The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: power

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.


Making America Grate Again

Depending on how one looks at it, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of President could be one of the best things to happen to the United States and beyond in some time. Call it “Making America Grate Again,” or “Mourning in America,” but the dynamic nation just to the south of us is experiencing an age of angst and energy that hasn’t been seen in more than a generation.

A couple of observations from comedian George Carlin come to mind. “In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.” He went on to note, “That’s why they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Well, the United States is many things at the moment, but nodding off isn’t one of them. The rustling, and wrestling, spirit of the country is casting off its indifference and expressing its pleasure/displeasure every minute of the day. Though the opinion of what constitutes the “American Dream” varies widely, the country’s days of slumber have come to an end.

The nation has never been good at standing still. America’s teeming masses have always faced issues that, at times, threatened to split the country wide apart. Racism, slavery, women’s equality, the tragic Civil War, and political opportunism have caused citizens to pull back from the edge of destruction on numerous occasions. Yet because of its great wealth, ingenuity, occasional timely leadership, and fierce independence, it has somehow gathered itself together to fight another day.

But in the modern era, nothing has quite jostled the United States to its core the way Trump’s election has. Only weeks into his tenure, the airwaves and lawyers are alive with the possibilities of a Constitutional crisis. Immigration has become a touchstone of this conflagration. Protest marches have stretched across the country and the globe at the same time.   This list could go on, but we get the drift: everything is in flux.

Well, maybe not. While much of the country went Republican, nine million Californians turned the region an even deeper blue, and America’s most populous state has sworn to fight Trump’s efforts to bypass traditional authority structures every step of the way. International trade agreements can’t be discarded easily. Whether it’s NATO or the handling of Russia’s Putin, pushback is coming because no one person or position should be able to sweep away so unilaterally something that took decades to construct. Donald Trump might yet become the key transformative leader of populism around the world, but if he wants to effect change he’ll have to negotiate those agreements enacted previously by elected Democratic and Republican administrations.

Democratic institutions, for all their ineffectiveness at the moment, exist to provide safeguards against the abuse of power. George Orwell’s 1984 reminds us why that is: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” Donald Trump has accomplished the first part of that equation; many worry that he might also fulfill the second, and so they are fighting back. For those who think this a bit severe, a recently unearthed 2013 quote by Trump’s chief political architect, Steve Bannon, to writer Ronald Radosh gives pause: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

The age of pushback is here, with no one knowing quite how it will play out. It will come from places like the state of California, and from protest marches. In an insightful column in the National Post, Andrew Coyne challenges nations to act with a united front in dealing with Donald Trump and not permit themselves to be treated on an individual one-off basis. He’s right, and he challenges Justin Trudeau to consider such a response. In everything from investments to environmental reform, from global security to foreign aid, a sense of dependability is essential lest things spin out of control.

And then there is the response from civil society itself. It will have to consider what to do with Amit Kalantri’s observation: “In a democracy, there will be more complaints but less crisis, in a dictatorship more silence but much more suffering.” That is usually true, but we have now entered an era where the complaints and crisis are marching hand in hand into the future.

America is more bustling at present than it has been in years. Democracy is grating against autocracy and the sparks are flying. Donald Trump has won his election and has the right to lead. But should he do so at the expense of hard-earned democratic and constitutional gains, only a united global opposition can hope to prevail over the most powerful office in the world.


The Truth is You


WHEN BILL MOYERS RESIGNED FROM political advising in 1967 in order to become the publisher of Newsday, he offered a frank admission: “When I left the White House I had to learn that what matters in journalism is not how close you are to power, but how near you are to truth.”

He arrived at this conclusion after taking a 13,000-mile bus trip around the country, armed with a notepad and tape recorder, and interviewing average people across the United States. What he discovered in that odyssey convinced him that politics and citizens were careening along ever-widening paths. He learned that citizens were quickly losing trust in politics to answer their most basic problems and that politics itself, as an institution, couldn’t really have cared.

Then he set about to interview many leaders of society who tacitly agreed with that assessment. “All these people share the conviction that news is what’s hidden. Everything else is publicity,” Moyers stated. Instinctively, we know this to be true. In fact, we’re almost 100% certain.

While traditional media largely continues its coverage of institutional spokespeople, non-traditional venues have sought another path, looking outside of established means to gain their story. Sadly, and in both cases, the real news gets suppressed amidst all the coverage.

Before she became an American senator, Elizabeth Warren had been placed in charge of a blue ribbon panel assigned with getting to the real truth about the financial bailouts given by the government to the largest lending institutions during the financial meltdown in 2008-09. She was already a seasoned pro at understanding the disappointment of modern politics, but even she wasn’t prepared for what she unearthed. She calls it the “BS Meter” and the title is suitable. In her book, A Fighting Chance, she tells of when her committee met with the second-in-command of the U.S. Treasury. When she asked him directly if the government was still bailing out the large banks with huge sums, he looked directly at her and said, “No, that has now ended.” Yet a few hours later her committee was shocked while watching the news to learn that a special government bill had just been announced that offered a further $800 billion bailout of the key banks. BS Meter indeed.

Meanwhile, from non-traditional media sources we have been hearing of a new economic order about to descend, in which each person will have their own start-up, their own brand, and control their own destiny through selling into digitally enabled markets. The problem is that we know already that it can’t be true, even for most people. We hear daily of how large companies have every intention of remaining profit-maximiers and that most consumers will play along. Unemployment will remain stubbornly high as a result, and government programs meant to help people transition through the emerging economy are being slashed.

Either way, the real truth behind the coverage is being ignored. And that truth is you … and me. Real people, despite all their creativity and resourcefulness, saw all their savings lost in the sub-prime mortgage scandal during Warren’s tenure on the committee. At one point, a family was going bankrupt on average of one every six minutes – 16 million families altogether in one year. And how did their government respond to this development? Simply by blaming such families for being poor savers and greedy consumers. The real reasons for bankruptcies were eclipsed by the blame game.

We all know the numbers. We are fully aware of the precarious nature of the middle-class. We know that significant numbers of Canadians are either unemployed or underemployed.

But it’s worse than that. Polls tell us that a large percentage of Canadians don’t feel that any political party will defy the moneyed interests enough to restore the equitable financial health of the country. An increasing number of citizens no longer rely on the promises of election campaigns because … well, let’s just say they’ve learned their lesson.

In such a setting, the comment by Moyers concerning truth and power carries a troubling fact: the closer one gets to power, the farther they can journey from the truth. We, average citizens, are that truth – not ultimate, but perceptive truth. We know of the rise in food bank numbers, the proposed procurement of sophisticated fighter jets that don’t work, the meteoric rise of the financial elite over the everyday working person, the politicians that seem increasingly isolated, the decline in our roads, sewers, and other infrastructure, the higher costs of post-secondary education, the catastrophic effects of climate change, and the fact that the savings from government program cuts will simply go to reduce taxes for the rich. We know it all, but have no way of getting out of our predicament.

We keep being told that the free market is benign and largely neutral on economic issues, yet our experience tells us that some individuals and large organizations have such powerful influence that the decisions that benefit them adversely affect the rest of us.

This is the news that remains hidden while we grow swamped with spurious advertising and self-serving publicity. It remains hidden because no one believes it will be dealt with under our present economic/political system.  It won’t be fixed until we show up in sufficient numbers to demand truthful communication. And it will remain broken if we leave power untouched and unchallenged.

Mayors: A Culture of Respect


WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT A MAYOR WHO ACTUALLY FIGHTS against senior levels of government in order to get a fair deal for a city? Palermo, Sicily, has just such a champion and his efforts are showing effect.

Leoluca Orlando began years ago by rescuing Palermo from the clutches of the Mafia at great risk to himself and his family – death threats were common. In fact, it was so bad that the local media labeled him “the walking corpse,” in anticipation of his assassination. Nevertheless he prevailed, reforming portions of the national justice system in the process.

He then undertook what he called the “second wheel” of his platform – engaging and empowering the citizenry of the city to organize and move forward with attempts at change. The defeat of Mafia control made it possible for average citizens to step up without fear. The next few years came to be known as the Palermo Spring – a time when the local and rich culture bloomed and introduced new creativity. As mayor, he believed that the only places where people were truly equal despite their level of wealth were civic and public spaces, and so he used them to inspire local citizens and turn them into civic champions. Orlando even gave it a brand: “culture of respect.”

Like most mayors he’s a multi-tasker. His efforts to promote urban democracy have seen him create some success in replacing partisan battles with multi-partisan cooperation – quite a feat. This was where he came up against senior levels of government more interested in party allegiances than policy that would actually work for his city. He used his background as a writer, actor, and civic organizer to build a momentum among citizens that forced the national and regional governments to make the changes required to give Palermo a chance at a new future of prosperity, openness and inclusion. He claims that all he really is looking for is “the civic renewal of his city,” and for that he needs citizens who believe they can lead that change.

It is one thing to overthrow the mafia, but his greatest accomplishment will be in how he got his city to believe in itself, despite its history of being at the lower end of the political totem pole. And for this he has received numerous awards from around the world, including the Human Rights Award from the American Federation of Teachers.

Like other mayors, he repeatedly claims to love his city. But such words can remain merely a sentiment. Orlando has gone on to prove that love by giving his fellow citizens an open and working relationship to build their city together with him.

Politics has changed and the type of mayors we choose must change as well. Regardless of their platform, mayors that are finding success are doing so on the realization that power shared has greater chance than power monopolized.  Head elected officials like Orlando are in the process of designing a new kind of citizen architecture – the framework of a new democratic exercise in which citizens discover common purpose in the process of turning their cities into breathing, organic entities.  Any mayor or mayoralty candidate who claims to exclusively have a “plan” with which he or she will lead their city is a throwback to the past.  The only visions that can succeed and last are now those that are shared.  Everything else is just the same-old, same-old.

Blood Purple

Glen jumping

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” … Albert Einstein

WHEN I ASSESS WHAT I EXPERIENCED YESTERDAY through these observations of Einstein, I realize I was never more fully alive. Standing before a filled to capacity Alumni Hall at Western University, and for the first time in life being introduced as “Doctor Glen Pearson,” I was carried along by emotions not of my own making and immersed in tradition far greater than any single life.

And yet the subject of my commencement speech was the sheer power of the enlightened individual. Before me sat graduates, all gowned in Western’s purple, who were about set to unleash their great talents and passions on a world that would surely be shaped different by their efforts. And for that brief few moments, all that youth and vitality mixed with my older years into what was the graduated class of 2014.

I had been robed earlier and stood with my family and Western President Amit Chakma for some official pictures, feeling welcomed and honoured, as only great educational institutions can accomplish. Filing in with the other dignitaries through the gathering of those who were about to become my graduating peers was a kind of baptism into a new family, keen of mind and prone for adventure.

No sooner was I bestowed with the Honourary Doctorate of Laws than I was asked to address the graduates, their families, and the faculty. I had been prepared, but the moment I stepped up to the microphone, it was immediately apparent to me that I was filled with a kind of awe – an historical mystery of time and place that makes one feel ennobled and humbled in the same moment. For the briefest of seconds I couldn’t speak. I was being swallowed up and singled out by tradition in a single act of great kindness and honour that only a great university can bestow.

I spoke of what the moment meant to my family. There before me was Margaret Roy, my mother-in-law – 91-years old and a woman of pioneering spirit who graduated from Western University in the year of my birth, 1950. When she was singled out, the audience welcomed and honoured her with warm applause. But present too were my wife Jane and a number of my children who were Western graduates. My three Sudanese kids will soon be graduating from those hallowed halls as well. And now, for the very first time, I would join the great Western family as one of its own.  Our veins would flow purple.

But the heart of the speech was really about the power of the individual and its capacity to shape and better the world. I recalled the words of Jane Austen – “A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can” – and stated that it was finally time to file such an outlook into the history books. There before me were hundreds of graduates and most of them were women, about ready to challenge their world, not only by their presence, but their abilities and gifts. Yet rather than merely applaud that fact, why not actually give them positions of leadership as a way of embracing a better form of humanity – more inclusive, gifted, and equal?

The remainder of my speech I don’t recall so well. I was, fully and meaningfully, lost in the body of my peers. All that I would expect of them, I must accept of myself. If they were brimming with potential, then so was I, despite my years. In an instant I knew that the standing ovation that resulted said more about the dedicated hopes and aspirations of those graduates and their families than in any words I could have shaped. It was their way of saying, “We’re set and ready to make the world a place to which our dreams call us.

I went into the day as a citizen and came away from it an honoured soul. With my mother-in-law, my 7 children, 4 grandchildren, and numerous friends, I stood in awe of the power of an enlightened institution about to be infused with a renewed legacy of teeming life. And I realized that, while some pursue meaning, all of these people who filled my day were about to create it. The world would never quite be the same because of that potential.

If the greatest thing about wisdom is to spot the miraculous in the common, then yesterday was a moment of great clarity and promise. The awe of it remains with me today, but the responsibility towards the creation of that new world now weighs heavier on all those who were present yesterday. We are up to the task.

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