Hadrian’s Rome

Hadrian, 76-138

Hadrian, 76-138

Hadrian was Rome’s Emperor from 117-138.  This was a fateful time for the Roman Empire.  His predecessor Trajan ruled from 98-117, and was declared by the Roman Senate Optimus Princeps, the greatest leader of Roman history – even surpassing Augustus.  Trajan had reformed the empire and brought it to near its apex of power, territory and prosperity.  Hadrian would die despised by many, lacking his predecessor’s foresight and diplomacy.

What is fascinating about Hadrian’s rule is that the path Rome took early in that second Century helped program the future decline of what would become the western Empire, and set up the rise of Christianity.   It is fair to say that civilization had a level of comfort and prosperity in second Century Rome that was not equaled until the 20th Century.

Hadrian’s foreign policy was a sign of the change.  He built fortifications along the frontiers to protect the empire.  This was a momentous pivot from ongoing offensive wars to expand the empire in favor of a clearly defensive approach.  The empire was comfortable and content – why get involved in costly foreign wars?

Originally ten feet thick and up to twenty feet tall, parts of Hadrian's wall in Great Britain still stand.   The wall also had ditches.  Similar walls were built in Germany and elsewhere.

Originally ten feet thick and up to twenty feet tall, parts of Hadrian’s wall in Great Britain still stand. The wall also had ditches. Similar walls were built in Germany and elsewhere.

Hadrian’s era also began an intensely spiritual part of Rome’s history.   Christianity was spreading, especially among women who rebelled against some of Rome’s harsh sexism.  Women would convert their husbands and family, and the once Jewish sect became a major force in the Roman world.   Most Romans, however, would have probably found themselves more comfortable with the Stoic teacher Epictetus.

Born a slave, like Jesus and Socrates before him, Epictetus (55-135) never wrote down his words, but simply taught.  An example:  “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”  That’s the stoic philosophy.  You control your mind and your actions – everything else is beyond your control.  You can’t control the twists of fate, the choices of others or even the consequences of your actions.   So to be happy you must accept whatever happens to you.

Hadrian's pantheon, which still stands as a Catholic Church, was originally made to worship all Gods - for Rome in an era of spirituality

Hadrian’s pantheon, which still stands as a Catholic Church, was originally made to worship all Gods – for Rome in an era of spirituality

To the stoic, one becomes enslaved if they get enmeshed in trying for wealth or success, pining for a lost love, or even feeling sorrow at the death of a friend or family member.  God controls those things, we control only our mind.  Later Marcus Aurelius, a late Second Century Roman Emperor (ruling from 161 to 180) and stoic philosopher would say “Someone will irritate me today.  I must not let it bother me.”  To the stoic a human has the power not to let their happiness depend on anything anyone else does – or anything that happens.  That is the will of God.

The stoic philosophy had a natural fit with Christian beliefs, especially with the Greek twist Augustine gave Christian theology in the Fourth Century.  That helped assure that Rome would adopt Christianity as its official religion, which has shaped our world to this day.

This also was the start of a shift to a society that would lose itself to the pursuit of pleasure and comfort, no longer embodying the virtues of early Rome.  Marcus Aurelius would be a virtuous leader and stoic philosopher who would spend much of this rule trying to defeat the Germans.  However his son and successor Commodus would live purely for his own pleasure.  Instead of tolerating the gladiatorial games, he embraced them and in fact participated, becoming a reasonably proficient gladiator himself.  Most put the start of Rome’s decline with Commodus.   And the war with the Germans?   Commodus couldn’t be bothered, he signed a peace treaty which emboldened the Germans who saw that as weakness.

Hadrian's villa and tivoli gardens outside Rome also stand as a tourist attraction.

Hadrian’s villa and tivoli gardens outside Rome also stand as a tourist attraction.

Ironically Rome’s success helped program its fall.  Though there would be efforts to expand the empire after Hadrian, Rome was at its apex.  The people were growing soft due to comfort, and resource use helped deplete Rome’s forests and force them to go to greater lengths to keep up their lifestyles.  The Imperial form of government would leave Rome subject to poor rule by power hungry Emperors and increasing political intrigue – with poisonings and other types of assassination common.

Next May I co-lead a travel course to Italy.  One focus will be “Rome of the Second Century,” with visits to some of Hadrian’s sites, and discussion of the Emperors of that era – from Trajan to Commodus.   We’ll try to get a feel for what life in Rome was like – and how in some ways it wasn’t so unlike our own.  In fact, we’d probably feel more comfortable in Second Century Rome than 17th Century Europe.   Exploring Rome is always enjoyable.  To learn about and experience it through the eyes of the past makes it even more powerful.

1 Comment

Dare I hope?!!

Joe Kapp, in the snow against the LA Rams in the late sixties

Joe Kapp, in the snow against the LA Rams in the late sixties

When I was nine years old for the first time I watched the Super Bowl with interest – the Minnesota Vikings vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.  The Vikings were tough – the defense was the famed Purple People Eaters – Eller, Page, Marshall, and Larsen up front.   Lonnie Warwick called defense from the Middle Linebacker position, and in the secondary Paul Krause was on his way to setting career interception records.

Alas, the Vikings lost to Lenny Dawson’s AFL Champs, the Kansas City Chiefs, but I’m sure I was optimistic that next year we’d win.   The Vikings made it to four superbowls during my school years.   They were one of the top NFL teams of the 1970s.   The game against the Chiefs was January 11, 1970, they’d also play in 1974, 1975 and 1977.   Every time they lost.   Most of the games weren’t even all that close.   But for four years they were one of the dominant teams and I knew it was only a matter of time.

Fran Tarkenton, the original scrambler, changed the position of quarterback and held most career QB records when he retired (most have been since broken)

Fran Tarkenton, the original scrambler, changed the position of quarterback and held most career QB records when he retired (most have been since broken)

The Vikings have had good teams over the years.  Tommy Kramer’s passing arm got them to the playoffs often in the 80s.  In 1998 it looked like they could be the team of destiny as rookies Daunte Culpepper at QB and Randy Moss at WR lite the league on fire, going 15-1 for the season, favored to make to the big game.    I recall the agony of that overtime loss to Atlanta.

More recently, former foe Brett Favre came to the Vikings and helped engineer an amazing season in 2009.  The Vikings went 12-4 and yet again lost the NFC Championship in overtime, this time to the New Orleans Saints.  So close!

The memories – back in 1980 I was home with my dad from college to watch the Vikings vs. the Browns.  If the Vikings won they’d make the players.  But they were stuck with just 14 seconds and 80 yards to cover.  Then one of the most amazing catches ever won the game as Ahmad Rashad caught a hail Mary from Kramer (and the play before that with Ted Brown was pretty nifty).  My dad and I lept to our feet in the den.  My mom, outside carrying bags of groceries dropped them and came running – watching us through the window she thought my dad was having a heart attack.   Watch the video, it’s exciting:

I have been going without cable or satellite for going on two years.  I haven’t missed it except for sports, which almost always requires some kind of pay TV.   I saw the World Cup finals at a local pub, but this year I’m thinking I need to get Direct TV and order the NFL pass.  The Minnesota Vikings look real this year!

They have Matt Cassell, an efficient, smart quarterback who has in my opinion the best Running Back in history, Adrian Peterson, to hand the ball too.   He has one of the most dangerous break away wideouts –  Cordarrelle Patterson – who they got by trade with the New England Patriots, the Vikings foe next week.  Patterson never played for the Patriots, the Vikings traded to get the draft pick to choose him before last season.  Today he had a touchdown run of 67 yards and over 100 rushing yards!

Adrian Peterson has power, speed and in the opinion of a lot of people, is the best running back in NFL history.

Adrian Peterson has power, speed and in the opinion of a lot of people, is the best running back in NFL history.

Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave has instituted an offense that is designed to use the Vikings tools in a more unpredictable and creative manner.  Last year, you knew what the Vikings would do almost every play – now they can keep foes on their toes.    Most importantly defense minded rookie Head Coach Mike Zimmer has turned what was a subpar defense last year to what dare I hope is powerful unit.  If today is a sign of what they are capable of, this could be a big season!

So tomorrow I’ll have to decide – do I call Directv?  Do I spend the money to maybe see what I’ve been waiting over four decades for – a Vikings team bound for a Super Bowl victory?   Gee, when I put it that way, the answer seems clear!

3 Comments

Responding to Kissinger’s Argument

Kissinger with current Secretary of State John Kerry - who led a veterans movement against the Vietnam war while Kissinger was Secretary of State

Kissinger with current Secretary of State John Kerry – who led a veterans movement against the Vietnam war while Kissinger was Secretary of State

In my last post I talked about Henry Kissinger’s world view, using the example of detente as indicating the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.  His focus on power politics to the neglect of emergent issues across the globe helped put us on a path to the myriad of challenges we face.  Russian and American policies helped breed corruption, militarism and dictatorship in newly independent states, thwarting accountability and rule of law.

Countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa were the biggest losers of the Cold War – and suddenly they are relevant.  So how does Kissinger describe what needs to be done?

First he notes the nature of the changes taking place.  The fundamental unit of the international system, the state, is under pressure.   He very correctly notes a major weakness in our international institutions.  The world economy has become global, but the institutions that govern international affairs remain rooted in the state system.  This means we have an institutional structure not suited for 21st Century conditions.   Prosperity can only be achieved with globalization, he notes, but globalization feeds into the forces challenging international stability.

For realists like Kissinger, global poverty is a local issue - great powers are focused on stability.  But in our era they are linked - poverty increasingly is the driver of instability

For realists like Kissinger, global poverty is a local issue – great powers are focused on stability. But in our era they are linked – poverty increasingly is the driver of instability

And, true to his realist principles, he argues that diplomacy is harder now because great powers cannot consult so easily.  In the new multi-polarity there is no equivalent of a Nixon-Brezhnev summit.    Meetings that do happen are less frank and more subject to media scrutiny.  Realists would prefer the public let the experts handle foreign policy, leaders working in back rooms with media blackouts can achieve much more, Kissinger would claim, than a in a public spectacle.

Kissinger is absolutely right that the state is under immense pressure, yet he can’t let go of a vision that is based on the activities of sovereign states.  For a realist the state is the central foundation of the international system.  He sees the EU not as an alternative to the state, but a kind of confederation that has not yet achieved the status of statehood.

I think he misses the way in which the information revolution has rendered the European style sovereign state – created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – obsolete.   Only institutions that cross borders and ultimately erode or perhaps “pool” sovereignty can handle the challenges ahead.  After all, it’s hard to argue that the European style state functions well in most of the world.  It was a colonial creation based on fake and sometimes absurd borders and has not been able to establish rule of law and accountability in most of the world.   The only reason the realist state-fetish hangs on is that no one has figured out what could possibly replace it.

The Peace of Westphalia, ending the 100 years war created the sovereign state - a kind of new thinking that brought peace to Europe after the information revolution caused by the printing press led the old order to disintegrate

The Peace of Westphalia, ending the 100 years war created the sovereign state – a kind of new thinking that brought peace to Europe after the information revolution caused by the printing press led the old order to disintegrate

Accordingly, he turns to the US role as he discusses the possibility of establishing a new world order.  Kissinger’s words:

To play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the U.S. must be prepared to answer a number of questions for itself: What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? What should we not engage in, even if urged on by a multilateral group or an alliance? What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? And how much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?

For the U.S., this will require thinking on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained. History offers no respite to countries that set aside their sense of identity in favor of a seemingly less arduous course. But nor does it assure success for the most elevated convictions in the absence of a comprehensive geopolitical strategy. - Kissinger 

This conclusion seems vague.   It also is rooted in the notion of states and alliances, and doesn’t creatively think about new ways of political organization.   Moreover, the emphasis remains on putting out fires and trying to create stability via power politics.  One gets the sense that his genius allows him to see the situation pretty accurately, but his world view pushes him to a solution that is vague, and cannot work.  The US trying to create a world order, of working with allies to impose values and stability is bound to fail.   The Metternich system discussed in my last post collapsed into 30 years of war and depression.   This order could suffer a similar fate.

My current work is based on trying to figure out what kind of new political structures and organization can handle the vast area of technological change and the power of new media.   We live in an odd time when the old structures still have life – governments can put down rebels, silence critics, and impose their will.  But cracks are evident – no one thought Mubarak or Qaddafi could be brought down, the Arab spring was a shock.   The world is in motion.

The EU is a fascinating example of a system that has morphed into a new kind of political organization.  The states have given up (or some say pooled) their sovereignty in favor of supranational organization.  Yet they are doing so under the concept of subsidiarity – power should be exercised at the lowest level possible – local, regional, state or supranational.   Theoretically the state could lose both to the EU institutions and to local and regional governance.  Given the power of the new information and technology, local governments can handle problems that used to require national action.

Although some protests call for acceptance, it is easier for demagogues to use fear and hate to rile up the masses

Although some protests call for acceptance, it is easier for demagogues to use fear and hate to rile up the masses

What is needed is new thinking – moving away from ideology, nationalism, parochialism and “them vs us” to a recognition that globalization requires pragmatism, openness to other cultures and ideas, and “us with them,” solving problems.  The forces that oppose such new thinking range from nationalists to groups like ISIS, who want to create an Islamic caliphate that contradicts the forces of globalization and change.   Defeating them may require military action, but also requires a new vision that can speak to young Arabs and address the problems of poverty, disease, and oppression.   These are the problems Kissinger’s world view simply dismisses as secondary to the need for great leaders to craft and maintain an order.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for people in government to give up the idea of state dominance and power.   Cooperation is seen as dangerous, and xenophobes are ready to fight against anything that seems to open a state up to new cultures or people.   Kissinger’s piece thus stands as an example of the old thinking – something insufficient in dealing with a changing world.   Unfortunately the new thinking is still a work in progress – and if it doesn’t emerge and get embraced soon enough the future could get bleaker before it gets better.

 

Leave a comment

Henry Kissinger in the 21st Century

GERMANY-US-POLITICS-BIRTHDAY-MERKEL-KISSINGER

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has spoken out about the challenges facing today’s world order.   It’s worth reading.   He notes that globalization and technology change are driving a break up of the old world order.  Kissinger contends that that the global environment is fundamentally different than it was in his heyday, and that efforts to get back the old order are doomed to fail.  New political structures and ideas are required.  I’ll blog more about his ideas soon, today I want to write about Kissinger’s general world view.

Kissinger earned his Ph.D. studying Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich, who was in that role from 1809-48, also serving as Chancellor from 1821-48.   Kissinger’s academic work was rooted in studying the world between 1814 – 1914, when there seemed to be order and stability in Europe – and he took those principles to ones that should work anywhere, taking into account local idiosyncratic conditions.

Metternich presided over the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, creating the European system realists like Kissinger admire

Metternich presided over the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, creating the European system realists like Kissinger admire

In any system there will be competition for power.  That’s because resources are scarce, humans seem driven to compete, and humans are greedy.  In the international system, with no real rule of law or enforcement, is an anarchy.  In anarchy, brute force is the main principle, it’s survival of the fittest, domination by the strongest.

Luckily states can create stability despite anarchy through diplomacy, maintaining a balance of power, having leaders that recognize war ultimately is not in the best interest of any state, and stopping any “revolutionary” power hoping to alter the status quo.  If states can agree to respect each other’s right to exist, agree that war should be a last option, and share some common goals, diplomacy should be able to solve any problem.

It won’t – Kissinger and realists argue that it takes “statesmanship” or the ability of leaders to understand that maintaining the status quo is ultimately in the best interests of everyone, and who can negotiate effectively, and then be willing to strike early and strong against those who would upend the system (like a Hitler).  Realists admire how this seemed to work for 100 years, with only a few minor skirmishes intervening.

But there are flaws in Kissinger’s world view.  Perhaps the reason there was no major European war for so long is because the Europeans were conquering the planet, imposing their standards across the globe, destroying indigenous cultures and taking whatever resources they could get their grubby hands on.  Once the world was almost completely colonized the Europeans quickly turned on each other.

Ending the Vietnam war meant pressuring Hanoi by bombing supply lines in Cambodia.  It worked - but it radicalized the country side and led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge

Ending the Vietnam war meant pressuring Hanoi by bombing supply lines in Cambodia. It worked – but it radicalized the country side and led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge

Moreover, such a system relied on common shared cultural values.  The diplomats and leaders all spoke French had more in common with each other than the average citizens in their home states.   In an era of globalization, that’s not likely to be replicated.

Finally the focus on power and order inherently means ignoring those without power.  Kissinger’s most brilliant and successful policy was detente (a French word meaning a relaxation in tension), a policy that probably made a peaceful end of the Cold War possible.  But in that policy we can see the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.

Kissinger, a brilliant academic was snatched up by Nixon when he became President in 1969.  He started out as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and quickly became more powerful than the Secretary of State, William Rogers.  He gained Nixon’s trust and crafted policy – and when Rogers left in 1973, Kissinger took on the role of Secretary of State.

He was relatively young, very charming, spoke with a distinct German accent, Jewish, and something of a playboy.  He was known to cavort with a number of attractive women – I still remember a Mad Magazine set of song parodies that included “I wonder whose Kissinger now?”

He had a problem:  The US was bogged down in a pointless war in Vietnam.  The Soviets had achieved nuclear parity and  communism was at its peak – the disease and decay that were already slowly destroying its sustainability were hid behind the iron curtain and streams of propaganda.

They said only Nixon could go to China - but that was set up by a secret trip by Kissinger

They said only Nixon could go to China – but that was set up by a secret trip by Kissinger

Kissinger decided the US had to change the Soviet Union to a status quo power the US could deal with.  This include high level summits allowing Kissinger, Nixon and Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev to meet and “practice statesmanship.”  It included triangulation – opening to China.  China and the USSR hated each other, so the US getting friendly with one pressured the other.  It worked.  It led Moscow to pressure Hanoi to end the Vietnam war so the US could extricate itself (“Peace with Honor” was Nixon’s slogan).   And suddenly the Cold War didn’t seem quite as scary.

In exchange for recognizing the reality of Communist rule in East Europe, the Soviets allowed more trade, visits, and connections to the West.  The agreed that systemic order was more important than the US-Soviet rivalry, and thus could be dealt with.    Kissinger left office in January 1977.

But while detente was based on the notion the Soviets could be a status quo power, Kissinger knew there would be rivalries and conflicts.  So he also worked out a mostly unwritten agreement that proxy wars in the Third World were allowable, and that neither side would allow a third world conflict to lead to nuclear war.  Kissinger would say that yes, those wars could be bad, and sending arms and weapons to African or Asian proxies did mean there would be death and destruction.  But given the nature of world affairs, it’s the lesser of two evils.  It helps make sure the US and Soviets don’t blow each other up.

Nixon and Kissinger would change the world - and arguably set up the peaceful end of the Cold War

Nixon and Kissinger would change the world – and arguably set up the peaceful end of the Cold War

Detente’s success – the exchanges brought western ideas more quickly into the East bloc, the Soviets felt smug in their status as a recognized legitimate world power, and as the inevitable economic collapse began, there were enough links with the West to give Gorbachev time to make radical changes that could not be undone.  Some people credit Reagan and Gorbachev with the peaceful end of the Cold War, but Nixon and Kissinger set the stage.

The failure?  Proxy wars and disregard for the third world.   Looking only at power politics rather than the broad array of global problems allowed many former colonies to decay into corrupt, brutal regimes.   African states were very young in the sixties – a supportive US might have allowed a transition to viable political and economic systems.  Instead the super powers simply used those states as powerless puppets in a geopolitical struggle.

In maintaining proxies, the US supported brutal dictators in world hot spots like the Mideast.  This helped assure that dictators would be able to hold power, not allowing real opportunity to their people, and setting up the anger and frustration young Arabs experience today.

The problems today ranging from Ebola to ISIS to terrorism have their roots in that neglect of the third world.  Kissinger’s policies were brilliant in dealing with short term geopolitical crises, but failed by creating conditions which would lead to problems that threaten the very nature of world order.

 

2 Comments

Learning Italian

The Bologna Center of Johns Hopkins SAIS - where I studied at age 22-23

The Bologna Center of Johns Hopkins SAIS – where I studied at age 22-23

When I was 22 I left the US for the first time, traveling to Bologna, Italy to study a year at Johns Hopkins SAIS (School of Advanced International Studies – now called the Nitze school) Bologna Center, working for my MA in International Studies.   I left on August 23, 1982, exactly 32 years ago.

Bettino Craxi was Prime Minister, considered at that time one of the most successful as his government had staying power.  Later he’d be part of the Mani Pulite scandal that would destroy the Italian first Republic and die in exile in Tunisia, but that was a decade away.  Bologna was considered a “red” city, governed by the PCI, the Italian Communist Party.  It had a vibrant student life, thanks to being the home of the oldest university in the world – the University of Bologna, founded in 1060.  It was radical, wild, and quite the place for a young man who had spent almost all his life in South Dakota, about as far from radical big city life as humanly possible!

I went into a bar and they had murals of American indians, teepees, and stuff about the Lakota Sioux.  I told them I was from South Dakota, where the Sioux lived.  Turned out it was a Communist bar and we got into a discussion about communism, capitalism and politics.  I was the typical American but already had the capacity to listen to other perspectives – it was fun.

That year transformed me.   My mind opened to Italian and European culture (I also spent a lot of time visiting pen pals in Germany, developing a taste for Hefe-Weizen while learning some Bavarian), and became fascinated with European history and culture.

I bought, read, and looked up words for about 30 of the comic books (lengthy ones) telling stories of the one village in Gaul which did not yield to Julius Caeser, thanks to our heros and a magical drink cooked up by their Druid

I bought, read, and looked up words for about 30 of the comic books (lengthy ones) telling stories of the one village in Gaul which did not yield to Julius Caeser, thanks to our heros and a magical drink cooked up by their Druid

Alas, the classes at SAIS were all in English and I spent most of my language time studying German.  I went to visit friends in Eichstaett every month or so, and really wanted to communicate.  I bought German translations of the Asterix and Obelisk comics, and wrote down every word I didn’t know.  Then I would look them up, and study that list – the list grew to over 3000 words.  I built a vocabulary slowly but surely. Now with kids and a job, I don’t have as much time to put that kind of effort in it, but I know what it takes to learn a language – it isn’t fast or easy.

Luckily, while I didn’t really learn Italian during my year there, I did go out a lot and picked the language up well enough to chat at parties or on the street.  I’ve forgotten much of that, but my ear still can distinguish words and patterns in Italian, so I don’t need something fancy like Rosetta stone to learn it.  A work book, a vocabulary list, and grammar exercises will be key.

I’ve been saying I’m going to learn Italian for over thirty years.  When I returned from my year in Bologna I was determined to keep studying Italian.  But between finishing my masters, working for the Senate, night managing a pizza place, and then ultimately earning my Ph.D., other things got in the way.   In 1991-2 I lived in Germany, and really developed my fluency in Germany.  I avoided Americans and made some of the best friends in my life while there.  I learned the joy it is to communicate in a foreign language, and really start to understand a different culture.

Bologna's Centro Storico - historic city center.  I spent hours exploring the streets and allys, visiting shops and observing everything I could

Bologna’s Centro Storico – historic city center. I spent hours exploring the streets and allys, visiting shops and observing everything I could

I’ve been back to Europe many times.   I’ve crossed the Atlantic over 40 times (meaning over 20 round trips — not sure the exact number).   11 of them have been leading travel courses, four times to Germany and seven times to Italy.   Otherwise most of my trips were to Germany to visit friends and engage in research.  Next May we plan on another travel course to Italy.  This time, I want to go there able to speak Italian.  Not fluently – you have to live there for that – but enough to engage in conversation and understand what is said.

So I got out my book today and started with the basics.   Definite articles, indefinite articles, plurals, partitives, etc.  I know enough that I don’t have to go back to the very basics, just review basic grammar, relearn conjugations, and most importantly build vocabulary.

A defining feature of Bologna is the Portici - porticos so ubiquitous in the city that you can walk all through the Centro Storico on a rainy day but never get wet!

A defining feature of Bologna is the Portici – porticos so ubiquitous in the city that you can walk all through the Centro Storico on a rainy day but never get wet!

I’m also lucky that my friend Steve is going to do work in Venice, Italy in the near future and thus he’s really throwing himself into learning Italian.   So I have someone to practice with, if I keep myself disciplined.   It sort of makes me feel young – focusing on learning this language, wanting to be able to use it.   The 22 year old in me comes back out.

In those days it was a different world.  Bologna had no fast food except one Italian burger place near the train station (now it’s dotted with McDonalds), to make a call home I had to go to the phone company in the middle of the night and wait to be given a booth to place the call.  No internet, just lots of letters and post cards.  Credit cards weren’t accepted anywhere in Italy, there were no ATMs, and the currency was the Lira — 1900 Lire per dollar, that year.

So glad the Boboli gardens were free when I was there - it was a perfect place to read, study, people watch and eat gelato -- a short train ride from Bologna

So glad the Boboli gardens were free when I was there – it was a perfect place to read, study, people watch and eat gelato — a short train ride from Bologna

Italian TV had only three or four public channels, and almost everything you bought was at a small store or market.  There were a couple Coop supermarkets, but the quality was less and it was a long drive.  I bought my pasta from a lady who ran a small shop with a big photo of Mussolini behind the counter.   The local Tabacchi sold stamps – the price seemed to always vary – and I would spend hours just walking around the city, exploring and observing.  I was hooked – this South Dakota boy was going to study international relations!

I realize that the Italy I experienced back in Bologna is as far away as the Italy of 1950 was from my time there.   That boggles my mind.  I would go to Florence to read and people watch, spending lots of time at the Boboli gardens, which were free to enter.  Now it’s 12 Euros.  A train ticket to Venice or Florence as about $5 round trip second class.  Now it’s about $50 – but instead of two and a half hours the trip is about an hour.  The trains then had compartments and on warm days you could open the windows.  Now it’s climate control with “airplane” seating.

So as I celebrate the 32nd anniversary of my first flight abroad (first commercial flight ever, actually), I also feel very lucky to have experienced how Europe has changed over the years.   And that 22 year old Scott still is a part of me, driving me to finally learn Italian for real this time!   Anyone have any Asterix and Obelix books in Italiano?

1 Comment

Human Rights

American Journalist James Foley was brutally beheaded by ISIS extremists.

American Journalist James Foley was brutally beheaded by ISIS extremists – an affront to almost every understanding of ‘human rights’ in existence.

We talk about human rights as being extremely important.  People like me who dislike war and militarism often support military action in defense of human rights.   Everyone is appalled by ISIS atrocties.   We look at the lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide as failure of the world to adhere to the “never again” promise on preventing genocide.

But what are human rights?   How are they determined?  Can we enforce them? In the West there has been a focus on political rights – free speech, liberty, freedom of association, etc.  In the third world the counter argument is that political rights are meaningless if people are starving and have no place to live.  They focus on economic rights, such as a right to food and shelter.  Others say that there are rights associated with identity and community.

Enlightenment rationalism led to the hope that if only we could find a first principle and build from there, it would be clear how to understand the world and human ethics.  Many in the West thus follow John Locke’s argument that there are natural rights to life, liberty and private property which we get by dint of being human.  To be human, one must be alive.  To be human one must be able to feed and shelter oneself.  That requires both property and liberty to go out and get the material needed to live.   This way of thinking, called liberalism, generally stops with those rights – those rights are seen as foundational, no other true rights exist.

Lockean liberalism has dominated western thought on rights

Lockean liberalism has dominated western thought on rights

That approach has a glaring weakness – namely, humans can live as human without private property.  Indeed through most of human history there was no such thing as private property.  As hunter gatherers we just took what we could get.  Property rights arose with the creation of agriculture, but most often these were collective/community rights governed by custom and tradition.  So clearly there is no objective need for private property.

More fundamental to the problem is that the notion of “rights” doesn’t exist in nature.  In nature you can do whatever you choose to do, limited only by your capabilities and the consequences of your actions.  Nothing more.  Locke’s argument assumes that there is some right to exist as a human which leads to those other rights.  But no such right exists in nature, it only exists as a human construct, a belief that life is valuable and therefore should be protected.  We have that belief for our species, but put a hungry tiger in your house and I guarantee he won’t care about your “rights.”

In nature we have no inherent rights - we're just tiger food!

In nature we have no inherent rights – we’re just tiger food!

Similarly, when we down a burger and fries, we haven’t thought about the right of the cattle to live – let alone live naturally without genetic manipulation and inhumane factory farm conditions.  Our hunter gatherer instincts show as much regard for animal rights as the hungry tiger has for our rights.   The notion of rights is a human creation, reflecting what we think ought to be followed based on our experience, empathy, and context.    This concept has practical use (hence most societies have traditional rules against theft and murder, even if they don’t talk in terms of rights) and abstract (how should humans treat each other, what is the best social order?)

If the concept of rights is a human creation, then so is every notion of rights, whether Lockean liberal, social democratic or communitarian.   This means we have the freedom to create the idea of human rights and to determine which rights we want to create, defend and hold dear.  We don’t find rights in the ether, there is no “first principle” to give us objective rights; rather, we create both the notion of rights, and what rights we choose to recognize.

humanrights

So we are free to come up with whatever notion of human rights we want, including things like a right to a paid vacation or a right to bear arms.  However, no notion of rights will be viable if it isn’t held by a vast majority of society.  And if different “isms,” philosophies and religions have different notions of rights, it will be (and has been) hard to construct a viable, effective form of human rights.

So maybe the key is to look into our hearts.  What makes us cringe?  What is something that almost everyone finds repulsive?   What acts illicit disgust and anger across cultures, and among people of diverse philosophical perspectives?   Those acts certainly include beheading, torture, rape, murder, theft and array of actions.   This doesn’t come from a rational argument, but a sense of common empathetic sentiment.   Hollywood films work world wide because the emotions of certain core circumstances transcend boundaries.

The United Nations has several human rights documents and treaties, though they remain aspirational rather than legally enforceable.   That’s a start.  As we see ISIS butcher innocents, children being used as pawns in war, women being kidnapped and used as slaves in the sex trade industry, and governments torturing enemies, it’s time to work harder to create and enforce a core standard of human rights.

Governments are the number one violator of human rights world wide - making it hard to build an enforcable system.

Governments are the number one violator of human rights world wide – making it hard to build an enforcable system.

The first step is to recognize we don’t have to ground our rights in nature, religion, or some external factor.   We work together, look inside our hearts and minds, and determine what we humans want to recognize as basic rights.  From there we can decide that we will work together to defend those rights, whether deep in Iraq or in a small town in Missouri.

Leave a comment

Germany Takes the Lead in Ukraine Crisis

If a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis is to be found, German and French Foreign Ministers Walter Frank Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius will receive much of the credit

If a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis is to be found, German and French Foreign Ministers Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius will receive much of the credit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Kiev this coming weekend, her first visit to Ukraine since the crisis began.  The Germans have been in an active dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for weeks,  Last weekend German foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted a meeting with his French, Russian and Ukrainian counterparts to discuss how to end the crisis.

At this point, the Germans have successfully dissuaded Russia from expanding the conflict, even as the Ukrainian army clears pro-Russian separatists from the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk.  Kiev’s forces are rapidly defeating the separatists though fear of a Russian invasion is real.   This is the first real test of German’s ability to take a leadership role in using soft power to try to diffuse a potentially devastating crisis.

Ukrainian troops are making steady progress against Russian separatists

Ukrainian troops are making steady progress against Russian separatists

Some might wonder why the US is acquiescing to European leadership here.  Shouldn’t we be pressuring the Russians and asserting America’s role as leader of the western world?   In a word, no.  In fact, the title ‘leader of the western world’ is passe.  While there is a European based civilization generally known as the “West,” it is a cultural construct.  The West as a unified international force ceased to exist with the end of the Cold War.   The world is no longer divided into neat blocs.  Perhaps the point where this became crystal clear was in 2002-03 when France and Germany worked with Russia to stymie US efforts to get UN approval for the Iraq war.  

More to the point, the US has little at stake in Ukraine.  While politicians may wax poetically about stopping Putin, this isn’t the Cold War.  Ukraine was part of the old USSR after all, we’re not about to risk all out nuclear war because of separatists in east Ukraine, or even a Russian invasion.  In 2008 when Russia took South Ossetia, President Bush resisted calls to come to the aid of Georgia (South Ossetia was a Russian part of Georgia wanted to join Russian North Ossetia), even though Georgia actively supported the US in Iraq.   We have no vested interest in the Russian near abroad; for Russia, it’s their primary focus.

Much of the natural gas Europe relies on for heat in winter comes from Russia via Ukraine

Much of the natural gas Europe relies on for heat in winter comes from Russia via Ukraine

Germany, on the other hand, has real interests.  It gets natural gas from Russia, it’s promoting democracy and European stability, and it wants to make sure there isn’t another move to a Europe divided into blocs, even if this time it’s the Russian bloc and the EU bloc.  While the US has little with which to pressure Russia, Germany is a main trade and investment partner of Russia, and the ambiguous relationship between the two countries goes way back.  If Russia’s economy is to grow and modernize, it needs a close relationship with Germany.

The Germans understand that pressuring Putin with tough talk and threats is counter productive.  The American penchant to pull no rhetorical punches in condemning Russian support for the separatists serves no useful purpose other than to create an emotional backlash in Russia – a backlash Putin wants to take advantage of.   The Europeans prefer quiet pressure: the promise of closer economic ties as a carrot alongside the potential stick of increased sanctions.

Will it work?  The odds are better than one might think.   While Russia has the power to invade Ukraine and annex eastern portions, it’s not really in their interest.  Those are poor parts of Ukraine which would be costly to administer, and the already vulnerable Russian economy would be hit by sharper western sanctions.   If they hold back, Putin will have his nationalist bone fides questioned – something which could harm his popularity.  But he’d likely expand economic ties with Europe, which Russia needs.

Russia is tempted to annex eastern portions with a majority of ethnic Russians - yet it's still very possible to prevent a Russian-Ukrainian war

Russia is tempted to annex eastern portions with a majority of ethnic Russians – yet it’s still very possible to prevent a Russian-Ukrainian war

 

In all of this, it appears likely the EU is ready to accept that the Crimea is again part of Russia.   That allows Putin to claim a victory even as he backs down, and historically the Crimea is more Russian than Ukrainian anyway.  The longer this drags out without a Russian invasion, the better the odds that the crisis will end quietly rather than escalate to an all out Russian-Ukrainian war.

It’s really up to Putin – and no one is sure on what he’s basing his calculus.  In any event, the leading role of Europe in negotiating and dealing with the crisis, with the US in the background, is an example of how the new multi-polar global polity operates.  Europe thought they could deal with Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s and failed.  Now the challenge is clear – find a way out of the Ukrainian crisis without it devolving to war.

Leave a comment

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,177 other followers