Remarks from Dr. J. Brian Atwood, Chair, Global Policy Area, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota


Current Trends in Governance Worldwide

Remarks by J. Brian Atwood - Aug. 18, 2014

Thank you Karl Kurtz for that kind introduction and thank you for all you have done for this organization. It has been very satisfying over the years to have worked with the National Conference of State Legislators. This organization has provided strong support to legislatures and parliaments all over the world, many of whom are represented at this summit meeting.

 It is an honor to welcome you to Minnesota, a state with a first-class legislature. Your host committee is very impressive. I will mention only the two co-chairs, senate President Sandy Pappas and House Speaker Paul Thissen.

You are visiting a state whose most prominent political leaders have contributed not only to Minnesota but to the democratic world in which we live.

Hubert Humphrey for example. This young mayor of Minneapolis persuaded the Democratic convention in 1948 to endorse a civil rights resolution. He was impatient with those who wanted to delay action to keep Southern delegations happy. His words are an important part of American history: “To those who say we are rushing the issue of civil rights, I say to them, we’re 172 years too late.” Humphrey went on to lead the effort to break a Senate filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making all Americans equal under the law.

In 1965, Walter Mondale led the Senate floor effort to pass the Voting Rights Act. He chaired the Church Committee’s investigation on domestic spying by our intelligence agencies and sponsored the law to place their activities under court review. As Vice President, he made international news when he confronted South African President Vorster with “fundamental and profound disagreement” over apartheid, announcing the U.S. government's active opposition to it. In 1980, he visited China to establish diplomatic relations between our countries.

In the early 1970’s, Congressman Don Fraser, another former mayor of Minneapolis, authored the human rights law still in effect today. He later co-authored the legislation that created the National Endowment for Democracy.

We have been blessed with legislators who have had the capacity to see beyond their own borders. I hope you will consider doing the same. This summit meeting will give you an opportunity to step back from your daily work and to share ideas about the role parliamentarians can play in addressing the world’s many challenges.

We do not share the same nationality, or culture, or language, or even the exact same type of governance system. While we all have a general appreciation for legislative institutions, we interpret our responsibilities somewhat differently in accordance with our laws. I have often said, for example, that the American system would not work in most places. And frankly it isn’t working very well here nowadays! But we will fix that—eventually!

We are here because we believe in the rule of law. You represent the governmental bodies that pass those laws. Many of the issues you consider relate to your constituencies, but an increasing portion of your agenda has an impact beyond your borders.

Our willingness to help one another is more essential than ever before. We should not allow sovereignty or narrow jurisdictional boundaries to limit our vision. Nationalism may be good politics in the short term, but it doesn’t have a very long life span. We know how easy it is for demagogic leaders to appeal to love of country, or ethnic group, or religion. But too often these emotional appeals are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The world today seems to be facing multiple crises. Here in America we have a President that is being blamed for most of it. You will hear critics charge that had President Obama been tougher, he could have stopped the civil war in Syria, aggression by ISIS in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, the breakdown of order in Libya, the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia and the annexation of Crimea, Boko Haram terrorism in Nigeria, tension over territory in the South China Sea, and more.

Let’s examine that. The United States has the strongest military in the world, but should we use it everywhere? We are trying to end two decade-old wars. As the President said “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

In some ways global conditions are getting better, but in this information age the conflicts will always dominate the news. As the number of nation-states and the global population grows, the chances for tension and conflict increase. No one country can fix all these problems. We will have to work together to prevent future conflict.

When I was in government I wrote an article for the Washington Post that identified the most significant post-Cold War threat as chaos. It was easy even then to understand what I meant: ethnic and religious strife in places like Bosnia and Kosovo; the genocide in Rwanda; failed states in places like Somalia, Liberia and Haiti; a proliferation of refugees and displaced people. And this was the world before 9/11! Even before the global terrorism threat, these were matters that were taxing the resources of the United Nations and threatening the global economy.

Conditions relating to poverty were breaking down social cohesion and causing conflict. The solution, I suggested, was more investment of time and effort in preventive measures, more anticipatory diplomacy and more effective development cooperation.

There was an interesting reaction to my article. Subsequent commentary interpreted my words as suggesting that conditions were contributing to conflict not people. One writer accused me of excusing the acts of evil people!

The other argument I heard from within the Clinton Administration was political. It was said that any initiative based on the idea of prevention was politically dangerous as any leader who promised this would be blamed when the next crisis occurred.

Fortunately President Clinton paid little attention. He sent me on a presidential mission to the Horn of Africa where a drought was threatening to become a famine affecting some 20 million people. The international relief effort we led prevented that from happening. We marshalled huge quantities of food relief, took steps to strengthen the regional body, gave the states a better way to share information and encouraged the few food- producing nations in the area to grow excess crops to export to their neighbors.

The press coverage this initiative failed to receive led me to believe that there was a political argument my critics missed. We had succeeded in a presidential mission to prevent chaos; but the press paid very little attention. The famine that didn’t happen wasn’t news!

Chaos seems an even more appropriate word to describe the world today than it was in the 1990s. Most troubling is that the United Nations and regional organizations are overwhelmed and seem incapable of mediating disputes. It is extraordinarily difficult to pass a Security Council resolution today even on purely humanitarian issues.  

There is no easy answer to this, but we can learn a lot from history here. It is useful read about past leaders and the steps they advocated. There are some wonderful biographies out there that provide some insights into leadership and how the international system became what it is today. One of my favorites is on Woodrow Wilson written by Scott Berg.

This is the 100th anniversary of the “war to end all wars,” World War I. The way that war was ended is the source of many of the territorial issues and disputes we face today.

President Woodrow Wilson wanted to keep the United States out of the war. He wanted to mediate among the belligerent countries that had fought to a standstill at the expense of millions of lives. He called for “peace without victory,” and warned that “peace forced upon the loser… would be accepted in humiliation…and would leave resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.”

When Wilson was forced by German attacks against American shipping to ask Congress to declare war, he made it clear that a state of war had been imposed on the United States. He said that “Our motive will not be revenge… but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.”

Wilson did not want to send young people off to war without an uplifting and positive rationale. He said that America would fight for nothing less than “the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its people, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life…”

What is best remembered from that speech is the line: “The world must be made safe for democracy.”  

We know the rest of the story. Wilson has often been called na├»ve for making that statement. Realists called it too idealistic. But was it idealistic to predict that a peace negotiated by victors anxious to punish the vanquished would “rest on quicksand?” Wilson persuaded the Allies in Europe to endorse his League of Nations, but he could not convince them that punishing Germany was a recipe for an unsustainable peace. He could not convince them to undertake “open covenants, openly arrived at.” Consequently, the European powers continued to make secret deals such as the Sykes-Picot Treaty that divided up the Middle East. And then of course he could not convince his own Senate to ratify the League of Nations.

We live today with the consequences of the decisions made 100 years ago in Versailles and in the back rooms of foreign ministries.  Many of the borders of today’s nations were drawn around a negotiating table. The colonial powers had already divided up Africa, in Berlin in 1884 and ‘85. Now the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires would be broken apart without the consent of the people who lived in the Middle East or Central and Eastern Europe. The motives of key allied leaders related more to dividing the spoils and punishing the losers than to finding a way to accommodate historic ties, cultural affinities and ethnic similarities. They called it a “peace treaty;” it was anything but.

Wilson will go down in history as a fuzzy-headed idealist because he failed to persuade his Allied colleagues. And he failed to persuade the U.S. Senate, probably because he fell ill and was unable to campaign for ratification of his League of Nations.

I would suggest that Wilson, in better understanding human nature, was the realist. He didn’t believe that a League of Nations would end war. In presenting the fourteen points that would define the purpose of the League he said “What we are striving for is a new international order based upon broad and universal principles of right and justice—no more peace of shreds and patches.” His expectation was not that this new institution would eliminate xenophobia or the ambition of megalomaniacs. He simply wanted a universal frame that would create a standard for the behavior of sovereign states and provide a forum to resolve disputes.

Well, that is enough history. We have learned a great deal in the past century. The United Nations implemented many of Wilson’s ideas, but now that institution is beginning to show its age and the structural weaknesses that the World War II victors built into it.

Even more troubling is the challenge to democratic governance, an important tenet of the UN Charter. The end of the Cold War saw a wave of democratic change in the world. There is growing concern today that leaders are manipulating weak democratic institutions and embracing democracy in name only. The institutions that exist in these countries are there to serve the small number of individuals who gather around the leader to share the spoils. Organizations like NCSL and NDI are being driven out of many of these countries. Parliaments in many places are tools of the executive rather than representatives of the people.

For those who believe that these managed democracies are easier to govern, or more efficient in getting things done, I would suggest that they read the book Why Nations Fail.  The authors, Darren Acemoglu and James Robinson, describe the historic fate of governance systems based on “extractive” institutions—where the system is designed to extract wealth from the people for the benefit of the few—in contrast to nations with “inclusive” institutions designed to share wealth with the people who have produced it. This book provides strong evidence that “Extractive” societies ultimately fall into conflict. If the only way to get ahead is to be the leader and there is no peaceful way to do so, then ultimately someone is going to try to topple the leader by force.

You in this room know that democratic institutions do not grow into efficient organizations overnight. Democracy is messy, but it works when the people feel involved. It becomes a sustainable system once a nation passes from fragile institutions to those where the process is no longer in dispute, where the rules of the game are well understood and the political culture accepts the notion of the “loyal opposition.” None of this is easy. Democracy is a journey not a destination. It requires constant nurturing and eternal vigilance. The support of other democrats is often decisive.

If we begin to doubt the most endurable qualities of democracy, we will not “make the world safe for democracy.” If we allow authoritarian rulers to cloak themselves in democratic rhetoric while abusing its principles, we will not achieve the promised “democratic peace.” And if the people have no democratic voice in society, we will not experience truly sustainable development.

These are choices that nations must make and we should take care when we interfere in the internal affairs of others. But if democrats ask for help, they should get it, whatever the source. Authoritarian leaders should not expect the international community to aid and abet their efforts to extract from their own people and to abuse their human rights.

Let me end on a more positive note. In the past two decades we have seen this more democratic international community produce development results that are impressive indeed. Economic and political reforms have created opportunities for growth and prosperity. Official Development Assistance (ODA), now at a record $135 billion, has helped and has become more tied to the aspirations of local people.  New South-South providers of assistance have come onto the scene led by China. A new Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation has been created with representation from traditional donors, new providers, the private sector, civil society and, importantly, parliamentarians.

We are learning how to cooperate for development progress. Developing nations are beginning to own their development strategies. They are raising domestic resources from more effective tax systems and are reducing their dependency on foreign assistance. These are very positive trends. The new post-2015 development goals now being considered by the United Nations will apply to all nations and these will hopefully push the world further in this positive direction.

So we are making progress despite the wars and the tensions. The world may never again see a single leader like Wilson who will try to define the new the international system. The world is too complicated for that. Rather, we will need hundreds of individual leaders who see the bigger picture and are willing to think out of their national box. I think some of those people are in this room.

If you need inspiration, think about a wonderful quote from Robert Kennedy when he visited apartheid South Africa in 1966. He said: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Perhaps if these words were spoken today, Kennedy would be called an idealist. Yet we know that since 1966, mighty walls of oppression and resistance have indeed fallen. There is more to be done, but it will take courage; more at the beginning and less as the ripples become the waves of change.

I am in a room full of leaders. Who among you will do something that will warrant the blessing of history 100 years from now?