President Barack Obama is making a short tour of Asia as part of his last months in office. He is visiting Vietnam and then Japan, ostensibly to demonstrate the importance of the region in his foreign policy, the so called “shift to Asia.” Besides the geostrategic significance of the trip and its implications to counter the growing importance of China, the President will be dealing with the memories of the Vietnam War and Hiroshima.
Or will he?
The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) will take place in Istanbul, Turkey, from May 23-24. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on heads of state and government to deliver a strong message that “we will not accept the erosion of humanity which we see in the world today.” “We must not fail the people who need us, when they need us most,” said the UN chief. There will be seven roundtable sessions over the two days to provide a space for leaders from Member States, civil society and the private sector to focus on a number of challenges. The themes of the roundtables are: Preventing and Ending Conflict; Upholding the Norms that Safeguard Humanity; Leaving No-one Behind; Natural Disasters and Climate Change; From Delivering Aid to Ending Need; Gender Equality; and Investing in Humanity.
Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had quite a tiff about who was better qualified to be president during one of their debates. Sanders claimed that Clinton lacked judgment; Clinton claimed that Sanders lacked experience. Donald Trump’s recent questioning of those with a “perfect résumé” is an interesting interrogation of those qualities we look for in leaders. If, as he claims, résumés are not the answer, then by what else can we choose?
Why do we feel uneasy about the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil? The Olympic are the world’s grandest sporting event. We love to play games. We love to watch games. And yet, with about 100 days left until the August 5 opening in Rio, we have doubts that these Games will be “vivid, concrete, swift and fun,” as the theologian Michael Novak described the joy of sports.
The French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut was booed and chased away by participants in the Nuit debout (roughly translated as "Up All Night", "Standing Night", or "Rise up at night") movement Saturday in Paris. Finkielkraut was insulted and called a dirty fascist. He defended himself: “I was thrown out from a place where democracy and pluralism should reign…. They wanted to purify the Place de la République of my presence.” The extreme right in France wasted no time in lambasting the scenario as an example of the “hate and intolerance” of the protesters.
What could be better than watching the Masters Tournament in early April in Augusta, Georgia, with its idyllic setting of rolling hills, blooming azaleas and the coveted green jacket waiting the winner? What better way to take off the radar screen pictures of exhausted, disillusioned migrants than to watch the world’s top golfers shooting for the ultimate prize of having last year’s winner put on the new champion the only jacket money can’t buy?
The sight of refugees streaming across the Mediterranean, only to wind up in detention centers and then boats back to Turkey, shocks our sense of justice. They have risked their lives to flee and many have died before and during the crossings. Most have left war zones. Families with young children are desperate to find relief of any kind. There are few alternatives, certainly not alternatives commensurate with the dangers of staying where they were. They have legitimate reasons to leave, but no place to go.
Are the politics of spheres of influence returning? The visit of President Obama to Cuba was heralded as the opening of new relations between the two countries, relations that had been blocked since the United States imposed a trade embargo in 1960 and severed diplomatic ties in 1961. Obama’s visit was applauded from a diplomatic perspective. But looking from another perspective, it could also mean the re-emergence of an American sphere of influence in Latin America. With rising Russian influence in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, are we witnessing a return to major powers’ exertion of spheres of influence in their neighborhoods?
The November 13 killings in Paris and the recent explosions in Brussels are shocking. We are not used to drive-by random shootings or suicide bombings in public places in the heart of Europe. Searching for the root causes of these terrorist acts, psychologists seem unable to come up with a simple explanation of why certain people turn to political violence. One possible explanation, the link between poverty and terrorism, has not proven a definitive key to radicalization.
The 2016 U.S. presidential race represents a new age of politics. The surprising successes of Senator Bernie Sanders and business mogul Donald Trump are due to anti-establishment fervor. Traditional political parties have lost their appeal. More and more voters, especially the young, are rejecting the status quo.
Republican presidential candidates have called each other “lazy,” “liars,” “low energy,” “nasty,” “con man,” and made direct references to the size of their fingers, implying the size other parts of the anatomy. As the American presidential campaign heats up, the role of these “zingers” becomes more and more evident. In a campaign reduced to sound bites and “gotcha” videos, one sentence or offhand remark is all that remains of debates on issues affecting millions of lives. The back and forth of ideas and presentations of coherent policy positions have been reduced to quips and gag lines meant to amuse the public. One-upmanship has replaced elegant phrases much as Twitter has replaced logical sentence construction.
The Geneva Bible was one of the first Bibles translated from Greek and Hebrew. Considered a vulgar Bible, it was not only published in a common language but it was also mass produced for the general public with several study guides. A Geneva Bible was one of the Bibles brought to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, and is one of the reasons there are numerous towns and cities in the United States named Geneva.
The continuing popularity of Donald Trump and the rise of populist politicians in many European countries is cause for concern and reflection. Where does this wave of emotionalism come from? It could be a reaction to two factors. The first is globalization. The expansion of frontiers has caused instability. While technology has increased our perspectives from the local to the global, we have lost the assurances of that which is closest to us. The rise of fundamentalism in various forms is an attempt return to roots that have been destabilized.
Technology allows us to follow events around the world in real time. Front page photos show cities in the Middle East reduced to rubble. Nightly news programs project horrendous scenes of people dying while fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea in make-shift vessels. Reporters file stories tracing the desperate lives of those who have newly arrived in Europe only to find hostility if not rejection in what they thought would be relief from their war-torn countries.
Each game has its rules; each arena has its specificity. British politicians hoot and shout during debates in Parliament while Swiss elected officials calmly listen waiting their turn to intervene. Fistfights have broken out in the Ukrainian and Georgian national assemblies; American officials stand and applaud when they agree with the speaker. In Tbilisi, some representatives dismantled the table-top microphones from their desks to be used as weapons during a brawl; Genevans were shocked when a deputy flung water at another deputy during a parliament meeting. Soccer players yell and argue with the referees while American football players never contest calls. Basketball players talk to the referees, baseball players have been known to bump umpires in fits of anger.
It is the very nature of the unexpected that makes sports so exciting. At the recent downhill race in Kitzbühel, the overwhelming favorite, Aksel Lund Svindal - two-time overall World Cup champion, winner of the previous week’s downhill on the demanding Wengen course and winner of four downhill races this season - crashed out at the bottom of the course. At the recent Australian Open tennis tournament, an overwhelming favorite, Serena Williams, going for her 22nd Slam title and the dominant female player for the past 15 years, lost to a lower- ranked player who had never won a major tournament. True Svindal had missed almost the entire 2015 season due to injury; true Williams had lost to a relative unknown in the semi-finals of last year’s French Open, but still, the crash and loss were unexpected.
Several years ago I attended a cocktail party on Park Avenue in New York. I was approached by a man puffing on a large cigar. He had an open shirt (highlighting his expensive gold necklace), and wore all the accoutrements that go with a certain type of wealthy New Yorker. His immediate question to me was: “Who are you?”
“I am a poor, intellectual school teacher,” I replied.
The sports world, traditionally a refuge from the harsh realities of politics and business, continues to be sullied. After the crisis of corruption in the ruling football organization FIFA and the Russian state-sponsored athletic doping scandal, the pristine world of tennis has been rocked by allegations of match-fixing. The usually reliable BBC with BuzzFeed published an article asserting that the names of 16 players who have been ranked in the top 50 worldwide were sent to the Tennis Integrity Unit for investigation. “Gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy have made hundreds of thousands of pounds placing highly suspicious bets on scores of matches – including at Wimbledon and the French Open,” the article stated.
One of my favorite cartoons shows two Native Americans standing on the shore near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts watching the Pilgrims on the Mayflower sail into the harbor. One of the Indians turns to the other and snidely remarks: “Oh, oh. There goes the neighborhood.”
The president of the United States is required by law to give an annual presentation to the Congress on the status of the country. President Obama carried out this duty for the last time this week with his formal State of the Union address. What makes the speech extraordinary is not its contents – the world will little remember what he said – but the divergence in perceptions about the country’s situation.
President Barack Obama cried in public. The president of the United States of America, the man who has his finger on nuclear weapons, had “tears streaming down his face” before television cameras when he announced new executive actions to reduce gun sales in the U.S. As reported by the International New York Times: “Mr. Obama broke down as he spoke about the young children shot to death in 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.”
The new year has started with all its expectations. It is new. But it is also a year: twelve months, 365 days, 7 days in a week, 24 hours in a day. While we cannot predict what will happen in 2016, we can be confident about time. That doesn’t change.
Or does it?
During the recent election for the Swiss Federal Council, the necessity of knowing English was hotly debated. In his interview to be one of the seven members of the Executive, Guy Parmelin said: “I can English understand but je préfère répondre en français pour être plus précis.” Although the quotation went viral on social media, he was easily elected and became the Minister of Defense, Civil Protection and Sports. Apparently being conversant in the language of Shakespeare is not a necessity to govern Switzerland.
Geneva and Islamabad are two very different places. The former is known as a bastion of tranquility in Western Europe with a long history of democracy and neutrality, the latter as the capital of a large, militarily dominated country recently created with a history of violence as well as a continuing potential for destabilization from its neighbors Afghanistan and India.
Multitasking has become an imperative in our accelerated, modern era. People have to juggle their personal and professional lives 24/7. This is not simple. Sometimes the juggled balls drop to the floor. Politically, faced with the horrific November attacks in Paris, it is difficult to accept the duality that ISIS is both a quasi/state and a global network. It is a military force which controls half the territory of Syria as well as a loose web of global terrorist organizations often aligned with lone wolves around the globe. How to respond to the dual nature of the threat? How to multitask our response?