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Archive for the ‘Civil Society’ Category

Great expectations

In Afghanistan, Civil Society, Foreign Policy, Israel, The United States on October 12, 2009 at 7:36 am

I decided to wait to blog my personal thoughts regarding Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 until it became apparent the nature of the reaction. I had an idea and it seems that my own perception seemed to be correct.

Much of the rhetoric is that the committee that awarded the prize was rash and mistaken as, according to the critics, Obama has no real accomplishments in his first 9 months as President that warrant such a prestigious honor. Furthermore, they see him as turning into a puppet of the international community, or to put it bluntly, being in Europe’s pocket. Having foreseen this reaction, Obama himself was very cautious when delivering his speech about receiving the award. He stated that he was both surprised and humbled by receiving such an award and viewed the reward not as “a recognition of [his] own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”

Let’s be frank. Obama is not in the pocket of the Europeans, indeed it’s quite the opposite. Obama has large popularity outside of America’s borders, which strengthens his position on American foreign policy and does not by any means weaken it. Politicians abroad will feel more pressure to side with the U.S. on policies, even controversial ones such as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, Iran, North Korea, and NATO engagement in Afghanistan. To state otherwise is prosperous as we’ve already seen the consequences of acting in the opposite way during George W. Bush’s presidency. Obama has been rebuilding America’s political soft power and him receiving the Nobel Prize will quicken this process.

That being said, it cannot be ignored that there are challenges that he will face, most notably from the radical opposition that has been very outspoken against his efforts to reform health care. There is a large anti-European element in the United States. This will never change. Fareed Zakaria stated it best, contributing to Anderson Cooper’s AC360 program on CNN, that it’s never a great thing for a President of the United States to be popular in France. Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize will without a doubt increase this perception of fear. That said, it’s obvious that the committee in Norway decided to make this years award a political one. It’s apparent that Obama does not have many accomplishments that would deserve him such a prize, rather the decision was a way to mitigate foreign opposition to Obama’s endeavor of working closer with the United Nations, fostering cooperation between countries, and to allow a resurgence of Wilsonism in the international arena.

The committee, however, may have misread the situation. Obama is in need of some good news, but not to the outside world, but to regular Americans themselves. Pushing through Congress one of the most controversial pieces of legislature since the days of Franklin Roosevelt has cost him large amounts of political capital from his own party, capital that he will need if he wants to tackle, as he termed it, the war of necessity that is Afghanistan. Another consequence of awarding such a prize at a premature date is the perception of the Nobel Prize itself to Americans as not being one that is awarded based on true merit, but rather as a political tool or an attempt from Europe to directly influence American foreign policy.

The White House is well aware of these issues, and the approach that has surfaced is one of cautiousness and constraint. Regardless of these hinderances and controversies, at the end of the day this will be a major boost to Obama’s attempt at transforming the international system and putting the United States on a firm foothold as a conduit for such change. The major challenge he will face is the added pressure that has been put on him out of the expectation that he is in the position to make drastic changes in the world, where if he fails, not only will his popularity further plummet within the United States but outside of it as well.

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A major boost to international cooperation and diplomacy

In Civil Society, Israel, Palestinians, The United States on October 9, 2009 at 9:06 am

It has just been announced that Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. This will without a doubt reenforce his international standing and position in promoting international cooperation and the United Nations in resolving disputes.

I also presume that this fast tracks the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, and will put pressure on both leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas, to find a solution.

A strategic move by a well respected international organization.

Russia’s most dangerous threat

In Civil Society, Europe, European Union, Foreign Policy, International Organizations, Russia, The United States on September 1, 2009 at 3:23 am

The BBC titled article, Africans ‘under siege’ in Moscow, reflects a grave problem that Russia is experiencing at the moment, such a degree of gravity in fact that this issue has surprisingly garnered very little international attention.

I remember being exposed to the problem through a New York Times article I read in 2004 or so. I remember a picture of an African, his head resting in his hands, while the article described his struggle for survival, or having to deal with constant death threats of being lynched, as well as witnessing his friends being brutally attacked openly in the streets. The police just ignored it.

Working in the study abroad office, we were delicately trained to warn African-Americans, or even students of a dark skin color, who were interested in studying abroad in Russia of the consequences they may face. I remember one such encounter of complete disbelief. His interest in Russian history spurred his interest to learn the language. The natural next step was to study abroad. I remember feeling as if I were transported back in time, and having to tell him that we only had one position for a man of his stature on the collegiate basketball team, and it was already filled.

The situation in Russia cannot be termed ‘latent’ racism, rather it is violent, bloody, and anyone that appears to be ‘non-Russian’ is susceptible. I found a two year old Times Magazine article, depicting how college students placed a bomb in a small caf√©, and killed many “non-white foreigners.”

Surprisingly, even with the new Obama administration, there has been little, if hardly any, condemnation by a President of the United States on levels of racism that are happening right now. Instead, dialogue is focused on realist, or geopolitical concerns, such as the Missile Defense Shield, NATO’s expansion, Iran acquiring nuclear arms, and decreasing the number of nuclear arms between the two countries. Though all these issues are important, the United States however has a great opportunity to control the rising of a dangerous form of nationalism, which is even more important. Though Georgia was swiftly defeated by Russian forces last year, the conflict however revealed the poor shape Russia’s military is in. Its weapons systems are outdated, and despite talks from Medvedev on Russia’s desire to further modernize its forces, it will take decades, not to mention large amounts of cash to be on the same par as the United States or even Europe. Thus, if history has taught us anything in the past 100 years, it is that nationalism can be an even more dangerous force than any military or weapon. Just as Nazism transformed the most democratic regime that Europe ever had into a militant, racist regime that systematically murdered ethnic minorities, if Russia does not put a stop to these violent acts of racism, nationalism could once again acquire a stranglehold in the region and change the nature of the continent.

Europe is also in a good position, if not better, to influence Russia positively. Russia is already a member country of the Council of Europe, an organization that promotes human rights and the rule of law and from which the European Union took its flag. Unfortunately, just as is the case with the U.S., the EU’s major efforts with Russia are in terms of securing its energy, and dissuading Russia from “turning the valve,” just as it has done in the past with Ukraine, a major transit country of natural gas into the rest of Europe. With the United Kingdom being the obvious exception, as well as some of the former Eastern European countries, continental Europe only resorts to crude language and warnings that are not usually followed. Instead, politicians seem more willing to accommodate Russia out of fear of waking up the next morning and not having any hot water.

To be sure, this is by far not an easy task. Russian politicians are using this emergence of nationalism to further their own domestic goals, as well as promoting an aggressive Russian foreign policy. A desire to return to the days where Russia was the other superpower, a Russia that could act freely in its own spheres of influence, is strong among the Russian public and elite. ¬†However, every country must have some form of immigration. Immigrants are able to fill in certain gaps, by filling jobs that were traditionally occupied by ethnic Russians. Moreover, as the United States is a primary example, if Russia reforms its higher education institutions it will be able to attract highly advanced workers, such as engineers and doctors, and take advantage of its geographic location next to China. If it continues to allow such rampid, horrifying acts of violence against immigrants, it won’t have a chance in this era of globalization, and Russia’s economy will only worsen, as energy prices seem to be stabilizing and may further decrease in the future. Though Russia’s foreign policy seems aggressive if not militant, domestically it faces severe problems that could destabilize the region. Both the Obama administration and the EU need to work together and take a unified stance and work with Russia in combatting violent racism. Most importantly, both actors must put this issue on the table, and acknowledge the threat that nationalism poses, outside of strategic, geopolitical concerns.

Nepotism at its ugliest

In Civil Society, Culture, International Organizations, United Nations on August 23, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Ask any recent graduate and they will tell you that the job market is not what you would call alive and well, especially employment in the international relations sector. Governments are forced to cut back aid and focus tax-payer money on domestic stimulus projects. This not only means less money for international organizations, but also a restructuring on how these organizations employ recent graduates.

Sadly, these practices are strengthening the ineptitude of multilateral institutions, and are promoting nepotism at its ugliest.

Look for any “entry level” position and you will find that the minimum requirement is 3 or 5 years of experience, in a very specific region of study, mainly in terms of actual field work. This high barrier of entry is making it very difficult for individuals without any actual experience, recent graduates for example, to get their foot in the door, despite how passionate one may be about a certain issue. So how do recent graduates get into the world of tax-free salaries? Simple. Unpaid internships are widely available that are full time, and last anywhere from 3 months to a year. Unpaid internships are common, especially for institutions that do not have a lot of funding, such as those that are doing business without a thought for profit, (supposedly NGOs) or those who find themselves in industries that are seeing their profit margins drastically decreasing. (American newspapers).

Despite this rather ugly trend of paying educated people little to nothing, it is actually not a very good practice for one simple reason. It is nepotism at its worst, and nepotism just breeds more inefficiency, something that IOs are notorious for having.

Many qualified individuals coming out of universities had to work full time in order to finance their studies. Let’s not forget to mention that many had to take out large amounts of student loans in order to keep up with the slight increases of tuition that universities installed each year, and they have 6 months to find meaningful employment before the governments calls the loans in. Also, these individuals cannot afford to do unpaid internships, for the simple argument that many of these organizations, such as the United Nations, have offices in cities with extremely large costs of living. New York City, Geneva, Brussels, Luxembourg, Paris, London, Tokyo etc, make it nearly impossible for most recent graduates to not only work without a salary, but to even find a place to live and eat three solid meals a day. You thought student life was rough with ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches, wait till you work for free.

Instead, the trend seems to be that the large number of those unpaid internships are being filled by those individuals whose families were more than willing to pay for their education, and who are also willing to fit the bill to have their children work for free. This is slamming the door shut in the faces of many qualified, highly educated individuals with a fierce passion for wanting to better the world in some way. They do not want the status quo, they want to change it. They’ve sat through the NGO classes, and those dealing with the United Nations. They know about their inefficiencies, as well as their good traits, the same or perhaps even better than their fellow colleagues who had patrons. Instead, the door remains open for a distinct group of people, despite their qualifications, their grades received, or the quality of the thesis they wrote, who can simply afford to work for free.

Therefore it is puzzling to me why this system exists the way it does. The obvious reason is simply there just is not enough funding. But this is a cop out. Unless every person in a given office in a given institution does not partake in any training activity whatsoever, then yes, there is not enough funding to employ someone without any experience. The other reason is that maybe international organizations merely like the current system the way it is. Perhaps it is a form of keeping the old guard in place, no matter how inefficient they seem to be. If they can continue to draw their current salary and fly first class to impoverished areas, stay in Hiltons and eat at fancy restaurants while reporting on the state of the country’s economy they are studying at that time, than why should it change?

Nepotism exists to keep a certain group in and a certain group out. Yes, there are always exceptions to the rule, and it is a general statement to make regarding international organizations, as some do pay their interns and there does exist opportunities for recent graduates outside of unpaid internships. Nevertheless, this is quite common and if people who have the means and are willing to work for free, why change it? Why pay educated people to work 8 hours a day doing the same job that someone else did a few years ago who drew a yearly salary? Nepotism like this does not provide a way for innovation or for improving the efficiency of an organization, it just keeps a distinct type of class in and another type of class out.

Sadly, this argument is assuming that there exists a civil society who can make a difference. This has been debated from both sides. The core argument is whether or not the world is better or worse off with international organizations. I believe that it is better off. However, if one is in this world to make a positive difference to civil society, I would ask all these individuals to look at your government first and if the options are not available, do something independently second. All this talk of reforming the Security Council, or needing something better than the UN is very redundant, if these organizations do not first employ individuals based on their merits and accomplishments, rather than whether or not they can afford to work for free.