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2019
February
19
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

By now you’ve probably heard that 16 states are suing to stop the Trump administration from building a border wall. The declaration of a national emergency, in order to bypass Congress, is unconstitutional, they argue.

But remember the saying that “all politics is local”? It turns out that “wall” politics is local too. Cities and states are looking at the wall-funding fine print. From Fort Carson, Colo., to Elgin, Fla., schools, training facilities, mess halls, and other military building projects are now on the chopping block.

In short, building a wall by redirecting $3.5 billion from the Pentagon’s construction budget could mean lost local jobs far from the border. But an ambitious 7-year-old in Austin, Texas, is offering to help fill the gap.

Benton Stevens sold cups of hot chocolate at a strip mall this weekend to “help Trump build the wall.” His stand drew cheers – and abuse. “He supports Trump because we do, and he hears how we talk...,” says Benton’s mom, who adds she’s a member of the Republican National Committee. “Call that brainwashing, but I call it parenting, because we instill our values in him,” she says. Benton reportedly raised $1,400.

But the boy faces the same challenge Trump does: He needs the legislative branch. By law, Benton needs congressional approval for the Department of Homeland Security to accept his cocoa money.

Now to our five selected stories, including why US liberals are going populist, an American surgeon’s healing role in Sudan, and a look at Armenia’s rising pro-democracy prime minister.

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1. Who’s a populist? Democrats taking on Trump look to reclaim the mantle.

Some candidates – like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who announced his presidential bid today – employ more populist rhetoric than others. But all are trying to show they are on the side of working class voters.

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The latest sign of the rise of a populist “tea party of the left” came last week with Amazon’s cancellation of a headquarters in the Queens borough of New York. Opponents had raised alarms over tax breaks offered to one of the world’s largest corporations and gentrification possibly displacing residents.

This flaring of populist sentiment fits into a long American tradition that goes back to President Andrew Jackson, who championed the “common man,” and orator William Jennings Bryan, who won the Democratic nomination three times. Today, a populist lane has formed in the Democratic presidential primary contest – and is starting to get crowded. On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont threw his hat in the ring, hoping to revive the grass-roots movement that almost overtook Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts jumped in earlier this month, railing against a system “rigged by the wealthy.” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is on a “Dignity of Work” listening tour as he ponders a run.

“If you’re a Democrat running for president, you’re going to have a really hard time if you’re not talking in populist ways about the economy,” says Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin. 

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Who’s a populist? Democrats taking on Trump look to reclaim the mantle.

“Stop calling Donald Trump a populist,” liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman ordered the media last August.

It’s true, Mr. Krugman wrote, President Trump does occasionally “pose” as a champion of ordinary Americans against the elite. But, he asserted, the president’s record reveals otherwise. Mr. Trump, for his part, boasts that his policies have been great for American workers and commands big crowds doing so.

Definitions of populism can vary, and candidates themselves often shy away from embracing the term, perhaps to avoid limiting their appeal. Populism can exist on both the left and the right, and depending on the audience, the term can have either negative or positive connotations. 

Still, as the 2020 Democratic hopefuls begin staking out positions aimed at attracting voters, some see taking back ownership of the term “populist” as key to framing the contest against Trump. 

A populist lane has formed in the Democratic primary contest – and is starting to get crowded.

On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont made his bid official, hoping to revive the grass-roots movement that almost overtook Hillary Clinton in 2016. “Real change never takes place from the top on down but always from the bottom on up,” the self-described democratic socialist declared in a campaign video.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts jumped in earlier this month, railing against a system “rigged by the wealthy” and touting her proposal for an “ultra-millionaire tax.” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is currently on a “listening tour” of early primary states under the banner “Dignity of Work” and will decide whether to run in March.

Populist themes, to some extent, are infusing nearly every Democratic campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris of California is running on the slogan “For the People.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who appears to be positioning herself as more of a centrist, speaks of “tax loopholes designed by and for the wealthy.” Former Vice President Joe Biden, if he runs, is expected to lean heavily on his blue-collar roots in Scranton, Pa.

“If you’re a Democrat running for president, you’re going to have a really hard time if you’re not talking in populist ways about the economy,” says Michael Kazin, author of the book “The Populist Persuasion.” 

Mr. Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University, says he prefers to say that candidates are employing populist rhetoric or ideas, as opposed to labeling someone a populist or not.

“At base, the term refers to people who believe there’s a virtuous majority of hard-working folks who are exploited, oppressed, betrayed – choose your verb – by an elite, and the elite can be political, economic, cultural, or all three,” he says.

A ‘tea party of the left’

The latest sign of the rise of a populist “tea party of the left” came last week with Amazon’s sudden cancellation of a headquarters in the Queens borough of New York. Opponents of the project, including freshman firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) of New York, had raised alarm bells over the tax breaks offered to one of the world’s largest corporations and the prospect of gentrification displacing residents.

This current flaring of populist sentiment fits into a long American tradition that first reached the White House in 1829 with the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson, who championed the “common man.” By the end of the century, populist orator William Jennings Bryan dominated the Democratic Party and won its presidential nomination three times.

In the 20th century, radio broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin, Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan all laid claim to mass appeal through populist rhetoric that veered into demagoguery.

Today, Trump displays a portrait of President Jackson in the Oval Office – a sign of his admiration for a predecessor who he says “defied an arrogant elite.”

In his successful 2016 campaign, Trump appealed to the economic and cultural grievances of white working-class voters, targeting international trade and illegal immigration as culprits.

“Right-wing populism often includes a scapegoating of a third party – blacks, immigrants, people who are seen as the illegitimate beneficiaries of the ruling elites,” says David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University who has written on populism. “Populism can be very nationalistic.”

But true populism, says Kazin, is not just about white working people.

“It’s about the majority of the population, who are workers of one kind or another, who have not graduated from college,” Kazin says. “That includes most black and Latino people even more than white people.”

To Senator Brown, who has made a career of fighting for workers, Trump’s brand of politics should not be called populism.

“Populists are never racist,” says Brown, speaking last week at a Monitor Breakfast. “Populists don’t engage in hate speech. Populists don’t give tax cuts to rich people. Populists don’t play off American workers against Mexican workers.”

The electability factor

For populist Democrats running this cycle, the challenge will be gaining enough support to win the nomination, particularly since they may wind up splitting the far-left vote. Senator Warren’s ideologically charged rhetoric thrills her base, but can she expand her appeal to more moderate voters?

Senator Sanders faces the challenge of being a second-time candidate at a time when many are looking for new faces and when polls show party members valuing electability above all else.

Still, “electability and beating Donald Trump is also about what message will resonate,” says Kathleen Sullivan, Democratic National Committeewoman for New Hampshire, which holds the first primary. “The message ‘dignity of work’ – of working people, middle-class people, economic disparity – plays well with a lot of Democrats.”  

Both Warren and Brown make a point of asserting that they believe in capitalism but that markets need rules. Brown stands out among likely Democratic candidates for his unwillingness to sign on to the Green New Deal, a resolution that addresses climate change and economic inequality, or "Medicare for all."

“I don’t need to co-sponsor every bill that others think they need to co-sponsor to show my progressive politics,” Brown said at the Monitor Breakfast. “I want to get something done for people now.”

The Ohio Democrat could be called a “pragmatic populist” who doesn’t shy away from making common cause with Republicans when their goals converge. Brown opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement from the start and worked with the Trump administration to fix it, though they have parted company over the NAFTA replacement agreement.

Whether “pragmatic populism” can sell in an era of rising Democratic liberalism and socialist thought, especially among young progressives, is an open question. 

It’s also unclear if the less-populist Democrats in the race can take on enough of a populist tinge to match the political moment. 

Senator Harris’s profile is as a former state attorney general who was tough on crime, not as a champion of workers. Senator Klobuchar, also a former prosecutor, is seen as a business-friendly moderate who works well with Republicans. Sen. Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey is a business-friendly liberal with a history of close ties to Wall Street.

Back when she was a House member, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York held some conservative views, including on guns, though her positions have since evolved. Many of the candidates, including Senators Booker and Gillibrand, have said no to corporate PAC donations.

As for Biden, a pitch as “Uncle Joe,” fighting for the little guy, might not survive first contact.

“He likes to claim these affinities with the folks of Scranton and working-class Catholics. That’s kind of ‘populism as biography.’ But he was also the senator from Delaware and credit-card land,” says Mr. Greenberg, noting that then-Senator Biden had championed bankruptcy reform, which passed in 2005 and made it harder for consumers to get debt relief.

“But it’s not always either-or,” he adds. “Certainly Warren has populist bona fides. And others can talk a good game and mobilize anti-Trump outrage. But they also need to combine it with an appeal toward responsible governance, toward moderation, toward pragmatism and statesmanship.”

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2. Green New Deal: Saving America or turning it socialist?

What’s the best path to move the United States toward an emissions-free future? For most voters, the answer has as much to do with their economic worldview as their ideas about the environment.

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Depending on your political view, the Green New Deal looks like either the salvation or bane of the US economy. The proposal promises to slash greenhouse gas emissions to zero with a side of social initiatives, including jobs and health care for all.

Given its sweep, it’s not surprising that critics are blasting the plan as “socialist.” The label may not be fair in a literal sense, but it points to a vital question of how to best care for both the planet and its people at a time when climate change has rising urgency. Is the answer more capitalism or less?

The Green New Deal is drawing attention in part because the polarized responses to it are pushing that discussion to the fore. Some voters would prefer a lighter touch approach, such as taxing emissions and letting markets innovate in response. Others say the Green New Deal needn’t harm the economy.

“[Decarbonizing] our economy is going to create a ton of jobs,” says Martin Hayden of the group Earthjustice in Washington, D.C. “There is real genuine opportunity for economic growth.”

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Green New Deal: Saving America or turning it socialist?

The plan calls for a vast remaking of the US economy. In just 10 years, it envisions a phaseout of all greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Ditto for cars on the road. Meanwhile, massive spending on high-speed rail systems would coax long-distance travelers off airplanes and onto trains.

Oh, and while all that is slashing greenhouse gas emissions to zero, this legislation would also seek to fix a host of social ills, with the promise of things like jobs and health care for all. Absent from the legislation are references to things like incentives, markets, or private-sector innovation.

Welcome to the Green New Deal, which depending on your view looks like either the salvation or bane of the US economy.

Given its sweep, it’s not surprising that critics are blasting the plan as “socialist.” The label may not be fair in a literal sense, but it points to a vital question of how to best care for both the planet and its people at a time when climate change has rising urgency. Is the answer more capitalism or less? 

The Green New Deal is drawing attention in part because the polarized responses to it are pushing that discussion to the fore. 

“It seems like a big-government kind of approach,” says Yoram Bauman, a Utah-based economist who has been active in the politics of climate change. But to call it “socialism,” he adds, “is up to the eye of the beholder.”

For his part, he says addressing climate change is so urgent, and the difficulty of passing national legislation on the issue so great, that he welcomes any and all efforts to put proposals forward to see which might fly.

At the very least, the Green New Deal is bringing heightened focus to the climate issue and stirring deeper debate about how to tackle the problem. It comes as some others in Congress are pitching a more market-driven approach: taxing carbon emissions to deter the use of fossil fuels while recycling the revenue back to taxpayers in the form of dividend checks.

So, even if the Green New Deal fails legislatively, it’ll be a chapter in a longer story. And it might already be shifting what analysts have called the “Overton window” of what ideas are seen as feasible – in this case on an issue where gridlock has long been the norm. 

“I think an open question is whether the moves on the left more recently are sort of moving the Overton window to where these carbon taxes become seen as a centrist, business-oriented approach” that can gain favor, says Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston.

Mutually exclusive ideas?

To many economists, the idea of “carbon pricing” is the most efficient way to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. It would create antipollution incentives while leaving consumers and businesses free to find the least costly paths toward a clean economy.

And by recycling the revenue into “carbon dividends” for taxpayers, proponents hope the plan could become politically popular with bipartisan support rather than being seen as a drag on the economy and on personal incomes.

But proponents of the Green New Deal say their ideas don’t preclude some form of the “carbon dividend” scheme and have the virtue of steering the economy more aggressively toward zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. That’s the target set by scientists at the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.

To many voters who care about climate change, that ambitious target-setting is exactly what’s needed.

“We need to understand this is an issue that merits a wartime mobilization,” says Robert Larson, a resident of Columbus, Ohio, who’s working on a PhD in history. He says he appreciates that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly minted congresswoman from New York who has become Democrats’ leading champion for the Green New Deal, has been framing the legislation in that light.

The scientists at the IPCC, for their part, have warned that “warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally” unless the world acts collectively to halt the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

So far, even now that there’s an actual bill in Congress, the Green New Deal is more a vision statement than a detailed climate action plan. But it has rapidly gained fans on the left even as Republican officials have jeered at it.

Numerous Democratic aspirants for the 2020 presidential nomination are backers, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Cory Booker of New Jersey, among others. But many establishment Democrats have refrained from jumping on the bandwagon, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. 

January polling by Rasmussen Reports found 81 percent of likely Democratic voters favor a Green New Deal that would focus on climate change, income inequality, and racial injustice. Among Republicans, 63 percent said they were opposed, while unaffiliated voters were roughly evenly split, 38 percent in favor and 41 percent opposed.

Beyond climate, a social vision

By attaching “New Deal” to “Green,” framers of the plan are casting climate change as both an environmental and a social justice issue, an echo of the way Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed at social justice as well as ending the Great Depression.

“Our first concern is solving the problem, and we define the problem ... more broadly than climate change,” said Rhiana Gunn-Wright of New Consensus, a policy nonprofit that’s helping to shape the Green New Deal, at a recent climate-change discussion in New York. 

The framing as a 21st century New Deal could help galvanize voters’ support on an environmental issue that, while on their radar, isn’t often at the top of their priority list. But it also carries political risks.

On the one hand, to voters wary of capitalism’s flaws and excesses, it could signal something too tentative.

“If the Green New Deal is going to do what the old New Deal did, which is to try to save capitalism by softening the problems around it, then I do not think that it will really stave off catastrophe,” says Mr. Larson, who is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in Columbus.

It’s not that Larson favors socialism in the form a state-run economy; his preference is for something more like Scandinavian-style democratic socialism. But he lacks faith that light regulation or harnessing market forces will be effective at the rapid decarbonization that the climate problem calls for.

On the other hand, many Americans don’t want to see a larger federal government, and the Green New Deal looks like a case study in that risk.

“I don’t think central planning is a good way to address climate issues,” says Michael Rieger, a self-described moderate libertarian in Ann Arbor, Mich., who cares about global warming but also about economic growth.

The Green New Deal plan is vague on many fronts. It calls for big public investments and refers to an “appropriate” level of public ownership. It doesn’t overtly call for state control of industries, but such provisions, plus the plan’s array of social welfare goals, have drawn fire from conservatives.

“The more control you put into the hands of a few people, the more volatile it's going to be” and the more politically divisive, predicts Mr. Rieger, a young voter who’s preparing to enter law school in the fall.

In Ohio, Larson worries that free-market approaches could fail to slash greenhouse emissions fast enough, and he says society needs to accept some economic sacrifice – just as Americans made in World War II – to get there. By contrast, Reiger in Michigan is wary that that the Green New Deal could result in bureaucratic fiefdoms that stifle democracy, innovation, and prosperity.

Those contrasting views represent the political needle that climate policy will have to thread.

A middle ground?

Where the Green New Deal has energized the left, the idea of a “carbon dividends” plan has won endorsements from bipartisan sources including former cabinet officials, Federal Reserve chairs, Nobel laureate economists, and current members of Congress.

Advocates of harnessing market forces say sustaining economic growth is crucial to maintain political support for climate action. And they say a price on carbon can be effective at reducing emissions if it’s tried on a sustained, economy-wide basis.

“I don’t think we need to fundamentally rewrite the rules” of the economy to aim for net zero emissions, says Joseph Majkut, a policy expert at the free-market oriented Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C. “I’m not saying that it’s a small transition,” he says, but Americans can check on a carbon tax every five years to see its results and potentially adjust it if needed. 

But in practice, even middle-of-the-road policy ideas have had trouble succeeding politically. Mr. Bauman, the economist in Salt Lake City, found that out when he spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt to pass a carbon tax in Washington State in 2016.

And many experts argue that, in the end, creating a clean economy will require a blend of policies, not just carbon taxes. 

Martin Hayden of the group Earthjustice, which supports the Green New Deal’s vision, says voters should think not just about the costs of reducing emissions, but also about the much larger costs of environmental damage if climate change goes unaddressed.

“Doing the kinds of things that need to happen to rapidly decarbonize our economy is going to create a ton of jobs,” adds Mr. Hayden in Washington, D.C. “There is real genuine opportunity for economic growth.”

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3. Can Armenia’s prisoner-turned-prime minister learn to govern?

The Economist declared Armenia the 2018 “country of the year” for its nonviolent transition of power. But can the charismatic opposition leader who led his country’s sudden turn toward democracy bring lasting change?

David
Vahan Stepanyan/PAN Photo/AP
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan took office in May after spearheading massive protests that forced his predecessor to step down.

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To his opponents, Nikol Pashinyan is eccentric, reckless, and self-righteous. To supporters, he is principled and puts country and people before his own interests – always. There is one thing, however, both camps agree on: The man who headed a fairy-tale revolution that has put Armenia firmly on the path to becoming the world’s newest modern democracy is outrageously charismatic.

The journalist, revolutionary, and opposition leader became prime minister last May. Now he faces his hardest task yet: governing. History brims with figures who rode the zeal and idealistic fervor of revolutions to power – from Nelson Mandela in South Africa to electrician Lech Walesa in Poland to Vaclav Havel, the poet laureate of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, after which Mr. Pashinyan, artfully, named Armenia’s peaceful revolt. Some of those leaders were more successful than others.

Many critics doubt Pashinyan can unite this still-fragile nation. But others believe he has the vision and instinctual skill to bring long-lasting change to Armenia – and might make the country a model for other former Soviet countries struggling to navigate the transition to a modern democracy.

“He knows what he doesn’t know and recognizes the need to deepen his knowledge in areas where he is weaker,” says political analyst Richard Giragosian. “That’s a very important quality.” 

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Can Armenia’s prisoner-turned-prime minister learn to govern?

It may not be wise to lecture a judge about right and wrong, particularly if the judge is about to decide whether you should go back to prison. But Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of the Armenian revolution who abruptly and improbably became prime minister, has a history of taking bold actions. 

In 2008, after 10 people had died during political protests in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, the ruling party made Mr. Pashinyan a scapegoat for inciting “mass disorder” and sought to throw him in prison. He spent more than a year in hiding, occupying the top spot on the country’s most-wanted list. Eventually Pashinyan turned himself in when a general amnesty was announced for political prisoners. But despite meeting the requirements, Pashinyan’s name was conspicuously missing from the amnesty list.

The fiery opposition leader protested his persecution. While presenting his case in court, he became distracted by a poster on the wall of the judge’s chambers. It displayed several Kalashnikov rifles, with descriptions and small pictures detailing the inner workings of the weapons. Pashinyan delivered a passionate lecture on how inappropriate a poster promoting assault rifles was for a judge’s office. His lawyer was aghast at his brazenness.  

In the end, the judge took the poster down and granted Pashinyan partial amnesty. His sentence was shortened, but he did serve almost two years in prison.

The moment was vintage Pashinyan. To his opponents, he’s eccentric, reckless, and self-righteous. To supporters, he is principled and puts country and people before his own interests – always. There is one thing, however, both camps agree on: The man who headed a fairy-tale revolution that has put Armenia firmly on the path to becoming the world’s newest modern democracy is outrageously charismatic.

NAREK ALEKSANYAN/PAN/AP/FILE
Political opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan pleaded with police at one of a series of protests last spring that forced out Armenia’s prime minister.

For a few days in the spring of 2018, Armenia made headlines around the world. The tiny country in the southern Caucasus – uniquely wedged between Europe and Asia, the Middle East and Russia – staged an entirely peaceful revolution. Hundreds of thousands of people protested against government corruption and a power grab by then-Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. The protests brought the country to a halt through joyous and highly organized civil disobedience. White confetti wafted through the streets instead of tear gas. 

The Economist declared Armenia, with a population of a mere 3 million, the 2018 “country of the year” for the nonviolent transition of power. While many independent groups joined the protests, one individual harnessed all the energy of the demonstrators, united the interests of urban and rural Armenians, and embodied the desires of young and old alike. That person built a coalition so strong that after just two weeks of mass demonstrations, Mr. Sargsyan stepped down with a remarkable mea culpa. “Nikol Pashinyan was right, I was wrong,” Sargsyan announced via an official statement on his government’s website. “The situation has several solutions, but I will not take any of them.... I am leaving office of the country’s leader, of prime minister. The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demand.” 

Few expected Sargsyan, who had been ruling the country for a decade, to resign so quietly. But the style of his exit was a direct response to that of the man pushing him out the door. “Pashinyan has a combination of charisma and political acumen or street smarts that’s very rare, especially in former Soviet republics,” says political analyst Richard Giragosian, who leads an independent think tank in Yerevan. 

The journalist, revolutionary, and opposition leader became prime minister last May. Now he faces his hardest task yet: governing. History brims with figures who rode the zeal and idealistic fervor of revolutions to power – from Nelson Mandela in South Africa to electrician Lech Walesa in 1980s Poland to Vaclav Havel, the poet laureate of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, after which Pashinyan, artfully, named Armenia’s peaceful revolt. Some of those leaders were more successful than others. One lesson of street revolutions is that people expect improvements quickly.

Many critics doubt Pashinyan can unite this still-fragile nation, which faces ever-present tensions with neighbors and the always awkward relationship with Russia. But others believe he has the vision and instinctual skill to bring real, long-lasting change to Armenia – and might make the country a model for other former Soviet countries struggling to navigate the transition to a modern democracy.

VAHRAM BAGHDASARYAN/PHOTOLURE/REUTERS
A man votes with his son during an early parliamentary election in Yerevan, Armenia, in December 2018.

***

Charisma is a divine gift, according to its Greek root, which literally translates to “gift of grace.” Science continues to search in vain to quantify exactly what “it” is, but there’s little doubt that you either have it or you don’t. Nikol Pashinyan has it. If you talk to people who know him, it is the one characteristic that is always mentioned. 

Take Hayk Gevorgyan. The journalist and part-time farmer first met Pashinyan in 1994, when the two worked together on a newspaper. Mr. Gevorgyan says he was impressed by Pashinyan’s passion about a citizen’s right to criticize the government. This was just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, so questioning authorities was still a relatively new freedom.

“Nikol gave trainings to other journalists in his free time,” Gevorgyan says. “He was the first one to teach people to doubt.” Pashinyan was barely 20 years old then. After four years, Pashinyan decided to found his own newspaper, The Daily. Gevorgyan followed him because, he says, “I knew he was going to do important things, so I wanted to keep on working with him.”

During the parliamentary elections in 1999, The Daily was sharply critical of the government and was fined for libel. The paper refused to pay. The government confiscated The Daily’s equipment and froze its bank account. Pashinyan was convicted and sentenced to a one-year suspended sentence. 

As soon as the court case was settled, the same team behind The Daily – including Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, who is also a journalist – acquired the license of another newspaper, the Armenian Times, which was struggling at the time. In the following years the Times’s readership continuously grew. By 2007 it had become one of the country’s most successful and highly regarded papers. 

It was in the early days of the Armenian Times that Pashinyan dropped a thick folder on Gevorgyan’s desk and asked him to write an article on the contents. It was the national budget. An engineer by training, Gevorgyan was a general assignment reporter who had no deep knowledge of economics. But he pulled off the assignment and eventually became economics editor. He laughs and says that if Pashinyan had asked him to cover biology, he would probably be science editor today. “I trust Pashinyan more than myself,” he says.

Others agree that he has the ability to relate to and embolden people. “He satisfies the part of Armenian society that wants to love their leader,” says Maria Karapetyan, who was recently elected to the new parliament. She says Pashinyan cites poems in his parliamentary speeches, and when a supporter gives him a tie as a gift, he “immediately puts it on, no matter how ugly it may be. He knows how to make people feel important.”

SERGEI GRITS/AP/FILE
Supporters of opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinyan react as they protest in Republic Square in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, last May.

For now, Armenia remains in a collective frenzy over the peaceful revolution, and Pashinyan is enjoying an extended honeymoon as leader. His newly founded party alliance, My Step, won a landslide 70.4 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections in December. But the adoration of him has moved beyond political support and developed into what some critics call a cult of personality – evidenced by his image on everything from T-shirts to cellphone cases – that could undermine the very ideals behind the Velvet Revolution. “I think there is a fine line between merchandise and personalty cult, and I believe this line has been crossed," says Ruben Muradyan, an information-technology worker in Yerevan who has curated a collection of fan articles about Pashinyan on Facebook.   

Critics worry that Armenians harbor overly optimistic expectations that the prime minister can swoop in and move the country away from its autocratic tendencies. During a press conference right after his election victory in December, Pashinyan was asked whether he sees his personal glorification as a problem. He laughed off the question saying, “Many people in the streets want a selfie with me, and I can’t refuse them just not to endanger our democracy in Armenia.” 

[Editor's note: The above section has been changed because it had three sentences that, after a review, were considered unacceptably similar to another story published on this topic. We have removed those sentences and rewritten the relevant paragraphs. We apologize for the use of phraseology that was the same as a story that ran on Eurasianet.] 

Muradyan believes that Pashinyan has good intentions but lacks the necessary education to lead a country. “He doesn’t understand why a personalty cult can be dangerous, and that’s very worrying,” he says.

***

Pashinyan was born in 1975 in Ijevan, a small city of 21,000 nestled at the foot of the forested Gugark Mountains two hours north of Yerevan. His mother died when he was 12 years old, and his father, a football and volleyball coach, quickly remarried.

Always the agitator and activist, Pashinyan was already organizing student strikes, marches, and demonstrations in his secondary school years between 1988 and the early 1990s. Most of those were focused on the conflict between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. He was a good student, graduating from secondary school with honors in 1991.

He then left rural Armenia to study journalism in the capital at Yerevan State University, where he continued to crusade for change and to pinprick authorities. Just days before his graduation, Pashinyan was expelled from YSU without a degree. After a meeting with the university’s vice president, Pashinyan declared that his dismissal was the result of a critical article he had written about the sister of the dean of the university. The official explanation was that he had missed too many days of school.

KARO SAHAKYAN/PAN/AP
Armenian protest leader Nikol Pashinyan (second from l.) leads a march in Yerevan in April 2018 to commemorate the 103rd anniversary of the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

Part of Pashinyan’s appeal today is a gritty authenticity rooted in his rural upbringing. In a TV report from 2016, you can see Pashinyan in a garden – he was an opposition politician in parliament at the time – skinning a pig with his brother surrounded by the snow-shod hills of his hometown. He speaks to an interviewer while skillfully burning the surface of the dead animal with a small flamethrower. None of it feels staged. It’s as if Pashinyan was giving a TV reporter a tour of where he grew up and his brother happened to need help with a task they had done together countless times. 

After Pashinyan became prime minister, he and his family moved into the state’s official residence. In an attempt to keep his promise of being more transparent, he gave a video tour of his new home with his cellphone and streamed it on his personal Facebook page. The house is spacious and comes with a sauna, pool table, and large garden. A few weeks after the move, Pashinyan and his wife gave their old apartment to a family in need. A single mother moved in with her children. 

The gesture was indicative of Pashinyan’s skill at appealing to different audiences. He has established a name with the urban elite through his work in journalism and parliament for the past 25 years, but he can just as easily connect with rural Armenians.

In March 2018 he started his demonstration campaign against the former prime minister’s power grab with a 125-mile march from Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, to the capital. The campaign was a way to engage people in villages and regions that have long felt ignored by Yerevan. “[It] gave them more of a voice, more of a choice in politics ... in other words, tapping into an ignored constituency,” says Mr. Giragosian, the political analyst.

During the march Pashinyan grew a salt-and-pepper beard and wore a camouflage T-shirt and a baseball cap. It was part of an image makeover to further distinguish him from the political elite in the capital and, some argue, to disguise his lack of military experience.

Pashinyan was exempted from compulsory military service because his two elder brothers had already served. Both previous heads of state in Armenia were military men from Nagorno-Karabakh. For a country in an undeclared but stubborn war with Azerbaijan over the contested region, defense and national security underlie almost every major issue.

“For decades Armenia has been in a state-of-siege mentality,” Giragosian says. “I think [his lack of military experience] is one of his biggest weaknesses.”

What Pashinyan lacks in military experience he makes up for with a record of conflict-laden street politics. He was jailed for political actions multiple times, and in 2004 his car was blown up in front of his newspaper’s office, allegedly in an attempt to intimidate him. 

A local journalist said she met a taxi driver last summer who knew Pashinyan from his time in prison. They had been in the same cellblock. He remembered Pashinyan was always reading, saying he had a plan and that he needed to keep his mind fresh. He was well-liked there, the former fellow inmate recounted.

In 2010 Pashinyan became the first jailed candidate in independent Armenia’s history to run for parliament, underscoring his tenacity and resolve.

He was released from prison in May 2011 and was elected to the legislative chamber in 2012. A year later he founded his own party, taking the final step away from his career in journalism and committing to politics. A fiery orator, he was the most outspoken opposition politician in parliament, always inveighing against people he opposed and trying to hold the government accountable. 

FRANK FRANKLIN II/AP
Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25, 2018, in New York.

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Yet having a stronger opposition in parliament wasn’t enough to safeguard Armenia’s young democracy from authoritarian tricks. After serving two consecutive terms as president, Sargsyan shifted most political power from the president’s office to that of the prime minister and then claimed the office for himself. What he didn’t expect was that his brazen maneuver would alter the mood of the country. Many Armenians felt the nation was in danger of becoming a corrupt one-party state. Pashinyan was waiting with tinder to fuel a populist spark.

“Pashinyan had a much better sense of the pulse of Armenia and a much more accurate reading of the temperature of the country,” Giragosian says. He remembers that neither the government nor outside experts thought mobilizing people on this issue would be possible. “The critical mistake the government made was underestimating Pashinyan,” Giragosian says. Within a few weeks, discontent turned into open dissent.

Since the early 2000s, waves of civic protest have swept Armenia every few years. The biggest demonstrations happened around alleged electoral fraud during the presidential election in 2008 and over a 17 percent hike in electricity rates in 2015. 

Both times saw violent clashes between protesters and police. The demonstrations in 2018 were different. When it became clear that Sargsyan didn’t intend to leave power, several groups started preparing for a new round of dissent. Pashinyan and his opposition party were only the most prominent force. Drawing inspiration from Nelson Mandela, the Vietnam antiwar movement, and Mahatma Gandhi, Pashinyan and other civil society groups promoted a no-violence strategy. 

“We were told to literally turn the other cheek when we are attacked by the police,“ says Karo Ghukasyan, a young activist who worked closely with Pashinyan. 

One of the movement’s tactics was to disrupt traffic without breaking the law. Over Facebook, Pashinyan asked people to block roads. Small groups of protesters took turns crossing the street in so-called infinity loops, making it impossible for cars to proceed. At the height of the protests, on April 16, demonstrators blocked all bridges and paralyzed the city’s entire subway system. People had massive picnics, danced, and sang in the streets of Yerevan. An Armenian at the time described the mood in the country as the “happiest apocalypse in the world.”

***

Almost a year later, the atmosphere in the country is still hopeful. But weaknesses in the new government are also apparent. Pashinyan is a loyal person: He has brought many people he learned to trust over the years with him to government. “He gathered politicians of his kind around him. He is never surrounded by professionals,” the IT expert Muradyan complains.

Political analyst Giragosian partially agrees. He sees too little expertise in Pashinyan’s cabinet, especially when it comes to economic matters. But, he notes, Pashinyan has demonstrated a willingness to ask for help. He tells the story of a woman who contacted Pashinyan after the revolution offering her expertise. She had left Armenia with her family as a child and specialized in civil aviation in Denmark. Pashinyan invited her to Armenia for a face-to-face meeting. Not long after, he appointed her the new head of the country’s civil aviation agency. Now she is instituting sweeping reforms, including bringing in low-cost air carriers and developing Armenia as a transit hub. 

Politically Pashinyan is often described as a centrist, a business-friendly liberal. The prime minister himself, like many politicians, eschews labels. At a press conference for international media after his election he said: “There are no clear lines between political ideologies anymore.... In the 21st century, those lines disappeared.” He’d rather be labeled only as “pro-Armenian,” he says.

Pashinyan’s recurring theme in more than two decades of political engagement is his fight for democracy. Ms. Karapetyan, the newly elected member of parliament, says that she and Pashinyan, both members of the same party, want to see a transition of power through elections in the near future. “You can never say you’re a true democracy if you don’t have that,” she says. 

Still, countless challenges loom on the horizon. For more than a decade, the former government had glossed over serious domestic problems. “Anything you touch here with new legislation is a mine that can potentially explode,” says Karapetyan.

And foreign policy challenges are just as daunting. Two of Armenia’s four borders are permanently closed, and trade with one of its southern neighbors, Iran, is becoming more difficult after US President Trump renewed sanctions. The conflict over disputed territory with Azerbaijan might flare up at any moment, and Armenia is still heavily dependent on Russia for trade and security. “Russia may come at some point and say, ‘Stop. We want to remind you of the limits of what you can do here [in establishing a democracy] in Armenia.’ And that’s a challenge,” Giragosian says.

In the end, a lot hinges on Pashinyan’s ability to grow in office without overestimating his own capabilities. Giragosian, for one, is cautiously optimistic. He tells the story of how he was supposed to act as translator in a meeting between Pashinyan and the Swedish ambassador. But suddenly Pashinyan started talking in English; he had secretly taught himself.

“He knows what he doesn’t know and recognizes the need to deepen his knowledge in areas where he is weaker,” Giragosian says. “That’s a very important quality.”

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4. Bearing witness: When hospital work becomes a test of faith

“Dr. Tom,” an American physician and missionary, recently visited the Monitor newsroom. We heard firsthand how faith, courage, and resilience can make a difference in the mountains of Sudan.

David

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Tom Catena admits that the mental strain of his work has tested his faith. He’s the sole surgeon at the only hospital in the remote Nuba Mountains of Sudan, a region that’s been under assault in the government’s battles against the rebels. Dr. Catena spoke to the Monitor recently about his work and the forces shaping Sudan, one of the world’s least developed countries.

Q: You have been a vocal critic of [Sudan’s long-serving President] Omar al-Bashir, sometimes against your colleagues’ advice. Why?

A: If you’re in a situation that’s as egregious as ours was, when you’re being bombed and you’re watching civilians being maimed every day by artillery shelling or air bombardments, you really do have an obligation to say something. Because we’re there as a witness. They can squelch a Nuba person who’s speaking out, because they don’t have really a voice on the outside, and they can use propaganda and everything else, but if an unbiased – hopefully unbiased – foreigner is there, it’s a little more difficult. Click “Deep Read” (above) for more of our conversation.

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Bearing witness: When hospital work becomes a test of faith

When Tom Catena moved to Sudan in 2008 to work as a surgeon in a remote, rebel-held territory, he first needed to earn the community’s trust. He learned basic Arabic, treated the local leader at his hospital, and stuck around during government airstrikes to treat the wounded.

A decade into the job, Dr. Catena, who is also a Catholic missionary, leads the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, Sudan. Indiscriminate bombing by the Khartoum government has terrorized the region’s Nuba people and blocked their access to aid.

Catena’s 435-bed facility is the only referral hospital in a region of roughly a million Sudanese. The hospital operates on a $750,000 budget, of which around half goes to salaries for local staff. Nasima, Catena’s Nuba wife, is a nurse among them.

Catena is on call every day of the week. Some patients will walk for days to reach “Dr. Tom.” With limited supplies, improvisation is key; until last year the hospital didn’t have an X-ray machine.

Catena himself traveled an unusual road to his work in Sudan. A native of upstate New York, he studied mechanical engineering at Brown University, where he was also a star football player. He then decided his professional work needed to be more mission based. That decision took him to Duke University School of Medicine on a Navy scholarship. His desire to serve ultimately led him to help others in Kenya, then Sudan.

Catena admits that the mental strain of his work has tested his faith. “Why do these kids die, innocent people?” he says. “We just have to stay faithful, you know, and just keep at it.”

In 2017, the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative awarded Catena $100,000 in recognition of his work plus additional grants for other aid groups of his choice. Raising money for small humanitarian operations can be tough. Donors expect accountability, and the paperwork piles up. What works best, Catena says, is bridging the perception gap between donors and recipients.

“Individuals need some kind of connection to the people they’re supporting. If you make it a bit personal for people, in the end there’s got to be some level of trust.”

Catena spoke to the Monitor recently about his work and the forces shaping Sudan, one of the world’s least developed countries. Here are selections from our conversation.

What do your morning prayers accomplish for the rest of your day?

I think for me I’ve got to remind myself every day that God is in charge. I need that daily reminder. I need that schedule and that discipline where every day there’s something I can go and look forward to.

You have been a vocal critic of [Sudan’s long-serving President] Omar al-Bashir, sometimes against your colleagues’ advice. Why?

If you’re in a situation that’s as egregious as ours was, when you’re being bombed and you’re watching civilians being maimed every day by artillery shelling or air bombardments, you really do have an obligation to say something. Because we’re there as a witness. They can squelch a Nuba person who’s speaking out, because they don’t have really a voice on the outside, and they can use propaganda and everything else, but if an unbiased – hopefully unbiased – foreigner is there, it’s a little more difficult. I think through some connections we had we were able to get that word out.

The fear is that if you make too much noise, you’ll be punished for it. These guys bombed us twice; they bombed our hospital. In the previous civil war they bombed hospitals routinely; it was not a big deal for them.

But I do think the converse is true: If you speak out, it makes it a little more difficult for them to do it because now people are aware, and as much as they don’t care about human life, they don’t want to be perceived by the international community as being brutal. They want us out of there, because it’s a big morale boost for the soldiers, for the people there.

To what extent then do you consider yourself a documentarian of this conflict as well as a doctor?

I think it is important to document for historical record what’s happened. We’ve got a book of all the war-wounded. I’ve got a ton of pictures of people. We’re trying to keep some evidence if [Bashir] ever does go on trial; he’s been indicted for war crimes, not in Nuba. There was genocide in Nuba in the 1990s.

You have spoken about the religious diversity in the region where you are now; there are Muslims as well as Christians. Can you talk more about how you have navigated the community?

It’s roughly half Christian, half Muslim. And all the people there follow the traditional beliefs, whether you’re Christian or Muslim. I really think it’s a very unique place in the world; there is no conflict amongst the Nuba. There are some Nuba that lived through the government that controlled sides during the previous war that maybe are more Arabized and maybe got infected by this kind of radical Islam ideology. But the Nuba in general, [whether] they’re Christian or Muslim, there’s not that conflict. Within the same family you’ll have Christians and Muslims. Husbands and wives will have different faiths, and nobody’s bothered.

Within this plural religious community, have you found that your faith has evolved?

Yes. You know faith always does better in areas of high stress. You don’t even know day to day if you’re going to survive. The faith becomes much more real, where you really have to depend on God for everything, for survival. I would say it’s grown tremendously. It’s much more difficult to maintain your faith in this [American] society. I think the stress and anxiety in this society is unbelievable, but it’s not that physical threat you feel all the time [in Sudan].

Some say that the protests might prove the biggest to challenge Bashir in his three decades in power. Is he vulnerable?

I think he is, because this is unprecedented. The last big protest was 2013; that lasted a couple days. They killed like 200 people, arrested so many people. So this is unbelievable what’s going on. It started December 19, and I think it’s still every day turning out a protest, and they’re determined to not stop until he’s gone. They’ve killed I don’t know how many – 40, 50. [Bashir] and his government are masters of survival, but this is a huge challenge and by far the biggest challenge he’s had.

What would it take for you to leave the Nuba community, if anything, at this point?

When I went there 10-and-a-half years ago, my idea was to stay until [the hospital] could stand on its own with Nuba staff, and we’re still not there yet. I think we have four people in medical school now; that’s kind of the last link. With these guys, the catch is we’ve got to get them interested and make sure they stay. If they take off, then we’re back to zero.

How can the rising generations of physicians interested in humanitarian work best prepare themselves?

First you need to go and train somewhere; it takes time. You have to humble yourself a bit. If you want impact, you have to invest.

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5. As global advocates, athletes grab baton from flagging governments

Sometimes athletes are better ambassadors than professional diplomats. Our next story looks at how sports can build relationship bridges and spread fresh thinking when governments fall short.

David
Caroline Seidel/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
American luge athlete Emily Sweeney, seen here at the international luge competition in Winterberg, Germany, Jan. 26, appeared in a video urging fans to take action to combat climate change.

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Governments have long used sports to achieve some diplomatic end. Perhaps best known is the “ping-pong diplomacy” between China and the United States under President Richard Nixon. Governments still employ sports diplomacy that way – think US programs to reach young Muslim “hearts and minds” through sports after 9/11.

But now athletes, who enjoy enhanced global stature, are pushing into new areas – gender equity, inter-ethnic harmony, human rights, climate change, and others – in some cases where sports organizations see government falling short. “As certain issues have become more pervasive and universal, sports and athletes have found their way from the sidelines into the center of efforts to address” those issues, says Vince Gennaro at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport.

“What other sector has provided so many social reformers, especially on racial and gender issues?” says Allen Hershkowitz, chairman of Geneva-based Sport and Sustainability International. “Sports organizations are stepping up where traditional diplomatic channels are failing,” he says, pointing to his experience assisting the New York Yankees with a program in Kenya to reduce deforestation, and NASCAR with mangrove restoration in Zimbabwe. “No other sector is as reforming and healing as sport,” he adds.

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As global advocates, athletes grab baton from flagging governments

At the international luge competition in Winterberg, Germany, this month, some of the sport’s top athletes starred in a role outside their sleek, signature sleds.

Appearing in a video shot on a snowy slope and shown to thousands of attendees, athletes from the International Luge Federation aired their concerns about climate change.

“We’re the first generation of athletes affected by climate change,” they told viewers, “and the last generation able to do anything about it.”

In the video, the athletes offered testimonies of the individual steps they are taking to reduce their carbon footprints and suggested ways for luge fans to help combat the accelerating threat to the sport they love.

More than just a cry of alarm, the video’s key message to winter sports fans generally is, “Don’t be of the mindset that little things don’t matter,” says Cameron Myler, an assistant professor at New York University’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. A decorated US luge athlete, Ms. Myler carried the Stars and Stripes at the opening ceremony of the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games.

“Use reusable water bottles,” she says, noting that the luge athletes call on their fans to join them in pledging to reduce carbon footprints by 50 percent over the coming decade.

The luge athletes’ video is one example of how sports diplomacy is expanding beyond the traditional ways in which major powers used sports over recent decades – often to further national-security interests.

Governments still employ sports diplomacy in that way – think US programs to reach young Muslim “hearts and minds” through sports after the 9/11 attacks.

But now that work is pushing increasingly into new areas – gender equity, inter-ethnic harmony, economic development, human rights, disabled accessibility, LGBTQ equity, and climate change – in some cases where international athletes, sports organizations, and nongovernmental organizations see government falling short.

“Sports are such a good way to bring about positive changes, especially through the kids,” says Stevy Worah-Ozimo, a Senegalese former basketball player who played at the collegiate level in the United States at North Carolina Central University before playing professionally around the world.

Now a sports envoy for the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, Mr. Worah-Ozimo has a finger in various private organizations that link youth sports camps in Africa, Asia, and the US with educational programs and broader human development priorities. Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng, who attended the academy that he partners with in Senegal, goes back every summer to work there, he adds. 

“We introduce environmental issues and sustainable development practices into our sports programs. For example we have introduced solar panels at our camps,” he says. Until four years ago the basketball camps in Senegal were for boys only. “Then a group of girls came to us and said, ‘We can do that, too.’ Now our camps are half-and-half boys and girls.”

Sports diplomacy’s broader reach

Many of these more recent initiatives are quite different from the traditional, top-down utilization of sports by governments to achieve some diplomatic end. Scholars point to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s recourse to baseball as a means of connecting with the Japanese people in the aftermath of World War II. Perhaps best known is the “ping-pong diplomacy” that played a role in the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US under President Richard Nixon.

But experts in the field say a number of factors gaining steam in this century, from the rising influence of international nongovernmental organizations and global household sports stars to the spread of the internet, are broadening the diversity and reach of sports diplomacy.

“Over the last decade or so a couple of factors in particular have expanded the impact of sports and broadened our sense of what sports diplomacy is,” says Vince Gennaro, associate dean at NYU’s Tisch Institute, which recently hosted an international forum on sports and diplomacy.

“The first is globalization and a world that is so much better connected,” he says, “and second is social media and how it has enhanced the brand and global stature of athletes. As certain issues have become more pervasive and universal,” he adds, “sports and athletes have found their way from the sidelines into the center of efforts to address” those issues.

As one example of athletes getting into “pervasive” issues in new ways, Mr. Gennaro cites how Chelsea FC, the English football (soccer) club, launched a Say No To Antisemitism campaign when it realized the prejudice was showing up in increasingly virulent forms in part of the team’s fan base. Last summer Chelsea organized a trip to Auschwitz, a former Nazi concentration camp in Poland, for 150 staff and supporters. 

Individuals filling the gap

Gennaro says that in the US in particular, athletes and professional teams have increased their “diplomatic activities” over the past two years, as the Trump administration has sent a global signal that it is less interested in issues like the impact of climate change and human rights. “The last several years in this country have impelled individuals and nongovernmental organizations to step up and fill the gap,” he says.

Still, he says, such work can’t replace what governments do, but should be seen as complementing it. “Governments still matter, and there’s still great work going on in the State Department,” Gennaro says.

The State Department has utilized sports diplomacy at least as far back as the cold war, when athletes like Jesse Owens and Mal Whitfield were sent overseas as athlete-ambassadors to promote American values of freedom and democracy.

US sports diplomacy has expanded since then to include activities such as sports camps for youths and exchanges with “youth influencers” like coaches and local athletes, State Department officials say, while retaining the goal of furthering US national interests.

“The focus on furthering our national interests meant that our programs primarily emphasized the Muslim world after 9/11,” says Matt McMahon, director of the State Department’s sport diplomacy division. “But it has now expanded beyond that to work with youth and youth influencers around the world.”

Small budget at State

Calling sports “another important tool in the toolbox of American foreign policy,” he adds, “If we can help countries use sports to reach kids and empower girls and marginalized communities and the disabled, that can be a factor in building stability – and it’s certainly in the US interest to build a more stable world.”

The sports diplomacy division has always been small, a tiny fraction of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which manages much larger academic and cultural exchange programs, including the Fulbright scholarships.

But Mr. McMahon notes that the division’s budget increased slightly this year to about $6 million, and he emphasizes that the division’s programs have continued to diversify. (Indeed, the office moved heavily into gender equity under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)

Last summer, for example, the division worked with the University of Montana to develop summer soccer camps in El Salvador and exchanges between American and Central American youth influencers. One goal: to provide kids with an alternative to gang activity.

With the US public focused on large groups of Central American families and unaccompanied children moving north to seek asylum from pervasive violence back home, the camps were seen as one small way to address the factors prompting people to emigrate. “One idea behind this new program was to provide young people in El Salvador with alternatives to gang participation and behavior,” McMahon says.

An ability to reform, and heal

For some experts, such innovations as soccer camps to address gang violence – or a public service announcement by luge athletes about climate change – suggest the enduring value of sports as a tool for unlocking global change.

“What other sector has provided so many social reformers, especially on racial and gender issues?” says Allen Hershkowitz, an environmental scientist and chairman of Sport and Sustainability International, a Geneva-based nonprofit that leverages the influence of sports to promote sustainable communities.

Insisting that “Sports organizations are stepping up where traditional diplomatic channels are failing,” Dr. Hershkowitz says professional sports teams were “among the first to pick up on” the UN’s sustainable development goals. As examples, he points to his experience assisting the New York Yankees with a program in Kenya to reduce deforestation, and NASCAR with mangrove restoration projects in Zimbabwe.

Noting that surveys suggest an astounding 80 percent of the world’s people follow sports, he adds, “No other sector is as reforming and healing as sport.”

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The Monitor's View

Trump meets his Magna Carta

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Perhaps never before in the history of Presidents’ Day has the power of an American president been so openly challenged as it was Feb. 18. Thousands rallied nationwide to protest President Trump’s use of emergency powers to take money for a border wall. Sixteen states declared they would sue him in court over his declaration. The challenges to Trump went beyond policy disputes, such as immigration, and raised the question of whether the United States, especially Congress, has allowed too much authority to be taken by its chief executives.

Over time, the accretion of power has created an “imperial presidency,” or an executive branch more and more immune to the Constitution’s checks and balances. Outside the federal government, this type of problem is called “key-person risk.” It is the danger of relying too much on one individual to lead an organization.

At a deeper level, the common definitions of power must be questioned. The best organizations are built on attributes that can be shared widely. These include transparency in information, equality in deliberations, honesty in communications, and patience toward results. In such organizations, leaders use attraction, not fear. Their confidence is tempered by humility and listening. Reshaping the federal government along such lines may be a long way off. But as the challenges to Trump continue, Americans can judge them with an eye to redefining power in Washington.

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Trump meets his Magna Carta

Perhaps never before in the history of Presidents’ Day has the power of an American president been so openly challenged as it was during the holiday on Feb. 18. Thousands rallied nationwide to protest President Trump’s use of emergency powers to take money for a border wall. In addition, 16 states declared they would sue him in court over his declaration. Many in Congress plotted countermoves. To top it off, news broke in previous days that Justice Department officials in 2017 had discussed whether to remove Mr. Trump under the 25th Amendment.

All of this, of course, fell merely by coincidence on the day to honor past presidents. Yet the challenges to Trump went beyond policy disputes, such as immigration, and raised the question of whether the United States, especially Congress, has allowed too much authority to be taken by its chief executives.

One protest sign on Monday stated “Trump is the emergency.” In recent days, historians have recounted dozens of cases in which presidents had claimed unilateral power without approval, especially in initiating foreign attacks. Over time, the accretion of power has created an “imperial presidency,” or an executive branch more and more immune to the Constitution’s checks and balances.

Outside the federal government, this type of problem is called “key-person risk.” It is the danger of relying too much on one individual to lead an organization. The risk is often applied to a company’s founder. But it can also apply to a key expert, such as a creative designer in a high-tech firm or a skilled geologist in an oil exploration firm. What if they mess up? On the flip side, what if they suddenly leave?

One recent example is Elon Musk being forced to resign as chairman of Tesla over charges of stock manipulation in relation to one of his tweets. Another example was investor concern about Apple’s future after the death of its founding genius, Steve Jobs. Similar concerns are being voiced about Jeff Bezos someday leaving Amazon or Mark Zuckerberg leaving Facebook.

Companies and their investors have long tried to get around key-person risk. They make sure a company has a deep bench of similar talent. They buy professional indemnity insurance or discount a company’s value if it is too vulnerable to having an indispensable executive.

Another avenue is to rethink leadership itself. Must it always be centralized? Can it be separated from one person’s prestige? Can it be distributed to accountable networks of employees?

At a deeper level, the common definitions of power must be questioned. The best organizations are built on attributes that can be shared widely. These include transparency in information, equality in deliberations, honesty in communications, and patience toward results. In such organizations, leaders use attraction, not fear. Their confidence is tempered by humility and listening.

Self-reflection and even self-criticism, if they lead to unity of purpose, can be a type of power. They open potential in others rather than define it unilaterally.

Reshaping the federal government along such lines may be a long way off. Companies themselves are still trying new hybrids of vertical and horizontal leadership. But as the challenges to Trump continue, Americans can judge them with an eye to redefining power in Washington. Authority need not always lie in only one person. It may lie in the self-effacing qualities a president demonstrates.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Shut down fear of contagion

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For today’s contributor, an interaction at an exercise class inspired a kinder, less fearful, spiritual way to think about one’s neighbor.

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Shut down fear of contagion

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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As my exercise class started one cold winter day, the person on the mat next to mine reached for a tissue and loudly blew her nose several times. My initial thought was irritation that she would come to class when not feeling well and potentially expose others to her apparent illness.

It seems media outlets are continually reporting concerns of contagion in public places during what used to be called “winter” but is now often referred to as “cold and flu” season. With all the talk of contagion it is easy to become fearful that any public place could expose us to illness.

My study of Christian Science has shown me a constructive way to address these concerns – a way of reasoning from the basis of God’s actuality and infinite goodness, which has proved itself over and over in my life to be an effective form of prayer. As we continued with our exercises that morning, I quickly took up this way of thinking.

I silently considered that my mat-neighbor was in class to express strength and vigor and wellness and that I respected her right and desire to do so. I also mentally affirmed that everyone in the class is in fact more than a mortal with various vulnerabilities and ailments, but is actually spiritual, the expression of God’s love. I embraced the understanding that we are all governed by the divine Spirit, or God, whose presence and goodness fills all space. We all live and move and breathe in God, who created and maintains us well and whole and at peace. As we realize these truths, we begin to see more evidence of this spiritual reality – health and healing – in our day-to-day lives.

One of my favorite psalms in the Bible conveys what it is like when our thoughts dwell with God, in “the shelter of the Most High.” It provides assurance that if “you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalms 91:1, 9-11, New International Version).

As I kept my thought firmly grounded with God and recognized that He protects all His children, the fears that were creeping in about being so close to my classmate completely dissipated.

I soon realized, too, that I had been jumping to conclusions about this person’s health, which can create unnecessary fear and wasn’t very loving. Instead I could acknowledge that she, and every other person I come into contact with, has a God-given birthright of health and freedom.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, wrote an article about contagion that’s published in her “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896.” It says in part, “Floating with the popular current of mortal thought without questioning the reliability of its conclusions, we do what others do, believe what others believe, and say what others say. Common consent is contagious, and it makes disease catching.” Instead she advises, “A calm, Christian state of mind is a better preventive of contagion than a drug, or than any other possible sanative method; and the ‘perfect Love’ that ‘casteth out fear’ is a sure defense” (pp. 228-229).

As I adopted this “calm, Christian state of mind” toward my neighbor and everyone in that class, I felt completely at peace. I realized later that my neighbor, who had lots of tissues lined up, never needed to use another one. And I never did get sick after that class or at any other class that winter.

As many parts of the world make their way through another beautiful, snowy winter, we can keep fear in check with the assurance that we all have refuge from any ill in God’s constant and perfect love, which protects and heals.

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Viewfinder

Here be dragons

Andy Wong/AP
A child watches a dragon dance performance during the Lantern Festival organized by the city government at a square in Yufa Town of Beijing’s Daxing District, Feb. 19. Tuesday is the Lantern Festival in China, the final day of the annual celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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( February 20th, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
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Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow. We’ve got a juicy story about ancient eating habits. New research suggests that early humans were not picky eaters, and that helped them thrive in a variety of conditions.

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February 19, 2019
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