A friend from abroad once shared an observation that has stuck with me: That most Americans do not realize how our elections have ramifications for the rest of the world. (Which is why so many nations are invested in them, one way or another.)
The U.S. is still the most powerful country in the world by most measures, and the only one (for now) whose people have some say in its policies or actions. Our president can start de facto wars and launch nukes with little or no oversight; entire nations, if not the world, are potentially at the mercy of whoever occupies the Oval Office. Laws passed in Congress can directly inspire other countries or affect the global economy, by virtue of how large a role we play in this interconnected world. Our economic, diplomatic, and even cultural influence gives us considerable sway over the biggest problems facing humanity, from climate change to the next pandemic. For better or worse, we still set the trend on many global responses, largely by virtue of our vast resources; even our consumer habits can disproportionately impact environments a world away. Many U.S. companies and individuals are richer and more powerful than entire nations; how or whether we choose to reign them in has consequences, too.
The U.S. is not the superpower it once was, and not every global issue comes down to our leadership; many other countries have roles to play, too. But few things are in isolation any more; how our society or presumed leaders do things still has effects across the world that many of us do not even think about. It is an odd thing to imagine something as parochial as elections having anything to do with the rest of the world, but like it or not, they do.
As with most things, it is easier to focus on the failures than the successes—especially when success is measured by the bad things that never happened. The absence of tragedy does not feel as salient as its occurrence, which makes it easy to take for granted.
This is especially the case with diplomacy and global conflict resolution, which usually happens behind closed doors to allow the parties to save face. Imagine how many wars never happened because cooler heads prevailed, often with the help of nameless and faceless diplomats.
The Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of World War III, but few know, let alone appreciate, that it was the newly appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations—a soft-spoken career diplomat from Burma named U Thant—who persuaded both sides to walk back from the brink and provided a mutually acceptable resolution. American and Russian officials credited the UN, and Thant in particular, for helping deescalate the conflict; JFK remarked that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.”
We see this again with UNIFIL, a multinational UN force that has been stationed at the Lebanon-Israel border since 1978 to keep the peace between the two nations. On its face, the mission has been an abject failure: skirmishes between Lebanese militias and Israeli forces continue to this day, even leading to outright war in 2006. Both sides, as well as the U.S., regard UNIFIL as worthless and often call for its mandate to end.
But an official in the Lebanese government noted that there were plenty of flare ups that had been diffused, or even prevented, through negotiations mediated by local UN forces. For all the conflicts it failed to avert—and that subsequently capture all the attention—there were just as many, if not more, that never happened because of UNIFIL intervention behind the scenes.
These are just two examples. Who knows how many more “almost-wars” and tragedies are being avoided every day, even as we speak, by thankless diplomats, negotiators, and mediators.
Postal services have always been a core foundation of advanced civilizations. Hence the U.S. Postal Service is one of the few federal agencies explicitly authorized by the Constitution, based on the understanding that an open and prosperous society relies heavily on the free-flow of information.
We take for granted that until very recently, mail was the world wide web of the day—the sole means in which everyone could communicate and access information on equal footing. That is why the USPS is still relevant to this day, since it is the only service to be fully egalitarian by guaranteeing equally cheap delivery to everyone, regardless of where they live. No wonder it is the most popular federal agency in the country.
There is a lot of historical precedence for this. In the fifth century BCE, Darius the Great of Persia established the earliest confirmed postal service, the Angarium, to consolidate what was then the largest empire in history. It facilitated trade, communication, and cultural exchange at a rate of efficiency that was unprecedented at the time. Remnants of this mail infrastructure are still around.
The riders of the Angarium were well regarded for their honesty, discipline, and efficiency; they could deliver a message across a distance of almost 1,700 miles in just one week—the normal speed was three months! Greek historian Herodotus wrote that:
There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness of night prevents these couriers from completing their designated stages with utmost speed
Other empires borrowed from the Persians, or soon realized on their own the vital nature of postal communications. In the first century CE, the Romans established the Cursus publicus to provide special light wagons and faster horses for mail. Genghis Khan created the sophisticated “Ortoo” system for his massive Mongol Empire, which consisted of a complex chain of relay stations 20–40 miles apart, each with a messenger ready to complete the next leg of the journey; with spare horses, food, shelter, this ensured information was constantly on the move without each messenger getting tired. Hence why the famous Silk Road was even a thing!
Following the horrific The French President is personally visiting Lebanon—a former French colony that remains staunchly Francophilic—as his country prepares to send aid. Russia has reportedly already dispatched humanitarian flights, while the U.S. vows to do the same. Smaller nations from Norway to Hungary are sending help to Lebanon.
Israel—which is technically in a state of war with Lebanon—has taken the unusual step of offering assistance through the UN. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey—all with varying degrees of animosity with one another—are united in sending material and financial support. Even the beleaguered people of Gaza are lining up to donate blood.
I have no delusions that at least some of this aid is motivated by self interest: countries, like individuals, care about their image, reputation, and connections. Lebanon is an especially fractious place where lots of foreign interests, big and small, regularly intervene or back particular factions.
But given the amount of suffering on the ground and the immediate need for assistance, I consider this a win. It was not the long ago that most of us would never even have heard of something happening in a neighboring country, much less halfway around the world, and let alone caring enough to help.
Somehow, amid all the geopolitical rivalries, tensions, and rising nationalism, nearly three dozen countries—China, India, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Russia, the U.S., and all 27 members of the European Union—are joining forces to launch the largest scientific research facility in history.
Known as ITER, the roughly $24 billion megaproject is being built in southern France to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy. Current nuclear energy relies on fission, where a heavy chemical element, usually uranium, is split to produce lighter ones, thereby generating energy—but also radioactivity.
Nuclear fusion works the opposite way, combining two light elements to make a heavier one. This process powers stars like our sun and releases vast amounts of energy with very little radioactivity. Since it can work with light and abundant elements like hydrogen, it has the potential to supply humanity with limitless energy for millions of years.
To put it in perspective, through nuclear fusion, a relative handful of hydrogen could produce enough energy to power 2,300 American homes annual (equivalent to about 10,000 tons of coal, the most common fuel in the world and highly polluting). A 2,000 megawatt fusion power plant would supply electricity for two million homes.
Despite 60 year of trying, there has been little progress in making nuclear fusion commercially viable—hopefully until now. By the time ITER is completed in 2025, we may finally come within reachable grasp of this promising energy source. In addition to being the largest research facility, it will also be the largest nuclear fusion experiment and will have the largest system of superconducting magnets.
At the heart of ITER will be Tokamak, a Russian invention that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine a hot plasma to generate fusion. While devised in the 1960s, to this day a Tokamak is the leading candidate for industrial-scale fusion—hence ITER will have one stretching 100 feet and comprised of one million parts.
In announcing the groundbreaking of the project today, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said the effort would unite countries around a common good. “ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future. The greatest advances in history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty. At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress. ITER belongs to this spirit of discovery, of ambition, with the idea that, thanks to science, tomorrow may indeed be better than yesterday.”
Good to see the world still managing to stick together for something this big and consequential. A heartening display of our species’ potential.
Today is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, which like all international days, is intended to raise public awareness about global problems—few of which are as pervasive and universally revolting as human trafficking.
The graphic below from the United Nations does an excellent job of revealing the many forms and contexts of human trafficking, most of which is driven by sexual exploitation. The focus on Jeffery Epstein and his despicable ilk risks narrowing or sensationalizing a crime that is shockingly far more common, in all segments of society, often right in front of us.
Traffickers and their clients come from every background and have been outed in virtually every industry, from pornography to sports. Many are outwardly normal or even likable; some are rich and powerful, but many are not. Plenty of them are sleazy or creepy, but many of them are popular and even respectable members of their community or society as a whole. Their victims could seem like willing friends, partners, or employees, and may even be manipulated into believing they are.
All these factors make this scourge of humanity harder to fight. We would all do well to be vigilant and look beyond the narrower and more sensationalist forms this crime can take; it’s a lot closer to us than we think.
On this day in 1940, Japanese diplomat Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara and his Yukio began helping write and issue visas to help Jews flee certain death in the Second World War.
As Japan’s vice consul in Lithuania, Sugihara risked his career and his life to help the hundreds of Jewish refugees that came to his consulate desperately seeking a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the hyper-nationalist Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.
Aware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual—and risky—within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania—though not yet at war with Japan—he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan.
He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, often with Yukio’s help, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce.
After a couple of months, Sugihara had to leave his post, as the consulate was to be closed. He was witnessed frantically writing visas while going from his hotel to the train station. As he prepared to depart, he told those around him “Please forgive me, I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best” and bowed deeply. Having run out of paper, he desperately used blank sheets of paper with only a consulate seal and his signature Even as the train was leaving, he flung visas out the window.
There was never any official retaliation to Sugihara’s actions by the Japanese government. In 1984, he was recognized as a Righteous Among Nations for his rescue efforts. In 1985, a year before his death, he was asked why he disobeyed his orders and issued visas until the very end:
“Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.
People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”
As the New York Times points out in a wonderful profile of him, Sugihara’s character is par for the course of those “righteous among nations” who went above and beyond to save complete strangers.
Research on those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust shows that many exhibited a streak of independence from an early age. Sugihara was unconventional in a society known for prizing conformity. His father insisted that his son, a top student, become a doctor. But Sugihara wanted to study languages and travel and immerse himself in literature. Forced to sit for the medical exam, he left the entire answer sheet blank. The same willfulness was on display when he entered the diplomatic corps and, as vice minister of the Foreign Affairs Department for Japan in Manchuria in 1934, resigned in protest of the Japanese treatment of the Chinese.
A second characteristic of such heroes and heroines, as the psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes, is “that the very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds.” While the world around him disregarded the plight of the Jews, Sugihara was unable to ignore their desperation.
Mr. Zimbardo calls the capacity to act differently the “heroic imagination,” a focus on one’s duty to help and protect others. This ability is exceptional, but the people who have it are often understated. Years after the war, Sugihara spoke about his actions as natural: “We had thousands of people hanging around the windows of our residence,” he said in a 1977 interview. “There was no other way.”
As many as 6,000 people were saved by the Sugiharas, and perhaps 100,000 are alive today because of his boundless heroic imagination. The world is all the better and more alive because of it.
Yesterday marked the 67th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which officially ended hostilities between North and South Korea and their allies. Up to that point, the three-year conflict had claimed 3-4 million lives, most of them civilians.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, the war was technically fought by the United Nations; the U.N. Security Council authorized the creation of “U.N. Command” that would lead a multinational force to repel the North Korean invasion of the South. To this day, recovered bodies of foreign troops (including from the U.S.) are draped in the U.N. flag. The U.N. Command remains operational, albeit mostly to observe the truce.
Nearly 2 million troops from 21 countries participated in the U.N. operation, with dozens more providing support of some kind. Participants ranged from major powers like the U.S., U.K., and France, to Colombia, Ethiopia, and Turkey. Nevertheless, 90% of foreign combatants were American, and the U.S. doubtless played the leading role, though troops from other countries are known to have performed well and decisively. When one includes financial and material support, two thirds of all U.N. members at the time participated.
South Koreans remain grateful to the nations that came to their aid, as evidenced by yesterday’s U.N. Forces Participation Day, which coincides with the commemoration of the armistice agreement. A Korean honor held the flags of each country that sent combat troops; to this day, they enjoy heightened diplomatic and commercial relations, and their nationals (especially descendants of Korean War veterans) are eligible for a special work and student visa. Korean legislators recently passed the Act on the Dignity and Honor of U.N. Korean War Veterans to further “enhance cooperation and friendly relations” with these nations.
The War Memorial of Korea even revamped its Korean War exhibits to provide a “grander highlight” the role of the U.N. and all 63 countries that assisted the South in some way. A sample uniform of India’s medical corps is displayed with equal prominence to their American and Korean counterparts. Every nation that assisted in some way is given credit.
Having begun in 1950, the Korean War became overshadowed by the Second World War, and just years later by the Vietnam War. There is still no peace treaty between the two sides, as the agreement merely called for a ceasefire “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved”. But as the Wilson Center points out, this “forgotten war” and its uniquely multinational nature has left legacy on the world:
The necessity for reexamining the composition, duration, and the impact of the Korean War UN coalition is more apparent when we consider that it was the first UN peace enforcement operation, the aggressive and muscular counterpart to peacekeeping operations. Its importance lies in its success. As Jiyul Kim stated in his Ashgate chapter, “the perception lingers that the UN coalition was more a political symbol of international solidarity than of a substantive military organization…the UN coalition played a key role in the outcome of crucial battles and campaigns and thus the course of the war…but…the greatest legacy of the UN coalition was its impact in resolving conflicts after the Korean War, for it established the enduring principle that the UN has a key political and military role in resolving conflicts through peace enforcement and peacekeeping operations.
In 2013, Iceland experienced its first and only police involved shooting death. Police responded to reports of shotgun fire in a suburb of Reykjavik. Officers tried to contact the gunman, a 59-year old man, but he was unresponsive and continued shooting. Tear gas was then used to subdue him, but to no effect. Finally, an armed special forces team entered the apartment with shields, still seeking to overpower the gunman. But when two officers were injured by continuing gunfire, they finally returned fire and downed the gunman. He was taken to the hospital, where he died; his motives remain unclear.
The National Police Commissioner called the episode “unprecedented” and expressed deep regret for the death, extending apologies to the perpetrator’s family. An investigation into the incident was launched, the guns involved on all sides were seized, and counseling was offered to the officers involved. The country of 330,000 entered a period of national mourning. While one out of three Icelanders own guns, and many are staunch advocates of that right, shootings, much less with police, are exceptionally rare.
Of course, the immediate counterpoint to the Iceland example—as well as to other countries with few police shootings, like Finland, Germany, or the Netherlands—is that those places are small and more homogeneous, and thus have greater sense of the kinship and relatability that fosters trust.
Yet American cops are as likely—if not more likely—to have fatal encounters in suburban and rural areas that are as small and homogeneous as Iceland, Finland, etc. White Americans are 26 times more likely to die by police gunfire than Germans of all backgrounds, whose country of 88 million is fairly large and diverse. Small, homogeneous states like Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming—where both perpetrators and victims of deadly force are almost always white—have relatively high rates of police lethality.
There are numerous American cities, counties, and even states with comparable size and demographics to northern Europe that still suffer from more violence and police lethality. The problem clearly runs deeper, and demographics are no excuse.