Book Idea: Cycling The Iron Curtain Trail

I first learned about the Iron Curtain Trail last summer.  I don’t remember how I found out about it then, but it popped up again this year in an article from the German Embassy.  Both times I read about it I thought it would be great to bike the trail and then write a book about it.  Up until now, I’ve kept this idea to myself because I thought it would be too “out there.”

I envision focusing on three topics- the history of the Cold War, remembering the Cold War, and bicycle/sustainable tourism.  We learn about the American side of the Cold War but very little about the European states, especially the ones along the Iron Curtain.  Sure, we’re taught about Berlin (Airlift, Wall, 1989, etc.), maybe a little about East Berlin in 1953 or Hungary in 1956, the Prague Spring, and of course, the events of 1989.  With this book, however, I want to tell the story of the Iron Curtain states and the experiences of the people living there during the Cold War.  Perhaps I could also talk about the current tensions between the West and Russia, to draw some parallels.

I would also like to see how people living along the trail memorialize the Cold War.  What types of monuments or memorials do they have, if any?  If they don’t have them, why not?  What do they teach about the Cold War in school?

The third topic is more about what Americans can learn about bicycle/sustainable tourism.  I’d like to talk with government officials and citizens about the effects of cycling on their towns, villages, cities, etc.  How do they promote bicycle/sustainable tourism?  What’s worked, and what hasn’t?  Cities in Western Europe, e.g. Copenhagen, Amsterdam, receive a lot of attention for their bicycle-friendly cultures (and rightly so), but I would like to give these Iron Curtain cities a chance to showcase their achievements.  Finally, I want to explore the role of the EU and The Greens in this project and write about their successes and obstacles to the project.

As a side note- if this dream were to somehow become a reality, I would blog about the experience in addition to gathering material for the book.

While this sounds like an amazing idea to me, the reality is that I don’t even know where to begin with proposing it.  (That’s sort of why I’m writing this blog post and hoping that somebody has some ideas)  I would have to take sabbatical, but those aren’t paid, so I would need to find funding to take the place of my salary.  Do I look for sponsors in the cycling world?  European sponsors?

As for publishing, do I find a publisher before or after funding?  This isn’t a scholarly monograph, so university presses are out of the running, but then what type of book is it?  History/policy/travel/sport?

Finally, I have to take my family into account.  I can’t just pack up and leave my wife and kids for months while I cycle the trail (or can I? hhmmmm).  Do we take the year off and homeschool the kids while we’re in Europe?  I think it would be a tremendous experience for my kids, but could they handle traveling for an extended period of time?  We would also need to find money to make up for my wife’s salary, as well as lodging while we travel from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea.  What kind of sponsors could we find who are willing to pay for two teachers to take their children on a bicycle tour in Europe?

If anybody has any ideas about how to make this whole thing happen, I would love to hear them.

Thanks for reading.


Book 2- On the Muslim Question

Note: This is second book for the Politics and IR book club that I wrote about back in August.  My original schedule called for me completing this book by the middle of November.  I have this problem, however, where I have so many interests and a desire to understand new topics, that I can get bogged down in reading various articles and reports and get behind on my scheduled reading.  Best laid plans I guess.

I picked Anne Norton’s book, On the Muslim Question, because I felt it was a timely topic.  Since September 11, 2001, the relationship between the West and Islam has been strained, and I think it is always good practice to use education as a way to come to a greater understanding of “hot” topics.

One of Norton’s main arguments is that while the West (its institutions, values, etc.) may feel that it is under attack from Islam, in reality, the West launches its own assaults on Islam.  In other words, the West exhibits a great deal of hypocrisy when dealing with Islam and Muslims.  For example, the West points to the inequality of women in the Muslim world but still grapples with its own problems of the same nature.  Norton argues that by focusing on the oppression of Muslim women, the oppression of Western women is sometimes lost or forgotten.  A second example of attacks on Islam can be seen in the vitriol spewed forth by the shockjocks or far-right pundits and politicians who speak or act to outrage people by, say, insulting a religion.

A second main argument, and the one that I think we should all consider, is how to best recognize the presence of Muslims in the West and accept them into society.  Norton devotes two chapters that each make great food for thought when considering a solution to this problem- one chapter on equality, and the other on democracy.  In the chapter on equality, she builds more on the inequality faced by women in the West.  Additionally, her discussion about poverty and charity are relevant on numerous levels (think about the current debate about inequality).  Norton also puts forth two provocative assertions in the chapter on democracy- “democracy is rooted in courage,” (p. 131) and “democracy depends on fortitude, on steadfastness, on the ability to endure hardship.” (p. 132)  While those two gems may not necessarily answer the question of how to best accept Muslims, they do lead readers to consider their own role in civic life and the public sphere.  When it comes to accepting Muslims, Norton argues that there is no “clash of civilizations.”  Norton gives numerous examples of how Western Muslims have already integrated into society- popular literature and music, famous athletes, growing popularity of Middle Eastern food, and Muslims holding political office.

For what its worth, I would argue that the best way to end the “war on Islam and Muslims” is through education.  If we don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes and don’t want our children to fear “the other,” then we need to encourage people to learn about Islam.  In Europe, Germany seems to be proactive in this regard.  Just recently, for example, German schools began offering students classes on Islam.  Germany has also instituted a number of programs designed to bridge the gap between cultures (see my piece on Germany’s Opportuntiy from March 2012).  Here in the US, educating our students about various world religions and cultures should be an important part of all curriculum frameworks.  Ignorance is not bliss.

The next book up for discussion is Unequal Democracy by Larry M. Bartels.

Thanks for reading.

Book 1- Thinking about Leadership

Note: This is the first book for the Politics & IR book club that I wrote about in August. 

I originally chose Thinking about Leadership by Nannerl Keohane for two main reasons: 1) I follow politics and sometimes write about my elected representatives/leaders here on my blog, and 2) I wanted to see if leadership as applied to individual leaders could also be applied to nations.

Part of my prior knowledge of leadership was based on my experience in the US Army.  The first letter of each of the seven army values– Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage- spell out leadership.  Additionally, as an NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer, or for laymen, a sergeant), part of our creed was “All Soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership.”  When one takes those values and ideas to heart, one begins forming a certain notion of leadership (i.e. lead by example).  The concepts of responsibility and putting others’ needs before one’s own become important and a part of a way of life.  Going into this book, then, I had ideas about leadership based on my experiences, but hadn’t really thought about the theory behind it.

Rather than go through the book chapter by chapter, I want to touch on what I feel were some of the more intriguing aspects of it, beginning with Keohane’s definition of leadership.  She brings together two activities required for leadership- “Leaders determine or clarify goals for a group of individuals and bring together the energies of members of that group to accomplish those goals.” (p. 23)  She also points out that it is more beneficial to think in terms of “A leader is…” rather than “The leader of…” when thinking about leadership.

Leadership, however, does not necessarily mean power.  While leaders usually use hard or soft power to achieve their goals, there can be limits to their power due to the institutional context or the influence of other actors.  Conversely, a person can have a lot of power or influence over their group, but they may be poor leaders.  This leads to an important question- is there a difference between leading and wielding power?  In my mind, this is an opportunity to apply these concepts to nations, using the United States as the example.

With the world’s largest economy and largest military, the United States has a considerable amount of power and has not been afraid to use it.  If there is a difference, however, between leading and wielding power, then it is possible that the United States is not necessarily a global leader.  Additionally, if a nation’s leadership is based on the premise of “lead by example,” then the United States may not be seen as a global leader. Examples of where the US falls short in this role can be found in American environmental policy and its dysfunctional, polarized political system.  If a nation is not a leader in certain areas, however, does that mean it is not an overall global leader?  Additionally, if the United States (due to its considerable power) is sometimes able to bring other nations together to achieve a set of goals, is it considered a global leader?

One of the aspects I really liked about Keohane’s book was her discussion of followers.  I had never really thought about the role of followers in leadership before, so for me this was an enlightening chapter.  When it comes down to it, leaders cannot exist without followers.  The question for leaders then is how to get accepted by followers.  Leaders must realize that followers can influence through support or through opposition.  Finally, when considering different levels of leadership, one must not forget that a leader can simultaneously be a follower.

Keohane also devotes a chapter to gender and leadership, and asks an important question- why aren’t there more women leaders today?  I think it starts with how women are treated around the world.  Examining, the Millennium Development Goals, one learns that improving the lives of women will make the world a better place.  Promoting gender equality, improving access to education, and giving women better maternal health care (all MDG’s) would hopefully lead to more opportunities to be leaders.  In her conclusion to the book, Keohane asks if leadership can be taught; if it can, then perhaps one solution would be to teach females about leadership and put them in leadership positions throughout their education.  Speaking from personal experience, I make it a point to put my female students in leadership positions for our Model UN team, either as a co-president or a head delegate.  It might be small, but hopefully it’s a good start.  What else can we do to encourage females to be leaders?

The final aspect of Keohane’s book I want to discuss is her section about leadership and democracy.  The conundrum of democratic leadership is that “all democracies face the dilemma of ensuring that the work of leadership gets done without allowing leaders to accumulate privilege and perpetuate their power.” (173)  In other words, leaders must have power, but not too much power.  If they want to stay in that position of leadership, they also need to gain support, not just from followers, which can lead to another dilemma- distortion of information.  Both problems, accumulation of power and privilege and distortion of information, can have a negative impact on the democratic process.  This is where citizens in a democracy have the opportunity to play an important role- holding leaders accountable.  So how can citizens hold elected officials and other leaders accountable?  Voting?  Writing your representative or political party?  Running for office?  Or, for what it’s worth, given the accumulation of wealth, privilege, and power of our elected officials and leaders, is it still possible in the United States to hold them accountable?

To close, a few questions for you if you read the book: 1) How did your ideas of leadership relate with Keohane’s definition of leadership? 2) Is it possible to apply the theory of leadership by individuals to leadership by nations, or do we need to have a different construct?  3) What section of the book did you find most thought-provoking?

The next book up for discussion at the end of this month (if I can get back on schedule) is On the Muslim Question, by Anne Norton.

Thanks for reading.

Politics and International Relations Book Club

I recently received the 2013 Politics and International Relations catalog from Princeton University Press, and as I perused the book titles I found myself saying things like “I want to read that,” “That looks interesting,” and “Ooohhhhh.”  Once I was done having my nerd moment, I thought about how cool it might be to have a book club via my blog based on some of the books that I wanted to read from the catalog.  I thought it would be an awesome opportunity to read and discuss these books with people from across the US and around the globe.  Plus, it’s kind of a cool experiment if you think about it.  So, it is with great pleasure (and a lot of hope that this project succeeds) that I invite people from all over to read one book per month for a year, beginning in October.

My idea is to read the book during the first three weeks of the month and then spend the last week of the month discussing it here on the blog.  I will write the initial post with my thoughts and hope that somebody else has also read the book and wants to discuss their thoughts as well.  If anybody would like to be a guest facilitator and write the initial post for any of the books, please feel free to let me know, and we’ll figure out how to make that happen.  Finally, I will also try to contact the author(s) of the books to see if they would like to participate in this project.

The schedule is as follows:
October–Keohane, Nannerl O.  Thinking about Leadership.
November–Norton, Anne.  On the Muslim Question.
December–Bartels, Larry M.  Unequal Democracy.
January–Borstelmann, Thomas.  The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality.
February–Mazower, Mark.  No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations.
March–Neier, Aryeh.  The International Human Rights Movement.
April–Marquand, David.  The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe.
May–Trachtenberg, Marc.  The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics.
June–Steil, Benn.  The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order.
July–Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky.  The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement.
August–Beerbohm, Eric.  In Our Name: The Ethics of Democracy.
September–Hall, John A.  The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency.

Finally, a note on how I chose the titles.  First, I picked ones in the catalog that sounded interesting to me.  Second, I narrowed those down into books that hopefully appeal to more than just American readers; after all, I’m trying to get a global discussion going here.  Third, the only method for the order of the books is that I put them in the order they appeared in the catalog.  Fourth, I know that there are a lot of publishers out there, but I just happened to have the catalog from Princeton University Press (PUP) at this particular moment in time, so I rolled with it.  I am in no way associated with PUP, nor am I receiving any sort of payment from them.

If you plan on participating in the book club, or have questions, please feel free to leave a comment.

Thanks for reading.

Foreign Policy Observations and Advice from Sen. Russ Feingold

This past spring I checked out from the public library Russ Feingold’s book, While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post 9/11 Era, and as soon as I finished it, I went out and bought my own copy.  Throughout the book, Feingold, the former Democratic US Senator for my state, Wisconsin, gives an interesting behind-the-scenes account of Washington after 9/11 and his time as a member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.  As he recounts his days as a politician, he simultaneously makes observations and doles out advice for American foreign policy.

One of the main themes of the book is the necessity of the American people and government to be more aware of foreign affairs.  Towards the beginning of the book, Feingold quotes a 1937 speech by Winston Churchill, during which the former British Prime Minister states, “[Our] fate…depends on what may happen in the world, on what other countries do, for good or for ill.” (16)  Seventy-six years later, that advice is still applicable, if not more so, given our increasingly interconnected world.  In his numerous discussions of listening sessions, Feingold mentions how often constituents’ questions and comments focused on domestic issues as opposed to global ones.  Eventually we learn that political conversations at all levels focused mostly on domestic affairs, and that “there is little expectation within the Senate that senators should know much about foreign issues; expectations are even lower among the public as well.” (236)  Additionally, he asserts that people living in other countries know more about Americans, than we do about them.  This leads to the important conclusion that the US will experience serious repercussions for ignoring the rest of the world.  Not only will deliberate ignorance have a detrimental affect on our standing in the world, but it will also have negative consequences for our national security.

This leads us to the second theme, his advice on how to correct this problem and get America back on the right path.  I want to focus on two of his proposals- learning at least one foreign language, and the importance of public diplomacy.  Sen. Feingold devotes roughly four pages to the issue of learning a foreign language.  I do not know why this is not more of a priority in our education system, although I can guess it is because the US borders only two countries- Canada and Mexico- and therefore learning another language has never really been seen as a necessity.  Last spring, I traveled to Germany as part of an exchange program between my high school and a Gesamtschule.  I was amazed at how early students there begin learning English.  On top of that, many of them usually learn a third language.  Of course, I can see why learning a foreign language might be a necessity in Europe, given the fact that any one country borders many different countries.  As globalization continues, it is imperative that Americans learn foreign languages.  If we want to conduct business in other countries, study overseas, or even just learn about another culture, learning a foreign language is crucial.

In addition to learning a foreign language, Feingold advocates for the importance of public diplomacy.  While he states that lawmakers and diplomats need to be “engaged and informed about world affairs,” we also need regular citizens to travel overseas to cultivate relationships and understanding between the US and other countries. (248)  Feingold argues that public diplomacy will create “meaningful opportunities for citizen dialogue, a chance for countries to get to know each other from the bottom up.” (264)  Perhaps the most well-known attempt by the US government at public diplomacy is the Peace Corps.  As a high school social studies teacher, I am a firm supporter of public diplomacy.  One of the classes I teach is World Studies, a mix of history, government, geography, and economics.  During the thirty-six weeks we are in school, my job is to teach my students (who are mostly 15-16 years old) about various regions around the world using those “strands” of social studies.  In other words, I am trying to increase my students’ interest and awareness in global affairs and cultures, as well as break down stereotypes.  As I am sure that classes like this are found all over the world, who better to engage in public diplomacy than teachers?  Accordingly, I want to point out two specific opportunities for teachers.

The first program is the Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange, an opportunity for a teacher from the US and another country to exchange positions for a semester or a year.  Unfortunately, there are only six other countries participating in the program.  I hope that whichever agency is in charge of the Fulbright (US Department of State?  Institute of International Education?) will eventually be able to add more countries to the list.  As someone who has a keen interest in transatlantic relations, the second program I want to point out is the Marshall Memorial Fellowship created by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.  Participants “visit five cities during the 24-day program” and “explore each other’s politics, business, innovation, and culture through experiential learning.”  Given the importance of the relationship between the US and Europe, programs like this one are beneficial to parties on both sides of the Atlantic.

Since 9/11 and the debacle known as the Bush Doctrine, the US has lost its standing in the world.  We have a lot of relationships to mend.  Russ Feingold has given the American public and politicians a blueprint for a successful foreign policy.  Hopefully, more people will read his book and take his advice.