Election Day

Overlapping deadlines and teaching have kept me away from the blog recently, but I couldn’t let today go by without writing about the election.

It’s always a strange experience to watch the election from overseas–I’ve been here for 3 Presidential elections and today makes my third midterm. Despite having been through so many elections over here, it’s still surprising how much news coverage is devoted to US politics in the UK. It’s on the BBC every day. The BBC Facebook page cover photo features Emma Gonzalez, Gloria Allred at a #MeToo demonstration, and Trump.

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In 2010 I got a taste of comparative grassroots politics first-hand–I interned and canvassed for my local MP in Leeds during the UK general election, then canvassed in the summer for my senator and representative in Washington state ahead of the US midterm. People typically don’t care as much about midterms as they do for Presidential elections–turnout is always much lower, and it was particularly skewed towards older, conservative voters in 2010. Samantha Bee did a fantastic piece on it during the primaries in 2016:

This piece highlights the problem of voter apathy–the feeling disconnected and unengaged, of thinking that voting doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t make a difference.

It’s also well established that certain demographics are far less likely to vote than others, and they track closely with class status. Jonathan Nagler, the director of New York University’s Politics Data Center, told the New York Times last month that more than 80 percent of college-educated Americans turn out to vote, compared with about 40 percent of Americans who do not hold high school degrees.

“There is a class skew that is fundamental and very worrying,” Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard historian and social policy expert, said in the same article. “Parts of society remain tuned out and don’t feel like active citizens. There is this sense of disengagement and powerlessness.”

It’s something my students discussed last week in a seminar on the public sphere. Nancy Fraser‘s critique of Habermas pointed out that some voices don’t get included–when the public sphere is dominated by college-educated, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, male, WASP voices, it’s to the exclusion of other voices–the working class, LGBTQ+, women, people of colour, disabled, immigrant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, etc.

Obviously I have certain causes and candidates that I want to win tonight, but my biggest hope, as with every election, is that people VOTE. I don’t want to see a repeat of this map, created by Philip Kearney. Just look at Arizona and West Virginia…Shocking. And the US goes around the world preaching about democracy…

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It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens tonight!

 

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The symbolic power of the Nobel Peace Prize

Last Friday,  Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were announced as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipients.

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Before the announcement, there had been speculation that Trump and/or Kim Jong Un and/or Moon Jae-In could win it for their efforts to end the decades-long conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Republican lawmakers wrote to the Nobel committee to nominate Trump, and Moon Jae-In suggested Trump should win it last April. I’m so relieved they didn’t go there. There are so many reasons why Trump shouldn’t be a Nobel laureate–and many of them are highlighted in the laureates who were chosen.

The Nobel committee chose to honor people who campaign against sexual violence, specifically the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Mukwege is a doctor who helps victims, and Murad is a survivor who has spoken out for other victims. Their stories are inspiring and heartbreaking, and they absolutely deserve to be better known–their causes deserve this kind of recognition and publicity.

Looking over a list a previous Nobel Peace Prize laureates, you can see the symbolic power of the prize–how it designates what issues matter, which voices ought to be heard and better known, who we should be paying attention to.

Sometimes it’s very specific, focusing on one country at one specific point in time, such as the 2015 award to the National Dialogue Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” Sometimes it coincides with an anniversary, like the 2012 award to the European Union on its 60th anniversary.

Sometimes, it’s a thinly veiled political statement. We saw that in 2009, when it was awarded to Barack Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. At the time, he hadn’t done anything yet–he was a lawyer and community organizer, a law professor, a State Senator and a junior U.S. Senator, and had only been President for 8 months when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He wrote a couple of brilliant bestselling books, made some fantastic speeches, but in terms of actually taking action beyond words, the award was really premature. The main justification seemed to be that he was an inspiring figure who promoted peace and international cooperation. As much as I loved him, I’ll admit that Obama wasn’t an obvious choice. It was clearly political.

In the same way, the decision to highlight campaigners who fight sexual violence is the Nobel Committee’s way of saying #BelieveWomen. It’s a decision not to celebrate a work-in-progress peace agreement between North and South Korea, but rather to honor the achievements of a doctor who’s devoted his career to helping victims of sexual violence, and to honor a woman who has overcome human trafficking and sexual violence, not just surviving it but speaking out for others affected by it. Instead of honoring a politician who’s been accused of sexual violence (and who’s actually bragged about it in a recording we all heard before the 2016 election), the Nobel Committee chose to honor the victims and those who help them.

Vive la resistance!

 

What the Kavanaugh hearings look like from afar

I’ve been following the confirmation hearings closely this week. As I follow a lot of American journalists & politicians on social media, it’s not surprising that the hearings are the top story everyone seems to be talking about.

What is surprising is the fact that it’s also been a huge news story here. The TV in the foyer of my department always shows BBC News, and I keep seeing live coverage of the hearings when I go to and from my office. Last night I was at an event with a mixed international group of friends (Brazil, Bulgaria, UK, Netherlands, Italy, Chile, etc.) and I spoke with some of the other women about the hearings, and about sexual harassment & sexual assault more generally. Everybody’s watching, and I don’t think Americans are really aware of that.

This morning I saw an article in The New York Times with that very title–a quotation from a reader in Belgium, “I don’t think people in the US know how closely we’re watching this”. My favorite comment came from a New Zealander:

“I have visited America more times than I can count and always loved the country, and most of the people I met were friendly, welcoming and open. I watch in despair as America slides back into the Dark Ages and loses its reputation on the international stage. It is really very sad seeing America implode.”

It feels like the stakes are very high now, in the age of Trump and #metoo. During the 2016 campaign, Trump faced many accusations of sexual assault (there’s even a Wikipedia entry to keep track of them all), and even a recording of him boasting about sexual assault released before the election–and still, 62 million people voted for him.

The #metoo movement has shifted the way (most) media talk about sexual assault, and it’s shaping the way a lot of people think about their own experiences, and those of people they know and love, friends and family members–because when half of the people on your social media feed are sharing #metoo stories, you realize how common sexual harassment and sexual assault really are.

We recently watched Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma again, for the first time in many years. As a child, I loved it–my favorite character was Ado Annie and I used to sing “I’m just a girl who can’t say no” without really understanding what the lyrics meant. I just thought they were funny, because my family always laughed when I sang it!

Watching it now, in the context of #metoo, I found it much scarier and more disturbing than I ever did as a child. When Laurey is sitting in that wagon with Jud Fry, you can feel how nervous she is. The tension is palpable. She’s thinking, “what have I gotten myself into?” and blaming herself because she told Jud she would go to the party with him (before she caught him peeping into her bedroom–another horrible scene). If anything happens (and it did, of course), she only has herself to blame because she put herself in the situation. That’s the story that victims tell themselves, and that’s why victims don’t tell anybody about their assault, for months, years or even for the rest of their lives.

Christine Blasey Ford didn’t tell anybody because she was afraid of getting in trouble for being at that party, where no parents were around, for having a beer at age 15, for putting herself in that situation.

When she realized Trump expected her to have sex with him, Stormy Daniels reportedly thought she deserved it for putting herself in that situation:

“I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ And I just felt like maybe… I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, ‘well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’”

 

In Oklahoma, Laurey escapes from Jud and finds help at the party–her aunt desperately tries to keep the bidding going when Jud stubbornly outbids everyone else for Laurey’s picnic basket, and Curly, the man she actually loves, sacrifices everything he owns to be the highest bidder. When a grateful Laurey tells Curly about Jud’s attack, he believes her.

He doesn’t say, “Well, you did choose to ride alone with him in his wagon,” or ask “What were you wearing? You were dressed up for a party–don’t you think that you were asking for it?”

Instead, Curly asks Laurey to marry him. He wants to protect her from Jud and prevent anything like that ever happening again (male guardianship is thus presented as the only way to prevent sexual harassment and assault, but putting the patriarchy aside…it’s a nice moment).

The #metoo movement is about honoring survivors’ stories. The new hashtag going around, #BelieveWomen, captures this idea perfectly. Rather than doubting and questioning their accounts, or accusing them of complicity (by wardrobe or drinking or “putting themselves in a bad situation”), it asks us to trust that they are fully capable of accurately interpreting events. They know what happened, and if it’s explained away as “horseplay”, “banter”, “Boys will be boys”, then the terrible acts committed against them are just being reinforced over and over again. The perpetrators are being protected and honored every time we choose not to believe victims’ stories–and there’s no greater honor than a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the most powerful nation on earth.

Explaining the Inexplicable

This week I’ve been going back to my survey of American study abroad participants, in which I asked about their experiences of talking about US politics overseas during and after the 2016 election. By far the most frequently asked question they faced was simply “What happened?” They wanted to know why the election had the outcome it did, why Trump won, why Clinton lost, and whether Americans were actually in agreement with Trump’s platform.

It’s been almost two years since the election, and we still don’t really have all of the answers. Hillary Clinton even used that question as a title for her book, which she’s now promoting again for its paperback release.

There are a lot of contributing factors–the electoral college, for starters. Americans might be asked to explain the electoral college to people they meet overseas, often without fully understanding it themselves. There have only been a few elections in which the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college, but two of them have now happened in our lifetime, and both were to the detriment of the Democratic party (2000 & 2016). That’s going to raise some eyebrows when we try to explain it overseas.

Another factor is the problem of “fake news”–not Trump’s definition of “fake news”, i.e. every form of journalism but Fox News–but actual misinformation disguised as news and circulated on social media by readers who may or may not be aware of its true nature. Trump’s overuse of the term has turned it into a joke, but the spread of fake news stories that smeared Hillary Clinton may have had real consequences, particularly in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Ilkley Brewery’s real ale with the slogan “Making Beer Great Again!” and Topshop jeans

There’s also the matter of Russian influence that we still don’t really know the full details of–but a few things are certain: 1) Russia did definitely meddle in the election, 2) they wanted Trump to win, and 3) Trump really doesn’t believe they did.

There are a range of other contributing factors, too: the Democratic party’s in-fighting and prolonged primary with Bernie Sanders, the “baggage” of Bill Clinton’s scandals, James Comey’s investigation announcement that came far too close to the election (and although it turned up nothing, the damage was done), Hillary Clinton’s so-called “likability” problem which is probably just sexism against the first female Presidential candidate, etc.

I’m still going through the survey data, but so far I’m just struck with the enormity of what we Americans abroad are asked to do, when we’re asked to explain the 2016 election. There’s really no explaining it, not then and not even two years on from it.

Sister Cities International: Exchange Diplomacy, Xi Jinping and Soybeans

U.S. News & World Report ran a story last week on Sister Cities International, introducing it with the fact that in 1985, President Xi Jinping visited Iowa on a Sister Cities International exchange.

“He stayed close with the family that hosted him as a young delegate from Hebei province, and this year, a soybean farm opened in Hebei, modeled after the one run by another family who hosted him on a return trip as vice president in 2012.”

The 2012 trip was profiled in this Daily Mail piece. This was one example of an exchange-diplomacy-alum-turned-world-leader that I didn’t expect. I love that Xi Jinping learned about agriculture in America’s heartland, and how his 2012 itinerary included Muscatine, Iowa alongside a visit to the White House (this New York Times article about the Washington part of the visit didn’t mention it). It’s particularly fascinating because the traditionally Republican farmers don’t support Trump’s trade war with China–those same soybean farmers that now-President Xi Jinping stayed with, who voted for Trump, are now taking a big hit (and getting a bailout), due to Trump’s trade war.

Sister Cities International was one of several exchange diplomacy efforts initiated by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. He believed in the ability of citizen diplomacy to enhance and even surpass traditional diplomacy:

“If we are going to take advantage of the assumption that all people want peace, then the problem is for people to get together and to leap governments — if necessary to evade governments — to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other.”President Eisenhower’s remarks at the People-to-People Conference, September 11, 1956

Sister Cities has received less coverage in the academic literature than other exchange-of-persons programs of the time. Matt Loyaza’s 2013 article, “A Curative and Creative Force”: The Exchange of Persons Program and Eisenhower’s Inter-American Policies, 1953–1961, looks at the State Department’s Leader & Specialist exchanges with Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the so-called ‘A-B-C countries’ considered by US officials to be a crucial ideological battleground of the early Cold War. Victor Rosenberg looked at Eisenhower’s diplomacy & cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union. Jazz diplomacy and dance diplomacy were also key features of Eisenhower’s citizen-forward strategy.

Montenegro and the role of values & culture in diplomacy

One of the stranger international affairs headlines (apart from Steven Seagal’s envoy appointment) in recent weeks was Trump’s criticism of Montenegro in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. It was part of his criticism of NATO and Article 5 (which has only ever been invoked by the US), but it seemed particularly out-of-left-field, even for Trump.

“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” (Politico’s coverage)

There are a lot of issues with this, obviously, but rather than spending time picking apart Trump’s bizarre statement, I’d like to highlight the way the UK ambassador talks about and with Montenegro as a point of contrast.

HMA Alison Kemp recently spoke at a panel marking the 140th anniversary of UK-Montenegro relations. In her remarks, she emphasised the role of culture in international relations:  “In many ways Culture, even more so than a diplomat, is the Ambassador for a country, it shapes a people’s response to a foreign country, and influences, enchants or repels decision-makers. ” The anniversary celebration events include cultural diplomacy activities, including a Montenegrin art exhibition and concerts in London and a Play UK festival in Podgorica.

Kemp’s speech gave some interesting insights into the Government’s current mindset and approach to world affairs, which have often been obscured by the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, the gaffes that often seem to happen when Brits are around Chinese delegations, and the sideshow of last month’s Trump visit. I also particularly liked her thoughts on the role of culture & values in diplomacy more generally–very much in line with the “humanising IR” approach:

“As diplomats, we spend our days thinking about values: explaining and projecting the values that form the basis of our society and national interests. And in seeking to understand and influence the values of the countries to which we are posted.

And our values, our culture, drive our international diplomacy. Whether we are standing with Montenegro and 80 other countries in support of a safer world by seeking to improve the ability of relevant international organisations to investigate chemical weapons attacks, or working with Montenegro and 37 countries who have signed the Global Call to Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking.

These examples prove another important point, that culture and values in diplomacy are powerful ways of building consensus around issues.

A government can’t construct culture, it can only provide an environment in which culture develops. In the UK this means focusing on creativity in education, in valuing the arts, and in ensuring we champion our values through our policies.”–Ambassador Alison Kemp, 27 June 2018

Beyond Trump & Putin: Increasing Exchanges Between the American and Russian People

Dr Thomas Garza, Associate Professor of Slavic & Eurasian Studies at University of Texas, wrote an excellent op-ed in The Hill about the Helsinki summit, in which he advocated an increase in exchange diplomacy between the two countries.

He pointed to key events in the history of US-Soviet/Russian relations, emphasising that even in the tensest moments of the Cold War, there was an emphasis on bilateral talks and keeping a conversation going, including between the American and Russian people.

He explained that the summit between Trump and Putin was “a staged opportunity to provide the optics of stronger relations between the two countries without providing any of the necessary substance. The absence of immediate records of the substance of the talks and, consequently, of any evidence of progress in forwarding a new era of bilateral exchange and collaboration, leaves one wanting some tangible results that relations between the two countries – not just between the two presidents – were stronger.”

Dr Garza recommended a renewal of the type of exchange diplomacy that was used towards the end of the Cold War, and in its aftermath, to create a transparent, open relationship between the people of each country. “Moving forward, we would all benefit from a return to a more citizen-to-citizen oriented diplomacy much like that of the Gorbachev era that increased contact between our countries, not only in a summit setting, but also in bilateral exchanges and initiatives.”

Would it help? Can we treat Trump and Putin as a sideshow and get on with the important work of improving relations at the micro-level of citizen-to-citizen exchanges? Is it really possible to conduct transparent, bilateral talks while there’s so much confusion, chaos, distrust, etc. going on? I suppose that’s what they managed to do during the Cold War, though. Soviet-American cultural exchanges increased during the detente period, with thousands of students, scholars, leaders, musicians and other artists travelling in both directions. Ordinary citizens could interact with other ordinary citizens, see everyday life first hand–or experience foreign cultures without leaving home. Russians could see Duke Ellington perform in Moscow, and Americans could see the Bolshoi Ballet in New York.

While I accept the argument that exchange diplomacy worked well during the Cold War, I’m slightly more skeptical of its possibilities in today’s context. I don’t think the current problems between the US and Russia can be repaired through more contact between the American and Russian people. I have the impression that we don’t really have a problem with each other–I think it’s more about concrete actions than mutual understanding. The Americans are critical of human rights violations, journalists ‘disappearing’, the invasion of neighboring countries, etc. Trump supporters have adopted his vague language of it being “a good thing” to get along with Russia, because they don’t know/don’t care about these issues. And we don’t know for sure why Trump insists on criticising America’s European allies while praising Putin, Kim Jong-Un, etc. but hopefully we’ll know more about his motivations before the midterms in November. (Press on, Robert Mueller!)

For more on US-Soviet exchanges during the Cold War, see Yale Richmond’s 2003 book Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. Like many authors who’ve written about US State Department exchanges, Richmond offers an insider’s perspective, as he was Director of Soviet & East European exchanges in the department’s Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs during the 1970s. The book is fascinating, filled with great anecdotes of lives changed and perspectives altered through exchange diplomacy. It’s somewhat overly positive–a good example of what Ludovic Tournes and Giles Scott-Smith recently described as a “hagiographic” tendency in the literature on exchanges–but certainly offers a compelling account of activities between the two key players in this vitally important period of exchange diplomacy history.