Public Square - World Peace: Problems and Solutions
I have two incredibly important questions, with similarly important answers: what is stopping world peace from being accomplished, and what can we do to change it?
To paraphrase Rod Serling:
You unlock this door to the fifth dimension with the key of imagination. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. You have just entered the Twilight Zone.
If you have ever watched the famous 1960s TV program, you may have your own ideas about where I am going with this. For now, let’s just say that if you plan to continue reading, you need to open your mind to this fifth dimension where anything is possible and the situation must not be rational, from a man reliving his nightmare of receiving the death penalty every night, to aliens taking over the Earth to “Serve Man” on a dinner plate.
Gary Larson’s striking “The Far Side” cartoons have entertained me since before my age turned double-digits; the cartoons are witty yet simple, accurately depicting nuances that we often overlook in our own society. I think it is appropriate, therefore, to use selected comics by Larson to navigate through the complex topics I will be discussing.
So what are these topics? I’ve already suggested their complicated nature. Their interrelated nature is epitomized by the study of Public Diplomacy, which examines communication between the public, the media, and the government. (These units will be important for the solution.)
I return now to the first question: what is in the way of achieving world peace that we must overcome as a human race to make the world a better place (for posterity)?In recent posts I have discussed the realistic nature of world peace, and several possible problems that have mitigated its accomplishment. What I did not include was the answer:
“the problem” (of non-existent world peace) stems from two fundamental predicaments – one inter- and one intra-national in nature.
We stand today, as a human race, at an impasse in both foreign and domestic communication & diplomacy. But to overcome these hurdles, we have to know what they are.
This leads me to the first predicament: Inter-nationally, human society has employed an analytical framework in diagnosing problems and solutions that is inherently flawed.
Our flawed analysis overemphasizes power and strength as symbols of security, consequently undervaluing shared emotional perspectives of different communities. [Both of these consequences represent recently propagated theories in the study of International Relations and foreign affairs. The good news? You already know a bit about them if you read ANY of the following posts: The Banning of the Burqa, The Democratic Paradox, or Women & Civil Society: Are Men the Problem?]
This framework overvalues using “hard line” displays of power to enhance a state’s credibility. Power has thus been the core preoccupation of international diplomacy – especially regarding perceptions of one’s power relative to an adversary’s. Ann Tickner’s feminist theory of international relations criticizes these preoccupations as based in machistic (male-centric) conceptions of security that prioritize hard power to ensure national security, and that do NOT acknowledge the feminist conception of security (having food to eat and a place to sleep, etc.). What is significant about Tickner’s critique is this: especially in today’s world, where “soft” power has an ever-increasing role in inter-state communication, it is dangerous to consider adversaries as well as allies in solely by “hard” power terms.
A social constructivist critique of the aforementioned analytical framework can be found in Samuel P. Huntington’s theory of a post-Cold War world characterized by a Clash of Civilizations. Huntington demonstrates how the predominant theories in international relations poorly identify nuanced contexts that result from shared historical narratives and culturally embedded emotion. In other words, what this means is that when we look at other nations, we take them out of context from their national culture and compare the state to an objective list of norms that apply to Western cultures. In doing so, we ignore the cultural perspectives of these nations, which materialize in a culture’s shared values, habits and rituals, among other things.
For example, in the culture of the Dobe Ju/’hoansi (an African aboriginal group studied by anthropologists due to the culture’s relative isolation), gifts and accomplishments are always criticized and complained about – a cultural habit that maintains their egalitarian social and political structure. Without this knowledge and sensitivity toward the Dobe culture, we would likely confuse their complaining and criticism with dissatisfaction and discontent for gifts or accomplishments.
This is especially important when considering how easily communication can be misinterpreted, and how easily these misinterpretations can lead to actions that precipitate conflicts.
This leads me to the second predicament: Intra-nationally, while technology has advanced exponentially, human society has not emotionally advanced to cope with these technologies and their impact on communication and diplomacy.
The newest of these new communication technologies are called new media, and they have made important impacts on societal construction and political organization, the process of democratization, and media literacy (how the public interprets and assesses visual, vocal, and graphic information from the media).
Before examining these results, however, we need to understand HOW new media impact these processes.
The immediate affects of these technologies on communication involve: timeliness (instant nature), accuracy and transparency, quantity (volume) and quality, and the power of an individual or group’s voice in relation to censorship and control. So… what does this mean? Basically, that information is available when, where, and how (in what format) we want it. Anyone with Internet access can participate in dialogues with people around the world, and a constant stream of information means that it is easier to get caught in a lie or with mistaken information. Regulation by governments is incredibly difficult – and may eventually be impossible – and the transnational nature of the virtual world makes crimes committed on the web very hard to prosecute.
The world as we know it has changed markedly with the introduction of new media. Satellite phones and networks, social networking media, user-generated content, the blogosphere… all of these belong to the realm of new media. What is significant is how they have impacted communication and diplomacy.
First, social construction refers to how we group ourselves in relation to other groups; in other words, how we decide who is “us” and “them.” These new technologies have vastly expanded our membership opportunities to groups by connecting people with some shared interest – be they political, religious, cultural, geographic, or otherwise – regardless of their physical location.
Political organization of citizens or niche target audiences (especially transnational communities) has also been further facilitated by these technologies; political ‘action’ must no longer take a tangible form. These effects have notably led to a drastic rise in the strength and coercive power of non-state nations and other transnational communities. For example, in Columbia’s “One Million Voices against the FARC” Facebook campaign, a diaspora community was able to politically organize trans-continentally using social media (see: “Facebook-Led Peace Protests Draw Millions”).
The effects of these technologies on the process of democratization constitute an entire realm of study in themselves, so I’ll try to be brief. In essence, I believe new media promote democratic principles of freedom by giving a voice to the oppressed. First, oppressed demographic groups find their voice in the anonymity of the Internet, promoting freedom of speech as well as freedom of press (for the same reason) regardless of political context of the author’s location (see: The Rise of Netpolitik: How the Internet Is Changing International Politics And Diplomacy, a Report of the Eleventh Annual Aspen Institute, page 33). Second, (as mentioned earlier) governments are finding it increasingly difficult to censor unfavorable or unapproved content. Examples can be seen in Moldova’s Twitter Revolution, the leak of China’s SARS outbreak, and Iranian woman who discuss their socially unacceptable sexuality in blogs and other forums on the Internet.
The significance of media literacy has grown with new media, as a result of the changing role of the press. This role was previously meant to be as a 4th branch of government, keeping the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government in check by informing the public. Now, people can get what information they want, how they want it, where they want it, and when they want it. In America, for example, what the public seems to want is to be entertained. As a result, news media have increasingly catered to this desire, and news programs (broadcast or otherwise) are increasingly dominated by human interest pieces and other ‘soft’ news, most cringingly that of never-ending celebrity scandal.
Media literacy means understanding the cultural context of where given information originated. Because news has become increasingly directed at niche audiences to satisfy their interests, various news media increasingly cater to cultural perspectives. For example, Al Jazeera caters to a – largely Arab – community with negative feelings toward American and Western cultures. As David Bollier describes in The Rise of Netpolitik, “Clashes are not just a matter of disputed content; they also are a matter of disparate contexts for interpreting that content (p. 32) [emphasis in original excerpt].”
So, what is the result? What does all of this mean for international communication and diplomacy?
Philip Seib’s theory of The Al Jazeera Effect describes the world as being reshaped by new media. Seib writes,
“The media” are no longer just the media. They have a larger popular base than ever before and, as a result, have unprecedented impact on international politics. The media can be tools of conflict and instruments of peace; they can make traditional borders irrelevant and unify peoples scattered across the globe. (p. xii, The Al Jazeera Effect) [italics added for emphasis]
This means that ordinary people have more power to affect change due to their new-media-granted ability to organize and mobilize around a cause or interest, making governments increasingly susceptible to the whims and emotions of their publics when states conduct foreign policy. Case in point: it’s harder now for a government to convince a public that doesn’t want a war to support one.
This power of the people is incredibly significant in light of a state’s credibility. If the public does not support its government’s policy, this sentiment is vocalized on the Internet to an international audience. As a result, the policy is not seen as something that the government is or will be deeply committed to, and the policy becomes drastically less effective, often being disregarded by the international community or the state the policy was directed at. It is through this process that governments are made subject to the shared cultural perspectives, emotions, and values of their respective publics.
So now you know the problems: when we examine conflicts and possible solutions, we do not give the necessary emphasis on analysis that fully understand the cultural nuances in inter-national communication, or on how our intra-national context has changed due to new media [“we” being human society]. As a result, world peace has been eluded.
NOW WHAT CAN WE DO TO CHANGE THIS?
We, as a human race, must actively change our behaviors as publics, media, and governments. Each state in the world can divide its society into these three groups, and each group must make different changes to their respective behaviors. I use the United States as an example to demonstrate what behavioral changes need to be made in the following prescriptions that would promote the attainment of World Peace.
The following prescriptions intend to solve what I see as questions of each group’s purpose, function, and the extent of their responsibility. Although each group has its own prescriptions, all three groups need to communicate with one another to establish a consensus for both foreign and domestic policy-making.
The government must make three notable changes. First, it needs to increase transparent communication with both domestic and international publics, and in foreign diplomacy. The more transparent we are, the harder it will be to wage war against a culture that can be seen to stand for equality, personal freedom, and justice.
Second, it needs to promote discourse with the domestic public, with the goal of establishing what the public feels is in the US’s national interest. The resultant majority consensus ensures that there will be a solid foundation of principles to form policy on with the public’s support. The public can later change its mind. In the meantime, however, the national consensus confers increased credibility on the government’s international reputation, while holding the President and the government as a whole more directly responsible to the American public.
Third, in a conflict, the government must be cognizant of the affects of new media technologies on communication, and apply a new analytical framework that acknowledges different cultural perspectives. This includes being respectful of other cultures’ values and traditions to help policymakers consider why other side might be acting as they are, rather than just writing them off as ‘irrational’. Conversely, the government must also recognize how other cultures may perceive America’s behavior. Case in point: just because the US makes a peaceful overture amidst a war does not mean the adversary sees your action as peaceful. Rather, without considering the US’s good intentions, the adversary might think you are trying to trick them – based on US credibility in similar past situations – or perhaps that you are just choosing to be a little less hostile.
The news mediamust undertake three major changes. First, it must determine what its role is and will be in a society fundamentally changed by technology and increased cultural contact. To do so, the news media must open a discourse with the public to establish what the role should be moving forward: as a commentator and analyzer of events, or as in its previous role as an informant. This faces several challenges, largest among them that it is increasingly hard to imagine “objective” news coverage in today’s world.
Due (largely) to the aforementioned new analytical perspective, we now recognize that much of our bias is inherent and subconscious, recognizable only to those with different biases (as a result of different cultures). As a result of the growing prominence of niche news media, these biases are increasingly exasperated to attract a given audience, such as Al Jazeera or TeleSur (both discussed in previous posts), which establish the news media as biased commentators rather than objective and credible informants. This is a dire threat to world peace, as it puts peace and order in the hands of the emotional and volatile masses (think: Freud’s group psychology or Le Bon’s masse psychology, in which audiences tend to act like herds of animals ruled by the most banal and basic of social rules).
Second, the news media must reestablish its credibility. Although I believe the role of the news media must remain as an informant, I also believe that commentary can be included in news programming without detracting from the news media’s credibility. However, this can only happen if facts and critique are clearly delineated. This would allow the public to trust that they are still drawing their own conclusions from what they hear, watch, or read in the news, rather than commentators or journalists drawing their own conclusions and feeding these to the audience.
To reestablish its credibility, the news media must also be cognizant of how its programming is perceived by other cultures and foreign publics. For example, many Arabs believe that the purpose of US news programming is to serve US and Western interests.
Third, the news media must change the way it approaches foreign conflicts. Recognizing new media’s effect of increased contact between disparate (and even incongruent) cultures, it must encourage and promote transparent discourse between cultures, consequently promoting the peaceful resolution of conflicts. This is significant because it is now easier than ever for news coverage to galvanize international attention on a conflict. As a rule, the international community almost always supports the victim of aggression in a conflict and ostracizes the aggressor, damaging the nation’s credibility and deterring other states from making agreements with this nation in the future. As a result, news coverage and the resulting international attention pressures all parties in a conflict to appear as the victim by trying to act more peaceful than the other parties. It follows that if actors in a conflict are trying to one-up each other in peaceful actions, cooperation is likely to result, bringing the actors to a peaceful resolution.
The news media must also painstakingly ensure that when reporting on a conflict, the public must be informed of the perspectives of all parties in the conflict. This serves two purposes. First, it ensures that the public has the sole power to judge the news for themselves. Second, it counters allegations from members of the international community that the US exports its culture and values with its commercial products when they are experienced abroad, such as through value judgments in news programming or images of the perfect American family in a McDonalds happy meal.
The public must make a fundamental change in its degree of participation, or change its expectations from our government. It is now easier to engage in the public discourse without physically having to ‘act’ – no more door-to-door salespeople; now they just email you. So the public must either engage in this public discourse, or stop expecting so much change with less effort.
This has been the underlying problem of Obama’s presidency so far. For example, regarding health care, the public claims that it voted for “change” and then complains that it can’t see any. However, they could have quite easily mobilized by signing online petitions to their respective representatives in Congress to get what they wanted done. Why didn’t they? Because the public did not invest the time or effort into analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of various measures. Who would’ve thought that the abortion debate could be drawn into it!
This also applies to criticism over foreign policy. For example, deploying US troops to Afghanistan. Again, if the public wants change in US policy, it must engage in the public discourse to establish new priorities for the national interest. The public now has a variety of easy tools through which to participate in the public discourse: social media, user-generated content pages on news organization websites, blogs… What is left now is for the public to take up these tools and participate in open debate and frank discussion about the things that matter to the American people. If we don’t know, how can our government know?
If you take one thing away from this diatribe, let it be that World Peace is not a peace between governments or states, but between people. If the people do not participate in the public discourse, there can be all the peace between governments in the world, but wars will still occur.
World Peace must come from the people.