The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: democracy

As Soft Power Ramps Up, Soft Power Comes Into Its Own

With “hard” power clearly in a resurgent mode, it’s time to focus more on “soft” power and the advantages it holds in balancing off some of the more frightening aspects of human nature.

Fortunately, there are lots of resources to assist us, chief of which was the recently released The Soft Power 30 – an intriguing global ranking of Soft Power and those nations that attempt to use it.   The rankings aren’t as vital to the research that went into them but they nevertheless are important, even ironic. Here are the top 10: France (1), United Kingdom (2), United States (3), Germany (4), Canada (5), Japan (6), Switzerland (7), Australia (8), Sweden (9) and the Netherlands (10).

Canada’s positioning in the top 5 shouldn’t be construed as some love affair with the Trudeau government, but instead a well-researched work that not only comprehends the stability and dexterity of our nation but its greater impact on the world at large.

The ironic component is the inclusion in the top 10 of countries like the United Kingdom and especially the U.S. – both of which are usually viewed for their military might and global reach. It was 27 years ago that Professor Joseph Nye first coined the phrase “soft power” and it has remained in the global lexicon ever since. Nye continually attested to the need for America to enhance its “soft” advantage in order to compensate for the overemphasis on its military capabilities and unmatched influence over global affairs. When we peer deeper into America’s potential for soft power we see indeed that it is massive in scope and well resourced for a positive approach to international relations, involving the use of economic and cultural influence. The same holds true for the UK, so it’s only proper that they continue to matter when we speak of soft power.

America will never be able to escape its image of global dominance regardless of how much of its soft power it chooses to enhance, but with the current sabre rattling on this rise around the globe we are entering a new shadowed and troubling era somewhat reminiscent of the early Cold War period in the 1950s and 1960s. It is indeed alarming to witness exertion of raw political and military power in places like Russia, the U.S., China, North Korea, Syria, numerous African nations, and even Venezuela. The hard days are back and with them the rise in insecurity among the collective peoples of the earth.

All of which makes the needed emphasis on soft power all the more necessary and welcome. In future posts, we’ll look into how soft power works, especially its diplomatic and cultural elements, but before that, we have to consider what has happened to power itself – how it has changed and how it might affect the international community.

For those of us in the West, it’s becoming increasingly clear that traditional power, as we have known it, doesn’t carry the cachet it used to. Power and money are shifting from West to East, from governments to citizens, from corporate titans to agile start ups, from men to women, from state to non-state actors, from government incentives to NGOs, and from military machines to off-the-grid terrorist and paramilitary organizations.

All this means that power is slipping away from those that once prided their secure hold of it. In a word, it is being “democratized” – from the few to the many. At the same time, it is being redefined, and this is where Canada’s importance comes in. As militarily and economically mighty as nations like America or the UK may be, it is becoming clear that they are nations divided – over Brexit, immigration, refugees, isolationism, free trade, even political brands.

As nations distracted by change at every level, other players who have achieved a certain amount of domestic sustainability, economic vitality, and global influence are watching their credibility rise. Canada is clearly one of those nations holding such advantages and stands ready to fill in some of the vacuum created by the preoccupation of the larger military and economic players. We’re not talking about merely capturing media attention or even a Security Council seat here; this is about cultural, economic, civic, diplomatic, tech savvy, gender and diversity advantages that have obvious credence in a world desperate for such things at street level.

This country’s importance is on the rise, not through wishful thinking or global celebrity, but through clear actions by Canadian citizens, companies, communities and a diverse culture that transcend our politics and provide us our way forward.

Read this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

 

Hunger vs Famine: The Vital Distinction

It’s one of the great ironies of our age – learning that millions are being lifted out of desperate poverty at the same time as millions more are falling into famine. Thanks to system change many of what are termed the “bottom billion” are finding their lives slightly improved. Yet it is also because of the lack of human intervention – the worst possible kind – that hunger has huge populations on the brink of starvation. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are offering some hope through a vast collaborative global effort. At the same time, regional conflict, corruption, mismanagement and apathy are thrusting millions in the vortex of extinction.

When the United Nations recently announced that some 20 million people in four countries face famine it supported that reality with a staggering claim: this summer is witnessing “the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War Two.” China lost 30 million people to starvation following that great conflict, while much of Europe faced its own struggles with famine. How can it be that just four famine stricken nations – South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia – can face even worse disaster than a half-century ago?

According to the study, Tufts Famine Trends, modern famine emerges because those amenities that have reduced hunger in recent decades – improvements in farming, transportation and communications infrastructure – are severely missing in the four nations mentioned above.

This is the great tragedy in what these millions now face: it isn’t because of a lack of food only, but because human design has determined that it will leave hunger untreated until it reaches epidemic proportions, better known as famine. Who are we talking about here? Undoubtedly the governments of those regions haven’t been able to get their acts together, sometimes through corruption, tribalism or willful neglect. But another key component is us – prosperous and developed nations. When resources have been lacking to build the roads, buy the seeds, transport the yields and get them to markets, the UN has put out special appeals over the past few years, warning that if donor countries failed to respond that the inevitable results would be famine in these regions. The response has been so dismal by governments and their citizens that the food crisis prophesied has now come to pass.

Chris Hillbruner of the Famine Early Warning Systems Networks recently said plainly, “When the political will is there, everyone suddenly has access.” We know this to be true – it always has been – but the opposite has direct consequences: low political initiative leads to disaster. As UTNE Reader put it: “The Rich Get Richer; the Poor Go Hungry.”

The distinction between hunger and famine is vital for us to consider and understand. Almost one billion people in this world live in chronic hunger yet have enough to survive. They will experience poor health, disease, and high child mortality, but they can likely endure. Famine is different. People in such a condition don’t have enough food to survive and will soon enough perish, starting with the most vulnerable. Hunger is about surviving; famine is about death. That’s the distinction. The key is to keep people migrating from the former to the latter.

The cause of famine carries with it much more human design than we might care to admit. Yes, there are the civil wars, corruption and other domestic failures that keep people from getting the nourishment they require to live. But then there are those individuals, groups and nations that refuse to provide the required resources to keep families falling from hunger into famine. These two dimensions, regional and global, when combined, lead to the crisis that the UN is now alerting us to.

One of the great tragedies of famine, as Oxfam continues to remind us, is that if we wait until famine is declared to respond, it is too late. That’s the reason the UN provides advance warnings. But what happens if the response isn’t sufficient? We are now about to find out.

Our family has worked in South Sudan for 18 years and at no time has it been easy. Yet our women’s initiatives and education programs have progressed even during times of great civil war. But this past January, with no fighting occurring in the Aweil East region where we work, the threat of famine entered the area and everyone knew what it meant. What war, tribal divisions, hunger, lack of medical services, the recruiting of child soldiers (including girls), too many deaths in childbirth, and lack of rain couldn’t accomplish, famine can now succeed through the perishing of these remarkable survivors themselves. It is enough to induce heartbreak, as it has done many times.

This is what constitutes the ultimate tragedy wrought by famine – it destroys hope by obliterating the people themselves. Eventually deaths of such magnitude will dislocate much of world unless the nations and peoples of the world respond. This isn’t a question of merit but of life and death. The call for assistance went out two years ago. We can now only pray for two things: enough time to respond and enough of the world to intervene and keep not just hope alive, but the very people themselves.

Read this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

Admit It: We’re All Trump Addicts Now

There’s no soap opera like it, or even a reality TV show that can compete with the sheer breadth of what’s going on in the Donald Trump administration. And there’s no setting better than the White House, Capitol Hill, or rallies of thousands who largely support his rhetoric.

Whether we are inclined to agree to disagree with him, the presence of Trump in the political universe has transformed Washington, democracy and the media, both social and traditional. And if we were honest we should admit that it has transformed us. He is the subject of conversation in every coffee shop or where citizens gather and dialogue. It’s an addiction and if we’re at all inclined to overcome it the first step on the road to recovery is to admit our dependency.

This is something the media is likely disinclined to do, for understandable reasons. Ratings are important and Trump’s presidency might very well revive components of the media industry. A Harvard University study revealed that media coverage of Donald Trump’s first 100 days was three times greater than any of his predecessors. That’s significant and explains much of why we, too, are fascinated by all of it. It’s theatre and we can’t get enough of it. Centrists watch CNN. Right-wingers take to Fox News. Even CBC and CTV provide large doses of the Washington shuffle. And even for those millions who fall into neither category, they still watch because it’s the most salacious thing out there – kind of like Game of Thrones, but in real time and with real players. Every day provides another OMG revelation, followed by hours of commentary – little of it edifying.

We know all of this, naturally, and curse ourselves for returning to the screen every hour or so to catch up on the latest scandal.   Behind all the action we understand that all this drama likely isn’t good for us, but, well, what else can compare?

It’s always a timely thing to ask what something like this means to democracy itself and the citizens who are its lifeblood. With some merit, belief in both the media and government has dropped to all time lows, especially in America. We say we are searching for better but then help to drive viewer ratings even higher. If Trump were boring, we likely wouldn’t be watching. And if we weren’t watching, democracy wouldn’t be newsworthy – a vicious cycle supported largely by those very citizen-voters who say they had hoped for better.

When Dwight Eisenhower met with John Kennedy the day prior to the young Democrat’s inauguration he reminded his successor that there was no such thing as a 12-hour day at the White House. “The desk is never cleared,” he noted, in a reminder that presidential politics is little more than organized chaos. He then reminded Kennedy that the greatest resource he had wasn’t the best organization but the “respect and trust of the American people.”

This is something Donald Trump doesn’t possess – a reality that makes all the unbridled chaos swirling around the Executive Mansion at the moment deeply unsettling to a country that is already deeply divided.

Behind all the action we understand that all this drama likely isn’t good for us, but, well, what else can compare?

“I’ll be damned if I am not getting tired of this. It seems to be the profession of a President simply to hear other people talk,” noted former President, William Howard Taft. Donald Trump has now successfully turned that on its head. He is the one doing the communicating, often unchecked and frequently unsettling, and we are proving to be the avid listeners. Moreover, like most of us, he too is an addict – hooked on power, his own view of the world, money and a limited view of democracy and its hard-won strengths.

History will no doubt comment on this time in democracy’s history, when average citizens, confronted with ominous challenges like climate change, terrorism, regional conflicts, stubborn poverty and political dysfunction, opted to choose politics as something to be watched instead of rescued through shared responsibility for governance between citizens and their representatives. Democracy is to be characterized by activism, not addiction. The Trump drama is remarkable viewing but is hardly fulsome politics or sound policy. Citizens everywhere will soon enough have to make a choice between the two.

View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

The Declaration of Conscience

“Extremes to the right and to the left of any political dispute are always wrong,” wrote Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower during a particularly troubling occasion during his tenure in office. How would he feel today, if he witnessed that sage advice being spurned by his own party?

The Republican Party in America appears to be slowly losing whatever cohesion it may have possessed prior to Donald Trump’s remarkable election win last November. As it wrestles with foreign intrigues and domestic extremes, it appears as a party lost in the proverbial wilderness even after winning the promised land of electoral success only a few months ago.

Despite the extremes, the Grand Old Party (GOP) still contains many moderate and experienced voices that for whatever reason have gone silent instead of rogue. Many had hoped that, following his surprise election win, Donald Trump would himself become more moderate as he listened to the experienced lights in the party and in the public service. They held their breath but it wasn’t to be – the President is just as unpredictable as during the campaign, only with the keys of ultimate power in his hands. What are they to do?

They remember those better days, when the Republican Party successfully found common ground with their opponents, regardless of who was in power. They were diplomatic women and men who, despite their differences, reached across the aisle on those initiatives vital for the country – infrastructure, the Cold War, civil rights, education and Social Security, and many more. These individuals still exist yet have opted to remain largely quiet as the extremes of their party slowly drag it to shreds in polarized directions.

Could the example of one of their great predecessors, Margaret Chase Smith, yet stir them to take a principled stand?

Reams of books on the turbulent times of Senator Joseph McCarthy fill shelves, especially in the Senate library, yet there are no books on Smith, despite her remarkable courage and insightful reasoning at one of those pivotal points in American history where a darker path could have been taken. She first served in the House of Representatives and then as a Senator from 1949 -1973 – the first woman to do so. She was a Republican from Main – the first woman to represent that state in both Houses – and, more importantly for our purposes here, was a deeply respected moderate.  

When McCarthy had gone too far in his Communist witch hunts and began dragging the Republican Party down with him, Smith gave one of the most stirring speeches in the Capitol, titling it, “The Declaration of Conscience.” Here words now speak for themselves, and must surely speak to moderate Republicans in their present dilemma. She rose in the Senate to say:

“I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States senator. I speak as an American. I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of calumny – fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear … I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some soul-searching — for us to weigh our consciences — on the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America — on the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges.”

It was enough and it was monumental. Many of her fellow Republicans in the Senate came to their senses, largely through her challenge, and before long McCarthy was gone and the party he threatened to defile recaptured its conscience and its future.

Here was a woman of her time, and of all time, reminding her party that acquiring power at the expense of conscience is merely a deal with the devil. Powerful individuals listened to her on that day and the better angels of their natures captured their imaginations. The decisions they made over the next few months permitted the Republican Party to regain its footing and its fitting place in Washington.

Republicans control both Houses and the Executive, but decades of moderate leadership have given way, first to extremes and now to possible anarchy. Margaret Chase Smith’s counsel is still there for them to consider and her portrait yet hangs in the Senate gallery above them to witness their actions. Though dead since 1995, her voice still calls to her compatriots, urging them to stand not only for their own conscience, but equally for the future of the very nation they profess to love and serve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Digital Citizenship

Now that he’s out of public office, former President Barack Obama has been going more public with some of the causes that carry special meaning for him, as has his wife Michelle. To be clear, he’s not calling for an increase in the quantity of people to expand but the quality of how they utilize their online resources to better their communities, their countries, their world.

Recently the Obama Foundation issued a challenge to better examine digital citizenship – its potential and pitfalls. The positives everyone is aware of: broader engagement, developments in real time, massive education opportunities, and the ability for everyone to have a voice. But the former president is worried that a whole negative side is emerging from these advantages. As he put it to college students recently in his hometown of Chicago:

“We now have a situation in which everybody’s listening to people who already agree with them. Rather than expanding their viewpoints, or perhaps even changing them, millions are instead surfing the Net for those things that affirm what they already believe. Obama believes this is happening, “to the neglect of a common reality that allows us to have a healthy debate and then try to find common ground and actually move solutions forward.

As a result, the Obama Foundation is focusing less on digital participation and more on what it terms “digital demeanour.” So it asks its online website visitors to answer some basic questions at the outset:

  • Who’s a model of digital citizenship in your world?
  • What habits to do you want to change about your online life? What’s one simple thing you could do to improve your “digital health?”
  • What people or organizations do you think exemplify digital citizenship when it comes to questions of embracing difference – of thought, identity, or any other variable that you value?

This all sounds great, but Obama has been increasingly voicing his concern over those online trolls and haters who use the medium to blow up their communities instead of building them. And some troubling new research is validating his worries. It’s not just about the fact that Internet can bring out the worst in people, but that such individuals desire their worst to be on public display.

Researchers from the School of Health and Psychology at Federation University at Mount Helen (Australia) discovered that, though trolls may indeed possess a certain sympathy for a subject or group of people, never turn it all ugly and vindictive as a result of their psychopathy. They are astute enough to know what really hurts people or brings out the insecurity in others and use those traits as they engage in online activity. Many hold to important causes like climate change, equality, poverty, race, etc., but their real desire is to harm others. In other words, their hateful state of mind overpowers their care for such causes in a way that it destroys any hope of collaboration or solidarity.

The research concluded that, “creating mayhem online is a central motivator to trolls.” Moreover, research also confirmed that trolls were likely to be high in sadism and have a strong desire to hurt others.

Research like this is something Obama and his foundation are closely following, for good reason: such individuals are relentlessly are looking to destroy others online at the same time as they purport to believe in valued causes – like citizenship itself. Obama knows well enough that most citizens avoid such caustic voices. The problem is that those naturally inclined to collaboration, goodwill, or compassion remain silent to such a negative online presence. The former president is increasingly calling for citizens who care about their community and their country to emerge from their hesitancy and denounce such pathological behaviour, just as they would if it happened on their street or in their business or school. Digital citizenship means little if it can’t be guarded or defended.

The poet Robert Frost used to say that key to preserving freedom was the courage to be bold. This is what Barack Obama is calling for. But the time will come when we will have to speak out online and denounce those who demean, malign and destroy others online. Compassionate opinions build solidarity and understanding; malignant opinions are a cancer leading to death. Obama thinks the time has come for us to join in the former in order to defeat the latter.

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