Can people change? Can leaders radically change their countries’ policies? We all recognize the audacity of Richard Nixon in his opening to China, but rarely do we examine what caused the change to take place. We admire the signing of the recent nuclear treaty between the United States and Iran, but we cannot fully comprehend the complex reasons behind the shift – the easing of economic sanctions is a simplistic, unicausal explanation.
For example, tributes to Nelson Mandela at his death re-affirmed a universal recognition of his extraordinary personal qualities and leadership in freeing South Africa from the curse of apartheid.
Dr. Martin Luther King's August 28, 1963, speech "I Have a Dream" has become an iconic moment. Before over 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King captured the hopes of millions of Americans for racial equality in a deeply divided country. Over time, the speech has become a rallying cry throughout the world for freedom movements, from behind the Iron Curtain to South Africa.
The August 28, 1963, March on Washington was an emotional and political watershed. Over 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial during the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had officially ended slavery in 1863. The highlight of the March was a short speech part sermon that has become a rallying cry for other freedom movements throughout the world. The riveting “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. was part optimism about the future and part realism that the promises of equality following the Civil War had not yet been met. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the legislative culmination of the civil rights movement and the March. Despite ferocious, often physical opposition, legal segregation was finally ended in the United States.
The recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March in the U.S. was a bittersweet moment.
Walking through the old town of Geneva, I was once again struck by the plaque showing the meeting place of Henry Dunant, Gustave Moynier, Henri Dufour, Louis Appia and Theodore Maunoir. Near the Cathedral, on the wall of a simple building, the plaque marks the apartment where the idea for the Red Cross began.
Geneva has often been called the capital of multilateralism. With about 30,000 international civil servants and organizations like UNOG, WIPO, ILO, UNHCR, UNHCHR, WTO, ITU, WHO. IPU, WMO, UNCTAD, WEF and the ICRC, there is reason for the Genevois and Swiss to be proud of a small city being at the center of so much international activity. (Even if you are not familiar with all the above initials, please bear with me for my argument.)
By chance, I happened to be reading Edward Gibbon’s monumental, classic account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire while watching Roger Federer’s semi-final match against Andy Murray at the Australian Open. I was reading Gibbon as part of a reflection on the role of the United States in the world following the jamboree of President Obama’s inauguration. Gibbons’ work, much like Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, analyzes long cycles in history and the inevitability of rise and fall. According to Gibbon empires like Rome and with Kennedy France, England, Spain, Holland and the United States, have certain internal contradictions which lead to their eventual decline. There is a tragic sense that nothing can change this destiny.
Hurricane Sandy can teach us a great deal about the power of nature. I lived through a hurricane in 1954. Caught by surprise, the town on Cape Cod where we lived was devastated by the unannounced, invading ocean. Cars floated down main street; docks were ripped apart; boats were torn from their moorings; trees were felled like brittle toothpicks; houses were flooded. My father had to carry me out of our house on his shoulders as the water kept rising. We just managed to get the family car to high ground with the galloping sea trying to overtake us.
What is responsible for the outbreak of anti-American violence in the Muslim world? The obvious first answer is the reprehensible video. But, behind the video there are several theories being floated. Among them are: 1) The protesters are a street minority who do not reflect majority feelings. The distinction between populism and democracy is relevant here; 2) Democracy takes time. It is unreasonable to expect democratic values such as freedom of expression to be assimilated in such a short period of time; 3) A cultural clash is most evident. Western countries are attuned to criticizing and even mocking religious figures that are held sacred and beyond mockery by other cultures and religions; 4) The United States is associated with imperialism, often aligned with Israel. The violent outbreaks are a manifestation of a rejection of foreign intervention.
When I first came to Switzerland in 1972, I remember standing on the train platform in Bern and seeing rifles lined up outside a restaurant. Soldiers had left their weapons unattended while eating. Coming from my New York experiences in the South Bronx and Harlem, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The recent shootings in Colorado once more raise the question: Do guns kill or people kill? The powerful gun lobby in the United States, the National Rifle Association (NRA), continues to maintain that people kill, and that laws restricting access to weapons will have no effect. Their argument is that with more guns available people will be better protected, much like Professor Kenneth Waltz’s argument that if all countries had nuclear weapons none would use them.
Davos Man, a phrase attributed to the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, was all the rage in the late 1990s. The Financial Times once headlined "What's on the mind of Davos man?" in preparation for the annual gathering of the select best and the brightest's meeting in the small Swiss mountain village. Each year, top business executives mingle with policy makers and academics to review the world's agenda. Among the chosen few, there is leadership and order. Whether or not one agrees with who they are or their decisions, it is impressive that a group can meet informally to influence a global agenda. Not only does Davos Man have his/her pulse on what is happening, he/she also is in position to make things happen in the future.
My friends in the financial sector keep reminding me that history is the last 15 seconds on the Reuters screen. And I am aware that we are living in accelerated time. However, a short reflection on the presidential campaign of 2008 compared to where we are today is not without interest.
On the Democratic Party side, the primaries between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were riveting. A most qualified woman, former First Lady and New York Senator was battling a dynamic, articulate African-American. History was being challenged. If either got the nomination, if either won the presidency, history would be made and a new era would begin in the United States. A sense of excitement was palpable; a transformation was taking place; the young and many of the disenfranchised were energized.
Assassinating political opponents has a long historical background. So long, in fact, that one of the ways we separate the modern from the pre-modern is the notion of elections as a means of determining rulers or courts of law as a means to deal with violations of accepted norms. Although the beheading of King Charles I of England in 1649 is considered the beginning of modern politics, this was only so because it meant the privileging of the Parliament over the absolute monarchy and followed a legal trial for tyranny. Modern politics is supposed to be beyond beheadings; the International Commission Against the Death Penalty (ICDP), which is against all legal executions, last week opened its offices in Geneva.
How are we to understand the recent killings of Moammar Gaddafi, Anwar Awlaki and Osama Bin Laden in this context? You will certainly want separate explanations for each. Bin Laden, it is said, had attacked the United States and was plotting further attacks. Capture and trial were not possible, it was stated, given where he was and the immediacy of ending his potential terrorist capabilities. Awalaki also had attacked the United States in different ways and, although an American citizen, was thought to be a dangerous enemy in a country - Yemen - where it would have been impossible for him to be properly captured and brought to trial. Gaddafi was a tyrant whose death was cathartic for an entire population; no trial meant that the 42 years of dictatorial rule ended quickly. At his death, there were celebrations throughout Libya although the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has asked for greater clarification about the circumstances surrounding his demise. The videos are gruesome; the displaying of his body in a refrigerated meat container a rejection of any form of human dignity no matter what he had done. We should expect more from those who overthrew him.
The Arab Spring gave enormous hope throughout the region. Autocratic if not despotic rulers were replaced in Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya. Calls for empowerment have filled the streets. Elections are being held in Tunisia. Democracy is the rallying cry of the disenfranchised. But what does democracy mean if not the rule of law? When the young 13 colonies in the New World defeated the British, they offered their leader, George Washington, the possibility of being King. He refused, recognizing that the break with the monarchical past must be complete; the Revolutionary War for Washington meant a true revolution, a radical change from traditional practices.
If cries for democracy are ringing throughout the world, then there should also be cries for the rule of law; one includes the other. Political assassinations should be a thing of the past. Although we may rejoice at the end of a dictator's rule, we should not rejoice at seeing a bloody body being dragged through the street or put on display. If it is heroic to take up arms to fight for democracy, it is equally heroic to fight for the rule of law at times of emotional outbursts. Neither expediency nor vengeance is an excuse for the primitive "Chop off their heads". And that goes for so-called advanced democracies as well.
October 26, 2011
The current violence in Egypt between Christians and Muslims is frightening from many perspectives. Obviously, the loss of lives during peaceful protests and the attacks on religious buildings are unacceptable. Freedom of religion and association are fundamental human rights. We accept that I am a member of the Commune of Carouge at the same time I am part of the Canton of Geneva and the country of Switzerland. In addition, I am a citizen of the United States born and raised in New York City. Numerous other affiliations are part of this diversity. Multiculturalism means multiple associations based on multiple identities.
But, freedom of association does have limits; we are witnessing more and more homogenous ethnic/religious associations demanding separation if not statehood. Abkhaz want their own country; Kosovars as well. Large, heterogeneous groups are breaking apart into smaller homogeneous units such as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
The United States used to be called a melting pot, especially New York City where millions of immigrants first arrived. Formerly, there were homogeneous neighborhoods within the City of Irish-Americans, German-Americans, African-Americans and so on. They were all hyphenated Americans, just as many ethnic groups inhabited parts of the Canton of Geneva. Many became Swiss, but their children still attended special classes in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and English. Ethnic identity did not exclude assimilation. The hyphen remained important.
Liberalism has been called the art of separation. "Good fences make good neighbors" is a 17th century proverb, perhaps coming from the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that separated Catholics and Protestants after the bloody Thirty Years War. The ICRC Museum had a wonderful exhibit on walls around the world, illustrating barriers between North and South Korea; the dividing line in Cyprus; the peace lines in Northern Ireland; the divide that crosses the Western Sahara; the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico; the wire fence in Morocco surrounding Spanish enclaves; an electric fence between Pakistan and India; and the wall separating the Israelis and Palestinians.
The Berlin Wall did come down, but other barriers are being constructed. Ethnic/religious conflicts seem to be on the rise, perhaps as an emotional reaction to fears of identity loss from globalization. As a combat veteran of ethnic conflicts in New York, I am alarmed by a return to monoculturalism. The Dayton Accords might have stopped the fighting in the Balkans, but they tried to recreate homogeneous nation-states that seem to reflect where we are moving.
The art of separation shows its limits in Egypt with primitive violence against Others. Liberalism's call for self-determination paradoxically can play into some very dangerous instincts that limit our ability to have multiple associations. The hyphen as a symbol of plural identities is important, and should remain so. The violence in Egypt is a reminder how tenuous multiculturalism has become within and between countries.
October 16, 2011
The word courage is spelled exactly the same way in French and English and has the same meaning in both languages. But, it is a word that we hear less and less frequently these days in both languages. True, President Obama recently awarded former Marine Corps Corporal Dakota Meyer the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions saving his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan in September 2009.
And, this weekend the Musée des Suisses dans le monde inaugurated an area in its museum entitled Lumières dans les Ténèbres, a room dedicated to exceptional Swiss, including the Consul Carl Lutz, who saved 62, 000 Jews from death in Budapest in 1944; the Roman Catholic seminarian Maurice Bavaud, who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1938 and was subsequently executed, and the Chief Red Cross delegate in the Middle East from 1963 to 1971 André Rochat who was instrumental in several delicate diplomatic missions, including freeing hostages from plane hijackings.
One is humbled in recalling the actions of each of these people, as one is in thinking of the examples of political courage in Senator John F. Kennedy's 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of eight United States Senators. In each of the histories, Kennedy traces the decision to cross party lines and/or go against popular opinion which caused the Senators minimally be harshly criticized and in some cases to be voted out of office.
How are these examples of courage relevant? In the case of Lutz, as with others who saved lives from Nazi extermination, their own lives were clearly at stake. In the cases of Rochat and Meyer, they often went against the orders of their superiors for a higher cause. In the case of Bavaud, he was abandoned by his own government. And, in the cases of the eight Senators, they did not follow what would have been best for their political careers. Each of the courageous mentioned responded to what was thought the right thing to do. And history has proven their actions justified, as opposed to others who have acted in the name of conscience and who have been proven to be not only incorrect, but in some cases totally delusional. The line between acting for one's conscience and insanity is not as large as some imagine.
What is relevant today in particular is the power of opinion polls. Politicians are susceptible to acting according to what they think the public wants them to do, as if their only function is to be representative of public opinion. I would love to hear someone say that they will be proposing a law or voting on a motion in a certain way because "it is the right thing to do," in spite of what the political consequences may be.
We often speak of the role of values behind Western democracies, but when the time comes to vote on a given issue, such as Palestinian statehood, the only values discussed are political expediencies. Whether one agrees with a vote or not, it has been a long time since people have crossed party lines or gone against public opinion by being courageous. The awarding of the medal and the exhibit at the Chateau de Penthes are excellent reminders how the value of courage has been de-emphasized and how we feel enlightened when told of what humans are capable of doing in surpassing the ordinary and limited self-interest.
Samuel Huntington's famous article on the clash of civilizations focused on the differences between cultures, citing among others, potential confrontations between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York highlights some fundamental differences within the Western world, especially between France/Europe and the United States. The following comments do not imply his guilt; they are observations about the nature of the debate.
The first difference, especially pronounced in Calvinist Geneva, is the separation between the private and the public. Government representatives, Europeans believe, have the right to privacy; their personal lives should remain outside the public domain. DSK was known to be a womanizer, but journalists kept most of the information to themselves, even when he was accused of using his role at the IMF improperly or eventually compromising the French government politically through a personal relationship with a relative of an important official from a foreign country. In the United States, the public wants to know about the private lives of the politicians, including spouses and children. And, beside Bill Clinton, people like Gary Hart, Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards have paid the price for pretending to be good family men. Journalists in the United States and the public are much more prodding and inquisitive.
The role of women in Europe is also quite different. Roman Polanski was supported by many in France, including the Minister of Culture, for his illegal actions with an underage girl. "Boys will be boys," seems to be the general attitude. In the United States the past behavior of DSK and the accusations against him are taken seriously. Even in American universities today, when the hormone level of both sexes tends to be extremely high, there is little official tolerance for any type of sexual harassment. Relations between faculty and students are carefully scrutinized as well as between bosses and employees in general.
And because there is greater scrutiny in the US in these matters, penalties for transgressions are much higher. Europeans seem shocked at the handcuffing of DSK and his confinement in Rikers Island. I have been to Rikers Island - just visiting I assure you - and it is no Kempinski 5 star hotel. But, the charges against DSK are serious; he risks over 70 years in prison. He is not being accused of a parking violation!
The United States is often accused of skirting the law and having a cowboy culture. In this situation, when the legal system is following the letter of the law, it is being accused of being intolerant. Au contraire! DSK is getting egalitarian treatment under US law.
May 17, 2011