Welcome to my blog! Every week, I will post at least one article on something involving wicked problems either in peacebuilding or comparative politics. I define those fields very broadly, so you’ll probably be surprised by some of the topics I end up covering.
Subscribe for my newsletter to learn about new posts, and other things that cross my desk. Topic suggestions are also welcome; I invite you to submit ideas through our contact form.
A Visit to the Holocaust Museum As part of a course on applying what is known about mass atrocity prevention to the United States, I accompanied Doug Irvin-Erickson and some of his students to the U.S. Holocaust Museum on Friday. Because of the course, I focused on the top floor of the permanent exhibit which deals with the Nazis rise to power and what happened in the first years after Hitler took office. In past visits, I’d thought more about what happened later to the millions of victims (which undoubtedly included a goodly number of my relatives) and why the Allies had not done something sooner to stop the killings. This time, I had the key lessons from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die fresh in my head. The brilliance (and scary nature) of this book lies in their focus on four factors that they have seen in the “deaths” of many democracies and not just Weimar Germany: Rejection or weak commitment to democratic rules of the game Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents Toleration and even the encouragement of violence Readiness to curtain civil liberties. All four of those dangers were on display in those first exhibits we saw, and we all found ourselves worrying just how much each of those is present in the United States and Western Europe today. After all, that is the concern that led the two Harvard political scientists to write the book in the first place. I [...]
An Architecture for Conflict Prevention in the US I am sitting in on—and occasionally helping teach—a graduate seminar on the ways theories of atrocity prevention could be used to address pressing issues in the United States. The instructor, Doug Irvin-Erickson, is using the course to help create what is known as an “architecture” for preventing such acts that we will gradually build after the semester is over, starting with a small workshop in May. We do not start with the assumption that the United States is in danger of any kind of genocide or that any such tragedy that were to happen here would resemble anything the world has seen before. However, as anyone who has read Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die Yascha Mounk’s article in the current Atlantic will realize, American democracy is showing signs of trouble. We are not suggesting that American democracy is in imminent danger. However, we are convinced that peacebuilders in general and atrocity prevention specialists’ notion of architecture for prevention have something important to add to the discussions sparked by the likes of those Harvard political scientists. Architectures for prevention have been created by governments and other members of the elites in a number of African countries that have been through genocide or other forms of mass atrocity and want to keep them from happening again. We also understand that no American government—let alone the current one—is going to create such an institution here. Instead, we are looking [...]
Shared Mobility Principles During the course of my career, I’ve met and worked with some amazing people. None of them holds a candle to Robin Chase. I use the term force of nature in describing her to other people. If anything, that’s an understatement. She cofounded ZipCar and Veniam, has been on the boards of a number of environmental organizations, and gives some of the most inspirational talks I've ever heard. Now, she has combined a lot of those interests involving cities, transportation, the environment, and socioeconomic equality. You can get a glimpse of what Robin's all about in general by thinking about the statement from her that accompanies the photo to the right. A few weeks ago, Robin and her colleagues introduced a movement around what they call Shared Mobility Principles. Building off of her work on using technology platforms as jumping off point for building large scale social change, Robin has put together a formidable coalition of partners who have committed themselves to ten principles for developing transportation systems in the cities of the future. We will have to do so, because the promise of driverless cars, new residency patterns, shared work, and more will force us to redesign urban areas not just in the United States but around the world. Rather than listing all ten of them which, of course, you can read with just one mouse click here, let me focus on the ones that are most germane for my work. Prioritizing people over [...]
Rethinking Power It’s about time for us to rethink what power means. I’ve felt that way for some time especially when I’ve had to think about the ways in which my work as a peacebuilder and as a political scientist do not mesh. It took reading Dacher Keltner’s The Power Paradox to have the pieces begin to fall into place. Keltner is a social psychologist who understands the traditional definition of power we political scientists have used at least since the time of Machiavelli. As Robert Dahl put it in the 1950s: A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do. In other words, power implies at least the threat of force. That force need not be violent. It could be economic or psychological, but if I’m B, why would I do what you (A) want me to do otherwise? Keltner understands that the world has changed to the point that the social center have gravity has shifted toward networks in what professors at the Army War College started calling a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world in the late 1990s. In that kind of a world, the kind of power Machiavelli and Dahl (and most political experts in between) talk about tends to be counterproductive in the long run. Because everything I do affects you and vice versa, what I do “today” comes back and affects me “tomorrow.” What goes around literally [...]
Venture Peacebuilding Last week, I attended the first of what I hope will be plenty of conferences on Venture Peacebuilding. It’s a topic I’ve been interested in since I first joined the Beyond War movement in the 1980s and started working with business executives whose commitment to peace grew out of their work in the corporate sector. In the thirty years since then, interest in the link between business and peace has grown in three main ways, each of which was discussed at the conference. First, for the most part, leaders in the field have gone beyond viewing the link through the lens of corporate social responsibility. To be sure, most major companies have a charitable wing that supports non-profits in dozens of areas, not just peacebuilding. However, the key here is that some companies see working for peace (or other social justice causes) as critical to their bottom line. Although we didn’t spend much time on this subject, we did get to see how the Away luggage company is increasingly integrating its own work with Peace Direct’s support for local peacebuilders. Second, we spent a lot more time on the ways peacebuilders and entrepreneurs can create companies that have peace in their corporate DNA. We learned about some fairly flashy initiatives in Africa, but spent more of our time exploring how the University of Waterloo (Canada) and San Diego, among others, have created incubators to jump start precisely those kinds of initiatives. In particular, I was lucky [...]
Peacebuilding and Democracy Until last Thursday afternoon, I was planning to write about what comparative politics research can do to help peacebuilders. Then, I ran into my friend Jim Pfiffner of George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government. Jim is a scholar of the presidency who has written books on judging the character of our chief executive--among many other things. Jim is also one of the most thoughtful people I know. And since we hadn't seen each other in ages and since we are both political scientists, our discussion immediately turned to the Trump presidency--even before we mentioned our grandkids. I had just finished reviewing Steven Levitsky and Danie Ziblatt's How Democracies Die. As we discussed their concerns as well as those of other analysts whose work we've read, I realized that I to flip the focus of my blog post away from what comparative politics researchers can tell peacebuilders to the insights we peacebuilders have that could lessen the threats to democracy here and elsewhere. I don't remember which exact issues Jim and I talked about in the ten minutes before his sandwich got toasted, but I suspect I mentioned at least some of these common principles we peacebuilders focus on: Don't demonize the people you disagree with. Treat them with dignity and respect. Then disagree. Do things that enhance trust between you and the people you disagree with. Try to reframe the issues so that you and your opponent can begin to see the [...]