Friday, March 29, 2013

How Not to Reduce Regional Tensions

North Korea is a tough place for peacebuilders. Not so much in the sense that it's tough for peacebuilders to live there though it most assuredly is that. More that the isolation and insularity of the country makes it difficult to even discuss things like civil society capacity building, or public confidence in nonviolent dispute resolution. Institutions such as courts that can provide checks on central government power have very little traction, as do all the other concepts that a basic search of scholarly or organizational literature on peacebuilding and democracy will.

There is often little that can be done to promote peace and social justice in a given country from the outside, and international practitioners are pretty much unable to enter North Korea for the purpose of empowering the populace to build these things from the inside. Even the United States Institute of Peace, one of the thought leaders covering the Korean Peninsula situation from the West, has not been able to advance peacebuilding efforts much beyond state-level negotiations. Building a communication network of state officials and "Track 1.5" personnel in the region is an admirable goal given the circumstances, but truly effective peacebuilding needs to integrate "top-down" and "bottom up" approaches. That way, central government policies can make sense at the local level and small communities are able to communicate their needs/interests to state leaders. At the moment, though, that doesn't appear to be a strong possibility in the DPR of K. 

Imagine my shock complete lack of surprise, then, when I read the headline of this Reuters article yesterday. 

Not long after the election, I used this very blog to prattle on for 80 pages or so detailing my thoughts about the outcome, and expressed some reservations about the Obama White House's foreign policy agenda. Having noticed that the Obama/Romney foreign policy debate was essentially a neo-realist race to the bottom, where the first instinct is to treat those that agitate us as security threats rather than opportunities for dialogue, I wasn't exactly optimistic about U.S. foreign policy going forward. Continuing on the same path seemed more or less a foregone conclusion. Indeed, we've decided to fly some bombers over Seoul in response to Kim Jong-Un's increasingly fiery rhetoric concerning the South and their United States puppet masters (that's us.)

Now, I fully understand the need to show support for our allies. And in a sense, I also understand the "show of force" language that our military is speaking. I recently heard a bit about life in South Korea from Laura in Laurasia. Her take was basically that Kim is a young man, which puts him at a tremendous disadvantage in the Korean culture of seniority, so it's important for him to demonstrate his willingness to lash out militarily at perceived enemies in order to appear as a strong leader.

It's conceivable, within the realist mindset, that a demonstration of U.S. military might and technological superiority would make sense to such an adversary and convince them to back down. I myself don't trust the line of thinking or the notion that "force is the only language they understand," but it has a lot of currency in the public mind, so there we are. In this case, I really think the U.S. response is playing directly into the hands of North Korea's more bellicose elements. Their rhetoric in this most recent flare-up in tensions has been focused on the idea that the U.S. and South Korea are "aggressors" in the region and the North needs/has a right to defend itself. I guess I don't see how flying a bunch of stealth bombers around within easy striking distance of Pyongyang will do anything but convince NK's military leadership that their paranoia is justified. "Too easily words of war become acts of war," as Maester Luwin from Game of Thrones cautioned Robb Stark in the first book/season, and I'm afraid that this Game of Oneupmanship on the Peninsula is headed in the same direction.

Sure enough, Kim Jong-Un has ordered a higher state of missile readiness in response to our exercises, apparently in order to "settle accounts with the U.S." . Of course, we've taken "settle accounts" to mean something sinister, but I can't help wondering whether it was actually meant more literally as "evening the score" of the tit-for-tat threat making  This sounds a lot like a situation that came up in my Culture and Conflict class a couple of years back. When interacting with certain "high-context" cultures where face and honor are important, trying to bully/shame them into changing their behavior isn't likely to work. If we'd just let Kim and his generals have the last word for the moment, they'd be able to save some face and might not have to keep ramping up the rhetoric/military preparedness out of a need to respond to our latest verbal salvo.

That's probably a little too simple a view, and either way I don't suppose the State Department and military are operating on the same schools of thought as a School of International Service professor.  But maybe, just maybe, changing course on this might show the path to a time where some real peacebuilding is finally able to happen. I know, it's a long shot. But it sure would be nice.


I'd like to tell you all my bad ideas...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Getting a new perspective

You probably don't know this because you haven't heard from me since December or so, but this year I resolved to basically quit whining about how my job isn't all that relevant to my degree program (past or present,) and start taking steps to correct my attitude by seeking out opportunities to get some more satisfaction out of my current position. Well, I'm pleased to report that this endeavor has been a (qualified) success. And I don't just mean that I've bought a couple blazers to wear to the office in an effort to "dress for the job I want," though that has certainly been a good time, too.

A few weeks ago, my organization sent out a series of surveys measuring employees' interest in participating in short-term (six months or so) placements in other divisions. It just so happens that a spot opened up in an office I'd spent some time with in the past, covering front-desk duties while the usual person was at a doctor appointment or what have you. Considering that I speak probably 50% of my work Spanish while at this office, I accepted almost immediately. Today was my first day in the new spot, and even accounting for the "new office smell," I have no doubt that I made a great decision.

My duties here remind me a lot of my time as a legal assistant/office manager at a law firm, dealing much less with case work and more with people. My first instinct, since I had already basically done that job in the past, was to wonder whether I would be moving backwards, in a way. But really thinking it through, I realized it couldn't possibly be a bad thing to demonstrate my flexibility and adaptable skill set both to my own organization and on the ol' resume. What's more, I'm generally much happier when interacting with and relating to people, helping them to solve problems and find the right questions to seek the answers they want. Sitting at a desk and waiting for somebody to bring me a folder so I can scan some things and mail them out, being a functionary and having little to no agency has its merits, I'm sure, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that that kind of work just does not jive with my personality. Certainly, the first-day luster of the new office will wear off sooner or later, but for now I'm just glad to have been given the chance to try something new.

Meanwhile, the practicum team is plugging along with our project exploring the intersection, or "nexus," as we're terming it, between peacebuilding and democracy building. We've come up with some really interesting stuff so far, one of the central themes of our project will be a "think-piece" for our client. It's going to center upon theoretical support for a concept of trust that underpins both peace and democracy. Basically, it drives adherence to democratic principles and allows people to be creative in building  mechanisms for the nonviolent resolution of disputes. Moreover, if people trust that democratic channels for peaceful conflict management will work, they're less likely to abandon nonviolence the moment that negotiation doesn't immediately get them what they want. That feeling is often absent in new democracies or societies transitioning out of conflict, which makes them more likely to backslide into renewed violence or a system that lacks equity and social justice. All of this is ultimately aimed at movement toward positive peace characterized by social justice and a lack of structural violence. That's a lofty goal, and one that some would say is unattainable, so why fight a battle that you're probably never going to win? Well, a wise man once told me (as often as he was able) that it's better to try and fail than to do nothing and be a success at it. Good mantra for life? Probably. The VERY CORE of a career in peacebuilding? Almost definitely.

Honestly, though, it's a little tough to focus on my capstone research project when I keep hearing all this stuff about American University's campus-wide smoking ban. It was announced this year that AU would prohibit smoking anywhere on campus in an effort to improve overall university health. I can't decide how I feel about this. Sure, I think cigarettes are a little gross except in some very specific circumstances. And what little economics training I do have makes me lean toward disapproval of smoking because it provides negative externalities that are not covered in the price of a pack of butts. How many times has someone (probably not maliciously) blown a cloud of smoke at you while you're passing them on the street? That irritation you experience is what they call a negative externality, one that smokers don't pay for the privilege of causing you. The same goes for the expense to public health when people are treated for heart and lung disease on the system's dime after years or decades of smoking. Tax you pay on cigarettes at the register, I'm fairly certain, doesn't cover that. Which is why you can't trust the system.

Still, I tend to come down on the side of education over legislation- getting people to understand why it's a better idea to do your smokin' off campus (to the extent that's possible, it is a college after all.) The college democrats' link has a much better exploration of the "freedom of choice vs. the public good" topic than I care to delve into, but that tendency is also causing me some angst over the idea of banning giant sodas. The over 16-ounce soda ban for certain types of establishments in NYC, a signature initiative of Mayor Bloomberg, was struck down in court this week by a judge who looks like he could stand to lay off giant sugary beverages for a few weeks himself, if this picture is any indication.
The Honorable Judge Milton Tingling, who needs to fire his PR rep
or whoever took this picture while kneeling at his feet. 
Apparently he blocked the ban because it represented an overreach by the city in its ability to make choices for consumers. Also, he characterized it as "arbitrary and capricious" because it exempted certain places, like 7-Eleven, from selling large-format sodas, and didn't include stuff like milkshakes. So movie theaters and pizza joints are psyched now, because you can still get your 30-oz soda before watching the Hobbit for the 4th time or shoving a bunch of greasy pepperoni down your gullet. I wouldn't recommend the former, because once that soda's in your belly it's going to be really tempting to go make a pit stop by the 3rd or 4th "dwarves fight some guys" scene that's both completely unnecessary and absent from the book. And honestly, who wants to do that?

But saying the law doesn't make sense just because places like 7-Eleven can still sell large sodas, to my mind, completely misses the point because those sodas are, more than likely, going to be in bottles that you can re-close and so you haven't got to drink it all at once, unlike the giant cups in movie theaters or pizza places that encourage you to swallow all that sweet, sweet fattenin' fuel before you leave. The decision would have read much more strongly if it had only been about preventing the city from grabbing too much power and limiting freedom of choice in beverage consumption, and not this silly thing about how a law is ineffectual just because it contains exemptions and caveats. At the same time, I wonder if a better course of action for Bloomberg would be to try and up the tax rates on sugary beverages and frame it as a way to protect freedom of choice while letting the cost of a soda reflect its correllated drain on the public health system. Though come to think of it, we tried that in DC a couple years back and it didn't work out so well, leading some to call for... you guessed it. A District-wide, NYC-style soda ban, which might have more success.(!)

And around, and around we go.

I'm just so glad that we've ended childhood hunger, agreed on a means to combat the human-led devastation of our planet, and stamped out bigotry, homophobia, and religious intolerance so that we can finally get back to  the basic freedom to put liquid sugar into our bodies. Of course, that's basically what I'll be doing when I take down a bunch of warm blueberry soup after the WABA/House of Sweden Vasa Ride this Sunday. Should be a delicious end to a 60-mile ride to kick of "Spring training" or, as I like to call, it, "Riding in the Springtime."