The Great Issues Forum: Political Power

December 17, 2008 | CUNY Graduate Center

In the early evening of Thursday, October 2, politics was in the air. A “rescue” plan to calm the turbulence of a major economic crisis had been passed by the Senate but awaited a vote in the House of Representatives; and Joe Biden and Sarah Palin were preparing for a debate that would be watched by nearly 70 million people making up their minds about the upcoming presidential election, which was just four weeks away.

On the same evening, a group of New Yorkers gathered in the Harold M. Proshansky Auditorium for the first of five major public events in The Graduate Center’s new Great Issues Forum. They listened to a far-ranging conversation between eminent individuals that touched upon a number of “hot” political issues – the Russian invasion of Georgia, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, climate change, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the “global war on terrorism.” However, in this case, the goal of the discussion was not to determine whether a bill should be passed or if a certain candidate should be voted into office. Rather, the goal was to explore the very nature of political power, and how it is most effectively utilized.

The moderator, Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science at The Graduate Center, launched the forum by saying, “With political power, like all forms of power, ideas matter. How we think about power has a great impact on how we respond to it.”

Professor Weiss then posed challenging questions to three people whose work has often required them to think about and respond to power, albeit from different perspectives: Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, and today serves as a counselor and trustee of the Center for Strategic International Studies and Robert E. Osgood Professor of American Foreign Policy at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University; Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who today chairs Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative; and Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and author who has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize – the first for coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement (awarded to Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn), and the second for his columns on the genocide in Darfur.

Given the timing of the event, it’s not surprising that a large part of the evening revolved around what approach the next U.S. President should take upon assuming office and, more generally, the influence of the United States, for good or for ill, around the world.

Zbigniew Brzezinski emphasized the importance of restoring the notion of accountability in American public life, not only in regard to misdeeds or violations of the law, but also in the pursuit of foreign policy. “If we have a foreign policy that alienates most of the world,” he said, “ if we have a specific foreign policy that promises to deliver peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and then fails to do so very evidently, somehow or other there should be accountability for that – at the very least political accountability, not necessarily judicial accountability. Because if we don’t do that then we’re, in effect, replicating on the political level what we have already slid into on the financial/economic level.”

Mary Robinson commented on the concept of the “war on terrorism,” noting that the language of “war” tends to induce panic and makes it easy for a nation to take actions it wouldn’t normally take; she offered the example of the passage of the Patriot Act with little scrutiny. She observed that such developments in the U.S. have contributed, since 9/11, to an erosion in human rights and the rule of law in many nations, particularly those that lack the checks and balances that the U.S. has – the Supreme Court, the media, academics, etc. “When you try to challenge it, you’re told that the standards have changed,” said Robinson, “and the reference point for the standards having changed is the United States.”

Nicholas Kristof addressed the dynamic of political decision-making in international conflicts. He pointed out that democracies such as the United States are not good at calibrated reactions, and have a tendency to instinctively adopt tough positions that can often produce self-defeating results. He offered several examples, including actions taken against North Korea that have resulted in more, not less, nuclear proliferation; and, after the Russian invasion, increased sentiment in favor of admitting Georgia into NATO – a move that Kristof would have serious reservations about. He said, “We tend to rush to easy-to-understand, emotionally satisfying solutions to incredibly complex problems.”

Professor Weiss asked panelists how they have maintained a sense of enthusiasm and optimism in spite of atrocities they have witnessed. Mary Robinson said, “I have a whole string of memories that that I can evoke one inch below my mind,” but she quickly added, “I’ve always felt that if you want to just describe the bad things, you take all the oxygen out of doing anything about it. So the glass has to be – not half full – but at least a little bit full.” She continued, “I find that at a grass roots level, the people who are suffering most are the most resilient, the most courageous, and the most innovative, and we’re not there enough to remove the barriers they are trying to cope with and give them the leg up they deserve.”

The panelists suggested various fundamental and practical measures that could strengthen the United States’ ability to exercise political power in a way that will effect positive change on the international stage.

Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that he would like the next President to say to the American people that “ignorant self-indulgence as a way of life is no longer compatible with global realities.” He explained his belief that Americans’ lack of knowledge about global history and global geography, and their tendency to define “a good life” in purely material terms, makes it difficult for a President to formulate an intelligent foreign policy in which the U.S. leads by example. Nicholas Kristof said, “We need to amplify and improve our diplomatic toolbox. It’s striking that the United States has more people in its military bands than in its diplomatic corps.” And Mary Robinson noted how important it is for the U.S. to establish strong working partnerships with other nations and groups. “It will take quite a lot of work to be done in building alliances,” she said. “And because the United States is in a different position now militarily and, because of the last strange month of September, economically, it’s a time to forge relationships. It makes sense.”
Gail Goldberg

The Great Issues Forum explores critical issues of our time through a single thematic lens; the theme for this inaugural year is Power. In addition to public programs, the Forum includes an online seminar with distinguished guest bloggers, and an online video/audio archive, where the entirety of this conversation on Political Power will be made available, along with later discussions about other forms of power. For more information, visit www.greatissuesforum.org, call (212) 817-2005, or e-mail ch@gc.cuny.edu.