Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When weakness matters more than strength in strategy

Strength, and the perception of strength, (in its many forms) is often a decisive factor in international relations. We see it in everything from discussions around trade and economic alliances to decisions about when and where to engage in armed conflict. In these equations, perceptions of weakness are just as important as perceptions of strength. We know this implicitly when comparing and contrasting nation-states as well as stretegies, and it's expressed explicitly when analysts, journalists and decision-makers look at situations like Russian aggression toward the Ukraine and attribute the success of the former, at least partly, to the "weakness" of the latter.  Catching up on the news yesterday out of the Middle East I was struck by two pieces, one in the Times of Israel and another in the Washington Post, which focused on the ways in which perceptions of weakness, as opposed to strength, can play a greater role in strategic decisions by regional powers.

The first thing I read was an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Professor Daniel W. Drezner of Tufts University and The Brookings Institution,  in which he considers recent pronouncements by Iranian officials about the rather shaky state of affairs in Saudi Arabia. As Drezner correctly notes, the Iranians are not the only ones worried about the long-term stability of the House of Saud, a top-heavy monarchy which has long maintained control and relative peace within its borders by quietly appeasing extremist elements internally and playing an out-sized economic role globally. There is no love lost between Iran and Saudi Arabia (or between Iran  and the Gulf Countries, for that matter), with the each nation consistently fearful of the growing influence of the another. In this sense, Iran's playing up the weakness of its rival/enemy Saudi Arabia fits neatly into the narrative of this larger conflict.

Since 1979 Iran has often sought to play a meedleseome role in the stability of neighbours, demonstrating a marked proclivity for covert action, both directly and through proxy groups such as Hezbollah - they're also prone to outbursts of hyperbolic rhetoric and the occasional display of naval power, as well as in the last decade devoting considerable resources to the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Attempting to foment instability is nothing new for Tehran, so perhaps along with the aforementioned bag of dirty tricks, bluster and nuclear ambition, they are adding something else to the mix: open efforts to encourage instability within Saudi Arabia by attempting to shift global perceptions of the monarchy there. Personally, I don't think such a strategy will be the decisive factor in the downfall of the Saudi regime, when and if it does happen. Nor would I call bombastic statements by Iranian  officials to a particularly novel or sophisticated tactic, but if it does become a  standard tool of Tehran it will be one more facet of Iranian hegemony that other regional powers, as well as the West, will have to take into account in assessing Iranian actions and intentions.

The second piece focusing on "weakness" which caught my attention was Mitch Ginsburg's analysis of the current situation on the Israel-Lebanon border, published by the Times of Israel. Ginsburg examines the balance of tension between Hezbollah forces and the IDF, in which events in Syria, as well as the strategic goals of Tehran, play a role. Citing analysis from  senior Israeli military officers that recent restrain on the part of Hezbollah is attributable to the group's primary patron, Iran, which worries that a war between Israel and Hezbollah would weaken the latter to the point where it could not serve as an effective deterrent against a potential Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. In this case, it is not rhetorical accusations of weakness that have the potential to lead to greater regional instability, but the actual weakening of Hezbollah, which could lead to additional risky action, such as their apparent efforts to lay a mine targeting IDF patrols over this past weekend. The possibility also exists that Israel will take advantage of the fact that Iran is restraining Hezbollah, along with the loss of many Hezbollah fighters in Syria, to launch a more thorough assault on the group in southern Lebanon.

However one looks at the calculus of power in the Middle East there are always innumerable factors to take into account. Very often the focus is entirely on the perceived strength of a regional power - how many submarines does country "x" have? How good is the air defense system if country "Y" ? These are important questions, but we must also look at weaknesses, both real and perceived, and the ways in which these views and analyses are actively used by rivals and enemies, if we are to have a clear picture of the region.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

HBS Conference considers MidEast conflict through lens of economic engagement and civil society

For decades - centuries really - visionaries and mad men have wrestled with how to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East. Some have tried force, others diplomacy, but I have long thought that one of the more important aspect of any successful peace effort between Israel and the Palestinians will require not merely the cessation of hostilities, but a normalization of relations. This is certainly not a unique suggestion, but it is one that often gets lost in the discussion about security fences, rockets and land. One key element of normalized relations will be economic engagement, something that a group of Harvard graduate students highlighted at the Prosperity for Peace conference, held at Harvard Business School this weekend and co-sponsored by the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, McKinsey & Company, Harvard Hillel, the Government and Public Policy Club at HBS, The Boston Consulting Group, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University and Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

Opening the conference was former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, who focused on the importance of the US remaining engaged in the Middle East, despite the multitude of vexing and complex challenges in the region. Summers argued that America has a vital stake in the future of this part of the world for a number of reasons, including his belief in the importance of Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish State, the growing cultural influence of Islam around the globe and world-wide economic concerns about energy.

Former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers was the opening keynote speaker at the Prosperity for Peace Conference held at Harvard Business School on April 26, 2015. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Although Summers highlighted the positive influence that greater business and economic engagement can have on the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, he adroitly noted that such efforts can only succeed in an environment in which the physical safety of citizens on both sides can be assured. Summers also spoke about the importance of connectivity in bolstering civil society, an idea which may at first seem obvious, but which, in my own experience, is all too often forgotten by civil society actors in their rush to raise funds, steer policy and control how particular issues are covered by the media.

This idea of connection and dialogue is critical to the long-term health of any civil society, and by extension, to the peace process. It serves as a reminder that, as Summers noted, in many ways the relationships (or lack thereof) which underpin the peace talks may play more of a decisive role in the potential success of efforts toward peace than the technical details surrounding the issues themselves.

One of the nice things about the conference was the diverse group of attendees it attracted and the range of speakers who addressed the audience, including Maryam Faghihimani, the daughter of a major religious figure in Iran who talked about what it was like to grow up in an upper-class, religiously conservative family. She told the crowd about the relentless stream of anti-Israel propaganda she was exposed to as a child and young adult, commenting,  "After being exposed to such propaganda, how could one not hate this other country?"  She went on to chronicle how she had experienced her own intellectual awakening as she sought out access to information and ideas from the wider world, including her shock when she discovered during a trip to Lebanon that Iran in fact did support Hezbollah, despite everything she had been told to the contrary. 
Faghihimani closed by reflecting on all of the things she had been able to achieve in her life, telling the audience she is not pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian or pro-regime, but pro-democracy.
Bassam Eid and Joshua Hantman were among the panelists at a discussion on frameworks for cooperation around energy, the environment and the law, at the Prosperity for Peace Conference at Harvard Business School. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

After the opening speakers I wandered over to a panel session looking at Frameworks for cooperation around energy, the environment and the law. The panel of experts for this session was comprised of Professor James K. Sebenius of Harvard Business School, former director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group Bassam Eid, Director of the Business and Environment Department at the Peres Centerfor Peace Edan Raviv, Dr. Tara Shirvani of the World Bank and Joshua Hantman,  Director of Corporate Affairs for Cynergy Investments Ltd.

Raviv talked about the challenges he faces in his work encouraging business cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian companies on a very practical level, from securing financing to understanding tax laws to determining where potential partners can meet in person.  He also touched on the ways in which business collaboration has become more difficult in the last decade, as Israelis and Palestinians have had less and less contact with each other, both at a societal and an individual level.

Bassam Eid offered interesting insights into current concerns in Gaza, including his very negative view of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. He said emphatically that he does not want to be part of a movement to destroy Israel, citing the vital role that Israel plays in providing both employment opportunities and badly-needed supplies to Gaza, touching on the lack of substantive contributions by Arab leaders.

There are several elements which pose a threat to the potential success of events like the one Raviv described, including the lack of media coverage of such efforts in the Palestinian media, a point echoed by Eid, who was also openly critical of Soda Stream's decision to move out of the West Bank, which had the effect of putting hundreds of Palestinian employees out of work.

But all was not doom and gloom - a number of panelists highlighted the intense interest in both sides for greater business collaboration and connection, which I take as a positive sign. The challenge which remains, though, is finding ways to practically connect potential partners, something that Raviv noted the Peres Center was able to do by organizing a major trade show that drew both Israeli and Palestinian participants this past summer.

In an afternoon session at the Prosperity for Peace Conference at Harvard Business School an afternoon session featured a panel of experts discussing the intersection of education, business and co-existence. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Sir Ronald Cohen also addressed the conference,discussing his his belief in the importance of trying to influence the peace process by looking at the conflict through an economic lens, taking into account the relationship between support for extremism and conditions of poverty, as well as the vast potential for economic growth within the Palestinian Territories.  From his remarks it was clear that Sir Ronald believes that the political leadership on both sides represent an impediment to peace, based partly in their own stake in maintaining the status quo. 

He also told the audience that he felt the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was seen as a litmus test within Israel as to what might happen if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank, and given the outcome of the Gaza withdrawal, Israeli leaders are scared of what might happen if Israel withdrew from the West Bank.  In this, I agree with him - given the results of the Gaza withdrawal, which included the violent political ascendancy of Hamas, rocket attacks on Israel and the tunnels - I don't think too many responsible Israeli leaders would come anywhere close to replicating the same conditions in the West Bank.

"If we can't leave war to generals, then we can't leave peace to politicians," Sir Ronald Cohen noted, making a good argument that in order to achieve peace, forces outside of the political establishment need to play a role in moving the process forward.

Philanthropist and thinker Sir Ronald Cohen discussed ways that building economic ties and encouraging business collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians can contribute to peace at the Prosperity for Peace at Harvard Business School. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

In many ways this was the message I took away from the conference – that in this long-simmering, sometimes explosive, perennially intractable conference, there is not only room, but perhaps a need, for a greater role on the part of civil society actors. I do think there is something to be said for wider participation in the peace process by leaders in business, education and other fields, (on both sides of the conflict) but I’m personally not optimistic that these sectors of society will play a decisive role in the final push to peace. In highlighting the contributions that these groups can make to normalization of relations, the organizers of the conference have drawn attention to the roles that they can play: humanizing the other, encouraging greater historical understanding, creating economic incentives to avoid further armed conflict.

This is important, but unless and until the official representatives of both the Palestinians and the Israelis are able to reach real agreement, civil society actors are more likely to improve the lives of individuals or small groups, as opposed to societies as a whole. This does not mean we should ignore NGO’s and educational institutions and business partnerships that reach across national and cultural divides, indeed, far from it – but perhaps we should see their efforts as vital resources kept in reserve for the day when a political solution is reached. Viewed this way, the work that is being done at the level of civil society has an important symbolic value, representing belief in what’s possible, as well as a practical value, banking goodwill and relationships between Israelis and Palestinians that can lead the way to normalized relations down the road.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Ground Truth Project offers an innovative approach to covering international news, and structuring media

With a packed auditorium at WGBH studios in Boston, the Ground Truth Project officially launched, hosting a panel of journalists from the worlds of print, photo journalism, radio and new media. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
Last night I sat in a darkened auditorium at WGBH radio in Boston, and listened as a panel of journalists talked about their chosen careers, the important role that genuine empathy plays in quality reporting, and their collective sense of excitement around the Ground Truth Project, a new non-profit media organization co-founded by Charles M. Sennott and Gary Knight. In his opening remarks Sennott outlined the driving idea behind the Ground Truth Project, which is that in order to really cover global events and their impact on communities, reporters need to get out into the world; trying to capture the essence of a breaking story, let alone an on-going complicated saga like the turmoil in the Middle East, simply does not lend itself to armchair journalism. 

The panelists onstage, who ranged from relatively rookie reporters to veteran foreign correspondents, opened by sharing something about what drives them to do the work they do, and how they hope that the Ground Truth Project will influence coverage of world events.  One major theme that emerged from the conversation was the centrality of humanizing important, but otherwise abstract, issues, such as the impact of climate change or what it’s actually like to be displaced by the war in Syria. Throughout the evening the importance of being able to feel empathy as a route to greater understanding of the human impact of events came up repeatedly.

From left to right: Charles M. Senott, Deborah Amos, Joel Simon, Lauren Bohn and Ben Brody. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
"I wanted to cover the people that were involved in the events, and not the events themselves," said NPR reporter Deborah Amos, who opened the conversation by talking about her own experiences covering conflict, and how she tries to see what's happening around her at a profoundly human level, always keeping in mind that when it comes to reporting on people displaced by conflict, that "...they had lives before they became refugees."

Joel Simon, Executive Director of Committee to Protect Journalists spoke next, telling the audience, "There is less press freedom today than there was twenty years ago... How could that be?" Simon went on to note that historically journalists were safe because they possessed a kind of unique utility in sharing information, a status which social media and other modern technologies have eroded. I was also glad to hear him highlight the importance of trying to see this new technologically-infused media landscape, in which professional journalists as well as activists (and others) play a role, as clearly as possible. Lauren Bohn, Ground Truth Project correspondent, echoed this last sentiment, and shared her belief that in an age of information overload that it is more important than ever for journalists to figure out the most effective way to reach audiences.

Although time ran a bit short and the crowd didn't get to hear too much from photojournalist Ben Brody I recommend checking out his work as part of the Foreverstan project, a comprehensive look at the change in Afghanistan in the period following the September 11, 2001 attacks and offers an unflinching look at the difficult reality faced by ordinary Afghans in 2015. Another panelist I would have been interested in hearing a bit more from was Coleen Jose, a reporter who has covered events in the Philippines by seeking out the perspectives of individuals whose lives have been impacted by natural disasters and other events.

With "Foreverstan" the Ground Truth Project offers a comprehensive look at events in Afghanistan over the last 14 years, telling the story of the impact of so many years of conflict on the lives of ordinary Afghans.

One thing that really struck me about this endeavor is the way that the Ground Truth Project partners American journalists with local aspiring and established journalists in places like Burma, not only to tell compelling stories but to improve the skills of up and coming reporters around the world. In this way, what Sennott and his colleagues have set out to do has the potential to make a significant contribution to coverage of international news, as well as strengthen civil society in places where violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise, threaten to silence the media.

The Ground Truth Project has an ambitious agenda as well as a number of impressive backers and partners, but ultimately, as is the case with all non-profits, the success of this project may hinge on its ability to attract and retain donors. If the staff and leadership are successful in doing this, they may very well play a key role in ushering in not merely a new revenue model for media outlets, but change the structure of news-gathering entities entirely. It may take a while before we see if this model is successful, but if the Ground Truth Project can gather enough momentum I think it will continue to gain supporters and play an important role in influencing the future of journalism both at home and abroad.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Facing society and history, we should expect more from our presidential candidates

Things are picking up in New Hampshire and Iowa, various contenders are grabbing headlines, and it seems like with each passing day attention is shifting more and more from the Obama administration to discussion of presidential candidates and 2016. To some extent this is can be positive - anything that citizens engaged and thinking about the process of democracy is a good thing in my book - but I think there is a downside as well to this early embrace of the next presidential contest. It also has the potential to encourage a "kick the can down the road" mentality at a time when there's no shortage of domestic challenges and foreign threats which need to be addressed.

This hyper-focus on the passage from one administration to the next is perhaps the most visible (and odious) result of living in a society where the 24 hour news cycle reigns supreme, with the rise of social media acting as a catalyst. The expectation of instant (and constant) information is only part of the issue, though - a more troubling aspect of this mentality is that it reflects a lack of willingness or ability to engage with substantive issues over a sufficient period of time to adequately address significant challenges to America's vital interests, from an increasingly aggressive China and Russia to political fragmentation in the Middle East.

While the current political and media atmosphere does little to encourage a holistic, long-term approach to key issues which span multiple presidential administrations or congresses, I do think that if someone could successfully apply this mindset to problems like climate change, failing critical infrastructure or any of several international disasters currently unfolding, that change could happen. Such a significant shift in approach to problem-solving would need a major figure at the forefront of the effort, though, which is why I would personally like to see the 2016 candidates for president embrace the idea that if they win they'll see themselves as playing an important collaborative role in making change, as opposed to an independent agent acting on the stage of history.

Of course the pursuit of the presidency lends itself neither to humility nor political generosity - in fact, we tend to celebrate the opposite in our potential presidents, especially during the primary process when contenders are pushed and pulled in the direction of extremes. Such polarization on the campaign trail creates an even more partisan mood in the country, making discourse around controversial topics all the more difficult and truncated. This is a problem, because angry, short conversations, are not the way to solve generational, long-term challenges. If anything, this mode of engagement tends to make things worse.

I know there are people out there who are calling for candidates to make iron-clad statements on specific issues, but in 2016 I for one would like to see a change in how aspirants for the highest office in the land think about their own role in society. Perhaps if we, the voters, send the signal that what we are are really looking for are facilitators with vision,  rather than lone heroes or heroines riding in to save the day, progress can be made. It's a tall order, I realize, but I think given the  challenges that we currently face, this change will have to happen one day to ensure that this great experiment in liberal democracy continues for generations to come.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A review of Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's "ISIS, the State of Terror"

When ISIS made its first major appearance in media reports there were many people (myself included) who scrambled to find out whatever they could about the organization - after all, the Middle East and North Africa are unfortunately flush with terrorist and militant groups that wax and wane in terms of influence, strength and visibility. It was entirely possible, at first glance, to see them as yet another extremist entity seeking to exploit chaos in Syria and structural weakness in Iraq in order to make a name for itself. Sadly, it turned out that ISIS had some staying power, and one of the most disturbing characteristics of the group, their enthusiastic embrace of inhuman brutality and death, was immediately evident. Then, as ISIS began to attract more recruits, seize and hold Syrian and Iraqi territory execute western journalists and persecute minorities, the media and global leaders really began to pay attention.

For media consumers who go beyond daily newspapers and broadcasts there were  excellent insights to be found in coverage by the New Yorker, The Atlantic and more academically-oriented publications such as Foreign Affairs. Many of these pieces looked at the problem of ISIS from one particular angle or another - violence targeting particular religious or ethnic minorities, for example, or how ISIS fits into the broader context of the Syrian Civil War. Like many others who follow these things, I found this coverage useful, but I was glad to be able to add another important resource to my library after picking up a copy of "ISIS, The State of Terror," by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.  The book, which traces the evolution of ISIS from its roots in Al-Qaeda through to the end of 2014, offers an engaging and thorough look not only at the operations and goals of the group, but presents a detailed assessment of the ideology and philosophy that drive their leaders and followers.

The authors also do not shy away from exploring missteps made by the U.S.. Stern and Berger write that, "The rise of ISIS is, to some extent, the unintended consequence of Western intervention in Iraq. Coalition forces removed a brutal dictator from power, but they also broke the Iraqi state. The West lacked the patience, the will and the wisdom to build a new, inclusive one. What remained were ruins." In the case of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the first leader of Al-Queda in Iraq (which would later morph into ISIS) it appears the U.S. may have also inadvertently contributed to his status (and that of his followers, by extension)  after he was killed in an airstrike. Stern and Berger note in this case, that "... The Defense department released a photo of Zarqawi's corpse, a miscalculation when dealing with a movement that glorifies martyrdom and has no inhibitions about images of death."  Of course the failure to rebuild Iraq cannot be laid entirely at the doorstep of America, no more than the decision to share a photo of the recently deceased Zarqawi was the lynchpin in the rise of ISIS, but the authors are correct to point out that this breakdown of civil society along with massive political corruption, often following sectarian lines within post-war Iraq, helped ISIS emerge as a force in the region.

The religious beliefs which motivate ISIS adherents to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty are also discussed in the book. In fact, Stern and Berger make a compelling case that ISIS,  which ostensibly believes the apocalypse is nigh, has more in common with violent apocalyptic cults than other terrorist organizations. This is important for a number of reasons, not least of which being that in order to effectively counter the enemy, it's important to understand their motivations. In the case of ISIS, these motivations are clearly different from other Islamist organizations in the region, making them appear even more extreme than Al-Queda. The authors note that this difference in motivation puts ISIS in a decidedly more dangerous camp than the normal, garden-variety, terrorists, explaining that, "Violent apocalyptic groups are not inhibited by the possibility of offending their political constituents because they see themselves as participating in the ultimate battle. Apocalyptic groups are the most likely terrorist groups to engage in acts of barbarism, and to attempt to use rudimentary weapons of mass destruction."

Perhaps one of the most worrying aspects of the rise of ISIS is their embrace of, and demonstrated facility with, social media. As the authors chronicle, the group has made extensive use of Twitter to both spread their political-religious ideology, as well as recruit supporters and fighters to bolster their efforts inside the Middle East and beyond. One troubling aspect of the spread of ISIS online is that their success online may have been aided by what the authors describe as an often slow, and at times inconsistent, response, by tech companies, with some realizing the threat posed by terrorist use of their platforms sooner than others.

The nature of the relationships between the tech companies and the government, as well as the direction in which official agencies tried to influence corporate policies was also inconsistent, with Berger and Stern noting that, "In the United States, the government sometimes asked companies to suspend accounts. Some of the time, at least, the social media provider had some discretion in responding to such requests."

This lack of clarity, both in terms of policy and practice, largely reflects the explosive result of violent jihadist embrace of social media at a time when this new technology was itself rapidly evolving in unpredictable ways. The authors acknowledge a need to strike a balance between free speech and limiting the influence of ISIS online, citing the difficulty of trying to define social media as either a kind of broadcast public forum, in the mold of newspapers and television stations, or as a tool for private communication - essentially an extension of email. 

As a kind of hybrid between the two, social media raises questions that society often does not know how to answer, or frequently even how to ask, leading the authors to call for a more focused approach to the questions at the center of the intersection between violent extremism and social media, writing, "We recommend that a conference be dedicated to airing these issues publicly, with participants from both the public and private sector with an eye toward establishing some consistent, reasonable practices and clearly defining areas that require more study ..." The authors should be applauded for calling for this kind of effort, and if such a gathering is convened, I know that I for one would be very interested in seeing the results.

There is clearly no magic bullet when it comes to countering ISIS as either an operational terror group on the ground or in its dissemination of hate-fueled, violent propaganda on the web, but there are things that can be done to limit their efficacy online and check their advances on the battlefield. As the authors suggest, a greater focus on the problem and bringing additional resources to bear will be required, but such an effort is not impossible to mount. In writing this book Berger and Stern offer a clear-eyed, thorough picture of the rise of ISIS, making a compelling case that this group poses a serious threat to the territorial integrity of the modern Middle East, the lives of religious and ethnic minorities, and through its use of social media, to core values of liberal, democratic civil societies around the world.

As an early chronicle of ISIS, I imagine this volume will prove useful to both decision-makers and analysts alike as they struggle with how best to counter ISIS, and for the general reader Berger and Stern's volume provides an important (and alarming) picture of the latest iteration of violent Jihad. ISIS is still evolving - what it is, where it goes, and what it becomes next, remains to be seen - but in authoring this volume Berger and Stern have written at least the prologue of the ISIS story, and perhaps the first chapter as well. In writing this book they have done their part to remind the world about what can happen when extremist ideology, failing states and violence come together, and it’s a reminder for which we should all be grateful.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Monday, April 13, 2015

In the spirit of FDR, a Harvard think tank faces the challenges of the day

A few months ago I happened to meet Jed Willard, Director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation for Global Engagement at Harvard College, at a program on social media organized by the Canadian consulate in Boston. When we spoke briefly at the consulate I was intrigued by his description of the work of the Foundation, which includes research, programming for students and more, all carried out with the legacy of President Roosevelt in mind.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with him again to talk about the Foundation in his office in Adams House, located in rooms that were home to FDR during his time as an undergraduate at the college. With a light drizzle falling and cloudy skies outside, we sat in front of a fire as it crackled away in the fireplace, discussing the unique role that his think tank plays at Harvard College and the state of the world in general. Over the course of an hour we touched on his work with eastern European nations, discussed American-Canadian competition in the Arctic, and speculated about the likely consequences of climate change. I also got the sense from our talk that one of the central strengths of this think tank is its approach to global challenges, at once focused on individual emerging trends, while at the same time embracing a broad view of the various political, cultural and strategic elements that may be at play in any particular situation.

It will likely come as no surprise to readers of this blog that looking at world issues this way resonates deeply with me – as I have written before, on topics ranging from the Arab Spring to Russian aggression in the Ukraine, to bipartisan politics, that attempting to comprehend (let alone solve) the problems of the world requires the ability to move between the micro and macro, always mindful of nuance, without getting tripped up or waylaid by minutiae. In addressing contemporary points of crisis as well as those that are more foundational, my sense is that Mr. Willard and his colleagues are seeking to foster an environment in which undergraduates, faculty and practitioners can engage with subjects that have both shaped the world as we know it today and likely determine how societies will change going forward. This can only be a good thing.

If you visit the organization’s website I think you’re likely to notice, as I did, that there a number of questions posed, such as, “As national borders fray, are we seeing the ‘reintroduction of geopolitics?" and “How can we understand and defuse the impact of international politics on regional cooperation in the Arctic?” Good questions are at the heart of any intellectual debate worth having, and when the subject is international relations, solid questions are vital not only to the quality of discussion, but in helping guide policy experts and decision-makers faced with choices which will have serious consequences in the real world.

In exposing students to the complexities of decision-making at the global level I think the FDR Foundation for Global Engagement is not only potentially influencing the career paths of future graduates, but perhaps more importantly, helping to prepare them to be better citizens of the world. Given all of the challenges we are facing, from terrorism to climate change to breakdowns to entire regions in turmoil, right now the world could use a few more good global citizens.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Tending to our own gardens, while the world outside is burning

If the world were perfect, if societies across the globe were free from the ravages of poverty, violence and extremism, if these forces were not constantly pulling at the threads of civil society from Baghdad to Burma, then we could certainly be content to spend our days at home, blissfully ignoring whatever happened beyond our own backyards. And yet, without having fed all the hungry people around us or found a solution to the problem of violent extremism, it feels like more and more of us are nonetheless retreating from engagement with one of the most pressing challenges of our time.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this retreat from public life in the context of the rise of violent extremism and Voltaire’s Candide. In this 18th century French satire the author chronicles the life of the title character as he runs a gauntlet of increasingly violent and absurd scenarios, incessantly abused and harassed by circumstance. Eventually, exhausted by everything he has experienced, he arrives at the conclusion that the best thing to do is to remain quietly at home, tending one’s own garden. Surely there are people who read this book and immediately empathize with the protagonist: perhaps on a personal level, they too feel battered by life, and the idea of retreating into a safe corner is appealing. For others, the themes which drive this work may resonate on a larger scale, offering a compelling argument for American isolationism, borne of a desire to avoid the complexity inherent in international issues and a misguided belief that as long as the United States seems strong at home, all will be right in the world.

If we choose, we can follow the example of Candide, so beset with horror and grief that we turn away from the injustice happening all around us. We can ignore the political upheaval and violence roiling large areas of the Middle East and North Africa, where innocent civilians bear the brunt of chaos wrought by Al-Queda, ISIS and others. We can pretend we don’t know that there are people living in our own cities and towns with hate in their hearts, whose own violent fantasies are fueled by the consumption of racist, anti-Semitic or anti-government social media. This is one path we can take.

We should never forget, however, that we have the power to stand up for the things we believe in, for the people who don't have a quiet place to turn to, who have no garden of their own. In my mind, this is both the nobler, and the wiser, course of action, paying dividends not only in the impact we can have directly on our own communities and in the messages we send to the international community, but in reminding others that they can do the same.

If we want to live in a world where human rights are respected and where the rule of law is upheld then we must avoid at all costs the example of Voltaire’s hapless hero. Those of us with the capacity to help others in need should never let the minor setbacks and distractions of everyday life push us back home, away from the uncomfortable truths, messy reality, and the obligations that come with living in a free society.

Perhaps originally intended as a meditation on the absurdity and cruelty of life, I read Candide today as a call to action for leaders and everyday citizens alike. The choice is ours to make; if we so choose, we can tend our own gardens, ignoring the violent persecution of Yazidis, minority Muslims, Christians and others, but shouldn't we want to live in a world where we expect people not to cut themselves off from debate and discussion? Shouldn't we expect better things from our leaders, from our friends and neighbors?  Shouldn't we expect better things from ourselves?

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

More than just a good story, journalists risk their lives for society

On the evening of Thursday, April 8, four journalists took the stage at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston to discuss the increasingly dangerous environments in which journalists find themselves working. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Professional journalists and the work they do are vital to creating and maintaining healthy societies - even today, when anyone with internet access and a mobile device can brand themselves a "citizen journalist" and potentially reach a world-wide audience, there is an important distinction to be made between a random person who shares information online (which has a different value in its own way) and those who dedicate their lives to seeking out truth, holding the powerful accountable and placing information in a meaningful context.  In a well-run news organization, whether it be print, digital, radio or television, reporters and editors represent the eyes and ears of the people at every level, on topics ranging from municipal politics to presidential campaigns, and in the vast preponderance of cases, they do so in a transparent, professional way.

It has often been said that news is the first draft of history, but in a day and age in which media consumers can go online and find out what's happening in virtually every corner of the globe in a matter of minutes, the media also serves as a mirror for contemporary society. I was reminded of this last night when I attended a program at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston, entitled "Journalists in Jeopardy, Risking it All to Get the Story." The panel featured Aaron Schachter  of Public Radio International as moderator, Israeli journalist Amir Tibon (Walla News correspondent), Tracey Shelton (senior foreign correspondent for Boston-based international news group GlobalPost and reporter for The GroundTruth Project) and Joe Bergentino ( executive director/co-founder of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and former investigative reporter with WBZ-TV).

The program opened with Charles Sennott, co-founder of GlobalPost and founder/executive director at The GroundTruth Project at WGBH, addressing the audience via Skype from Afghanistan, where he was working on a special report on the country more than a decade after he was there to cover the early days of the war following the September 11 attacks. The discussion then moved on to the increased level of threats that journalists around the world face today, not only when covering foreign wars but working within the United States as well.

Aaron Schachter, who donned a flak jacket with the word "Press" emblazoned across the front as he opened the program, noted that when he first began reporting from places like Gaza roughly 13 years ago, that journalists were clearly seen as non-combatants and able to work in relative safety. From the comments of all of the journalists on the stage, though, it was clear that times have changed, as they touched on the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of ISIS.

It was a stark reminder that in 2015 there are organizations and individuals who are so outside the bounds of what we might call "normal" civil society that no one is safe from their brutality. It is bad enough when ISIS cruelly murders and maims innocent civilians and commits countless otherunspeakable crimes, but their killing of journalists is also a kind of statement about their rejection of international and social norms. In a previous post I made a similar argument about the Charlies Hebdo attack, noting that while I'm no fan of that publication's content, the slaying of those associated with the magazine was a double crime, first and foremost it was a horrific act of violence against those killed and injured, and second, it was an assault on free speech and the organizations which promote it.

Against this backdrop the work that these four and many others are doing is perhaps even more admirable. Whether in the case of Joe Bergentino traveling to Putin's Russia to teach fellow journalists the art of investigative reporting, or Amir risking his life as an Israeli journalist reporting from Syria, or Tracey Shelton traversing war-torn Libya as a freelancer, these men and women are not only recording the first draft of history, but showing us the ways in which corruption, terrorism and social chaos are threatening civil societies around the world today.

The existence of a free and open media is something we take for granted all too often in the United States and in other liberal societies where we assume that reporters will not only have access to high officials and critical information, but will be allowed to do so unimpeded and without fear of death or injury. In many places around the world this is not the case, and even in the United States journalists have been targeted for violence by people with twisted political or ideological agendas.

The four journalists who spoke at the JCC this week deserve our thanks and respect for the work they are doing and the risks they are taking to shine a light in the darkest corners of the globe. In turn, it is our responsibility as citizens not to shy away from the facts they report, no matter how ugly or disturbing. Perhaps if both sides, journalists and everyday citizens alike, can hold up both ends of this bargain we can work together to lessen corruption, stop the killing and restore some semblance of social stability in places like Russia, Libya and Syria, as well as remind people living in the West that a free and open media is one of the core elements of healthy, functional democracies.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Deal with Iran seems to leave much unsaid, and perhaps even more undone

Details of the agreement struck between Iran and the west are still emerging, but based on what has been reported so far, it's hard not to see this as a victory for Iran, and at best, a temporary reprieve for the U.S., Saudis, Israel and Europe. In looking at the initial reports it seems that Iran will get to keep a significant part of its nuclear infrastructure intact in exchange for agreeing to a more intense inspection regime and the removal of some nuclear materials from the country. It may in fact be many years before history decides whether Secretary Kerry and President Obama have pulled off a brilliant diplomatic victory or merely punted the problem down the road, but perhaps between now and June , when the final agreement is supposed to be reached, we will begin to see indications of what the future may hold.

What really struck me about the early coverage of this announcement is that there was practically no mention of the other terrible things that Iran is apparently free to continue doing without incurring the wrath of the West. I guess as long as Tehran doesn't fight the US on inspections, they'll be allowed to continue to sponsor groups and acts of terror that kill and maim  citizens of the US and allied countries. I realize I'm engaging in a bit of hyperbole here, but only a little - throughout the talks with Iran it has appeared that negotiators have focused solely on the country's pursuit of nuclear weapons and ignored the rest. It's understandable that the pursuit of nuclear capabilities was at the top of the agenda, but why should Tehran get a free pass on everything else?

I'd like to see a real dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program through diplomacy as much as anyone rise, but when the deal made is one that focuses more on removing technical capabilities and less on deterring the underlying aggression behind the program, an important opportunity is lost. The message that Tehran should have taken away from this process is that belligerence and genocidal threats  will not be tolerated - not that the only thing that counts is the number of centrifuges you have and what their stated purpose is.  If the leaders of Iran walk away thinking that this was a matter of technical ability and not one of  the moral calculus modern statehood demands, it will only be a matter of time before they turn their attention once again to acquiring nuclear weapons, in the meantime using conventional forces and political repression to terrorize anyone they can, at home and abroad. 

Over the next few months the world will be watching Iran closely to see how it behaves and whether or not those in charge comply with both the letter and the spirit of whatever final agreement is reached. If they do, I suppose this would be one kind of progress, but the world should demand much more - at the end of the day it's not the centrifuges spinning that represent the ultimate threat to peace and stability, but the ideology and attitude which seeks to direct the products of this process toward destructive ends. Ultimately it is this attitude, this worldview, that needs to be dispensed with. How we can achieve this goal is anybody's guess, but a deal that ignores this deeper issue may prove, in the end, to be no deal at all.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.