President’s Message for Spring 2018
I write after watching back-to-back news reports of the wrecked G-7 summit in Canada and the apparent calm and purpose of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting that took place simultaneously in China. Taken together, it is obvious that a seismic shift is taking place in the world order, accelerated in no small part by President Trump’s erratic behavior.
The international order, built on the ashes of World War II, anchored in a liberal democratic vision of interdependency and given life in the United Nations system, has been fraying for some time with decisional weight passing to diverse alliances of geo-politically interested states, including the G-7, the expanded G-20, the BRICS and such regional groupings as ASEAN, NATO and the Transatlantic Alliance.
These arrangements have served as important arbiters of open trade and climate change, among other global issues, while others have concerned themselves with regional integration and security. All, however, have been tested by overriding national interests and great power rivalries, now apparently overtaken by a possibly far more destabilizing divide between weakened representative democracies and emboldened authoritarian regimes, in either case fueled by the failing economic fortunes of the greater mass of humanity across the globe.
With this in mind, I perused again the landmark Gaither report, presented to the Foundation’s Board of Trustees in November 1949 and enacted, along with the Foundation’s international programming, in the1950s. I cannot help but think how on point it was and so remains.
The report laid out an argument for developing better understanding of where the “gravest threat to democracy and human welfare lies”, and recommended programs on “the establishment of peace, the strengthening of democracy, the strengthening of the economy, the improvement of education and the better understanding of man”. In the nearly 70 years since, the Foundation has detailed and consistently updated a set of programs largely consistent with these findings and recommendations, to which the LAFF membership has contributed.
Over 18 years, I had the privilege of directing three such programs, in Human Rights and Social Justice, Governance and Public Policy and International Affairs. In great measure we oriented the programs around the twin pillars of human welfare and democracy with an increasing emphasis, especially post-Cold War, on the contributions a well-founded multilateralism could make globally. It is remarkable to me, then, that the relative order maintained over the past 70 years and on which we placed great hope, could so quickly falter.
I do not worry that the era of multilateralism has ended or that a jingoistic America First policy will lead to self-isolation as much as I fear a United States isolated by traditional allies in reaction to the administration’s menacing hostility to the G-7 and NATO. Trump’s hustling off to Singapore, notwithstanding the importance of the Korean nuclear question, and his scuttling of the western alliance, stands in sharp contrast to the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”, counterbalanced with a deep understanding of the need to maintain the trust and support of time-honored allies.
We are witness to a fractioning and realigning international “order”, the directions and parameters of which are unknown and unsettling. It may well be time for a new Gaither report that examines a changing relationship between democracy and human welfare in an uncharted world. Domestic politics, everywhere, are now as vulnerable to nefarious transnational influences as are the economic welfare, climate change and public health vectors that have until now defined globalization.
In this age of partisan disinformation and deliberate efforts to undermine democratic processes and alliances, we need to reaffirm the essential relationship between human welfare and democracy and develop aggressive strategies to communicate it to electors worldwide.
I’d love to begin a conversation among our LAFF colleagues on these and other topics. The comment section on our website would be a good starting place for a continuing interchange.
All good wishes, Shep