply in practical terms — how to protect, how to discipline, how to educate, how to fulfill largely unstated expectations amidst an often-bewildering and rapidly-shifting cultural and gendered landscape.

Much like with mothers, there is no blueprint for fathers. We have collectively compiled a longer list of things we “know” that fathers have neglected to do for children than what they have done and could do more of, a list that mostly recognizes what is best for children but which offers scant guidance regarding how to cultivate relationships with children that can persevere through all the social upheaval of our times, all the social and technological shifts that promise empowerment for some and an undignified marginalization for many, including many fathers.

This fatherhood thing is no simple task, and it is made even more complex as the substance and iconography of “maleness” shifts (as it should) while many expectations of “father” remain largely intact, expectations both numerous and largely lacking in sensitive interrogation. We don’t ask many good, emotionally-probing questions of fathers, even when we are older and able to do so, and especially within the families where most of these expectations occur. This discursive deficiency is equally notable in families of limited means or of cultural minorities, the millions of families with fathers who don’t have the luxury of staying home during a pandemic to “bond” with their children, who instead have to get up and ride the buses and trains to “essential” jobs that aren’t paid or protected “essentially,” jobs that confer little or no dignity, that leave people drained of emotional and physical energy after long shifts, and that then consign them to their worry throughout the return ride, praying to some deity or other that they aren’t bringing the virus home with them along with their barely adequate paychecks.

Are these “essential” but multiply-exhausted workers deemed to be “good” fathers or not? Are they responsible fathers or not? And how much do any of the rest of us actually care about their journeys, how they actually feel about their roles and obligations, the toll exacted on these men who, in some cases, are trying to fulfill a challenging responsibility incompletely understood, and trying to do so in a society that privileges neither themselves nor their progeny, a society that devalues their social class every bit as resolutely as it now devalues their migration status or racial and ethnic origins?

The title for this post was appropriated from an iconic Rembrandt painting (which was actually renamed long after the artist’s death as its multi-layered varnish darkened) and which had previously become the inspiration for an overnight program for kids and their guardians that I ran for a few years (many years ago) at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. The program was characterized by diverse activities for kids, religiously-focused and not, in what still represents an overwhelming, mysterious space, especially so at night.

For the adults present it was also a time to reflect on how and what we “watch” for our own sake and to enhance the well-being of children. And what we often concluded is the importance of “watching” in at least two aspects: first to be attentive to the protection and other needs of children as they grow, including the ways in which our relationship to them needs to evolve as their personal and social contexts evolve; but also to ensure that those young people who “watch” us, who look to us to model the “scraps of wisdom” that will help define their future lives, are hopefully seeing in us at the very least a good measure of what we want them to see in the world; are able as well to take away from their years with us the skills and life-lessons that we most wanted them to learn.

Successful “watching” in this sense requires in part a different type of conversation. Many of us after a certain age can admit that we still routinely judge our fathers but typically fail to see the person behind the role, fail to ask the sincere and probing questions which can get behind the scenes of their original aspirations for their children as well as their best (and worst) attempts at modeling, questions which acknowledge that fatherhood is a complex human endeavor more than a role to play, more than a caricature of caregiver, critic and/or provider.

Indeed, we collectively tend to avoid questions such as these all year long including in our hallowed halls of policy. But on this day, while with family members and other loved ones, as fathers in many settings open their Father’s Day cards and even pick up the checks for their own Father’s Day lunches, let’s all pause for a moment to consider how an always-challenging and often under-appreciated presence is increasingly and unhappily being pushed towards even greater challenge and emotional isolation.

The people who cherish their fathers and the people who disparage them align with the view that fatherhood still matters profoundly, that the “hole” fathers metaphorically drill in their children is often quite deep. We may never get over our fathers, and may never want to, but we can commit a piece of ourselves on this day to understand more about how and why they drilled, how and what they watched, day and night, for the sake of their progeny.  For those old enough to ask and fortunate enough to have fathers around to respond, such indication of interest, I suspect, would be among the greatest gifts that any father could possibly receive.

In Defense of the International Criminal Court, Limited Sovereignty and Global Security, Professor Hussein Solomon

15 Jun

Editor’s Note:  Dr. Solomon has graced us with another of his insight-filled writings, this time providing reflection on and historical context for the US president’s recent decision to sanction members of the International Criminal Court pursuing investigations of atrocities committed against Afghanistan citizens, including by US troops.  This decision drives another wedge between the US government and global efforts to ensure accountability for the most serious of crimes, many of which have certainly been committed in Afghanistan over many years of conflict.  This piece is longer than most for us, but is worth your time. 

US President Donald Trump has launched an all-out legal and economic offensive against the International Criminal Court (ICC) following its decision to investigate war crimes in Afghanistan committed by all sides, including by the United States. The Trump Administration’s tirade against the ICC, its talk of sovereignty and international law, ignores the fact that the war in Afghanistan has resulted in more than 100,000 civilian casualties according to the United Nations. Ignoring this grim statistic suggests that impunity for such crimes should be the norm. Such impunity of course, makes a mockery of civilized norms regarding the sanctity of life and accountability for abuses.

The US, it should be noted up front, does not object to the ICC rendering judgments in situations which suit US policy interests. In the Security Council, the US offers verbal support for the work of the ICC in places such as Darfur and Libya as well as for prosecutions of persons accused of committing atrocity crimes in African states. However, this “support” does not extend to any insinuation of jurisdiction over actions committed by US military or civilian personnel which, if they were committed by Libyans or Sudanese, would most assuredly be classified as war crimes, even by the US itself. Moreover, the US is determined to use its influence to shield allies (read Israel) from any consequences stemming from ICC investigation of abuses in Palestine.

More worryingly, the rhetoric from Washington eerily echoes that of tyrants who have engaged in the internal repression of their citizens and then decried any form of sanctions or other coercive measures, arguing that this violates their state’s sovereign integrity. In this, the Saddam Husseins and Slobodan Milosevics of the world are drawing upon a particular philosophical tradition which views sovereignty as protection against external influence in a state’s affairs. Sovereignty, as a legal and political construct, arose in Europe at a time when medieval feudal states slowly gave way to absolutist nation-states. Commenting on this Francis Deng noted that sovereignty developed ‘as an instrument of feudal princes in the construction of territorial states. It was believed that instability and disorder, seen as obstacles to stable society, would only be overcome by viable governments capable of establishing firm and effective control over territory and population’.

As the old social order decayed and crumbled, absolute monarchs were installed all over Europe; and each of these had their own praise-singers and sycophants justifying the role of monarchy in a ‘New World Order’. In England, this saw Hobbes translating the social contract as people surrendering all their rights to a sovereign Ruler. In France, Jean Bodin also endorsed this view and thus this philosophical tradition contributed to the rise of the absolutist monarchy and the nation-state in Europe.

This did not mean that this philosophical tradition, which was soon transformed into an established orthodoxy, did not go unchallenged. A rich and varied alternative discourse could be heard above the cacophony of the monarchist sycophants. Other social contract theorists such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau stridently argued against the notion that as part of the social contract, the people transferred all rights to a Sovereign Ruler. From this emerged the idea of limited and popular sovereignty–that the Ruler had a clear but limited mandate from the people and that its violation by the Ruler could justify popular resistance to that Ruler.

Of course, Locke’s and Rousseau’s ideas were not entirely unique and drew upon the earlier works of Althusius. This German Calvinist, who drew inspiration from ancient theories of popular rights, argued in 1603 for the ‘revolutionary right of active resistance to rulers who violated their contract’. This view was later endorsed by Suarez, who argued that ‘the Ruler always remained limited by positive law and the permanent rights of the People’. Similarly, the German philosopher Wolff, argued that the people were free to choose how much power to devolve upon government and how much to retain for themselves.

By the 1780s the fierce debates between supporters of absolute monarchy andthe proponents of popular sovereignty took a new twist with Kant arguing that the state, as opposed to an absolute monarch, was the agent and representative of popular sovereignty or as Rousseau put it, the ‘general will’. As with Hobbes’ sovereign, Kant’s state ‘absorbed all popular rights including the right to rebel or disobey’. Fueled by the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution which heralded a new class structure in Europe and North America, Kant’s notion of a sovereign state supreme in its domestic jurisdiction and free from external influence became the norm. The sovereign nation-state also became the norm in Africa following the 1885 Berlin Conference, which carved up that continent into European colonial territories.

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, it is increasingly clear that the myth of sovereignty meaning national governments being supreme in their territorially defined jurisdictions, is cracking. The Afghanistans’, the Somalias’ and the Yemens’ clearly illustrate the inadequacy of the concept in these troubled times. It is also clear that ‘even as the traditional concept of sovereignty erodes there is no presumptive, let alone adequate replacement for the state. The locus of responsibility remains with the state for the promotion of citizens’ welfare and liberty and international cooperation. For academics, then, the challenge is to rethink the notion of sovereignty in an era of interdependence that has witnessed profound global change. Highlighting the enormity of this challenge, former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali stated: `A major intellectual requirement of our time is to rethink the question of sovereignty not to weaken its essence which is crucial to international security and co-operation, but to recognize that it may take more than one form and perform more than one function. This perception would help solve problems both within and among states’.

Supporting this shift in intellectual discourse has been social developments that contributed to a radical change in the global strategic landscape, and which enabled key policymakers to be receptive to these new ideas. The first of these movements is the process of democratization that has been gathering tremendous momentum from the nineteenth century. This has increasingly challenged Kant’s notion of the state as the embodiment of all popular rights. In an era where a democratic ethos prevails and where violations of human rights are quickly beamed via satellite into people’s homes or through ubiquitous social media, a popular consciousness has developed that state security (read sovereignty) is often purchased at the expense of human security. This has also led to the notion that in the final instance, the people are sovereign and that the state acts as the agent of that popular sovereignty. Unlike Kant, it argued against the notion of a state that absorbs all popular rights, including the right to rebel. Moreover, it also emphasizes that for the power of the state to be recognized as legitimate, it must be exercised responsibly and within the mandate given to it. Sovereignty constructed in this way means that the state uses its resources to enhance the human condition of its citizens – at the very least providing for the basic needs of its people.

Given the enormity of power the state has at its disposal vis-à-vis the individual citizen, it is equally clear that state power needs to be constrained. Here, new social contracts have evolved – Constitutions, Bills of Rights, etc. – clearly limiting the power of the state. These, together with an elected Parliament and an independent judiciary, are supposed to make governments accountable to the people and reinforce the idea that the state is an agent of popular sovereignty. The existence of several tyrannical regimes, however, clearly illustrates the limits of such domestic accountability, even in our own time. In such situations, it is becoming obvious that agents (states) who violate the trust of their people are increasingly being held accountable by the international community, in essence, to other states. But this raises another question: why should states pursuing their own national self-interest (in the classical realist genre) care about human rights violations/atrocities committed in other states?

The answer to this question relates to the second movement taking place in the world today. The myth of an independent sovereign state impervious to outside influence has been recognized by states as problematic for centuries. Since this myth, however, was crucial for the construction of nation-states from disparate peoples, states found it useful to perpetuate that myth. States realized that just as no two people can live in total freedom without encroaching on the freedom of others and therefore need the regulatory mechanism of the state, so too states need some regulatory framework, no matter how primitive, to guide the relations between states. Thus Evan Luard notes that: ‘Already during the Middle Ages conventions had emerged about some aspects of states’ conduct: for example, the treatment of heralds, declarations of war, diplomatic practice and similar matters. The rules of chivalry established a code governing the behaviour which knights should adopt towards each other in the battlefield . . . Canon law established rules about the conduct of war and other aspects of state conduct. In particular the doctrine of ‘just war’ laid down for what purpose war was justifiable and rules about the ways which wars should be conducted’.

From the nineteenth century onwards, there emerged the idea among some states that war was not a rational way to achieve their foreign policy objectives: that war was detrimental to both their political alliances and commercial ventures. Thus from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the Napoleonic wars to the Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907, states sought to create mechanisms which they hoped would prevent the occurrence of war and would regulate its conduct, should it occur. At the end of the First World War in 1918, this went a step further when states ‘accepted the discipline of compulsory conciliation of their disputes by signing the Covenant of the League of Nations’. At the end of the Second World War, and with the establishment of the United Nations’ Organization in 1945, states were once more willing to surrender a part of their sovereignty for the promise of international peace offered by the new organization. Under the new United Nations system, the international behaviour of states was subjected to the political authority of a Security Council that was more powerful than the Council of the League of Nations.

As time wore on, it became increasingly clear to states that their relationship with other states was not the only thing which needed regulation. It has become obvious that how states (agents) relate to their domestic constituencies can also serve to undermine international peace and security and hence endanger the national interests of other states. How does this come about? Samuel Makinda notes that ‘[j]uridical sovereignty without popular sovereignty can result in human insecurity.’ Indeed, social exclusion of a particular group from economic or political power, ethnic cleansing and the like, have resulted in millions of internally displaced and refugees as the current Syrian conflict demonstrates. These then become a source of regional insecurity as they flee into neighbouring states. In the process, the international order is itself threatened.

The politics of exclusion pursued by some states that deliberately undermine the human security of their citizens also adversely affect international stability in other ways. In some cases, those affected populations bearing the brunt of state repression choose to fight back as witnessed by the struggle of the Kurds for an independent homeland of their own.

Recognizing that insecurity anywhere is a threat to security everywhere, states have decided to band together for the cause of international security. For instance, acknowledging that an intrinsic relationship exists between agents (states) not acting responsibly towards their citizens and a failure to achieve international peace, states have in various international fora begun to regulate this domestic realm to ensure that states are in the final instance accountable to the international community — its laws and norms — for their actions. This resulted in the development of a normative code by which a state’s actions could be held up for scrutiny. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as a vast array of other human rights instruments became a part of these global norms by which state actions could be monitored.

The flip side to this, of course, is that those states which do not adhere to these global norms open themselves up for international scorn and even the imposition of direct coercive measures by the global community. In this regard, Kalypso Nicolaidis notes that state sovereignty can be effectively bypassed when ‘a state stops fulfilling the basic responsibilities and functions that go along with sovereignty’. This was a point made abundantly clear to the South African apartheid regime in 1974. In that year the international community questioned Pretoria’s right to sovereignty (read to non-interference) on the basis that it exercised power illegitimately, irresponsibly and to the detriment of regional peace and security. This resulted in the South African government being ousted from the UN General Assembly and replaced by the African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress given that these liberation movements were perceived to be more representative of the majority of South African citizens. Sanctions and an arms embargo were soon to follow.

Despite the development of global norms as exercised in the case of South Africa, the truth is that during much of the Cold War era, dictators such as Pinochet, Mobutu and Suharto held sway – nurtured and assisted by superpowers who displayed scant regard for the precepts of popular sovereignty or human rights. However, with the more recent demise of global bipolarity and the beginnings of a new international consensus regarding sovereignty as responsibility, the way has become clear for the further development of international law to ensure accountability – that states must act as responsible agents of popular sovereignty.

One of the earliest examples of this new consensus occurred in 1991 with UN Security Council Resolution 688. This demanded an end to Iraqi aggression against the Kurds in northern Iraq and authorized a military operation to establish safe havens on Iraqi territory. In this way international humanitarian organizations were guaranteed access to the Kurds for the purposes of providing both protection and humanitarian relief. At the time, the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations remarked that ‘this was the first time a significant number of governments denied the states’ right to the sovereign exercise of butchery.’ Since then the UN Security Council has authorized forcible intervention in Somalia in 1992 and Haiti in 1994, as well as in Yugoslavia and Libya.

The advent of forcible intervention in the affairs of a state represents a watershed in our theoretical understandings of sovereignty in the current international system. Dan Smith puts it this way: `The most familiar social science definition of the state is that it is the entity with the monopoly of the legitimate means of force within a given territory. Humanitarian intervention – especially forcible – breaks the states’ monopoly of force and rejects its legitimacy. It thus contradicts our understanding of the most basic function of sovereign statehood’.

In this way coercive intervention, at least in theory, reinforces the notion that sovereignty implies responsibility and that states that violate the trust of their citizens will be held accountable for their actions (or inaction) to the international community. Of course, developments in international law are not simply confined to the question of forcible intervention or other coercive measures but also to what John Dugard refers to as the ‘internationalisation of criminal law’. This is most clearly seen in the Pinochet case and in Tripoli’s handing over of the two Libyans to the Netherlands for trial under Scottish law for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1989. It has also resulted in the establishment of an International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha and the 120 states that signed an agreement in Rome in July 1998 to establish an International Criminal Court also serve to consolidate the trend. These are momentous developments and support the view that international law appears to be moving away from being premised on a system of sovereign states towards the development of a common law binding a world community of individuals. In the past states were the sole bearers of recognized legal status; in the twentieth century this hard shell has been breached and international law now concerns itself not just with states but also with individuals.

The twentieth century will certainly go down as one of the bloodiest centuries in the history of humanity. From the bloody plains of Armenia to the trench warfare of the First World War, the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Dachau, the killing fields of East Timor, Cambodia, Sudan; the former Yugoslavia and Congo, the twentieth century has witnessed human depravity reach new depths. Altogether 160 million people lost their lives in the century as a result of war, genocide and state killings.

Despite, an inauspicious start, the twenty-first century need not replicate the twentieth century’s bloodlust. There is a millennium feeling that such grave crimes committed by the Pol Pots and Assads are not simply crimes against the victims but an affront to our collective humanity and dignity and as such should not go unpunished. Reconstructing sovereignty as responsibility, remodeling states as agents of popular sovereignty whose purpose it is to enhance the human condition of their citizens, and who are accountable not only to their domestic constituencies but to the international community as well, will go some way to resolve the historic tensions between state and human security in favor of the latter.

None of this understanding of international law features in the Trump Administration’s antipathy towards the ICC which despite its flaws represents humanity’s best hopes and aspirations as we seek to tame the animal within us all.

Sea Sick: Moving Care Forward in our Stressed Out Planet, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jun

The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t.  Christopher Paolini

If the ocean ​can calm itself, ​so can you.​ We ​are both ​salt water ​mixed with ​air.​  Nayyirah Waheed

And the ocean, calling out to us both. A song of freedom and longing.  Alexandra Christo

Then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.  Herman Melville

The ocean is a place of skin, rich outer membranes hiding thick juicy insides, laden with the soup of being.  Vera Nazarian

Mist to mist, drops to drops. For water thou art, and unto water shalt thou return. Kamand Kojouri

This past week, in the video chat format which is likely to rule multilateral engagements until at least the end of July, the UN held discussions highlighting a series of global challenges, some of which have now come to dominate our collective consciousness while others have receded to the background, at least for a time.

At this week’s “Multilateralism in a Fragmented World” event, speakers highlighted the “universal aspirations” that the UN has had some success in both defining and meeting despite the fact, as noted by SG Guterres, that “we are not yet pulling in the same direction.”  This view was reinforced by Mary Robinson, chair of the Group of Elders, who not only highlighted some of the existential threats that the COVID pandemic has rendered more serious – including global hunger, gender-based violence and armed conflict – but also underscored the tendency of some governments to use the pandemic as “cover” for efforts to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms, including those of the journalists who seek to “make sense of an anxious and dangerous world.”

For months, the virus has been the UN’s core policy obsession, in part because of challenges to the messaging emanating from its World Health Organization but mostly due to the fact that so much in global policy and practice has been negatively impacted by COVID threats.  We have been forced to spend as much time adjusting to our new realities as we do addressing the large problems which confront us endlessly through our video screens. Indeed, the pandemic has thrown many of us back on needs and issues that are less structural and more personal in nature – the children whose education is on pause, the bills that can’t be paid on time, the physical distance that complicates emotional connection, the dreams and aspirations indefinitely put on hold.

It is harder to find energy for global issues when our private lives require so much vigilance, when the failure to wipe down a doorknob might provide a pathway to a deadly illness, when a child’s window for reading comprehension is slowly closing because of long breaks in schooling, when a dwindling bank balance foretells another round of unwelcome lifestyle adjustments.

And then there is the matter of racial justice, the chronic absence of which has filled streets in the US and around the world, calling attention to the numerous instances of excessive use of force by police against black and brown people (now including the killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta), patterns which merely exacerbate conditions of health and other inequalities and which only serve to widen chasms of mistrust between communities and the police forces which, in too many instances, have demonstrated an unjustifiably stubborn unwillingness to police themselves.

These two crises now dominate public consciousness and seem destined to do so for some time.  The images that fill our screens – the elderly gasping for air as COVID ravages their lungs, the protesters gagging on pepper spray so that our political leadership can pose for the cameras, the men and women pleading for relief from choke holds and knees on their windpipes – such disturbing images as these are not easily dislodged. Indeed, these images and the crises which lie behind them are almost more than many people can take, creating waves that rock their metaphorical boats and promise considerably more nausea than calm

We who work in policy know that part of our “job,” however challenging, is to find the words to remind people of issues and images that also constitute genuine crises but at this moment seem just a bit less compelling.  One of these is the declining health of our oceans, a topic which was featured last Monday during a large UN “World Oceans Day” event and a subsequent discussion later in the week on ocean governance.  For us, this is a high-priority discussion as sea levels rise, fish stocks deplete, coral bleaches, plastics over-run ocean eco-systems – this and more highlights the ocean’s now-compromised ability to sustain coastal livelihoods and absorb the carbon that, even during a pandemic, we continue to produce in vast, climate-unhealthy measure.

The discussions this week highlighted the many technological innovations which allow us to, among other things, survey the vast unexplored expanses of our ocean floor and remove plastics from our rivers before they find their way into seas and sea creatures.  Also highlighted were the evolving forms of ocean governance that are slowly expanding beyond areas of national jurisdiction with hopeful implications for marine protected areas, sea bed mining and the practices of shipping which has too often used the open sea as a surrogate dump.

While technology and governance are critically important matters to policy, for most people they simply do not sufficiently compel interest, certainly not in this time of viral spread and social unrest. Indeed, for all who are drawn to shorelines and their beach cultures, for all who fill boardwalks and fishing boats, most do not immediately connect their leisure with a responsibility to protect our planet’s most indispensable eco-system and the life and livelihoods which it sustains worldwide.

But there were other lessons from this week, other human reactions which oceans are still capable of invoking and which can help us see our way through crises both immediately compelling and looming at a distance. This was highlighted best during the World Oceans Day event by the Cousteau family, a name synonymous with the wonder, mystery and even “romance” of our ocean habitats, seas that were once a ubiquitous theme in our literary corpus with which we are now urged to reconnect.  It was good to listen to esteemed ocean advocates talking about seeking out stories — focused on oceans but also on water and ecosystems more generally – that can help reconnect people and planet, recapture some of the “freedom and longing” that constitute much of human aspiration, and motivate a greater sense of care for the resources that are critical to our common survival and that we simply cannot under any circumstances replace.

This to my mind is “romance” in the best sense – not so much steeped in sentimentalism as in a deep, rich and practical engagement with what a Namibian Minister this week referred to as our “interconnected normal.”  As the Cousteau family put it, “falling in love” again with the oceans (or for that matter our forests, deserts, rivers, wetlands and mountains) is worth the emotional investment, but it is also not enough.  We must, they insisted, “move care forward.”

Yes, that is the lesson directly relevant to our now-sick oceans –our increasingly indigestible “soup of being” — but also to other aspects of our stressed and agitated planet.  Move care forward such that access to food and health care is more abundant and equitable.  Move care forward such that our tendencies to discriminate and punish based on race and ethnicity are finally overcome.  Move care forward such that gross inequalities are narrowed and “protect and serve” becomes a mantra applicable equally to communities and its policing. Move care forward such that our collective disposition is to share more abundantly and horde less habitually.

And move care forward such that our planet, its oceans and other ecosystems, remain healthy enough to sustain the life that now appears to be more elusive than is actually the case, a life offering greater opportunity for justice, wonder and connection by all, and a life far less threatened than at present by bullets and bullies, by pandemics and pollution.

Bar Code: Upholding Standards for Institutions and Leadership, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jun

Teach your children humility by your words and actions, and they will give something to this world and not just take from it. Stewart Stafford

Without inspiration, we’re all like a box of matches that will never be lit. David Archuleta

Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when we come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect. Jonathan Swift

The city was like a fish dying on hard pavement, hopelessly gasping for air. Kien Nguyen

I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details, the way a planet looks smooth, from orbit. Ursula LeGuin

That is what I have been seeking to do- clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth-the naked shining truth. Agatha Christie

This has been an alternately terrible and glorious week, one in which the pursuit of equity and justice – and the occasionally violent response from agents ranging from law enforcement to self-appointed vigilantes – virtually forced a global pandemic off the top line of our global media.   That so many people worldwide rallied around the image of a singular, needless death in Minneapolis, placing their pent-up energies on the streets in the recognition of people used and then forgotten, people for whom “serve and protect” is merely a cruel reminder of promises not kept, people for whom a legacy of limited health care access conspires to make them disproportionate victims of a pandemic which is now poised to make a deadly comeback.

There is a column I read when I can’t take any more of the world and its habituated cowardice; it’s by Zach Lowe and it actually focuses on basketball.   The title is “5 Things I Like and Don’t Like” and while the subject matter is hardly earth shaking, the title is a weekly reminder to me of the importance – including to health and sanity — of seeking out “details” of hope and inspiration amidst the complex tumult which characterizes our human condition, now as much as ever.

Yes, there has been plenty to like and not like this week. The horrific tear-gassing of protesters so that the US president could have a photo-op in front of a church he doesn’t attend, holding a bible he doesn’t read, was followed by multiple dimensions of push back – from military leaders rejecting the use of their force against US civilians to police chiefs and mayors decrying the lack of inspiration and truth-telling from the highest levels of government as they seek to re-establish framework for policing that, in too many instances, has become overly-militarized, disconnected from constituents and defiant of any attempts to hold it accountable.

It has, of course, been a particularly rough stretch for law enforcement as well, having to enforce viral lockdowns and protest-related curfews, risking the reception or transmission of COVID-19, keeping a wary eye on elements in crowds of protesters seeking to hijack the central message for personal or political gain. And yet, despite the “domination” language emanating from a fenced-in White House, despite the fresh instances of police abuse whose images have been inundating my twitter feed, the people continue to come out and fill the streets, tired and battered though they may be, frustrated by the slow pace of change as they surely are, to give equity and justice another try. Indeed, so many people worldwide are giving justice another try in their own contexts, recognizing that we in the US are not alone in failing to honor our creed,  taking wider responsibility for equality rather than pushing off so much of this burden on law enforcement, lamenting that we have collectively been too passive (or even indifferent) in waiting for our governance structures to put out the smoldering embers of injustice rather than inciting the flames of destruction and despair yet again.

How good it has been to see so many younger and mixed-race peoples taking to the streets together, insisting that change will come this time regardless of how many batons are swung at them in anger, no matter how many protesters are harshly wrestled to the ground for no apparent reason, no matter how many erstwhile “leaders” huddle in their bunkers – real and metaphorical – and refuse to acknowledge both the “naked, shining truth” about our times and what far too many are currently doing to postpone a reckoning regarding inequality that was already long overdue.

And it is not only about race and policing; it is also about a climate crisis that takes the heaviest toll on economically marginal communities. It is about growing food insecurity, about massive conflict-related displacement, about oceans that are increasingly unable to sustain coastal economies, about educational opportunity (and the dreams to which it is often attached) slashed and deferred.

Justice in this larger sense requires much more than rhetorical values; it is also about the inspiration and will to make those values incarnate in our communities – for all not only for some, across borders and coastlines as well as within them. That so many people – and so many young people – whose lives have only recently transitioned from quarantine to protest, are now insisting on a “normal” that represents a clear departure from what has been, a “normal” that requires us to look after each other better and grasps that “what is good for me” is not nearly good enough; this is a clear and compelling sign of better things to come.

The “selfish and proud” poster that somehow found its way on to our twitter feed this week bears a hard truth far beyond its holder – that we continue to conflate the personal and general interest in a multitude of ways and under a multitude of “covers.” That we are all self-interested is beyond question; that we have isolated such interest within economic, political, enforcement and media bubbles, increasingly beyond the reach of reproach or accountability, has become a dangerous obsession. And that so much of our current leadership are blowing more bubbles than inspiring us to renounce our own is part of what motivates so many to take risks – including to their health – to voice both their displeasure at current inequities and their vision for a fairer and safer future. These are the ones who insist that the “matches” of change shall indeed remain lit.

And while we locate the words and policies to craft a higher bar for leadership at local and national levels, we must insist on more from multilateral processes as well.   At the UN for instance, the Security Council had a pretty good week with productive discussions on peacekeeping operations with force commanders, and resolutions consolidating political progress in the Sudan and reasserting the importance of impeding the flow of arms to Libya. Efforts to support regional counter-terror strategies in the Sahel beyond the provision of additional troops and military equipment were also welcome. Outside the Council, efforts to ensure a financial system that can accommodate sustainable development amidst the still-potent COVID challenges to national treasuries were also appreciated.

And yet here as well, the courage of leadership has yet to match the courage of the streets. The Council remains needlessly blocked on several matters – from accountability for violence in Cameroon and Syria to the peace and security implications of climate change and COVID-19. And while the “rioting” by some protesters and some police has garnered the attention of an already-overburdened UN human rights mechanism, official criticisms of racial injustice and police misconduct in the UN’s “host state” have often been tepid at best. It’s as though leadership is simply holding its breath that a US election in November will magically solve the worst of the fiscal and political tensions now plaguing US-UN relations.

What it will not do, of course, is resolve the dilemma of permanent Security Council members who refuse to inspire a higher bar of conduct in member states by reaching for that bar themselves. Nor will it resolve a growing concern amongst the millions who took to the streets this weekend that multilateral institutions, any more than national ones, are largely unable or unwilling to watch their backs.

As reprehensible as the deaths of Mr. Floyd and others in these weeks have been, as raw as the clashes between law enforcement and marchers have remained, it is unlikely that the justice rightly sought and long overdue will be attained through efforts to resolve this security dynamic alone.   We must hold our common leadership to a higher standard; we must raise the bar for those seeking power over our lives and futures; we must insist through our marching and subsequent voting that they contribute to justice for people and healing for planet rather than hiding behind largely unaccountable implementers merely content to “follow orders.”

Sadly, too many of our leaders have been content to leave people lying on the hard pavement, gasping for air. The protests of this weekend have demonstrated, however, that there is plenty of oxygen for change and accountability left in those lungs.

The Fire This Time, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 May

The world is moving so fast, that we have few true experts on tomorrow. All we have are experts on yesterday. Gyan Nagpal

Great magic asks that you trouble the waters. It requires a disruption, something new. Leigh Bardugo

The changes that are required are fundamental changes in the way we are living. Wendell Berry

The time is now proper for us to reform backward; more by dissenting than by agreeing; by differing more than by consent. Michel de Montaigne

Reforming ignorantly will consequence crisis and destruction. Kamaran Ihsan Salih

I don’t want to do away with corporations. I want them to make our cars, but not our laws. Doris Haddock

As I need to remind readers from time to time, especially those from the US, this space is only rarely devoted to an assessment of the US government and its performance, except insofar as that performance jeopardizes the multilateral space where we make our daily claim and only under the most unusual circumstances. There are hundreds of commentators of all political stripes, many seeming to incarnate that old saying of “the blind leading the blind,” that can scratch the itch of partisan critique.

This scratching is generally not for us. But this week, the unusual became the absurd. This is the week where deferred threats and pent up grievances dominated our news feed and showed my country, for all its bravado in spaces such as the UN Security Council, to be too-concerned with expanding the already bloated self-importance of a hyper-partisan leadership even if that means dishonoring our agreements, undermining our obligations, and stoking division among persons with grievances far more legitimate and longstanding than the plutocrats whose laments now dominate the airwaves.

Surely there are people smarter and better equipped than me to draw threads that connect the disruptions of the week – from calling the police on a New York City bird watcher to pulling the US out of yet another UN agency; in this instance the World Health Organization which has done much to alleviate suffering from diseases that have long had a stranglehold on global populations, especially in communities already wracked by poverty and environmental degradation. In this instance, it seems clear what the end game is – pin the COVID blame on an agency that, while not entirely above the political and multilateral fray, is not at all responsible for the failure of my government at the highest levels to heed the warnings of its experts and prepare the public to respond to a virus for which, in very real terms, delay is death.

And then there is the violence in Minneapolis which has spread to many US cities (and even some abroad), violence which is shocking only to people who are not paying attention to who we are now as a nation, not who we imagine ourselves to be. The sometimes-regrettable levels of disruption (including some clearly stoked by “outsiders”) that have followed in the wake of the George Floyd murder have spoken volumes of the psychic distress that all of us have been placed under – pandemic-fueled isolation coupled with economic distress for millions and a plenary indulgence for all manner of ethnic-based violence, racial intolerance, vile conspiracies and partisanship with few voices, left or right, willing to speak truth “to their own.”

This erstwhile “exceptional” nation is now thus only to the degree that we feel entitled to set the rules and then not play by them, to alternately engage and withdraw attention only when it suits our purposes, to abandon leadership where it might contribute to the common good and undermine the contributions of others to that common end.

We’re simply a mess now; at each other’s throats, stressed beyond tolerance, fearful for our children’s future, canceling each other out as though this is all little more than a video game. And while we piously proclaim, yet again, how violence against property will not help solve our racial and ethnic divisions, that piety does not extend to our copious structural violence nor reaches out in remorse to people of color – including the diverse nurses and doctors trying to rescue us from COVID – who have seen only regression and backlash with progress habitually over-promised and under-delivered.

It is hard, indeed, to be an “expert” in either present or future, to figure out who we are and where we are headed, to find that clear vision of what we truly represent, what we really care about, what our current levels of anxiety and dissonance communicate about our potential for justice and healing. But this week I recalled a graduate school seminar based in part around a remarkable book, “The Age of Reform” by Columbia’s Richard Hofstadter. Yes, it is US focused, yes, it is pre-enlightenment regarding its use of uni-gendered language, and yes it is scant on exploring the vantage points of women, indigenous peoples and others. But it is also a remarkably wise and well-researched tale assessing the complexities of our own past, the degree to which reforms in this country were largely the product of flawed individuals who were often getting in their own way and who were only episodically the people they thought they were.

In most of the period, as Hofstadter puts it, from William Jennings Bryan to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reforms were largely in the hands of two broad and often-diverse movements – populism and progressivism – each with contributions to make to cultural and legislative reforms and each contributing in their own way to the divisions they ostensibly sought to erase. Like in our own time, these reformers encountered a society that was racing ahead at unprecedented speeds, consolidating political and fiscal power along the way and creating inequalities that disrespected traditional patterns of rural life. Such patterns were then being controlled from cities like puppets, puppeteers who essentially saw workers as disposable cogs in the creation of vast fortunes that built the railroads and then gobbled up every bit of usable land for miles along the tracks.

The responses to the speed and greed which characterized much of the late 19th and early 20th century took forms that now resonate unhappily with our own experience. As described by Hofstadter these included scorn towards Europe and Europeans (the source of most immigrants of that time), “racial, religious and nativist phobias,” resentment of big business and the smug elitism of east coast urban areas, as well as of trade-unions and the intellectuals who often looked down on them. There were riots in these times and many repressive responses. A flurry of ideologically-driven publications seemed to “choose hatred as a kind of creed.” There were periods of considerable economic distress as well as contradictory motions – dipping our toes in the waters of multilateralism while most of the rest of our body preferred isolation. Conspiracy theories, then as now, were both abundant and toxic. Distrust of government and other “big” institutions was rampant and (as with so much else in our culture) largely unexamined.

And lest we forget, the progressives of that time shared many populist contradictions, to which one could add a patch of sentimentality regarding the capacity of people for moral reform and a bit of unconfessed complacency (much like our current era) regarding the full, ominous, destructive consequences of the economic havoc unleashed by “captains of industry.” Indeed, while progressives of that time retained the welcome interest in reforming themselves along with the world, there was also a sense (much like our own time) that many also increasingly represented a professional class closer to the interests of those they critiqued than the interests of those they ostensibly represented.

This is a bit longer than usual and I recognize that most of you weren’t counting on a book report. But it is instructive in this time of grave division and high anxiety to recognize the degree to which we have failed, over and again, to fully overcome the foibles of our now-distant past.  Collectively, we have not dismantled our petty discrimination and hatred, our stereotyping and conspiratorial thinking.  We have not insisted on the fairness and equity that ostensibly lie at the heart of our national creed.  We have held too tightly to our distrust of so much that is of foreign origin or governance-related, or of anything that is changing at speeds too rapid to fathom. We in our elite havens have endorsed the “rules” for the political, social and economic order and then disregarded those rules when it suits our convenience. We pass laws relevant to the contexts of lawmakers and their ilk but without concern for how their implications will play out in the many places that lie beyond the concerns of our large urban centers and their mighty institutions.

The stubborn complacency characteristic of our own time has been shocked again this week into anxiety and anger by senseless brutality, reckless governance, an invisible virus, widespread economic uncertainty and a nativism that has long defined a part of our national character and which has now been given some semblance of official permission, as was the case over a century ago, to stereotype and humiliate, to denigrate and intimidate, and much of this at the point of a gun.

Clearly our waters are quite “troubled” now, and it might well be the case that they will need to “trouble” further if we are to heal  current social divisions, honor promises rendered within and beyond national borders, institutionalize more of the courage and compassion of those who keep our pragmatic ideals afloat, make the “magic” that we are still capable of making, and become in fact the people that we so uncritically and enthusiastically profess to be.

We owe as much to those who endured our legacies of violence, greed and discrimination, but also to a future with its own complexities to manage, one that can certainly do without many of the obstacles which we continue to erect in our own path.

On Pandemics, Plagues and Security, by Professor Hussein Solomon

26 May

Editor’s Note:  We are grateful to be able to post these latest reflections on human security by Hussein Solomon.  Of particular interest to us is how his ideas on security have evolved over time, from weapons and big-power politics to the diverse and still-unaddressed challenges facing so many global constituents. We share his view that our lens on human security must continue to expand, integrating threats to communities not only to war rooms and board rooms. 

As a young political science undergraduate student phrases like “national security” made sense. It was the 1980s and the machinations of the Cold War rivals fascinated me. In the national context of apartheid South Africa, the National Security Management System of former President PW Botha drew my attention. The realpolitik of the time, both global and national, resulted in my avidly reading countless tomes of first-strike capabilities of the nuclear powers and regional destabilization strategies of the apartheid pariah. With the passing of time, I grew increasingly disillusioned with national security as a suitable fit for contemporary times on account of two reasons.

First, national security considerations were far removed from the lived experiences of ordinary people. A US factory worker in Michigan is more concerned with the closure of his local automotive plant than the machinations of Beijing in the South China Sea. National security always reflected the concerns of the elites of their respective society as opposed to the bread and butter considerations of the vast majority of humanity. In the African context, such elite-driven state security was often purchased at the expense of human security of ordinary citizens. Here the guns of the military were often directed at marginalized and hapless citizens as opposed to directed at keeping borders safe from a possible foreign invading force. National security thus needs to be expanded to incorporate the concerns and well-being of ordinary citizens.

Second, in this rapidly globalizing world, insecurity anywhere is a threat to security everywhere. The Covid-19 pandemic illustrates the point well whether one resides in Wuhan, Milan, Moscow, New York, São Paulo or Cape Town. The world is one and national security needs to be jettisoned in favour of more integrated conceptions of security.

The current locust plague sweeping across East Africa vividly highlights the need for more expansive definitions of security. This locust plague has been labeled by the UN as an “extremely alarming and unprecedented threat”. Currently, Sudan and South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda are all affected by swarms of locusts travelling at 90 miles per day and eating their own body weight in crops. To put matters into perspective, a swarm of locusts only one-third of a square mile can eat the same amount of food as 35,000 adults. This undermines food security across the region. To exacerbate matters, the lockdowns as a result of the corona virus has hampered efforts to eradicate the swarms. Regional governments are overwhelmed, as Helen Adoa, Uganda’s Minister of Agriculture has admitted.

This admission highlights the fallacy of national security in a globalizing world. Regional governments need effective regional organizations to support their efforts and need to partner with international organizations including the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, civil society and business to holistically respond to the threat posed. I write this paper on Africa Day, 25 May, a day celebrating African solidarity. This African solidarity stands in sharp contrast to the realpolitik and insular politics embraced by the concept of national security and its corollary, national interest. Sovereignty in defined areas needs to be ceded to regional organizations and global institutions in an effort to craft truly regional and global solutions. No one country can deal with either Covid-19 or swarms of marauding locusts.

The origins of the current locust infestation currently overwhelming East Africa also points to the imperative of integrated understandings of security. Climate change created the ideal breeding grounds for the locust population in the Arabian Peninsula to increase by 8000 percent. A phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole created unusually dry weather in the east which resulted in wildfires which so ravaged Australia. The same phenomenon, however, also created cyclones and flooding in parts of the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia. The resultant moist sand and vegetation proved the ideal conditions in which desert locusts could thrive. Aiding the burgeoning locust populations is the collapsed state authorities in both Yemen and Somalia ravaged by civil war and fighting Al Shabaab insurgents. As the writ of the “governments” in both Sanaa and Mogadishu hardly goes beyond the capital, neither country can craft even a national response to the locust plague. The origins of the swarms of locusts devastating east Africa link climate change, civil war, state authority and capacity and the Covid-19 pandemic. This stresses the need for holistic solutions which are rooted in expanded and integrated conceptions of security. We cannot afford to work in silos at national, regional or international level.

Extraordinary times call for more holistic conceptions of security. The Cold War is over and thus my undergraduate lectures on security are a poor fit to today’s realities. The world stands at a pivotal point much as it stood following the Thirty Years War in Europe and the resultant 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the 1815 Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic Wars and in the aftermath of the Second World War. We need to be brave and refashion our security architecture to reflect integrated, global and human security considerations.


Bubble Wrap: Unpacking our Digitalized Enclosures, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 May


For a bubble, even the gentlest touch is fatal.  Mehmet Murat ildan

The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.  Nadine Gordimer

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.  Oscar Wilde

What fools we mortals are to think that the plans we make are anything more than a soap bubble blown against a hurricane, a frail and fleeting wish destined to burst. Barbara Nickless

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.  Joe Klaas

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.  Flannery O’Connor

On a weekend when we celebrate the end of Ramadan and mourn the loss of the fallen on our various battlefields, I have spent much of the time cleaning out file cabinets filled with old letters.  Some of these letters were angry, some grateful, some filled with insight about the writer, the intended audience, the world at large.  But what was most revealing is the amount of care that went into them, page after page in longhand, people often younger than me committed to disclose and share, to make sense of a world which was often making none, to decipher and embrace the core of their being amidst a cacophony of conflicting and competing messaging, to transcend fleeting joys and hurts and find the north star within themselves to guide what would hopefully be a long life of care for self and service to others.

We rarely communicate like this anymore.   Our introspective longhand has become digital shorthand.   We have trouble sustaining attention of any sort let alone sustaining a train of thought that promises genuine insight, even possible breakthrough.   Our messaging is ubiquitous but thin; we “stay in touch” by dropping in and out of lives from which we extract highly-branded versions of key “incidents” but with less and less of the backstory that explains why such incidents actually matter and what longings might yet exist between what are often lengthening cracks revealing our obsessive efforts to convince others we’re OK when we may only be partially so.

As is often the case with these posts, I am preaching to the choir; but also to myself.

This week, for me, was immersed in communications-related issues.  It began with a “new” campaign-related initiative by the US Republican party and ended with what will hopefully be an important opening gambit in the UN Security Council examining how the cyberspace we are now reliant on to almost desperate degrees is digressing into “bubbles” of self-referential propaganda and even hate speech that directly threaten international peace and security.

The aforementioned campaign initiative was given a most interesting name:  The Truth over Facts Investigative Website which is designed primarily to highlight the gaffes of the US president’s political opponent, but which neither interrogates the president’s own slippery relationship to facts of any stripe nor breaks any new ground regarding our general confusion regarding how “facts” are and are not constitutive of a fuller “knowing” of the world and our own relationship to it, how “facts” divorced from context can just as easily reinforce our various cognitive bubbles as puncture them.

As someone whose long-ago graduate school experience was literally drowning in epistemological considerations related our diverse “ways of knowing” the world, I have long been a believer that data and truth are kissing cousins but not quite marriage partners.   I won’t waste your weekend on a protracted diatribe about the ways in which we misuse data by failing to properly contextualize it, or about the ways in which we use “facts” to place people in boxes that we don’t want them to escape or even use “facts” to justify an end to exploration rather than as the engine of its continued evolution.

But I will communicate this.  In my erstwhile-jaundiced view, the behavior of several leaders of major power governments during this pandemic has been nothing short of criminal, principally in its lack of humility, its unwillingness to consult and abide by those of greater knowledge, and its utter lack of urgency regarding the preservation of life.   It is certainly the case that scientists are learning more and more each day about the pandemic, its modes of transmission, effective treatment options, even the consequences of infection – from kidney failure in the sick to psychic depression in those merely fearful of sickness, but also with sustained periods of loneliness and of protracted economic uncertainty.

But the certainties that many seem to be looking for in this time of pandemic remain elusive. Yes, we have vaccine trials with results that are sometimes encouraging and we can generally ascertain when the viral “curve is flattening” and where relapses are most likely.  But do GDP or official unemployment statistics really communicate the “truth” about our collapsing and vastly unequal economies? Is “official” data on COVID-related deaths and infections the “truth” about our viral circumstances, or might matters actually be more dire due to people dying in places other than hospitals and tests yielding untrustworthy results?

It is alternately intellectually interesting and emotionally unsettling for me to watch public officials struggle with their COVID messaging in an environment where trust in officials is low across the board, where the “facts” of infection change regularly as we learn more about what works and what doesn’t, and when national political leadership seems more inclined to stoke anger and anxiety than coach it away.   As a result, too many people of all ideological persuasions feel abandoned to cope with the current uncertainty largely on their own, to pull the metaphorical blinds and double-down on the “bubbles” with which are most reassuring, even if those bubbles are riddled with half-truths, even if those bubbles only offer equally false choices between hard certainty on the one hand and conspiratorial make-believe on the other.

Our remaining confidence in authorities and experts seems now less about the credentials behind what we are being told and more about who is telling us, who we choose to believe, who is able and willing to confirm what it is that we have more or less already concluded about the world and what in it truly threatens us.

This week, the UN launched what it calls Verify, a useful initiative to combat the growing scourge of COVID-19 misinformation “by increasing the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information.”  Of course the test for Verify will be less about the accuracy and trustworthiness of the data it scrutinizes and more about the trust that the UN and its World Health Organization can garner as a responsible arbiter of the “truths” of COVID – what we know, what we don’t know, and why some of the rumors and conspiracies floating around the planet (and especially in the digital universe) do not pass the test either of facts or context.

Does the UN retain the capacity to do more than offer its version of competing narratives about the pandemic or, for that matter, the many other, science-relevant, global challenges also on its policy agenda?  Sadly for me, this is unclear.  As much of a proponent of science (and of the UN) as I have been all my life, I lament that we have misplaced so much of our capacity to educate people about what it is that scientific and medical experts can and cannot (yet) accomplish, to have an honest conversation with people about the nature and limits of scientific inquiry, the findings of science that might well eventually set us free but, in the short term, are almost as likely to “piss us off.”

We need to have those conversations in our schools, our communities and especially in bastions of social and political authority such as the UN.  No, our data is not static.  No, all of our facts are not situated in proper contexts.  No, our “authorities” are not always authoritative. Sometimes authorities do what we now mostly all do and much too often – re-purpose “truths” espoused as a manipulative pathway to get what we want rather than as a means of enriching our connections and the quality of our common life.

In reading this over, I recognize how naïve and old school it must seem to some readers, especially those who have given in to the modernist assumption that we can be expected to do no better than to encase ourselves in our bubbles of choice and then pray to whatever powers we might still acknowledge to preserve our bubble from puncture.  But puncture is inevitable.   Our bubbles might be lovely to behold but as even the reference dictionaries acknowledge, they are also fragile, temporary, fleeting, insubstantial, unable to withstand much in the way of the winds of change and the challenges of new lenses on truth that now buffer them routinely.

When those bubbles do finally burst, when disenchantment towards our governments and official expertise has been set loose, when the convenient untruths communicated by our digital media preferences start to unravel, when our resentments (and the entitlements to which they are often tethered) are allowed to overwhelm our collective solidarity even more than they already do now, then we have set the stage for fresh ugliness that even the excellent Security Council discussion on Friday on “digital threats” to peace and security could barely discern.  We have shaken and awakened our hunger, not so much for truth and the data to which it must remain attached, but for grievance-based vengeance, for our petty cancel culture and its righteous minions, for a “rules based order” created by powerful states and individuals who don’t play by the rules they advocate. And this is encouraged by a media and “information system” that often seems relentless in its attempts to manipulate emotions not help them reach maturity.

This is a larger problem even than the virus, even than the digital culture on which we increasingly rely and which now seems to offer many more opportunities to reinforce prejudice and distance than wisdom and connection.   We are being pushed into bubbles from many angles, but we often now offer little resistance and even less inclination to abandon their false security.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple as Oscar Wilde noted.  The question now is whether we have the “stomach” to pursue — with humility and even in longhand — the truths of our time along their winding, rocky path; and then create a post-COVID world of security, health, equity and beauty once we are fortunate enough to catch them.


Star Wars: Guidelines for Reaching our New Normal, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 May

Evola 2

The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.  Maya Angelou

It is hard work to control the workings of inclination and turn the bent of nature; but that it may be done, I know from experience. Charlotte Brontë

Something – the eternal ‘what’s the use?’ – sets its bronze barrier across every avenue that I open up in the realm of hypothesis.  Gustave Flaubert

Where there is not community, trust, respect, ethical behaviors are difficult for the young to learn and for the old to maintain.  Robert Greenleaf

Even eighty-odd is sometimes vulnerable to vanity.  L.M. Montgomery

The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes. Frank Lloyd Wright

We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Samuel Ullman

One of the challenges for me of writing these weekly messages is resisting the temptation to focus on issues of national interest rather than on human interest or, as my organizational mandate would suggest, the multilateral interest.

My own country is completely at odds with itself now.  We attack the very people trying to save lives and manage a generation-shifting pandemic.   We have allowed the stresses of the moment, egged on by some tone-deaf leadership, to justify the release of demons we would have done better to keep in quarantine – not only those flashing guns and symbols of intolerance in front of cameras and legislatures, but also those making fortunes off the misery of others, going so far as to consciously divert resources meant for struggling families to line their own pockets yet again.

In this time of viral threat, we have created no common symbols of mourning for the many persons we have lost, no places of public esteem for those who have honored their oaths and thrown themselves into the most harrowing medical emergencies. Our leadership misrepresents the times and its challenges, leaving us all to double down on the mistrust of institutions – and each other – that defines our era in many respects.

And neither has this been a moment of ringing endorsement for multilateral alternatives.   The World Health Organization is being scapegoated, UN peacekeepers struggle under external threats and mandate confusion in several global regions, the UN’s general budget is under strain –reeling from decisions by key member states to withhold assessed contributions — and the UN’s humanitarian relief functions are experiencing both resource limitations and access barriers that make it difficult to bring aid to the millions suffering under violence that we seem almost powerless to prevent.

And the eminent Security Council remains a place of some paralysis, consumed by big-power stalemates over COVID origins, Israeli annexation plans, remnants of the Iranian nuclear agreement, unabated weapons flows to Libya, and much more.   Council members, at the direction of their national capitals, have some successes to which they can point – notably in Sudan and Colombia.   But the presence of so many unresolved conflicts – and this at a time when the global public is becoming more restless, not less – raises the specter of new agenda items for the Council on top of those it has already demonstrated an inability to resolve in a timely and effective manner.

As with our own projects and ambitions, some of the Council’s under-baked mandates are related to the ways in which it does its business.  An as was the case on Friday, the Council has been willing to take up issues related to working methods, understanding at least in part that how we do our business is as integral to our success as what the goals of that business are.   In other words, the manner in which we go about reaching for the stars has much to do with whether or not those stars become attainable.

As is typical for these “methods” sessions, the Council brought in briefers who are well-known and reliable to their interests, briefers armed with suggestions such as improvements in the system of “penholders” and sanctions committees, of better preparatory processes for incoming elected members, of restraints on the length of statements made in the open chamber, of avoiding what one called “adopt and forget” peacekeeping mandates, of working more closely with other UN entities to keep the Council from becoming, as China noted, the policy equivalent of a “grocery store.”

But at best, and despite calls from the UK and others for the Council to “lead with innovation and urgency,” the day’s truth lay more in Vietnam’s statement (on behalf of other elected members) — that the COVID crisis has “laid bare” the current limitations of this Council.  It simply is not the case, as one briefer suggested on Friday, that the global public judges the Council on the number and content of its resolutions.  No.  We judge the Council on the practical impact of those resolutions, on the Council’s willingness and ability to insist that policy text results in tangible, improved conditions for the many millions who yearn for relief from war, famine and disease.   These resolutions should be understood as opening gambits towards genuine change, not as ends in themselves and certainly not as excuses to downgrade “seized” into some version of unresponsive.

Policy differences aside, there is a bit of “heart sinking” for me in much of the multilateral scrutiny that we try to perform.  Simply put, I can’t resist expecting more of the people making these decisions in these precarious times, people who, too often, are indulgent of the changes they are willing to make but not of the changes that they need to make.  In such a scenario, we can likely maintain some measure of our collective ambition but have lost in large measure our capacity to “reach the hearts” of people who need to believe in us – our goals and methods — more than they do at present if the stars in our firmament of peace and sustainable development are ever to be reached.

I have considerable sympathy for diplomats who are trying to steer an effective policy course amidst severe budget constraints and conflicting messaging from national capitals.  And I have particular compassion for those who have toiled in the fields of peace and human rights, of humanitarian relief and sustainable development, for so many years and who now find that work not only unfulfilled but considerably unraveled by a virus and the selfishness, corruption and ethno-centrism which it has unleashed.

Maybe we simply didn’t do things in the best way.  Maybe our own working methods have been as flawed as those of the institutions we critique.  Fair enough.  But as some in our world want desperately to get back to “normal,” in some instances at the point of a gun, we who have lived a long while under the shadow of different promise need to model a more honest, thoughtful and courageous way forward – to endorse ambition, yes, but not the folly and vanity that often accompany it, follies which for us can include a lack of both mindfulness and the practical respect and compassion that can reassure people that leadership is more than high-sounding words in elite settings uncontaminated by the ills that affect large swaths of global communities.

While life does indeed become more beautiful for some as they age, for others it portends grave physical and economic limitations as well as for those of us in policy criticism from the young who feel – and not without cause – that any abandonment by us of our ideals for the world and its peoples, or any indulgence by us in “what’s the use” cynicism, only serves to make their work to reach a new and better “normal” that much more challenging.  This we cannot, should not do.

We are in trouble now to be sure, but there is opportunity and possibility – and hearts looking for connection and reassurance — still within our reach.  We who have long been in this work have a special responsibility to reflect and encourage, to reach out respectfully to those poised to take over for us as well as those whom we may have overlooked over the years. And we must do this as best as we are able without malice, without vanity or ego, without “wrinkled souls,” modifying our wisdom to context but not abandoning the ideals that have inspired us, albeit unevenly, over our lifespan.

Together, we still have what it takes to “control the workings of inclination” that are, in this moment, bringing us to the edge of an economic, health and rights precipice.  And those of us who have been at this for generations still have a role to play in avoiding that cliff.  But as we age, roles and methods must shift.  Our task now is to demonstrate the will to make the changes that we need to make, not only those we are willing to make.