Category Archives: Peace Building

The ugly Americans

American flag

It used to feel special to travel abroad with that blue passport. In my evolving world view, I had ample reason to feel pride in my country and its democratic ideals and in my conviction, that despite our many flaws and occasional deep hypocrisies, we truly meant well in the world. We cared about the plight of others, we were generous in our assistance to the less fortunate, and we held our allies in the highest regard.

That was then; this is now. I am much older, and as I travel first to India and now back in Uganda, the sordid, sorry news from the United States is never far away. Large screen monitors in airports and hotels expose the latest in what we’ve now come to accept will be an unending series of Trump media distractions (intentional?) achieved through egregious and unpresidential tweets, along with reprehensible political statements and policies that fly in the face of the ideals that I grew up thinking defined us as a people. “America First” is code for screw the rest of the world (nations, and the environment) – we don’t care and you don’t matter.

From my short-term perch in Kampala, I can tell you that indeed we do make a lot of noise in the world. The polarized, angry name-calling and lack of even basic civility that has come to define the United States in the era of Trump is heard regularly more than 10,000 miles away. More people than you can imagine around the world now know who Mika Brzezinski is. No surprise then that I encounter, every day, perplexed looks by the citizens I meet in these two countries as they ask their variation of the same question:

“What has happened to America?”

It’s depressing that I don’t have the words to answer that. It is too easy to blame the other side, when an insufficient number of liberal and progressive Americans failed to show up when it mattered the most – at the polls last November.  For the first time in my long life I feel shame for my country, and particularly for the leader and his many supporters who are committed to a boorish politics of unapologetic selfishness, who are sowing the seeds of deep discord and division within the United States and beyond, and who seem united in their utter rejection that the globe is now interdependent. “America First” is telling the people I meet abroad every day as I travel that they simply aren’t significant, unless they have a terrorist’s agenda. Then they will be crushed (along with innumerable civilians who just happen to be in the way, and desperate refugees fleeing such terrorism who simply long for a modicum of peace, stability, and hope). To people abroad, America is now perceived as an increasingly reclusive, isolationist, heavy-handed and uncaring country. Yes, we are respected as militarily strong and quick to punish those who would do us harm (at least when it is in the Trump team’s perceived national interest to do so, which is an unsettling thought). And sure, as a citizen of the United States and the daughter of a U.S. Marine, I am gratified that my security is a priority, even if I have deep questions as to the prevailing assumption in Republican circles that there is no such thing as too much defense spending. So what does it all add up to for America in the world?

An ugly truth – Americans are no longer nice. Continue reading The ugly Americans

Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving


It’s Thanksgiving, and so far I have sat mute as numerous messages have reached me across the Internet from friends and family, effusive in their gratitude for the many blessings that characterize their lives and relationships. These are sincere, warm, caring messages, and it is wonderful that this holiday opens the door to such expressions. Throughout the rest of the year, none of us says “thank you” nearly enough.

This year, however, I have not found the words inside me to be warmly responsive to these sentiments. Maybe I am just in a funky place…which might be forgivable in my current circumstances. I’m still trying – without measurable success – to make any sense of the recent presidential election, as the American political landscape seems to have entered into a place of irrationality and deep division. While the world around me seems very insecure, my own personal world also has more than a fair share of insecurity.  I’ve been unemployed (not counting a few consulting assignments and some modestly-remunerated adjunct teaching) for the past two years, despite my monumental efforts to find a new job. Success in securing employment eludes me. My small savings long ago were depleted, and despite many job applications still “pending” my prospects continue to look bleak. So…I am finding myself blocked from that congenial space in which to muse upon my blessings. I might take some small satisfaction in laying some blame for my plight on ageism and transphobia, but placing blame won’t change a culture that excludes well-qualified people from employment opportunities simply because they are mature, experienced, and living authentically.

Still, I know all too well that I am blessed.

I do indeed have much to be thankful for: my health, my family and friends, my Quaker faith community, my excellent education, my life’s narrative of so many international adventures, my growing and inspirational global community of LGBTI persons and allies. I should even be grateful for my cat…he’s a good cat.

Optimistic, idealistic do-gooders are generally not esteemed in society (cats or no cats), especially by those of a more hard-edged, pragmatic character. Still, I am grateful for my resilient idealism, despite the many knocks along the way. Among these ideals that mean the most to me are two: 1) that human dignity is universal, and 2) that ethical leadership makes all the difference in getting to a place where societies honor that dignity…for everyone. Continue reading Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

Washington conference 3

Washington, D.C. abounds with (free) opportunities to participate in erudite deliberations, cutting-edge topical presentations by highly respected experts, and diverse policy discussions including people who actually wield enormous power (or once did). Then there are those by-invitation-only gatherings of the “high-level” people – gatherings beyond the range of mere mortals such as I, with the occasional quirky exception (such as when I was invited to join Ambassador Samantha Power for a dinner). Elite-invitation-envy aside, Washington events are populated with many folks who are unquestionably very smart, remarkably accomplished, influential (just ask them), and affiliated with just the right institutions or government departments (again, just ask them – they expect to be asked).

With the notable exception of the few “fringe” or “radical” gatherings (e.g. feminists, LGBTI people, religious devotees, environmentalists, or philosophers), those who attend the more typical Washington discourse events are also usually quite well-invested in the prevailing paradigm, which is always a variation on the preeminence of Power and Wealth (occasionally made glamorous by close association with Technology). It’s a paradigm + variations that comes with baggage: an almost off-hand acceptance of the many inherent failings of human nature, the wave-of-the-hand disavowal of “old notions” of morality, or a dismissive snicker at the naïveté of anyone idealistic enough to suggest someone might actually be motivated by public service.

No one really talks about public service. Just like no one really talks about integrity, when it is so much more fashionable to frame everything through the lens of corruption. People will be corrupt to the extent that they can get away with it, right? What else is there to say, except to exhort a stop to these corrupt miscreants (who of course by definition are those of us who get caught)?

It goes deeper still, however. There exists an unspoken premise that citizens will always bend to incentive structures that have been cleverly crafted to appear to maximize their individual self-interest, but which are more likely to be all about manipulating people towards ulterior ends, i.e. entrenching and amassing the power and wealth of the elites. And about those ulterior ends… the adjective “nefarious” is usually left off. Why assume motives, eh? The economy will do what it does.

We who frequent such events do take some small measure of comfort knowing that the many conferences and workshops and gatherings in Washington almost always are provisioned with ample – if not particularly good – free coffee. If you’re lucky, or very selective, there’s even free food. No, the food’s not particularly good either, but the price is sweet.

Do I sound just a little despairing of my Washington colleagues? After all, cynicism about humanity and its venal motivations is well supported by so much of history (or at least by what we’ve chosen to report on in our history books, or on Fox news, or on Twitter). It’s become the norm to be suspicious (or knowingly condescending) about the possibility that morality might mean something, or that human dignity has any practical influence. The evidence to the contrary is just so plentiful – as all around the world senseless conflicts rage on, and millions of people are displaced or condemned to a grueling life as refugees. The tally of human suffering is beyond calculation.

So we don’t try.

That’s just “the way it is”, right? Deal with it. Realism means that we’ve long since put aside the ritual wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. If you’re going to play in this Washington game at this level, you damn well better know the rules. And in the context of international development, conflict management & peacebuilding, and human rights advocacy, the prevailing rules are rooted in the dynamics of power and wealth. Everything else is “soft”. Sure, it’s “nice” to pay rhetorical homage from time to time (and in passing) to ideals like justice, compassion, patriotism, public service, dignity, second-generation human rights, or – dare I even mention it – love, but in the end the players in this game adhere to the well-worn dictates of the patriarchy: only Power and Money (and the self-interest that can be pursued through these) matter.

Period. Continue reading Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

Nile Basin: Big Men, Empowered Women, and a Threatened River

Nile image 2

On its independence from Sudan in 2011, there were so many hopes for the future of South Sudan, a key country in the larger eleven-country region known as the Nile Basin. Those hopes were deeply shaken in December of 2013 when what is effectively a civil war broke out between the two “Big Men” of that country, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. Since then there’ve been seven failed peace agreements, and the newest peace agreement is far from inspiring confidence. While these two big elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. Estimates of fatalities in the fighting – many of whom are women and children – exceed 10,000. A further 1.5 million people have been internally displaced, and almost half a million people have fled into neighboring countries. The women of South Sudan have tried in earnest to participate in the peace negotiations, but it would appear that they are not being listened to.

That’s nothing new. In 2008 I traveled again to Juba, South Sudan to meet with senior delegations from all ten states. The gathering was the wrap up a USAID-funded project that had invested no small amount of time and money in the strengthening of state governance. We met outdoors in a huge circle, and as my eyes took in the nearly 300 people assembled there, one observation undermined my cautious hope for the future of these state governments. I asked the man beside me where the women were. “State decisions are men’s work,” I was told. After I pressed him further on this, three South Sudanese women were brought in to join the circle. The men there thought that the situation was now resolved. Women were present, even if it was self-evident that they held virtually no power or influence.

This all comes back to me vividly, because in one week I’ll be joining with two other speakers and with African musicians from the Nile Project Collective at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland in nearby College Park to discuss the topic “Female Perspectives on the Nile.” My experience in the primary countries in this region extends back to 1982, including extensive time in South Sudan and in Uganda, as well as periodic visits to Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. I’ve spent a lot of time along the Nile, and have even swum with my children in its waters. I’d love to be able to share a hopeful vision. Continue reading Nile Basin: Big Men, Empowered Women, and a Threatened River

Words – a limit to human potential

Six years ago this month I was invited to make a presentation to the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, where I was one of the finalists for the position of Executive Director of the Institute for Peace & Justice. This school is well known as one of the preeminent institutions for the study of conflict, and I’d reviewed their curriculum carefully. As I rose to speak, I framed my comments first to recognize and honor the important work going on at the School in studies on conflict prevention and assessment, early warning, and peace negotiations. I allocated the rest of my talk however to my vision of reorienting the School to live up to its name, to be genuinely a place where peace was studied, celebrated, and understood, in balance with the trailblazing work being done on conflict.

Despite the name on the building, in those days conflict studies were known as conflict studies. There was very little emphasis on what constituted peace; little academic content at San Diego or at any of the nation’s best conflict and peace programs focused on how to build and sustain peace. The big exception was that School’s wonderful Women PeaceMakers Program, which I made due reference to. Still, as I looked out to an audience of leading conflict scholars, I wasn’t really expecting to be offered the job.

I wasn’t, but across the county the field has evolved in a direction I take comfort in. The overarching framework is now on peacebuilding, although the important emphasis on conflict prevention, mitigation, and resolution remains appropriately strong. We are beginning to see many efforts to achieve that lost balance, to understand and promote peace, and to conceptualize what peace means over and above thinking of it simply as the absence of conflict and violence. We’re learning more about the essential linkages between peace and human rights, social justice, compassion, and democracy.

The words are important. We view the world through paradigms which are conceptualized around words. If we only look for conflict and how to address and prevent conflict, we often fail to see the many resources for building and sustaining peace. If we only look for human rights in terms of abuses, we fail to see and support the needed measures to promote, sustain, and celebrate human rights in a positive sense.

If we only marshal our efforts to fight global corruption, we don’t see the remarkable women and men of integrity going quietly about their public service, fiercely persistent in doing the right thing for the right reason. Exemplars of integrity are ignored, but even more damaging is our growing cynicism about human nature. It’s now the norm to assume all human beings are going to be corrupt unless we provide sufficiently strong incentives to motivate them to do good. The notion that humanity might have moral justifications to pursue public service, honesty, and ethical behavior is either ignored or entirely discounted. Ultimately it’s a self-fulfilling approach, as the less we recognize the moral compass that all humans are born with, the rustier that instrument becomes. Continue reading Words – a limit to human potential

Immanuel Kant, Jesus Christ, and Garissa




President Obama’s heartfelt response to the mass slaughter of college students at Kenya’s Garissa University College was to state that “Words cannot adequately condemn the terrorist atrocities that took place.” That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to try. This is indeed a time for words and thoughtful reflection, every bit as much as for urgent action. This is a time for taking a clear and articulate moral stand and understanding what that signifies in our lives. The time is also long overdue for identifying the deeper ethical and moral societal changes that will have to occur to stop the terrorists’ fingers from squeezing the triggers.

Peace is much more than the absence of violence, but specifically what does this mean right now, for the people of Kenya?

As details of the tragedy of the mass slaughter of college students at Kenya’s Garissa University College fill the media, few will think of Immanuel Kant. Perhaps, since tomorrow is Easter, some will think of Jesus and the significance of the sacrifice of his precious, innocent life. Yet the majority of us will be contemplating Al-Shabab’s latest threat that Kenyan cities “will run red with blood,” and the Kenyan president’s pledge to “fight terrorism to the end” and “respond in the fiercest way possible.” We all feel the repugnance of this attack, and we want to be comforted that evil will be met and overcome by a stronger force.

I certainly hope so. Having lived in Kenya for a decade, this tragedy feels very personal to me. Kenyans, just like all of us, deserve safety and security in their lives. Every life pursuit, including a college education in Garissa University College, depends on security. Still, I know that force alone will not put an end to threats such as Al-Shabab. Fighting terrorism must include peacebuilding as an integral part, and building peace includes changing humanity. It’s a tall order, but that’s where Kant and Jesus might be able to offer some help, as odd as that might seem in the circumstances. Continue reading Immanuel Kant, Jesus Christ, and Garissa