Category: International Affairs/Foreign Policy

Ongoing Hong Kong protests polarize public opinion

October 22, 2019

By Yilin Wang

WASHINGTON D.C. – Violence and destruction are spreading rampantly through Hong Kong (HK) amid the anti-government protests, which started in June as a peaceful demonstration against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, but soon took a violent turn. Now, antagonism between the two opposing sides in the protests continues to intensify. Democracy-seeking protestors who have been wary of Beijing’s growing influence in Hong Kong are determined to rebuild a free homeland at whatever cost. Those in favor of the government strongly criticize the protestors for causing damage and social disorder in HK; many from mainland China also condemn the protestors for their attempt to break up the country.

The clash between extreme opposing camps in the protest was evident in the recent fallout between China and the National Basketball Association (NBA). On October 4, Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey posted a now-deleted tweet that showed his support for the anti-government protests in HK. This message was met with extremely strong reactions in China, as the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV stopped streaming NBA games and many Chinese sponsors severed their ties with NBA shortly after the tweet. Later, when famous basketball player LeBron James was asked to comment on Morey’s tweet, he said, “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, it can be a lot of negative that comes with it.” This time, it was the anti-government group in Hong Kong that was infuriated, as protestors gathered in HK to voice opposition to James’s statement, trampled and burned down jerseys bearing his name.

The SAIS Observer spoke about the protests to a SAIS alumnus currently based in Hong Kong, who said, “The biggest struggle is, what started as issues within only [the Hong Kong] governance realm all of a sudden dragged China in, and now should one agree even only partially on either the protesters’ side or the other side (police, government, mainland China), he or she will have no space in between and the best that can be done is to remain silent. So, in general, as long as the whole movement is labeled or understood as a single package, there will be nothing but division, and victory for either side is a loss for the city.”

It is likely that the disparate media coverage on the protests contributed partially to the formation of diverging attitudes among audiences. Most Western media have painted a picture of intrepid and democracy-aspiring youth in Hong Kong fighting for the future of their homeland, only to be repressed violently by the police force. In most Chinese media, the image of young protestors is neither idealistic nor democracy-aspiring; instead, the group is labeled as “the broken youth” (废青), usually poor and aimless, taking pleasure in exacting revenge on society. The Hong Kong-based SAIS alumnus said, “I think perception really is formed according to one’s best interest, as there will be no benefit to critical thinking in such times, contrary to what we are taught in schools or other places. Trying not to be misleading, I’ll just share my [opinion], which resembles that of a few friends of mine from both the West and from mainland China. Our perception is a mixed feeling. On one hand, we did condemn the violence and damage, but, on the other hand, we see reports and quite compelling motivation for undercover police on [causing] some of the damage. We also [are concerned about] the lack of [accountability] which showcases the lack of integrity in the police force, but we understand an investigation is unrealistic.”

In Western social media as well as online media platforms, video clips of Hong Kong police brutality are widely circulated, in which the police pinned the protestors down and used batons, pepper spray and tear gas on them. Meanwhile, a quick search with the keywords “violence in HK protest” on WeChat (the most popular social media channel in China) or Chinese media’s YouTube channels would generate hundreds of articles, pictures and videos showing the protestors smashing public property, beating innocent civilians and journalists, and hurling bricks and gasoline bombs that caused massive street fire and severely injured policemen.

Professor Ho-Fung Hung, a leading expert on HK-related issues who also teaches at SAIS, commented that, “The bottom line is, media coverage is generally based on verified facts. Comparatively, coverage of the protest in English media from China is more uneven in its reliability and accuracy. For example, there are reports that protesters were planning a 9-11 style terrorist attack, and there are reports that male protesters got free sex from 14 years old teenage girl as reward. They are based on pure speculation or unverified rumors, and they don’t stand up to the rigorous standard of serious journalism. Some other English media from China are doing a good job though, like the South China Morning Post, now owned by Jack Ma. It has been giving fact-based coverage presenting different views on the protest over the last few months.”

Op-Ed: Women essential to resolving the water-scarcity conflicts of tomorrow

October 2019

By Claire Harrison

As the earth heats and resources dry up, clean, safe water is often the first thing to disappear. Entire villages are left desertified and destitute. The price of water rises in parallel. When these conditions take place in countries with weak government institutions and low levels of economic development, the outcome is often war. As these conflicts become the new normal, resource-based peacebuilding is slowly seeping into the field of post-conflict reconstruction. The key to success in these efforts lies in addressing the roots of water conflict, as well as understanding who the local stakeholders of a resource crisis are and who the conflict affects most acutely. Too often, conflict, peacebuilding, water and social issues are studied independently. Gender, one of the most critical factors of water peace, is often overlooked.

Women are disproportionately impacted by water scarcity and the conflicts produced by the phenomenon. In many countries, women devote a high proportion of their time to unpaid domestic activities, many of which are water-intensive, such as laundry, cooking and cleaning. As a result, women often shoulder a greater role in day-to-day clean water management and provision, while men are more likely to be responsible for its financing and distribution. Yet it is typically women who are left to deal with the practical implications of a polluted or absent water source, complicating their livelihoods and leaving them vulnerable to the repercussions of falling short in these domestic tasks.

Further, when conflict breaks out, women in water-scarce countries are impacted in ways citizens of water-rich countries fail to consider. In countries where weak government institutions translate to a lack of adequate and equitable water management, there is typically one source of water shared between communities — and often at a great distance from the home. The responsibility of collecting this remote freshwater generally falls on women. When water decreases in availability, this trek becomes longer and consumes more of a woman’s time and energy, leaving her less able to address additional responsibilities and stripping away opportunity to pursue personal means of additional economic output.

Moreover, when conflict erupts, not only do these water sources themselves become sites of violent clashes, but the journey to obtain this water becomes increasingly dangerous. Too often, women are casualties of conflict over resources due to their role as transporters of water. Such violence against women has cascading impacts on a community’s health and resilience to prolonged armed water conflict. Even when attempts at reform are made, or if water sharing is incorporated into interim agreements between parties to a conflict, the design of water systems often prioritizes efficiency and cost at the expense of women and children. Improvements in access to water do not always translate to enhanced protection for women.

It is an impractical exercise to attempt to isolate economic, gender, resource and security goals in conflict resolution. These elements are nested together. It is impossible to address one without the others. However, gender is a critical starting point in addressing potential peaceful resolutions to water conflict. Because women have more day-to-day exposure to the dynamics of water collection and use,  installing women in administrative or advisory positions can help ensure any water intervention takes into account both practical, everyday needs and long-term strategic considerations. When such policies are followed, the impacts are swift and far-reaching: When the first female Ugandan minister of water promoted women to decision-making committees, access to safe water in Uganda increased from 51% to 61% in a mere two years.

The implications are clear: water is the critical resource for life, and, as its scarcity worsens, conflict will inevitably break out. When violent conflict occurs over water, women often bear the brunt of its scarcity and its weaponization. Including women in all steps of peacemaking, from the negotiating table, to strategic advisory teams, to local councils, will be essential to implementing a safe and sensible strategy to resolve and mitigate water conflict. When this is the case, not only will peace be more equitable, it will also be more sustainable.

Public policy and biotechnology

By Leif Olson

October 2019

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, better known as its acronym CRISPR, is a new biotechnology at the cutting edge of a revolution in genetics. . The  technique allows geneticists to cut out specific parts of the genome within living cells. The technology originated from a natural process in which bacteria combat viruses by “remembering” them via a strand of DNA. This “DNA array” can be referenced later by proteins like Cas-9 (CRISPR associated protein 9). When the same virus attacks again, the bacterium produces an RNA strand, which Cas-9 uses to find the virus and “snip out” that segment out of the virus DNA, disabling the virus and preventing infection.

Geneticists have discovered that this process can be used for genetic modification. In the same way that a bacterium can use Cas-9 to disable attacking viruses, scientists can use the same protein to seek out specific DNA sequences in the constituent cells of living organisms and alter the genetics of that organism with near-perfect specificity.

What does this mean for the future of genetic engineering, specifically in humans? According to Jeffery Kahn, the Robert Henry Levi and Ryda Hecht Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, “whatever you can imagine wanting to change you can.” “The limitations are really less about the tools and more about what we know about genetics,” he added. Since the 1970s, geneticists have been using less effective methods to manipulate genetic code. According to Kahn, older tools like “recombinant DNA” were more akin to using “a shotgun” where CRISPR is “a much more targeted approach.”

Kahn believes that CRISPR will be used for simple modifications at first. Since it cuts a specific part of the genome, he said, “the most obvious place to go are single-gene mutations that cause disease,” where “there is a known mutation and if you inherit the gene, you get the disease.” CRISPR will be especially useful to those who suffer from diseases like Huntington’s, where a single segment of the DNA can be removed to remove the disease from the subject.

But what happens as we get better at manipulating genetic code? CRISPR makes genetic modification extremely easy. This new tool opens possibilities for riskier alterations for a wider range of society as it is relatively cheap and easy to use. Expressing concern at this prospect, Kahn said that “many more people are able to use CRISPR, which means we have a governance challenge… How do we control the uses of these new technologies? This is actually, in my opinion, the biggest issue.”

When asked what SAIS students should know about this technology from a public policy perspective, Kahn said, “Well one, it’s a really interesting area for thinking about what the regulatory environment ought to look like.” Continuing, he said, “there really isn’t a good framework for governance of this or other similar technologies on an international scale.” The regulations at the domestic level in the United States are lacking. According to Kahn, they are “dictated by government funding,” meaning that anyone with sufficient capital is only regulated at the state level and not at all by the federal government.

Further, there appears to be a governance gap at the international level as well. Kahn said, “There is no body for the international governance of emerging biotechnology,” even though “these issues have serious foreign policy implications.”

SAIS students and faculty might benefit from focusing on this issue. Kahn said, “Of course SAIS should be working on this—it’s a perfect example of how SAIS and other Johns Hopkins schools can work together.” Johns Hopkins is in a unique place to research this issue as it has access to institutions like the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Bergman Institute.

Indeed, if SAIS wishes to remain on the cutting edge of foreign policy, it might consider focusing on emerging biotechnologies. CRISPR and the biotechnologies which rise in its wake will fundamentally alter the international landscape. Without detailed analysis, this rising issue could take the international community by surprise. SAIS has an excellent opportunity to position itself as one of the first international relations schools to address international policy on biotechnology and help fill the international governance gap.

Nationalism or populism in Italy?

By Leif Olson

Discussions of nationalism and populism in Europe are currently in vogue, and fear of their rise is pervasive in international news media. Fears of this sort are not unfounded: “Brexit” in the UK, Alternativ Für Deutschland in Germany and Matteo Salvini in Italy represent a large rightward-shift in European politics. 

However, in August the Italian government ousted the right-wing Lega party along with Salvini in favor of a Democrat-Five Star coalition. While the change is considered by many to be a step in a positive direction, this development raises significant questions about politics in Italy specifically. Analyzing these political developments may help clarify larger trends seen across the European political environment.

Italy was forged by nationalism. However, not all forms of nationalism are the same. “Nationalism is a creative and homogenizing force as well as a destructive and divisive one,” Erik Jones, Director of European and Eurasian Studies at SAIS said. “Without nationalists, Italy would not exist. I think that is an important starting point.” Indeed, Italy was not a formal unified state until Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi invaded the south of Italy in 1859, supported by then-King of Sardinia Victor Emmanuel II. After driving out the Austrian Empire, the country was unified under a constitutional monarchy. Without nationalist fervor, such an operation would have been nearly impossible.

When asked if a destructive or divisive form of nationalism is on the rise in Italy today, Jones said, “I am not sure that nationalism is on the rise, but you can get a clear sense of identity politics operating in many different ways.” Stefano Zamagni, Senior Adjunct Professor of International Economics at SAIS Bologna agreed, saying, “what we are confronted with today is populism, not nationalism.”

When considering the rise of populism, International Law concentrator and Italian citizen Dafne Carletti said, “I think populism is noticeable in daily life. Demonstrations from right-wing parties are growing and becoming more and more violent.” Riccardo Vinci, a second-year Conflict Management concentrator from Italy, echoed this sentiment, stating, “The discourse has been getting increasingly violent, and frustration at an external group has found its natural outlet in verbal violence.” Riccardo attributed this violence to the division between “us and them” commonly seen in populist rhetoric.

Students concentrating in European and Eurasian Studies, or those interested in Italy, can find a rich topic of study in the case of Italian nationalism. “An EES student should know that nationalism made Italy,” Jones said.  “We can explore the abuses of nationalism – or maybe better, the abuses of the ‘nation’ in appeals to identity-based political mobilization – but only once we recognize how important nationalism is to the Italian experience.”

International media often fails to capture the depth or technical precision required to explore the complex topic of nationalism. The dynamics within Italy, like any political context, requires nuanced understanding. Those interested in Italian politics should perhaps look not at the rise in nationalist fervor, but at increasing populist and racist rhetoric in the country, and the use of identity politics aimed at social divisionism. 

Appreciating Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution 30 years later

By Jan Zdralek

October 14, 2019

Every time students, faculty and staff enter the SAIS Nitze Building, they are greeted by the same sight: a piece of the Berlin Wall displayed in the front courtyard. This memento evokes a bygone era when Europe was divided into two radically different spheres of influence—one democratic, the other authoritarian. 30 years ago, on November 9, 1989, this period abruptly ended when the Berlin Wall was torn down and thousands of people poured from communist East Germany into free West Germany. Soon after, other authoritarian regimes in Central Europe, including that of Czechoslovakia, began to crumble.

“It was the moment the Cold War ended, the hour the German people came back together, the night the Soviet empire cracked,”recalled Professor Daniel Hamilton of SAIS’s Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation. Hamilton found himself on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall on that day, visiting a dissident Lutheran pastor whose church provided refuge for disaffected East Germans. “Berlin that night was simply the world’s biggest party. The city that had come to symbolize Europe’s divisions suddenly became a symbol of a continent coming together.”  

Professor Erik Jones, now the Director of European and Eurasian Studies at SAIS and a second-year SAISer at the time, recalled how he biked to Cathedral Heights to visit a friend whose girlfriend was an East German he had met over the summer. Together, they watched the Wall come down on TV. “The world was obviously changing. The pace was unsettling. We had watched Gorbachev, and so [we] knew that there was movement in the Soviet Union. We had also seen the migration out of East Germany into Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary (toward the West). But the fall of the Wall was dramatic.”

Over the summer of 1989, while the Wall still stood, the number of East Germans who emigrated to Czechoslovakia hoping to find a way into West Germany increased significantly. Needing no special permission to enter a fellow socialist country, the refugees swelled the West German embassy in Prague. As many as 2,000 people were packed into the compound with newcomers continuing to climb the fence. The crisis was resolved on September 30, 1989, when the West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher announced that all refugees on embassy grounds would receive documentation to legally travel to West Germany. This dealt a serious blow to the East German authorities and precipitated the Wall’s fall several weeks later. Despite the fact that these dramatic moments unraveled right under the Prague Castle—the residence of the president—the country’s communist leadership was able to maintain power.

Up to that point, the regime had worked hard to quell political unrest. In January of 1989, communist militias and police brutally suppressed a peaceful protest commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, a student of philosophy who committed suicide by self-immolation to protest the Soviet-led occupation in 1968. In June, state-run propaganda denounced a dissident manifesto entitled “A Few Sentences (Několik vět),” which called for, among other things, the release of political prisoners and freedom of assembly. In November, however, a relatively small student protest triggered a precipitous sequence of events, which resulted in swift regime change by the end of the year. Because of its non-violent nature, the episode is called the Velvet Revolution in today’s Czech Republic and the Gentle Revolution in Slovakia.

To understand the origins of the precise date of the Revolution, one must go 50 years back in time. By October 1939, Nazi Germany had already occupied Czechoslovakia for seven months. During a student protest against the German occupation in Prague, Jan Opletal, a student of medicine, was fatally wounded by the Nazis. His funeral in mid-November mobilized the Czechs, who once again demonstrated against the occupation. As a result, the Reichsprotektor Konstantin von Neurath ordered the closing of all Czech universities and colleges on November 17, 1939. The date was soon universally recognized as International Students’ Day.

On November 17, 1989, the Czechoslovak students, encouraged by the fall of the Berlin Wall just days earlier, organized a demonstration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of International Students’ Day. The demonstrators on National Avenue (Národní třída) faced brutal police counterattack and were suddenly trapped in an “alley of beating.” A rumor about a dead student, which was later proven false and which had paradoxically been staged by the communist secret police, mobilized the Czechoslovak society, already agitated by the crackdown on the nation’s youth. In the next few days, hundreds of thousands of citizens marched in opposition of the regime, a feat unmatched in Czech or Slovak history. In a few weeks, the main communist leaders of Czechoslovakia began to step down and power-sharing negotiations began. By the end of the year, the country had a new President, the dissident and playwright Václav Havel, and was preparing for its first democratic elections since 1946.

Czechoslovakia began its political and economic transformation and Prague became an exciting place to be in the 1990s. Of this era, Professor Jones said, “I remember being excited by the Velvet Revolution and unsettled by the Velvet Divorce [the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic—or Czechia and Slovakia]. I worked in Prague in the early 1990s at the Central European University. It was an amazing place and time. But it was a time of significant change and adjustment as well.”

Soon enough, both countries were admitted to Western organizational structures, including NATO, the EU, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. However, as Professor Hamilton reminds us, the job remains unfinished. “We have every right to be proud of these achievements. But we should have the courage to admit that we grew complacent. As time marched on, the vision of a Europe whole and free became more slogan than project, and the business of knitting the continent together was left undone,” he said.

The legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is two-fold. First, it emphasizes the danger of growing complacent about freedom and democracy. Students passing that piece of Berlin Wall by Nitze can take a moment to think about the sacrifices people made for these values. Second, events such as the Velvet Revolution demonstrate the power of a student movement to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges. Students should not be afraid of future quests, however dire they may be.

Student club SPARK! for Europe cordially invites you to the discussion entitled Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution at 30. Our honorable guests will include:  Daniel Hamilton, Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Professor at SAIS; Václav Bartuška, Ambassador-at-Large for Energy Security at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and direct participant in the student demonstrations during the Velvet Revolution; Clifford Bond, former US Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina and diplomat at the US Embassy in Prague from 1987-1990; and Michele Bond, former US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Lesotho and diplomat at the US Embassy in Prague from 1987-1990. Please register here.

Philippine President Duterte’s drug war sparks international controversy

October 13, 2019

By Yilin Wang

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following the passage of an Iceland-initiated resolution in July, the United Nations (U.N.) launched an investigation into Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” in the Philippines. The crackdown, which Duterte initiated in 2016, has featured the extrajudicial killing of suspected criminals, drug dealers and drug addicts. According to official police reports, the directive has resulted in over 6,600 deaths as of July 2019. However, activists have alleged the death toll to be as high as 27,000.

Duterte has sparked controversy since his entry into the political arena. The Filipino strongman has repeatedly expressed a hardline, violent vision for combating drug abuse problems in the country. He has cautioned the nation against the possibility of becoming a “narco-state” and urged Filipino citizens and policemen to kill drug criminals through extrajudicial means, even offering to reward them for doing so. Shortly after his landslide victory in 2016, Duterte directly addressed drug addicts and dealers in the country, saying, “My order is [to] shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights; you better believe me.”

Speaking to the SAIS Observer about the issue, Professor Vikram Nehru of the Southeast Asia department at SAIS commented, “One has to separate the individual – Duterte – from the challenge of drugs in the Philippines. It is a reality that the drug problem is serious in the Philippines, and with the presence of strong drug lobbies and mafias, it is questionable how effectively the Philippines police and judicial system would have handled it. This is not to condone President Duterte’s methods – they are highly objectionable and rightly condemned by the international community – but it is instructive that he has the overwhelming support of a Philippine public fed up with the deteriorating law and order problem in the country. His net satisfaction rating among the voting public is around the highest it has been for any Philippine president in recent history.  When Duterte was Mayor of Davao city, he had similarly applied brutal and extrajudicial measures to take on the drug problem, and the result was a sharp decline in drug-related crime, a resurgence in investment in small businesses, and an acceleration in economic growth and employment. He remains popular there to this day. His popularity in Davao and in the rest of the Philippines, however, fails to take into account the long-term damage his extra-judicial drug war is inflicting on the rule of law and the role of public institutions in the country.” 

The drug war has attracted widespread international criticism. The International Criminal Court (ICC) condemned the violent campaign as a crime against humanity and in 2018 announced a “preliminary examination” into the issue. Duterte responded by unilaterally withdrawing the Philippines from the ICC tribunal. The Iceland-led U.N. resolution passed in July represented another attempt by the international community to hold the Philippines to account. Despite strong opposition from Philippine representatives, the resolution eventually garnered support from 18 of the 47 countries on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Duterte responded by saying that Iceland’s only problem was “too much ice” and there was no crime or policemen in the country as people just “go about eating ice.” He added that Iceland could not understand the social, economic and political problems of the Philippines. Striking a more serious tone, Duterte answered his critics in his 2018 State of the Nation Address, saying, “Your concern is human rights—mine is human lives.”

So far, the ICC and U.N. have made limited progress in influencing the drug war. Last month, Duterte suspended all negotiations on grants or loans from the 18 countries that supported the U.N. resolution, making clear his aversion toward attempts of foreign intervention. “In Duterte’s war on drugs, we see the government directly undermining institutions which they [sic] deem corrupt and ineffective. However, the long-term impact will be the denigration of already shaky institutions and a serious attack on the law of the nation itself, not to mention the proliferation of firearms and self-styled vigilantes. A multilateral could step in and offer funding and advice to fix corrupt and inefficient police or judiciary institutions. They could also attempt to influence Duterte’s policy through a variety of means such as lobbying, raising international pressure or even withdrawing funding as punishment. However, this situation is complicated by the fact that Duterte himself is opposed to institutions, and by extension, international institutions. Thus, to criticize him publicly [would] only further consolidate his mindset and his populist cries against foreign interference,” said Andrew Pince, a first-year MA student who worked in Southeast Asia for several years.

Despite the controversy Duterte’s anti-drug crackdown has ignited overseas, his efforts have rallied popular support in the Philippines. From 2016 to 2018, the crime rate in the Philippines fell by 20%. A domestic poll from last month showed that 82% of Philippine citizens surveyed were satisfied with Duterte’s campaign and perceived less drugs and crime in the country. Previous surveys conducted by different agencies returned similarly positive results. “I don’t think this statistic is surprising. It is normal for citizens to care more about outcome legitimacy as fewer crimes and drug abuse incidences have a direct influence on their life quality. People at multilateral organizations might worry about the procedural legitimacy, but not the citizens,” said Jiayuan Wang, a second-year student in the International Development program at SAIS.

Will Duterte’s approach to addressing drug abuse and drug-related crime influence other countries’ drug policies? There is already discussion about whether countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh may wage their own “Philippines-style” war on drugs. Professor Nehru thinks this outcome unlikely, however. “I doubt that the Philippines model is going to influence other Asian countries. First, it is difficult to see another Asian leader challenge public opinion and public norms with such impunity as Duterte has been able to do in the Philippines. Second, the single-term six-year tenure of the Philippine president gives the incumbent a certain invulnerability that other Asian leaders don’t enjoy. For example, in a parliamentary system such as the one in India or Bangladesh, the prime minister’s tenure can be cut short by a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Finally, political and judicial institutions in other Asian countries are of varying strength in the checks and balances they exert through the legislature, the courts, the armed forces, and political parties. It is not by accident that countries facing similar challenges tend to adopt very different responses tailored to their conditions,” he said. 

Friday for Futures: Has Germany abandoned its constitutional responsibility towards future generations?

Nina Hall, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Johns Hopkins SAIS (Europe)

Friday for Future Students protest in Berlin, 08.02.2019. Credit: https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/berlin-mitte-klima-demo-wie-viele-kommen-in-den-ferien/23964646.html

Mindful also of its responsibility towards future generations, the state shall protect the natural foundations of life and animals by legislation and, in accordance with law and justice, by executive and judicial action, all within the framework of the constitutional order.

  Article 20a, Protection of the natural foundations of life and animals, German Basic Law

BOLOGNA, Italy — The German Basic Law — the country’s constitution — obliges the state to protect the environment for future generations. Article 20a, cited above, was added to the Basic Law in 1994, after a long campaign by die Grünen (the Green party). Germany also stands out internationally for its strong rhetoric on climate action. In 2018, Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, emphasized that “climate action is a matter of both ecological necessity and economic rationality.”  

Yet, Germany is missing many greenhouse gas emissions targets. In 2002, the German government agreed that their emissions would drop 40% by 2020 from 1990 levels, but now it appears they will only reach a 32% reduction. Furthermore, the coalition government has been reluctant to discontinue its support for the coal industry. Only in the past few months has the government announced they would put an end to the “brown coal” (lignite) industry by 2038, but it has yet to put this decision before the Bundestag. In the meantime, Germany burns more lignite than any other country, and approximately a quarter of its electricity comes from it. German politicians are also very cozy with the car industry; many have sat, or sit, on the board of Volkswagen and have pushed for weaker European Union emission standards for cars, despite the scandal over cheating on emissions testing. In short, the German government is not meeting its obligations to protect the environment in the context of a warming climate.  

The gap between politician’s rhetoric and actions has not remained unnoticed. Students are now standing up in protest at German inaction over climate change. They are part of the worldwide FridaysforFuture movement inspired by lone 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who, in August 2018, began a daily solo strike outside the Swedish parliament. Students in Germany also saw political delay, and realized they could not rely on the generation currently holding power to take bold action on climate change. They were particularly frustrated that the German government was not serious about changing their economic policies to stay within planetary boundaries and meet the Paris agreement, which aims at keeping global average temperatures below two degrees. Although the students have not made Article 20a a central platform of their campaign, these students are emerging as a strong political force and demanding that the Federal Republic of Germany protects the environment for future generations. This message is gaining support, reflected in the record success of the German Green party in the European elections (they took 20.5% of the vote, beating the German Social Democratic Party). 

The FridaysforFuture movement is an impressive example of a globally-coordinated protest, based on horizontal networks. Students are organizing through Instagram, Whatsapp messenger, Facebook and a basic website (which lists many, but not all the protests). They are actively supported by existing environmental groups, and some of the student leaders have received professional training from them. Luisa Neubauer, one of the leaders of the German student climate movement, has previously been very active in 350.org, and was a student ambassador for One, a UK-based development organization. However, it’s important to note traditional NGOs are not directing the student movement, but rather seeking to help train, and empower youth to tackle climate change. Campact, an NGO in Germany well-known for organizing mass demonstrations, is offering students training this summer

In Germany, the protests started gaining force in late 2018 and early 2019. They drew impressively large crowds on March 15, 2019, with rallies all across Germany, alongside others around the world. There were protests in 150 German cities — including all the major cities from Berlin to Bonn, Frankfurt am Main to Hamburg, as well as many smaller cities and towns (the full list is here). In Berlin alone between 20,000 to 25,000 people attended the protest, and around 300,000 in all of Germany. There have, of course, been other large climate demonstrations in Germany. In 2015, in the lead-up to the Paris climate summit, between 10,000 and 17,000 people demonstrated on the streets of Berlin. Around 25,000 protested in Bonn, in November 2017, when the city hosted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations. Germany has had even larger demonstrations in recent years: demonstrations against the Transatlantic Trade and Intellectual Property Agreement in October 2015 drew 250,000 people to march in Berlin, and the anti-nuclear movement has mobilized thousands periodically since the 1970s. 

The FridaysforFuture protests not only draw large crowds but are sustained protests on a weekly basis and led by the younger generations. The regularity of their Friday protests has enabled the students to gain media attention and emerge as a political force. On April 8, 2019, several student representatives held a press conference at Berlin’s Museum of Natural History. They demanded that the German government set a carbon tax, and phase out coal-based energy by 2030. They want politicians to take action this year and shut down every fourth coal power plant. The students have been backed by academics and scientists. In March 2018 a group of German scientists wrote letters to endorse their call for strong climate mitigation and this was followed by an international letter for support from international academics and scientists (disclosure: I signed this second letter).

Many decision-makers have officially endorsed the protests and complimented students for engaging in politics. Merkel has expressed her support for school students going on the streets to fight for climate change. Politicians are often eager to see students engaging in politics, but rarely had to answer directly to these younger generations’ demands. After all most of these students can’t yet vote, so it’s easy for politicians to instrumentalize their needs when it suits them but not follow-through with action. This is what we’ve seen recently, with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the Christian Democratic Union leader, announcing she will not support a carbon tax, a decision strongly criticized by Luisa Neubauer on Twitter.

And there has been a backlash against the FridaysforFuture movement. Some see it as opportunistic way for students to get out of school. Germany has very strict laws on attendance, and weekly participation in organized demonstrations violates these rules. The liberal party’s leader, Christian Linder, was extremely dismissive of the protests, claiming that climate politics was only something “experts” should engage in, not students. He had to nuance these comments later after much public criticism. 

So, what do the FridaysforFuture protests mean for the German constitution? Firstly, they have the potential to serve as a valuable reminder of the objective outlined in Article 20a. If Germany were to take its constitution and the rights of its future generations seriously, politicians would rapidly shift the economy away from fossil fuels, and towards renewable energies. They would stop building roads designed only for cars and support better public transport and bike infrastructure. They would listen to younger generations, and climate experts now, rather than carrying on with business as usual. 

Secondly, FridaysforFuture could appeal to the courts to further detail the implications of Article 20a. After all, Article 20a was added as a Staatsziele rather than a Grundrecht (basic right), much to the dismay of the Green Party. This is an important distinction as Staatsziele are not actionable, whereas Grundrechte are. Staatsziele guide policy-making by providing the legislative, the executive and the judiciary with a list of state priorities. It is unclear to what extent Staatsziele have to be implemented or taken account of in legislation and judicial decisions, and their lack of precision often leaves ample room for interpretation. 

Finally, in the long-term, if the protests continue, they could restart the debate on whether environmental protection should be seen as a Grundrecht (basic right), as first proposed by the Green Party in the 1970s. This would mean German politicians would be obliged to tackle climate change.

Blog Post for German Constitutionalism Series: The Past Shapes the Future, The SAIS Observer. https://saisobserver.org/category/series/german-constitutionalism/


[1]The author would like to acknowledge the research assistance, and constructive feedback of the two editors, Miriam Siemes and Jonas Präfke, which contributed significantly to this article. 

German foreign policy and the Basic Law

By Christopher Hill

May 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — Only the most unreconstructed realist would deny that constitutional structures have a significant influence on the way in which a country conducts its foreign policy. The United States may be a superpower, but the implementation of its external relations is constantly affected by the separation of powers between the President, the Congress and the Supreme Court. How much more is this the case, then, for the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), a country whose political system was created with the main aim of constraining its foreign policy behavior through embedding the principle of “never again war” — meaning that its armed services were only to exist for defense purposes. These restrictions are set out explicitly in the FRG’s constitution, its “Basic Law” of 1949 (Articles 25, 26, 32, 45 a&b, 87 a&b, 115 a,b,c,d & e).

As all countries claim that they are only interested in “defense,” while behaving in a wide variety of ways, the term is inherently ambiguous. It has been stretched to include forward defense, preventive war and humanitarian intervention. Germany, however, has kept close to the letter of the law since regaining the right to its own national armed forces in 1955 and even since regaining the status of full sovereignty in 1990. This means that, in practice, the FRG has pursued a distinctively peaceful and progressive foreign policy, the inverse of the 1930s form of Sonderweg. During the Cold War, it was content to prove a loyal member of the NATO alliance, which was providing its security, and never had to face the issue of involvement in “out of area” operations[1], even in Vietnam, where at one stage the United States was so desperate for demonstrations of support that it demanded the dispatch of 1,000 German troops, a proposal which was never realistic[2].

After the Cold War, however, circumstances combined to put the new Berlin Republic under pressure to pursue a more forward foreign policy. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, expectations for the Europeans’ new Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the impatience of some parts of German opinion to see the country accepted as a “normal” international actor again led to demands that Berlin take on new international responsibilities, particularly in relation to humanitarian peacekeeping operations. At the same time, the FRG showed itself keen to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council — although this proved to be a premature hope.

In parallel, Germany’s domestic society was changing in diverse ways, complicating both understandings of the Basic Law and the conduct of foreign policy. On the one hand, the Law’s acceptance that new territories might wish to accede to Germany (i.e., principally the German Democratic Republic) was no longer relevant. Indeed, the associated law of citizenship based on the ius sanguinis was increasingly incompatible with the de facto emergence of a multicultural society. Change was slowly underway in terms of recognizing the rights of those not born in Germany or to German parents. On the other hand, that very cosmopolitanism was generating calls to extend the country’s international role beyond its staunch support for its American ally and for Israel. This meant an early recognition of the independence of Croatia and Slovenia, and the willingness to provide military support for the operation in 1999, which secured Kosovo its independence from Serbia. The Basic Law’s insistence that the “German people [therefore] acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world” (Article 1:2) thus turned out to have important implications for national foreign policy once full sovereignty and international legitimacy had been achieved.

Yet humanitarian intervention was, by now, about more than foreign aid. As over Kosovo, it involved peace enforcement, which in turn meant the use of military force (firstly through air power) and the willingness to kill and be killed. This new scenario was deeply uncomfortable for a generation brought up to respect the letter and the spirit of the Basic Law. It was particularly so because of the growing awareness that Germany was moving on from being an economic giant towards realizing once more its potential as a great power, leading to debate over how far the country was justified in prioritizing its own “national” interests over wider considerations of peace and solidarity with other states. In that sense, modern Germany is unavoidably pulled between two horses: realism and normalcy on the one side and legalism/pacificism on the other[3].  

This tension is not wholly resolved, as German decision-makers have hoped, by participation in the European foreign policy process. Germany has certainly kept, and continues to keep, a much lower profile than France or Britain. But its influence has steadily grown, driven in part by economic strength. What is more, as other Member States have shown themselves willing to defect from common positions when they deem it necessary, so has Germany become more willing to go it alone — albeit often for motives arising out of the philosophy of the Basic Law. The prime example here is Chancellor Merkel’s decision to open the German frontier to Syrian refugees in August 2015, despite the fact that this blew a hole in the EU’s Dublin accord, which said that asylum-seekers should be processed only in their country of arrival, and the inevitable encouragement it gave to hundreds of thousands of migrants from all sources to head for Europe. It was a generous decision wholly compatible with the FRG’s political and legal culture. 

Unfortunately, matters became ever more complicated as public opinion across Europe became more anxious, in some cases positively hostile, to the large wave of migration, while the logistics inside Germany became quickly more difficult. For its part, the European Union completely failed its test of solidarity, leading the Chancellor to follow a more traditional path. Her bilateral diplomacy with Turkey, holding out the carrot of significant resource transfers, was seen by some as a brutal example of realpolitik, bribing Ankara to ensure that refugees stayed away from Europe, just as Germany had strong-armed Greece during the latter’s financial crisis and was to leave Italy to face the next wave of migration, from Libya, for the most part alone[4].

The Basic Law arose from the disaster which was Nazism. Its provisions accordingly imposed unusual constraints on the conduct of national foreign policy, which cannot easily be changed, although they have already been finessed. The Law instituted some indelible historical memories. But the FRG has acquired an historical memory of its own, which shapes its choices almost as profoundly. The habits of caution, civilian power, economic diplomacy and multilateralism are now part of the mental furniture of the German public. In that sense, the Basic Law has created attitudes and norms just as much as constitutional constraints.

Christopher Hill is the Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).


[1]In fact, only in 1994 was it established by a decision of the German constitutional court that out-of-area operations of the “Bundeswehr” are constitutional. 

[2]Eugenie M. Blang (2004), ‘A reappraisal of Germany’s Vietnam policy, 1963-1966: Ludwig Erhard’s response to America’s war in Vietnam’. German Studies Review, 27 (2), 341-360.

[3]Pacificism, as opposed to pacifism, is the tendency to believe that the use of force is almost always unjustified in international relations, although it must be kept as a last resort. Pacifism stands for the absolute prohibition of violence in all circumstances. See Martin Ceadel (1987) Thinking about Peace and War (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

[4]Leonard August Schuette (2018), ‘Collective memory in Germany and the great foreign policy debate: the Case of the European refugee crisis’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 31:3-4, 272-290.

Utopian realism: The Green New Deal in Europe

By Charlie Lawrie

October 14, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — At the beginning of the year, the announcement of a Green New Deal briefly dominated U.S. headlines. Led by recently-elected Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Boston stalwart Ed Markey, the Green New Deal was trumpeted as a legislative package aimed at decarbonising the US economy and creating a major public works program. It proposed to address the twin challenges of climate change and yawning economic inequality with a series of transformative policy measures, including the creation of 20 million jobs by 2030 through green infrastructure investment, salaries for fossil fuel industry workers during the transition, and the rejuvenation of the democratic process through an emphasis on local decision-making.

The history of the Green New Deal can be traced to a flat on Baker Street in central London. In the midst of the 2008 Financial Crisis, a group of British environmentalists and economists gathered at the house of economist Ann Pettifor to discuss solutions. Their discussions formed the backbone of a report entitled “A Green New Deal: Joined-up policies to solve the triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and high oil prices.” The report envisioned a way out of the crisis with a series of policies aimed at decarbonizing the economy, creating a broad swathe of “green collar” jobs and imposing regulations on international capital.

That report, however, was largely ignored by politicians at home and abroad. Unable to conceptualize a financial system beyond the failed contemporary model — a state of being once described as “capitalist realism” — European financial institutions embarked on a program of quantitative easing to ensure the survival of the private banking system.

The program succeeded in saving Europe’s banks, but the opportunity to address the broader structural issues posed by the dominant economic model was lost. 10 years later, the same countries face environmental crises, secular stagnation and the spectre of recession. What is more, the inability or unwillingness of governments to provide decent economic and environmental conditions has led to an erosion of faith in democratic institutions.

In these circumstances, the Green New Deal has reemerged as a potential deus ex machina. In Europe, the campaign is being led by the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25), which founded the Green New Deal in Europe campaign in April 2019. In the words of David Adler, campaign coordinator at the Green New Deal in Europe, the objective of the Green New Deal in Europe is clear: “To use the financial muscle [of the European Investment Bank] to drive a massive investment plan that would overhaul the European economy, delivering decent jobs to millions of people who are now under or unemployed, as well as delivering necessary investments in infrastructure and industry to avert total environmental collapse.” The campaign seeks to champion a vision for a new European economic settlement and hold the EU to account. Adler is clear that the campaign aims to “hold up a mirror to the EU revealing the deficiencies of their green agenda”.

Europe’s Green New Deal defies norms

In its April 2019 Blueprint, the Green New Deal in Europe outlines three broad strands of action. First, it calls for the creation of a Green Public Works (GPW) to conduct infrastructure investment; second, an Environmental Union to provide a legislative framework for the Green New Deal; lastly, an Environmental Justice Commission, to ensure that the Green New Deal is implemented fairly.

The GPW presents a radical departure from conventional European economic policy. The capital needed for the GPW — a proposed 5% of Europe’s GDP — would be raised through issuing green bonds, sold by public investment banks such as the European Investment Bank and bought by private investors on secondary markets. Crucially, the European Central Bank (ECB) would undertake to purchase all green bonds should their yields rise beyond a defined level to ensure the bonds retain their value. In effect, the ECB would eliminate the risk of default, making these bonds attractive to low-risk investors such as pension funds. This unprecedented funding mechanism would allow significant levels of public financing to be raised; no new taxation would be necessary.

European Commission: (Green) business as usual?

The appointment of Frans Timmermans as the European Commission’s Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal indicates that European policymakers are taking these concerns seriously. Ursula von der Leyen, the president-elect of the European Commission, has already instructed Timmermans to present a report on the European Green Deal and propose the first European Climate Law within the first 100 days of the new Parliament.

Adler, however, is skeptical. “[The EU] have shifted from the Green New Deal with its roots in FDR’s radical sense of economic transformation to a much more familiar, Brussels-style, green deals, boardroom handshakes, lacquered social change that amounts to greenwashing an existing agenda that maintains the fundamental economic architecture of the European Union.” For him, the devil is in the details. “We noticed a very clever sleight-of-hand: [The EU] have moved from talking about a ‘Green New Deal’ to talking about a ‘Green Deal.’ They’ve neatly excised the word ‘new’ from their discussions about the climate agenda,” he said.

Could Europe’s Green New Deal make European politics more democratic?

Alongside its economic ambitions, the Green New Deal in Europe has a second goal: the democratization of European politics. This has been the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025’s (DiEM25) primary objective since its inception in 2016: to avert the potential disintegration of the bloc by decentralizing the decision-making process. Greater transparency in the EU’s political institutions, the establishment of “constitutional assemblies” and the resolution of Europe’s economic crisis all feature on DiEM25’s manifesto. 

It is important to bear in mind, however, that DiEM25 has had limited success at the ballot box. In the most recent EU parliamentary elections, DiEM25-affiliated parties won a total of 16 seats in the lower chamber and one in the upper chamber; former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis, who stood in Germany, failed to win his seat.

The Green New Deal in Europe campaign may represent DiEM25’s attempt to reframe its argument: that climate change is a more effective mobilization strategy than democratization. But the recent successes of Extinction Rebellion suggest that the two issues are more persuasive when articulated in combination. Beyond its calls for governments to declare a state of climate emergency, the environmental group is demanding the establishment of citizens’ assemblies to present climate proposals to their respective legislatures. Indeed, Adler acknowledged a debt of gratitude to Extinction Rebellion for developing a democratizing approach that goes beyond traditional electoral engagement.

Like its sister project in the United States, the European Green New Deal presents a radical break from the economic and political status quo. Its success will ultimately depend on its ability to persuade not only European political elites, but millions of European citizens whose faith in supranational projects appears to be dwindling. But the recent successes of groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future — groups driven by young people — suggest a growing caucus of youth united in their support for radical interventionist policies. As Adler is keen to highlight, “Everyone is looking to young people as the only source of real inspiration and hope for the future. That is seriously rattling certain sections of the political class for whom watching their children marching in the street puts them in an uncomfortable bind.”

Peace in Afghanistan? Not likely

By Rashi Seth

October 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy – On September 8, President Donald Trump publicly cancelled a previously secret meeting with both the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. President Trump cited the deaths of two American soldiers killed by suicide bombings in Kabul as the reason for his abrupt decision. The purpose of this meeting, planned for September 11 at Camp David, had been to end the war in Afghanistan.

The potential peace agreement had focused on four key issues: a full withdrawal of US and NATO forces, a guarantee that the Taliban that it will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a launchpad to attack neighboring states, an intra-Afghan dialogue among Afghans from different ethnic groups about Afghanistan’s political future, and a permanent ceasefire. The nixed accord was the result of nine rounds of peace negotiations held over the past year.

Following President Trump’s announcement, President Ghani said “real peace” in Afghanistan would be possible only if the Taliban ceases launching attacks and participates in direct talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban has said that there will not be a ceasefire until the US and NATO withdraw their combined 31,000 troops completely from Afghanistan. 

A US withdrawal might result in decreased casualties, but it is unlikely to bring about long-lasting peace in the near term. According to a report released by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the US, NATO, the U.N., and other international forces are responsible for killing more Afghan civilians than the Taliban in the first three months of 2019. But given ongoing factional disputes over political representation and the contest for legitimacy between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US forces seem dim. Former spokesman of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, Hashim Wahdaytar, claimed, “The country will fall to another civil war and some countries in the region will support each faction for a proxy war.”

According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), ethnic groups like the Uzbeks and Tajiks are preparing for civil war after the withdrawal of US and NATO forces. The circumstances resemble the instability following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, which preceded a civil war. ISW claims that the minority groups have begun signaling facets of their mobilization to safeguard their communities from the Taliban – a Pashto organization comprising 40% of the Afghan population. These non-Pashto ethnic groups are wary of a potential Taliban-controlled Afghanistan due to a history of persecution by the group, in the form of kidnappings, killings, relentless intimidation, and documented massacres. This form of ethnic cleansing is responsible for 6,000 documented deaths of Hazaras, while the numbers for other groups remain unknown.

Assuming that the negotiation process moves forward, it is still difficult to determine Afghanistan’s future. However, one thing is likely – until it does, the war will continue.