Tag Archives: anxiety

Thin Ice: Coping with the Planet’s Many Demons, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Oct

Societies in decline have no use for visionaries.  Anais Nin

Civilized people don’t put on airs; they behave in the street as they would at home. Anton Chekov

When humor goes, there goes civilization.  Erma Bombeck

One person’s ‘barbarian’ is another person’s ‘just doing what everybody else is doing.’  Susan Sontag

We are made to be crazy by other people who are also crazy and who draw for us a map of the world which is ugly, negative, fearful, and crazy. Jack Forbes

This piece is dedicated to the memory of the former Ambassador of Palau to the United Nations, Dr. Caleb Otto.  Dr. Otto was a man of integrity and faith, a gentle soul who understood the frailties and limitations of the human condition but who continued to nudge us in the directions of sanity, integrity and health.  He was one of the best diplomatic friends that Global Action has ever had.

I have been sitting and listening to a press conference by some of the officers who had the unfortunate assignment of responding to the carnage from yesterday’s shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.  The shooting, predictably, captured a news cycle that had been dominated earlier this week by the mailing of suspicious packages to political opponents of the US president.

It has been a week when what seems as the last, thin layer of wrap which we foolishly believed would keep our demons “in their place” has finally been peeled away.   And now we are experiencing the normative version of a jailbreak – angry, isolated, weaponized people seizing the recently-granted permission to take their long-shunned and often-ridiculed values and ideas into the streets, into our synagogues and mailboxes, into our schools and statehouses.

Despite protests from senior government officials seeking to brush off any implications of responsibility, we have clearly failed the collective culpability test.  Our leaders have taken refuge in a strategy that is sadly all too familiar to the rest of us – cope with anxiety and remorse by pushing blame as far away from ourselves as possible.  It’s never my fault.  I have nothing to apologize for.  It’s them, over there.

As evil genies circle around us like vultures feeding on souls instead of carrion, we have blithely forgotten that a “civilized” response takes into account what our words and actions permit, and not only what we ourselves do.   And what we now permit has crossed the line from appalling to numbing: the shooting that stole the home page from the suspicious packages, that in turn stole the front page from the “caravan” of Latin American people we allegedly “don’t want,” that had stolen the radio news headlines from the butchery of the journalist Khashoggi or the children already forcibly separated from desperately anxious parents.

There is a lot of anger in my country — and not my country alone — but also an epidemic of deep restlessness at our apparent decline alongside what a dear friend has called “preventable sadness.”   We claim over and over to be “better than this,” but it is no longer clear what the “better” entails, what the benchmarks are for civilized living in these times.  We have lost both our focus and our sense of humor.  We justify patterns of concern that are deliberately circumscribed and often self-interested.  We shout out the part of the “truth” that serves our own agendas rather than speak the truth that might better serve the general interest. More and more of us have retreated into private conversations and deepening skepticism guaranteeing that we remain out of the fray, beyond the prospect of direct accountability, ducking the demons as it were rather than daring them to a proper wrestling match.

For those of you who regularly read this post, this is surely beginning to sound like an Advent message rather than a UN reflection.  But it is a UN reflection as well.   As the suspicious packages were being delivered and the Pittsburgh gunman was readying himself to “go in,” the Security Council was struggling with its current “big three” responsibilities – Syria, Myanmar and Yemen.   Each deserves a lengthier dissection than I could test your patience with here, but each also demonstrated some of the limitations and self-deceptions of the times, the way in which issues are maneuvered to conform to national interest and allegedly help to keep everyone “blameless.”

And despite the fact so much of the credibility (and even fiscal viability) of the UN is tied up with the success of the Security Council in these three and other areas of security concern, it remains challenging at times for observers such as ourselves to find kernels of hopefulness amidst the avalanche of tepid policy commitments or half-hearted acknowledgments of responsibility.   The three contexts are different of course:  In Syria the government is now (predictably) balking at a formal UN role in forming a Constitutional Committee.  In Myanmar, the Council struggles with if/how to ensure accountability for state abuses while guaranteeing safe and voluntary return for the staggering number of refugees that have too-long been under Bangladesh’s care.  In Yemen, in many ways the most frustrating of the three crises, governments continue to wring their hands over the staggering humanitarian crisis while refusing to publicly acknowledge the massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia that have thus brought Yemen to the brink of a desperate famine that simply cannot be justified by geo-political references to curbing the regional influence of Iran.

It is not all negative and disingenuous of course.   The UK and France made passionate statements this week on why the UN must play a major role in a sustainable peace for Syria. Bolivia and others continue to remind Council members of mistakes previously made as well as new factors (such as shrinking water access) that influence current security crises.  And the Netherlands raised its voice after a deeply disturbing Yemen briefing to remind Council colleagues that, as essential as humanitarian relief is, their primary task is to end the conflict, to stop the bombing and its violent retaliations.

Nevertheless, it is interesting and often unsettling to watch the ways in which the deep anxiety of these times is affecting Council members and other UN entities in much the same way that it is affecting the rest of us. We’ve collectively become downright prickly and hyper-sensitive, dismissing any and all criticism of our values or directions, but in a larger policy sense reacting to the shrinking spaces for free expression and the application of human rights law by pointing to and attacking only the demons outside ourselves, the ones who allegedly threaten and annoy us, but also the ones who blockade and occupy, who carve up adversaries and rob children of their futures.

But there are plenty of candidates for fits of barbarism now, plenty of leaders and citizens willing to get in lockstep with the worst of our impulses, justifying our own bad behavior by the bad behavior of others.  Our racism, their greed.  Our violence, their indifference. Our interference, their aggression.  And so it goes.  And goes again.

As the late Ambassador Otto would clearly have recognized, we have let so many evil genies out of their bottles in recent times and given them such permission to swirl and confuse that we must no longer delude ourselves – in our living rooms or our policy centers – that we are exempt from the evils we say we contend against.  If we really are “better than this,” then our task now is to define anew that “better,” make sure it’s benefits are available to all, and commit to the struggle to keep our baser instincts at bay.

But the ice we skate on now is still too thin. The “map” towards our human future that we have currently been drawing is, indeed, too ugly, fearful and crazy.  It is past time for all to revoke the permission we have recently lavished on our lesser selves and envision another map that can help us define a higher and more honest calling as prelude to a kinder and more sustainable global path.

Panic Attack:  Countering the UN’s Anxious Moments, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Sep

Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. Corrie Ten Boom

The more the panic grows, the more uplifting the image of the one who refuses to bow to the terror. Ernst Junger

Anxiety is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.  Jodi Picoult

Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.  Søren Kierkegaard

The UN’s annual high-level week is over, and it is frankly difficult to capture the energy of UN Headquarters with so many global leaders – political, economic and moral – gathering to share their visions for the world while navigating what many millions hope is a path to greater peace and understanding.

Wandering the halls this week, it was clear that few issues of global consequence have escaped the attention of this leadership.   From pandemics to migrants and from climate change to nuclear disarmament, it would be difficult to conclude that the UN and its member states are ducking key responsibilities, nor are diplomats willfully placing the well-being of future generations in jeopardy through abject incompetence or benign negligence.  The week’s opening gambit, a celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela complete with state commitments to a “political declaration” which his life inspired, was followed by other (albeit largely voluntary) commitments from national leaders, including on the reform of peacekeeping operations, the political integration and empowerment of youth, on Global Compacts for Migrants and Refugees, and (facilitated by Kazakhstan) the adoption of a Code of Conduct for the complete elimination of terrorism by the year 2045.

It would be easy to pick apart most if not all of these commitment events as more show than substance, more defending pre-existing positions than a serious exploration of their limitations, more signatures on the paper than serious commitments to up our urgency and amend our working methods.  But what could be interpreted as the limitations of this week would better be understood as a herculean struggle by states to overcome the anxiety – even panic – of these times, anxiety defined by so many policy “loose ends”, so many unfulfilled promises, threats to the global order to which some leaders have become overly complacent while many others find sleep elusive on most nights.

We did not need the High Level week to remind us of the roots of some of our current, pervasive anxiety – the climate threats that seem to have exceeded our collective capacity to respond; the weapons of more and less mass destruction that continue to flood conflict zones despite our high-minded resolutions and treaties; the equity gaps that this generation of policymakers has yet to address; the holes yet to be plugged in our 2030 Development Agenda responsibilities – anxieties that could exhaust even the most hopeful and energized of persons.

At the UN on Tuesday, It was apparently easy to join in the laughter at the outlandish claims made repeatedly by the US president.  And yet it is likely that much of that laughter was nervous more than mocking.  As the US president made the simultaneous case for the US’s own “hard sovereignty” coupled with the right to take unilateral action against the sovereign rights of others, there was a clear sense in the room of yet another dagger plunged into what remains of our “rules based order,” what remains of respect for a rule of law that even its erstwhile state guarantors in the Security Council too-often disregard with impunity.   As French president Macron noted in an address that seemed designed to counter what president Trump had been expected to say, we must do more to preserve the rules-based foundations needed to counter the struggles that lie before us.  But part of that requires self-assessment, to recognize that states and their peoples have threatened withdrawal from this “order” because it has too-often failed to fulfill its promises. We must acknowledge the self-interested application of this order’s privileges that have increased what Macron referred to as the “humiliating inequalities” we have repeatedly pledged to reduce.  As more than one speaker this week noted, in many key aspects we have brought this current situation on ourselves. Too often, we have been insufficiently vigilant and attentive stewards of the global commons entrusted to us.

Some of the rules-based anxiety this week was filtered through the various human rights events that dotted this week’s UN calendar, repeating what many have long recognized – that the commitment to human rights in many corners of the world is under serious assault.  Speaker after event speaker lamented the violence, intimidation and impunity for abuses that characterizes so much of our current landscape.  Often using terrorism and “illegal” migration as foils, states are increasingly justifying attacks on journalists, civil society organizations and others challenging the chillingly-punitive narratives emanating from more and more national capitals. Calls to “maintain our commitment to cooperation” as articulated by our current High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and to better ensure respect for the rights that are “inconsistent with human misery,” as noted by Senegal’s Foreign Minister, represent important messages that seem more and more to pass through our ears without pausing in our brains.

In fairness, the High Level event this week marking the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was brimming with insight, much of it courtesy of the Secretary-General and an extraordinary, young female advocate from Somalia. But even more wisdom came from a group of three elderly women, Louise Arbour, Mary Robinson and the aforementioned Michelle Bachelet, all of whom have occupied the High Commissioner’s seat, and all of whom were willing to speak truth about the “urgency and anger” that must energize our collective commitments to address rights-related threats – including on climate and migration – which we must get right if we are to avoid the “scorn of future generations.”

Mary and Louise, especially, are part of a quite small group of leaders in my long tenure at the UN whose respect from our office has never once wavered.   They have well-earned authority to name the present anxiety without “bowing to the terror” of these difficult times: this while also acknowledging the limitations of the system of which they have been an integral part – the doors to peace not opened, the unfair and self-serving application of our erstwhile “universal values,” our overly tepid defenses of human dignity, our increasing acquiescence (as also noted by the Republic of Korea’s Foreign Minister) to narratives that deliberately skew the truth about government intent, that allow leaders (as noted by France’s MFA) to get away with claiming they are “managing” journalists and civil society when such actors are actually being “muscled.”

These women and their podium colleagues grasp the times we are living through. In an age of high anxiety, temptations multiply to pull back, to cash in our trust in others, to micro-manage our own brand, to see threats around every corner, to preoccupy ourselves with those who are allegedly trying to “get us,” or hurt us, or “offend” us.  In an age of high anxiety, it is always someone else’s fault.  There is always someone or something trying to take advantage of us, prey on our vulnerability, or “ruin” what we have come to believe is our entitlement.  From our hyper-personal and increasingly isolated fortresses, we shine the mirror of anxiety and mistrust in every direction where it suits our psychic interests – everywhere it seems but towards ourselves.

The 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration, noted Mary Robinson, is not nearly as happy an event as it could have been.   Our “dignity deficit” remains intact, and we have allowed anxiety-driven isolation and polarization to spread like a virus, localizing trust and substituting small-screen grievances for bigger-picture human concerns.  If the UN is to make good on its recent promises, if the frenetic activity of this past week is to result in policies that benefit more than the people who crafted them, then we must all pledge to assess and refine as needed the caliber of our stewardship of the norms, rules and structures entrusted to us.  Only then can we credibly challenge the modern tendencies, as described by Mexico’s outgoing president Nieto this week, of states and people who would either “sow discord or sit on the sidelines.”

High Anxiety:  Selling Reassurance and Resolve in the Security Council, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Nov

Saturday in Central Harlem, a group of volunteers headed by Stephanie Ali held a Thanksgiving distribution of groceries, including turkeys.  Some of the volunteers, me included, have done virtually weekly “pantry duty” for well over a decade.

Our pantry lines have been long, even in times of economic recovery.   Not everyone on the line needs the food.  What more of them need – and get – is connection and reassurance.  Connection with people they know and care about.  Reassurance that, in a world of increasing anxiety – caused in part by a confluence of external shocks and increasing feelings of powerlessness – there will be someone “out there” who is dependable when rising sea levels start to flood Manhattan streets, the economy crashes again, and our latest security sector efforts to “bully the terrorist bullies” end up restricting more freedoms than alleviating terror threats.   These people also need some reassurance that authorities entrusted to respond to these and other emergencies will keep the economically marginal at least somewhat close to their hearts.

The world around our pantry clients might be uncertain and beyond their control, but they do read the papers, they are anxious about the longer-term state of city and world affairs, and they are looking for some helpful assurances beyond the immediacy of provisions.  In its own small way, this pantry and its volunteers seek to be part of that larger assurance, week after week, year after year.

Anxiety is not the sole province of the elderly and working poor populating a pantry line.  This emotion literally flourishes inside the UN as well.  Personal anxieties are related to career, relationships and money.  And of course there is professional anxiety related to performance in a volatile security and development framework, including as we saw this week in relation to attempts to address the short and longer-term needs of Least Developed Countries and Small Island States; the challenges of ending drug and arms trafficking; the need to reform overburdened UN peacekeeping operations; the responsibility to urgently reverse damage to oceans and watersheds; the need to head off further violence (and incitement to violence) in Burundi;  and of course the responsibility to craft a proportionate and rights-based response to the recent spate of high-profile terrorist acts.

In these and other multilateral venues, policy is developed that is grounded in anxiety about the current state of global affairs while also producing residual, longer-range anxiety in global constituents.  The questions posed to us on social media are both emotionally charged and relevant.  Are policymakers up to the current complex tasks?  Do they understand the implications of their decisions for diverse communities?  Have they learned sufficiently from past mistakes such that they can say with assurance that key mistakes are not being repeated?   Are states able to process their own policy failures, social limitations and other culpabilities while also attending to grave policy responsibilities such as the ISIL menace?

On these questions, the jury is still out.   Friday in the UN Security Council, Resolution 2249 was hailed as significant milestone in Security Council cooperation on what few would argue is a significant challenge for the international community.   The resolution cites ISIL as (having thankfully deleted the word “unprecedented”) one of the “most serious threats” to international peace and security and invokes the uneasy “all necessary measures” language (without directly mentioning military action) to help “redouble and coordinate” efforts to stymie ISIL and its collaborators.

Of course, few would argue the need to vigorously address terrorism, and many here at the UN are set to welcome Tuesday’s briefing by the Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee on “Foreign Terrorist Fighters.” But it’s not as though the “fight” against terror started in earnest last Friday.  Already, there have been thousands of bombs dropped, sanctions imposed, weapons transferred, surveillance enacted, funding halted, freedoms restricted. Were these methods lacking in strategic merit or policy seriousness?  For instance, were the detonated bombs that have already (by admission of defense officials) killed more than a few non-combatants simply dropped by mistake?  And, more to the point, assuming that existing measures have not been frivolous, what assurances are there that this round of “by whatever means” responses will actually eliminate terrorist carnage more effectively than the last round of responses?

Part of the narrative of this current iteration of our now-endless terror war is that the “unjustified” nature of terrorist acts, regardless of motivation, is the only relevant precondition for aggressive responses by Council members and other states.   Unjustified these acts certainly are, by any reasonable standard, but they also did not appear out of nowhere.  And whether your origin points for such brutal violence involve the Assad regime, the unrelieved discrimination of Palestinians, the US invasion of Iraq, prior dubious Council resolutions on Libya or any other causal links of preference, such points are also not without relevance. “We” are not responsible for terror violence, but “we” are also not without responsibility for the conditions in which such violence can apparently flourish – neither for the high anxiety that policies more robust than strategic might create in constituents.

We would make the case that “all necessary measures” can (and should) be applied to our own societies as well to the terrorists.  External vigilance is needed to be sure, but also accountability is required to the norms, values and expectations that give meaning to social existence and contextualize our growing levels of “high anxiety.”  These are high bars to reach, to be sure, as they are in part the consequence of prior policies that have not met expectations, have not alleviated the suffering we all hoped they might, have not inspired confidence that we can vanquish our enemies without also assessing ourselves.

We very much appreciate the references in the resolution to international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as (thanks apparently to the Russians) to the UN Charter.   These reassurances, as helpfully underscored by Chile and others at the Friday Council meeting, are hopefully more substantive than rhetorical.   Should such references end up being marginal “window dressing” in the implementation of anti-terror initiatives, it is highly unlikely that any tribunals will be organized to investigate the resulting carnage.   Nor will future acts of terror, when and if they occur, be seen as an actionable indictment of the limitations of this particular Council resolution or what would otherwise be seen as legitimate responses to ISIL and its cohorts.

My GAPW colleagues and I spend much time in the Security Council chamber, significantly more than in any other single UN meeting room.   And we have deep regard for the tenacity of Council members and the sometimes fitful progress of this chamber on transparency and working methods, driven especially at this current moment by some extraordinary non-permanent members.  But transparency and accountability are not the same.   The Council lacks structures of accountability for its limited policy scope or errors in judgement.   There is none to hold the Council, and especially its permanent members, responsible to the standards to which they routinely attempt to hold others.

This is one source of anxiety in the longer term, the notion that prior Council actions which demonstrably failed to achieve full objectives end up having little or no consequence for future resolutions.  Indeed, if we are not accountable for our errors, there is simply no reason for others to believe that future actions will avoid similar pitfalls.  For reasons related to limited time or institutional culture, we simply aren’t learning enough from previous experience to alleviate the anxieties of those dependent on this sometimes pedagogically-challenged policy community.

During Friday’s discussion following the unanimous vote on Res. 2249, Lithuania solemnly noted, “We will have to deal with the uneasy question of how much of our liberties and freedoms we are ready to sacrifice to ensure our safety and security in a way that does not support repression.” For my part, I would prefer a bit more liberty even if it means taking on a bit more risk.   After all, liberty’s road to repression is much longer than the one defined by safety and its multiple compromises.

In any case, these are the bargains that will continue define a world wrestling with its political polarization, excess materialism and militarism, and tepid commitments to ending social and economic inequalities and giving this overly-stressed climate a chance to heal.  And we are already seeing governments and their party oppositions ravenously grasping for political space in the aftermath of the recent terror attacks; ostensibly to protect people from terrorists, certainly to protect governments from uneasy conversations about their role in helping to protect the core principles, values and aspirations of people and not merely their physical bodies.

What is apparent, in settings as widely distinct as a Harlem food pantry and the chamber of the UN Security Council, is that our efforts to alleviate anxiousness regarding current affairs must take into account the deeper and “longer” anxieties – people who have good reason to wonder what will become of themselves and their families; and why this recent, welcome show of Council unity and resolve will be able to climb over bars of policy effectiveness and regard for international law when other efforts have mostly fallen short.