Monday, May 29, 2006

Dangerous Crossings

By Richard Norman

Two articles yesterday on dangerous crossings—one about the plight of Somalis attempting to cross the Gulf of Aden to land in Yemen, and the other about eleven west Africans found dead aboard a boat near Barbados (originally bound for the Canary Islands)—raise interesting points about the central views of cosmopolitanism.

The first two points are not particularly controversial. Most people agree that migrants should be discouraged from risking their lives. Nor is this just the majority opinion in Western countries. A recent chart topper in the Democratic Republic of Congo suggests that Congolese cultivate their own gardens at home rather than risk their lives or livelihoods seeking fairer fields abroad. This idea is promoted by the UN and migrant organizations in Somalia and many other desperate countries. It is much easier to convince potential migrants to act within existing immigration law when their lives might be at stake if they do not.

But those who deem their lives at home to be of little or no value cannot be easily dissuaded. They are not, finally, gulls or easy marks. They weigh their odds and make a choice. “After all the danger I've been through, what is some more?” asks one Somali, attempting a crossing. This takes, many agree, a tremendous and deeply human courage.

So the cosmopolitan is split: migrants must be dissuaded from attempting illegal crossings, they must follow the processes of the law; and yet a great deal of sympathy exists for the plight of those who do risk their lives. We hope everything possible is done to stop them from getting in the boat, but once they shove off we hope everything possible is done so that they arrive safely on the opposite shore. The issue of immigration in extremis seems to circumstantially allow the pre-eminence of the pursuit of liberty and happiness over the necessary strictures of international law. But it reveals a hedged answer to the more interesting question of whether an inalienable right exists to risk one’s life in order to make it more liveable.

Photograph: Chris Brandis/AP

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Clash of Civilizations, or the Clash about Civilizations?

On the three foreign policy speeches by United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Tony Blair

By Otto Spijkers

The title of Tony Blair’s first speech on foreign policy in the twenty-first century is “The Clash about Civilisations”. This reminds one of “The Clash of Civilisations”, a concept made famous by Samuel P. Huntington in his article in Foreign Affairs in the summer of 1993 ('Huntington, 1993'), later worked out in more detail in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Is the clash of today's world a clash of or about civilizations?

Before answering that question, I will first explain what the clash of civilizations means. In short,
Huntington predicted in 1993 that “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.” (Huntington, 1993.) What the word “civilization” means is not absolutely clear, but it seems to include a common culture and religion.

Huntington claims that after the peace of Westphalia, clashes occurred between nations attempting to expand their territory. “Then, as a result of the Russian Revolution and the reaction against it, the conflict of nations yielded to the conflict of ideologies, first among communism, fascism-Nazism and liberal democracy, and then between communism and liberal democracy.” (Huntington, 1993.) And now, in the modern world, it is the clash of the Western civilization against the rest. Why is that? “Most important, the efforts of the West to promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values, to maintain its military predominance and to advance its economic interests engender countering responses from other civilizations.” (Huntington, 1993.)

In an interview of October 21, 2001 in the Guardian, Samuel Huntington is asked whether instead of the West versus the rest, the clash could not become the clash between Islam versus the rest? Huntington says this is conceivable. However, he warns against portraying entire civilizations as unified blocks. He says: “Islam is less unified than any other civilisation. The problem with Islam is the problem Henry Kissinger expressed with regard to Europe: 'If I want to call Europe, what number do I call?' If you want to call the Islamic world, what number do you call? If there was a dominant power in the Islamic world, you could deal with them. Now what you see is the different Islamic groups competing with each other.”

Now what about this new concept, this clash about civilization? The basic thesis of the first speech by Tony Blair (picture) was “that the defining characteristic of today's world is its interdependence; that whereas the economics of globalisation are well matured, the politics of globalisation are not; and that unless we articulate a common global policy based on common values, we risk chaos threatening our stability, economic and political, through letting extremism, conflict or injustice go unchecked.” What are these common values Mr. Blair speaks about? In his second speech on foreign policy, entitled 'Global alliance for global values', Mr. Blair says: “We know the values we believe in: democracy and the rule of law; also justice, the simple conviction that, given a fair go, human beings can better themselves and the world around them.” (In his third speech, Mr. Blair lists the following global values: "liberty, democracy, tolerance, justice. These are the values we believe in. These are the values universally accepted across all nations, faiths and races, though not by all elements within them. These are values that can inspire and unify".) And he adds: “We believe that the changes happening in the world that make it more integrated, the globalisation that with unblinking speed re-shapes our lives, is an opportunity as much as a risk. We are open societies. We feel enriched by diversity. We welcome dynamism and are tolerant of difference.” In other words: the increasing interdependence in the world provides a unique opportunitiy to spread our common values, such as democracy and the rule of law.

Is the clash of today's world a clash of or about civilizations? Huntington said in his article that "the efforts of the West to promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values [...] engender countering responses from other civilizations". “The struggle in our world today”, says Mr. Blair in his second speech, “is not just about security, it is a struggle about values and about modernity - whether to be at ease with it or in rage at it. To win, we have to win the battle of values, as much as arms. We have to show these are not western still less American or Anglo-Saxon values but values in the common ownership of humanity, universal values that should be the right of the global citizen.” This is the best way to fight those who oppose civilization (terrorists). In his third speech, Mr. Blair says: "We have to attack not just [global terrorism's] methods but its ideas, its presumed and false sense of grievance against the West, its attempt to persuade us that it is we and not they who are responsible for its violence. In doing so, we should stand up for our own values, asserting that they are not Western but global values, whose spread is the surest guarantee of our future security." The battle is not between different civilizations; it is a battle about civilizations, i.e. a battle of civilizations against their opponents.

This Summer’s Congolese Election: Can the United Nations help establish democracy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

By Richard Norman

The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo are planning to vote in their first free election in more than forty-five years on July 30th. (‘Planning’ as opposed to ‘set’ as it has been delayed six times already). The election hopes to bookend a particularly catastrophic decade for a people who have no living memory of peace and prosperity. The recent war (1996-2003), in which nearly four million people lost their lives, was only the most brutal in a long series of indignities perpetrated on ordinary Congolese by foreign and domestic powers. Precipitated by the kleptocracy and solipsism of President Mobutu, who over the course of his thirty year presidency (1965-1996) raided his country of billions of dollars in resources, loans, and reserves, the Congo War engulfed much of the region and its consequences still strongly resound. It is the immediate backdrop to this election.

Recent history is important for understanding how the Congo got where it is—but history can do little to help the United Nations administer this vital voting process. Math is what counts. How do you register sixty million far-flung people, many with different tribes, languages, and loyalties, many brutalized by years of war? How do you establish thousands of polling stations and protect them from active marauders? Perhaps most importantly: how do you get the millions of ballots to these thousands of polling stations? Not on wheels. Many parts of the country are inaccessible by road.

Like MONUC’s peacekeeping operations—currently the UN’s largest and most expensive—administering the DRC election is the most logistically complex ever attempted by the organization. The Congo is nearly two and a half million square kilometres in area, comparable to Western Europe. But unlike Western Europe it has no roads to speak of, little or no infrastructure, and has had no census in more than twenty years. To say nothing of the east of the country, unanswerable to Kinshasa, and still profoundly effected by the remnants of war. Furthermore, aid to the region has been redirected in the last year to Darfur, resulting in only a portion of the six hundred million dollars required for immediate humanitarian relief, according to the head of MONUC. Thousands of preventable deaths are occurring every month. These facts, flung on the table like a folded poker hand, seem daunting. Recent Iraqi elections were “a walk in the park” compared to the upcoming Congolese poll, according to one prominent UN coordinator. “No one is pretending these elections will be totally democratic . . .” says another. And already those few internationalist op-ed writers aware that elections are forthcoming are brushing dust off their copies of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and searching out choice quotations to underline their pessimism.

But this lading list of problems and caveats are not the full story. While MONUC has recently come in for harsh criticism for sexual abuse allegations against members of its peacekeeping forces and numerous election day delays, overall neither criticism nor indifference are fair tones to take with its accomplishments. A two year drive to register voters has been an impressive success, more than doubling the roll from twelve million to twenty-six million voters. Many said this would be impossible. But dedicated volunteers and UN officials have worked tirelessly to pull it off. A referendum on a new constitution (which activated much of the legal groundwork for this summer’s election) was held successfully in December of last year and was approved by eighty-five percent of voters. The referendum can be seen as a skeleton trial run for the elections.

What is important is not a flawless poll. There will be many problems—to expect otherwise would be unfair. What is required for success is, at a minimum, the avoidance of widespread renewed violence and the inauguration of a new president with a basic popular mandate. This is not—to borrow a phrase from President Bush—“the soft bigotry of low expectations,” but a nuts and bolts realism. A moderately successful election is not an ending place: it is a foundation. And though a host of problems face this upcoming vote—many detailed in a recent International Crisis Group report—there is evidence of a massive popular will, a strong national urge to begin to close the book on a century and more of misery. It was shown by the number of people who have registered to vote and by the turnout in the referendum (picture), with many traveling hours or days to reach polling stations to cast their ballots. It is easier, after all, to quantify the problems facing the election than to measure the strong desire for sweeping change. The election is seen by the Congolese as the first opportunity in a long time for them to take control back of their country, after decades when apathy and fatalism deeply damaged the country and its people. It is impossible to predict the success or failure of the July 30th elections, but there is more room for optimism now than there has been for a long time.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

People Everywhere
Picture taken at Museum of Modern Art

Welcome to the Weblog on "United Nations, Global Values and the Individual".

What is the role of the individual in this globalizing world? And what is the role of the United Nations? Do we live in a world community, with shared responsibility and shared values? These are some of the questions discussed on this weblog.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Diogenes, the First Cosmopolitan

By Otto Spijkers

Diogenes was a native of Sinope, but at some point he was banished from there. Asked about this incident later on, Diogenes replied: “The people of Sinope condemned me to banishment, and I condemned them to remain where they were.” Since then, Diogenes considered himself “a citizen of the world”.

So what is it like to be a citizen of the world? Diogenes gives the answer: it is to belong to no community whatsoever. It means complete freedom. It means, in the words of Diogenes, adopting the same fashion of life as Hercules had, preferring nothing in the world to liberty. It means regarding the most excellent thing among men to be the “freedom of speech”.

The complete lack of bonds and his absolute right to free speech made it possible for Diogenes to have a very peculiar sense of humor.

One day Diogenes saw an unskillful archer shooting; so he went and sat down by the target, saying, ‘Now I shall be out of harm's way.’

When asked why people give to beggars and not to philosophers, Diogenes said, ‘Because they think it possible that they themselves may become lame and blind, but they do not expect ever to turn out philosophers.’

Having been in a very dirty bath, Diogenes said, “I wonder where the people, who bathe here, clean themselves.”

On one occasion, when no one came to listen to him while he was discoursing seriously, he began to whistle. And then when people flocked round him, he reproached them for coming with eagerness to folly, but being lazy and indifferent about good things.

His cosmopolitan sense of humor may have chased his fellow human beings away. The following anecdote accurately describes the cosmopolitan situation: once Diogenes was going into a theatre while every one else was coming out of it; and when asked why he did so, “It is,” said he, “what I have been doing all my life.”

What is striking, and of course consistent with his cosmopolitan philosophy, is that Diogenes approached everyone, slave and king, foreigner and countryman, in exactly the same way, i.e. with his typical cynical sense of humor.

For example, once, while he was sitting in the sun in the Craneum, King Alexander the Great was standing by, and said to him, “Ask any favour you choose of me.” And Diogenes replied, “Cease to shade me from the sun.”

Seeing a runaway slave sitting on a well, Diogenes said, "My boy, take care you do not fall in.”

Finally, Diogenes’ death. Diogenes is said to have died when he was nearly ninety years of age (to be a lonely, cosmopolitan cynic apparently is very healthy). How did he die? Some say he ate an ox's foot raw, and was in consequence seized with a bilious attack, of which he died; others say that he died of holding his breath for several days. The latter is the most heard cause of death.

This text is largely based on The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius. I have used the English translation by C.D. Yonge (see:

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sphere for Plaza Fountain

The sphere for Plaza Fountain is a colossal globe-like structure. Fritz Koenig, a German artist, designed the sphere to symbolize world peace through world trade, which was the theme of the World Trade Center. The sphere survived the attacks on the WTC of september 11, 2001, but was heavily damaged. I took this picture after the attacks.