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What Five Geopolitical Books Can You Recommend Reading While Social Distancing?

Posted By IRC, Monday, April 6, 2020

Mental health professionals with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and the European Union’s – Mental Health Europe, have similarly emphasized the importance of maintaining good mental health and positive wellbeing to better cope with the current COVID-19 threat, and the uncertainty it’s creating for the future. But, the mental health professionals have a prescription for us to assiduously follow during these trying times: 

  • Take periodic breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories about COVID-19 – including on social media, as hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting 

  • Get plenty of exercise and sleep

  • Make time to unwind

  • Engage in spiritual pursuits, such as meditation or prayer

  • Take time to connect with others, and talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling 

However, our new imposed isolation also means that those of us who participate in the International Relations Council’s Great Decisions discussion groups are saddened that our ‘face-to-face’ conversations have been temporarily curtailed due to the current necessity for social distancing. Nevertheless, we can still read edifying books regarding foreign policy issues and engage in spirited online exchanges of ideas and opinions!

It is with this ethos in mind, I have resolved to take this opportunity to read five geopolitical (and/or historical and economic) books that have intrigued me, but I hadn’t the opportunity to crack open before now. Let’s keep the greater Kansas City community connected, reading, and discussing important world issues. The following are my list of the five geopolitical books I intend to devour in the next few months. I look forward to seeing what topical Great Decisions type books are on your shelves.

Dis United Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, by Peter Zeihan

“For decades, America’s allies have depended on its might for their economic and physical security. But as a new age dawns; the results will surprise everyone…the world has gotten so accustomed to the “normal” of an American-dominated order that we have all forgotten the historical norm: several smaller, competing powers and economic systems throughout Europe and Asia.”. 

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World by Tim Marshall

“All leaders of nations are constrained by geography. Their choices are limited by mountains, rivers, seas, and concrete...Marshall examines Russia, China, the United States, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Western Europe, Japan, Korea, and Greenland and the Artic – their climates, seas, mountains, rivers, deserts, and borders – to provide a context often missing from political reportage.”

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee

“Most experts already say that AI will have a devastating impact on blue-collar jobs. But Lee predicts that Chinese and American AI will have a strong impact on white-collar jobs as well. Is universal income the solution? In Lee’s opinion, probably not. But he provides a clear description of which jobs will be affected and how soon, which jobs can be enhanced with AI, and most important, how we can provide solutions to some of the most profound changes in human history that are coming soon.”

 Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes

“People have lived and died, businesses have prospered and failed, and nations have risen to world power and declined, all over energy challenges. Ultimately, the history of these challenges tells the story of humanity itself.”   

Coffee: A Dark History by Antony Wild

“Today, coffee chains spread like wildfire, coffee-producing countries are in crisis: with prices at a historic low, they are plagued by unprecedented unemployment, abandoned farms, enforced migration, and massive social disruption. Bridging the gap between coffee’s dismal colonial past and its perilous corporate present, Coffee reveals the shocking exploitation that has always lurked at the heart of the industry.”   

“Buona lettura. Ciao!”   

About the Author

Sean P. Quinlan is a graduate of Tulane University, where he received his M.A. degree in Political Economy, and is currently pursuing an M.A. degree in Intelligence and National Security Studies at The Citadel Military College of South Carolina.

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Vietnam on a Whim

Posted By IRC, Monday, March 23, 2020

Ever listen to someone’s future plans and think to yourself, “Wow… they're out of their mind…” ?

That’s what I thought when Dylan told me that he was going to go to Vietnam to teach English for a year. I remember telling him “Wow man, you’re crazy.” At that point, I was drowning in my own thoughts of what I would do come graduation, but I could tell you with 95 percent confidence that traveling to Vietnam was not in the cards for me. 

Graduation came and went and I was working during the summer as an intern in New York City. The internship was temporary and I still didn't know what lay ahead for me and my brand-new B.A. in Psychology. Slowly, this idea that Dylan had told me about crept into my head and became a bit more intriguing. I mean, why not travel across the world to a strange country, right? To a place I didn't know a whole lot about, where they speak a language I’ve never even heard, and a place I have heard about my entire life, but only in the context of a vicious war. Not to mention I had never taught anything in my life. With all of these thoughts rattling around by brain, I came to the conclusion that I might as well take a step outside my own head and see for myself if I could rise to the challenge of facing these fears. 

Long story short, I booked a one way flight to Vietnam with four other friends from school.

In some twisted way, it ended up making more sense for me to find a job in a country other than the United States. Whether I like it or not, I have always had a knack for making decisions that take me down a path of resistance, and this decision was no different. Working in a foreign country came with a lot of pros and cons.

Finding a job was relatively easy, contrary to popular belief. I was advised to post in a Facebook group explaining my teaching credentials and what not. Within a few hours, my inbox was exploding with job offers.

2. Once I was comfortable with the fact that I was living 8,000 miles from home, things became normal. After living in Vietnam for a month or two, I felt as though I wasn’t a tourist anymore. This is not to say that I still wasn't a foreigner and was still largely oblivious to the vibrant Vietnamese culture. This was more a feeling of being comfortable no longer feeling dumbfounded by my surroundings.

3. Teaching was an incredibly rewarding experience (when classes went well). The thought of standing up in front of a group of kids to teach is a daunting one, however when I was able to connect with students and see their progress, then it reaffirmed my decision to undertake this once “crazy endeavor.”


1. Jumping through the legal hoops in order to work legally was tedious. Just making sure that all the documents were in place with the correct stamps and legal jargon was confusing.

2. Not speaking the language (I’ll explain in the next paragraph).

Teaching English as a foreign language is an interesting thing. In theory it’s easy – you are placed in a classroom to teach the language you have been speaking your entire life. Easy. The problem I ran into very quickly, was that I did not speak Vietnamese. This was a hurdle that was expected, however may be overlooked. The company I worked for recommended that I only speak English to the students, and for some of the stronger classes this worked just fine. However, my younger students, aged 6-8, (predictably) struggled with their listening and self-discipline abilities when I gave directions. But, I mean you can’t blame them, what would you do if some strange 23 year old was telling you to do something in a completely foreign language.

While in Vietnam, we all struggled a bit with what we were doing there. My friends and I were one of many in an English-speaking expat community. I thought a lot about what other people might think, considering that I decided to “travel” the year after graduating college. Ultimately, what I realized is this. Yes, I decided to travel after graduation. Did I have what is considered a “real job”? No. And will people ask how “cultured” I am now that I’ve lived in a foreign country for half a year? Probably. However, I was able to travel to the other side of the world and sustain a life out there on my own dime. 

So was the idea so crazy after all?


About the Author
Alex Entner is a 2019 graduate from Hobart and William Smith College. He recently returned from teaching in Vietnam and resides in Rhinebeck, NY. 

Tags:  teaching  vietnam 

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Taking a Moment to Stop and Listen

Posted By IRC, Monday, March 16, 2020
Updated: Thursday, March 12, 2020

It is safe to say that taking a solo trip abroad is a daunting, yet rewarding experience. It is a challenge I decided to take following graduating from undergrad. While traveling abroad alone is not unique as more and more recent graduates seek similar travel experiences, one particular encounter I had while walking in Germany has stuck with me ever since.

I was in Freiburg, Germany as one of my stops on my trip. While looking to do touristy things as any good tourist does, I heard of a gondola which takes riders up a hill in the Black Forest for some remarkable views. I met a fellow traveler from Australia who happened to be looking for the same gondola. After some planning we set off to where we believed the gondola was located. We first took a ten-minute train ride to a small town just outside of Freiburg, and believing it was only a short walk away, we set off on foot.  

After 20 minutes of walking, we still did not know where the gondola was located. We soon found ourselves outside the small town, walking by a field with one last house on the other side of it. We came upon the house and a dog was barking at us from behind the fence.  Rather surprisingly, an elderly woman walked out of her house, through her front gate, and approached us. At first, my travel companion and I looked at each other as if we were about to be scolded. However, the woman quickly smiled and asked us how our day was. At the time, my German was good enough to say hello, and explain who we were and what we were doing there.  

Thirty minutes later we were all still talking as I tried my best to translate what the woman was saying to my new friend from Australia. The woman often apologized for not speaking English as she told us about her childhood, growing up in the midst of WWII. It was fascinating to hear about her experiences and perspectives as a German citizen during the war. I was also surprised at her openness to talk to us about her life and share her story with complete strangers from different countries. We both shared a bit of our stories as well, but her story was far more interesting.

Eventually, I asked if she knew where the gondola was. She told us it was another fifteen-minute walk, but we were beginning to run short of time before the gondola closed. Luckily, a bus was coming down the road and she kindly flagged it down for us. When we finally arrived, we barely had enough time to ride to the top, take a few photos and head back down before the gondola closed. 

As we left and stepped onto the bus, I quickly turned and took a photo of the house. I hardly remember all the details of the day beyond our conversation. It was a valuable lesson to take the time and listen to people’s story, particularly from people of different backgrounds. Since then, when I encounter an opportunity to hear someone’s perspective, I make an effort to stop and listen. The real value of that day was not the views from the gondola, but the insightful conversation with someone happy to share their story with us.

About the Author
Michael Bené is currently the International Relations Council's Project Management intern, and a Law student and a Master’s student in Economics at the University of Kansas.

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Sister City Jazz exchange program with Hannover, Germany

Posted By IRC, Sunday, February 16, 2020

Kansas City and Hannover, Germany are two of the world’s great hubs of jazz, both declared UNESCO Cities of Music. The connection doesn’t stop there – Kansas City and Hannover are linked as Sister Cities. The Sister City Association of Kansas City supports and promotes communication, cooperation, and understanding for innovative programs which bring people together through tourism, education, music, and cultural awareness on the international level. We organize cultural exchanges between Kansas City and sister cities by hosting some interesting events. Last year’s “Wunderbar Together” campaign celebrated the year of German-American friendship. Films and programs highlighted German icons past and present like Wolfgang von Goethe, Gerhard Richter, and Alexander von Humboldt. In addition, we successfully hosted German wine tasting fests, a jazz group from Leipzig, and a classical guitar ensemble from Eutin.

Now, we are preparing for an even bigger jazz exchange program with our sister city of Hannover, Germany. Sixteen members of the Hannover Jazz Club will visit Kansas City in October 2020 for a collaborative jazz program with local musicians. Mr. Lothar Krist, the band leader of the Hannover Jazz Club has a very special program in mind: he wants to perform the "Duke Ellington Sacred Music" in collaboration with his band from Hannover and a local chorus with four soloists from Kansas City. Ellington's Sacred Music Concert is a unique and special musical experience. Ellington did his last recording of his Sacred Music 1974 at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. It also was performed in many churches and synagogues and was always received with great enthusiasm and gratitude.

While in Kansas City, Mr. Lothar Krist will offer workshops on clarinet, saxophone, band coaching, and ensemble leadership. Mr. Krist is a professional musician with a life-long career conducting orchestras and choirs. He takes a deep interest in the history of music as well. Mr. Krist and his jazz club are renowned in Germany and throughout Europe as musicians of the highest quality.

The Hannover Committee of Sister Cities Association of Kansas also have great expectations for the future. 2020 is “Beethoven Year,” and various films and festivities will celebrate his 250th birthday. For March 2021, we are preparing for a Gospel exchange program and want to bring Hannover Gospel music to Kansas City for a collaborative concert. In addition, we are working on introducing the rediscovered Jewish synagogal organ and choral music by Salomon Sulzer (Vienna, Austria) and Louis Lewandowski (Berlin, Germany). As always, we will continue our tradition of conducting German wine fests as well as supporting the German language Christmas service, and plan to continue strengthening our jazz exchange program. Sister Cities is thrilled to support this rich cultural heritage of these two musical cities.

About the Author
Traute Kohler is Chair of the Hannover Committee of the Sister City Association of Kansas City (SCAKC). 

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From China to Vietnam, with Love

Posted By IRC, Monday, February 10, 2020

I was fortunate enough to visit my girlfriend’s home country during the winter break. Vietnam is a beautiful country in Southeast Asia, just a five hour flight away from the city where I was born in Shanghai, China. This is a very large step in anyone's relationship, but especially in the Chinese and Vietnamese culture.  


Vietnam's culture and history are very diverse. On the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, you can see the results of the fusion of Eastern and Western cultures, and the buildings that were left over during the French colonial period in the city center. Vietnamese sandwiches are one of the local favorites for breakfast. It consists of a French baguette, Vietnamese-style grilled pork, local coriander, and pickled radish. This sandwich has a Western appearance and an Asian flavor. This combination made me unable to stop eating! The first thing to do after getting up every morning is to buy one on the street cart. In Vietnam, this situation went on every day for my six-day trip. 


Meeting Anna's parents was undoubtedly the thing that made me most nervous. Fortunately, Vietnam and China have similar cultures, especially young people who have Chinese parental respect for the older generation. Before I went to Vietnam, my father in China told me some tips when he met my grandparents from my mom‘s side, which worked well. When drinking green tea with her dad, I should always refill tea for him. The younger generation is to be quiet and listen when parents talk. These behaviors left a good impression on her parents. When I was leaving Vietnam, they repeatedly told me to come to Vietnam again when I have free time again. Even now, whenever I think of my trip to Vietnam, their enthusiasm touches me and makes me feel very grateful.


My time in Vietnam was the end of the year and very close to the lunar new year. Anna told me that every family in Vietnam will buy a very large watermelon to share with the whole family in the New Year. This seemed unacceptable to me. More than 20 years of life experience made me equate New Year and Winter, but watermelon is obviously the product of summer. It's like letting Chicagoans go to Australia in the southern hemisphere for Christmas and say "Merry Christmas" to each other while turning on the air conditioner and eating ice cream. However, the beauty of travel is that it will subvert your perception of the world and traditions and let people understand each other. From the northern hemisphere, I learned that in the consciousness of Australians and Vietnamese, New Year is equal to summer.


About the Author
Kevin Guo is the Events Intern at the International Relations Council. He is a junior at the University of Kansas, where he is pursuing a double major in Global and International Studies and Economics.

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New Americans Welcome Naturalization Ceremony

Posted By IRC, Monday, February 3, 2020
Updated: Sunday, February 2, 2020

The New American Welcome Center (NAWC) and the North Kansas City YMCA are so happy to say congratulations to 174 new American citizens from over 55 different countries. These students took the oath of allegiance at the North Kansas City YMCA on January 15, 2020, and successfully completed their journey to citizenship!

It was an honor to be a part of this amazing day. Two members of the North Kansas City YMCA were a part of this ceremony and received their citizenship in front of their friends and family. Our community is truly stronger and more vibrant for all of the incredible people from all over the world who choose this country, and our county, to call home.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lajuana Counts presided over the ceremony and delivered welcoming remarks. Chief Deputy of Administration Randall Henderson administered the Oath of Allegiance. Speakers included Tina Weaver, executive director of the North Kansas City YMCA, and April Osegueda, community outreach director who oversees the New American Welcome Center at the YMCA. Ondrea Lapadino, a North Kanas City YMCA Welcome Center associate, sang the Star Spangled Banner.

The candidates originate from 55 countries: Albania, Belize, Bhutan, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burma, Burundi, Canada, China, Congo (Kinshasa), Cuba, Denmark, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jamaica, Jordon, Kenya, Laos, Liberia, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Venezuela and Vietnam.

Following the ceremony 80 of the new U.S. citizens registered to vote at a voter registration event at the YMCA.   

The NAWC is very grateful to the local businesses and mission board members who sponsored this event, including: Harrah’s, Synergy Services, and Main Event. 

About the Author
April Osegueda serves as Community Outreach Coordinator for the North Kansas City YMCA. The YMCA of Greater Kansas City has been an IRC organizational member since April 2018.

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No Iranaphobia for me

Posted By IRC, Monday, January 27, 2020
Updated: Thursday, January 23, 2020
We tend to fear what we know little about, especially if we choose to have limited sources for gaining knowledge about the world. Recently, having returned from a two week trip to Iran sponsored by Global Exchange, I was delighted and privileged to learn more about this rich and ancient history and to witness first-hand the warmth and engagement of the people. Since having made the decision to go last February, I must say that I did have some trepidation as the verbal exchange between the U.S. and Iran seemed to be heating up in intensity over the summer months. Also, I have never traveled to a country that the U.S. State Dept. labeled as Level 4, with the warning, "Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnappingarrest, detention of U.S. citizens."

There is no doubt that average Iranians are affected by the sanctions, especially the ability to get medications needed for serious medical issues. Iranians are resilient, though and go about their daily lives. Many of whom I spoke with are hoping for regime change. I was told by several sources that approximately 90 percent of Iranians want a new form of leadership. Much the same as many of us seek in the U.S. for our own government. 
Despite not speaking Farsi, I experienced a group of several women picnicking in Isfahan by a river bridge park and as I walked by and smiled and they smiled back, one of them gestured to me to join them and partake of their food. Never having received an invitation like that in a Kansas City park, I was pleasantly taken aback.  
Two experiences of oppression stayed with me, though. One was my sadness and frustration about the Islamic State's mandatory head coverings, at the risk of jail for all older girls and women. I also felt the palpable anxiety at the designated areas where the military were present and photos were not allowed, including outside the American Embassy and the notorious, Evin Prison. This is a foreboding sight for Iranians and foreigners alike. Since childhood, I have always been one to engage in minor juvenile delinquency, but I knew this was not the time or place for me to test the rules.  
There is one thing people will not do - they will not stop going about their daily lives and taking care of their families, all while hoping for improved conditions. They tell you with pride and sincerity that they have not attacked or invaded another country in over 200 years. We know many countries who cannot say that. The Iranian people have a pride in their country and resiliency about them that is to be admired. I witnessed this in other places where I have traveled – throughout the West Bank in Palestine and in the countrysides of El Salvador. If only governments were as earnest as the citizens they are supposed to be leading.  
About the Author

Kathleen Kennedy, a social worker, works with oppressed and indigent Kansas Citians.       

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A Kansas Citian’s Visit to Iran

Posted By IRC, Monday, January 20, 2020
Updated: Thursday, January 16, 2020

This blog was written in early October 2019, before the events of recent days.

“Where are you from?” This was the quizzical look on the Iranian people’s faces and what they really meant was, "if you are from the U.S., how did you get a visa to come to Iran?". We said yes, we are from the U.S. “We love Americans“ was the constant rejoiner. To that, we said, “We apologize for what our administration has done to your people.”

On September 26th, a group of four of our Global Exchange Tour arrived in Tehran for a 14-day tour of Iran traveling some 2,000 miles to Yazd, Shiraz, and Esfahan. We knew that Iran was the cradle of civilization but we did not realize that its roots go back as far as 10,000 years. In that time, Iran has survived 22 civilizations and six dynasties. 

Iran was not on my list of countries to visit, but when a good friend at the Mathematics and Computer Sciences Department at American University said she wanted to visit her Doctoral students, I jumped at the chance. The more I read, the more committed I was to going and found a tour with Global Exchange that had a trip in the works. In the meantime, I found a friend who really wanted to go to Iran and soon Kansas City social worker Kathleen Kennedy had signed on. That was in the spring of 2019.

As the international geopolitical game of chicken between the U.S. and Iran became part of our daily news frenzy, Kathleen and I lost hope that we would get visas and be able to go. Our guess is that because of our Global Exchange’s on-the-ground travel agent Passargad Tours has good working relations with Iranian government and our State Department, we were fortunate enough to be given visas. Iran could use more tourists and It would help counterbalance that our sanctions have done to their people. 

We heard from many sources that the sanctions have had a serious effect on their economy and the public’s ability to get necessary medications. U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran and our US President’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement was continuing to have a devastating impact on the poor and the middle class. 

We also witnessed the challenges the people experienced everyday like traffic in Tehran. A city of over 8 million people and 10,000 motorbikes. These bikes often carried two or three people on them, often with no helmets. Watching the traffic was like viewing a social phenomenon – cars moving in a seemingly random, yet understood order. It is certainly worthy of a documentary.

In Yazd, we discovered how the ancient civilization figured out how to create water system that piped water from the mountains down to the city. The system, or “Qanat,” continues to provide water in this arid California-like climate. 

Yazd was the city where we discovered the early beginning of the influence of Zoroastrianism. This ancient religion has a center of worship in the city, where we witnessed the Zoroastrian Fire Temple, where a fire that has been burning for the past 1,500 years. This was the religion of Cyrus the Great, whose burial grounds we visited. In a museum, we saw a large vase-like pot that had the first known inscriptions of a human rights creed. Zoroastrian ethic included a ban on slavery and the concept of ruling through love rather than fear. Zoroastrian beliefs have influenced Jewish and Christian faith traditions. 

As we visited the cities, we (Kathleen and I being social workers) kept asking where the poor people were. Why we did not see anyone at the street corners asking for money, or homeless people camped out under the bridges, or drunken people meandering down the side streets? The answers we received from our travel guide and other people we spoke with at various stops along the way was that the homeless population but they are commonly taken in by families or non-profit organizations, Much to our surprise, we learned that guns are not allowed in Iran, which also increased our feeling of safety.

Esfahan has boulevards as impressive as those in Paris. The engineers who laid out the city did a remarkable job of structuring sidewalks (works of design not slabs of cement) and lined them with sycamore trees whose branches provided a leafy umbrella cover for the streets. We walked these boulevards at night to go to the lovely parks where families and groups were eating and sharing time together. UNESCO had marked this grand square as a World Heritage Site.

Of course, the Iranian food was a cuisine in a class all of its own. Slow cooking, nutritious vegetables, and spices like saffron and cardamom make all the difference. Pistachios from Iran are the best, and the flat breads were like none I have had in the U.S.

We spent considerable time in Persian Carpet stores looking at works of art and labors of love. The number of knots, the origin of the dyes, and the source of silk and wool all determine the value of the carpet. We also visited numerous masques and museums, where we learned about the great poets and the rich culture. 

We learned that about 90 percent of Iranians practice Shi'ism, the official religion of Iran. At the mosque, we watched the men roll out the carpets for the men to worship on while the women were up in the parameters worshipping. We wore head coverings the whole time we were there, as was the law. At times there were scenes that reminded me of the 16th century in European towns where the fully covered religious women were walking down the streets. The only difference was that the women in chadors/hijab were listening on their cell phones and carrying stylish purses. What some women of each century have in common is that their outward dress reflects their relationship to God. 

All of this makes a case for tourism, or as I like to think of it as “soft citizen diplomacy.”

About the Author

Alice Kitchen is a Kansas City-based activist, perhaps most notably serving as the Co-Chair of the Women's Equality Coalition. 

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Many Mistakes Led to Tragedy in Syria

Posted By IRC, Monday, November 4, 2019
Updated: Monday, November 4, 2019

This article was originally published in the StarTribune on Wednesday, October 16 and can be found on their website

The tragedy unfolding in Syria has riveted American attention anew to the problems there — problems that reflect contradictions we have avoided, but must grapple with now.

One problem is that America’s single-minded focus on ISIS since 2014-15 has more or less willfully disregarded the longer-term. This no longer seems sustainable. The post-ISIS future of Syria is at stake as the Sunni Arab majority, Kurds, Alawites and Christians, as well as Turks, Russians and Iranians, are duking it out. We must decide whether, and how, to engage in that contest, irrespective of the ISIS campaign.

A second problem has to do with America’s reliance on Syrian Kurds and, specifically, our partnership in the anti-ISIS campaign with a Syrian Kurdish militia that is a subsidiary of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a vicious war against Turkey for the last 40-plus years. Turkey hated this partnership.

As a military tactic, U.S. policymakers understood this bargain had risks, but saw no other option — and this militia proved decisive in crushing the ISIS “caliphate,” saving tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of lives. But Kurds make up only 10% of Syria’s population, have long been estranged from its Sunni mainstream, and cannot deliver long-term peace and stability. On the contrary, their power grab in Syria’s ethnically diverse north is a source of instability.

As the endgame unfolds, the Kurdish piece of our Syria policy, such as it is, cannot continue as before.

A third problem is the matter of Turkey’s alliance with the United States and Europe juxtaposed against its defiance of its allies, its cozying relations with Russia, and its obvious turn away from democracy and the rule of law. Always a difficult ally, Turkey has become odious. Pending but unimplemented sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system reflect the Trump administration’s unwillingness to choose between competing images of Turkey.

This, too, has become less realistic — on both sides.

U.S. policymakers have long known these conundrums could not last, but sought to manage them. They tried to negotiate security arrangements that would reassure Ankara, protect our Syrian Kurdish friends, and ensure ISIS stayed finished. Little of this had much U.S. public support. While not failures, few elements in this line of action achieved success either.

No wonder President Donald Trump got frustrated, just as many others have tired of “forever wars” that seem to slide from one objective to another with too little justification to the American people.

Now our abandonment of the Kurds and the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria have led to demands for sanctions to halt Ankara’s campaign. Congress may well legislate punishments. But they will do nothing to address threats to U.S. interests in Syria or in the region. “Sanctions” and “foreign policy” are not synonymous, any more than name-calling or impetuous decisions by presidents or other leaders of the United States or Turkey are the same thing as strategy.

We care about making sure that ISIS stays stamped out. We care about a reasonable level of peace and security in the Middle East, on which the world’s economy depends. We care about the immense suffering that has befallen Syria since 2012; we would like to see it end. We care about our NATO alliance. And all the while we see our ability to influence events in Syria shrinking.

Instead of cutting and running — or posturing and beating our breasts — our conversation about Syria, Kurds, Turkey, ISIS, and the way forward should focus on melding achievable goals with the means to achieve them. That means finding new ways to keep ISIS defeated, and using our leverage to get the Turks and the Syrian Kurds — who have no choice but to live together — into a better place.

It also means re-engaging with the non-Kurdish Syrians, including the Assad regime, distasteful though that will be, in an effort to get the country on a path toward more effective governance and social-economic order.








About the Author
Ross Wilson, of River Falls, Wisconsin, was U.S. Ambassador to Turkey from 2005 to 2008. He now serves as board chair of Global Minnesota (the IRC's sister council in Minneapolis) and as a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was a past speaker at the IRC in 2017. 

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The Middle East Beyond the Headlines

Posted By IRC, Monday, October 28, 2019
Updated: Monday, October 28, 2019

The University of Central Missouri (UCM) offers a wide variety of study programs for students to take advantage of while in school. One of these programs is “The Middle East Beyond the Headlines” which is a three-week, faculty-led tour to Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. I participated in this program in the summer of 2018 and could not have been happier with the knowledge and growth I took back with me.

The purpose of this specific program is to break the common stereotypes that people have regarding the Middle East. For example, when telling my family and friends that I was traveling to this area of the world, they expressed concern or even fear for me rather than sharing in my enthusiasm. They would say things such as, “Why would you want to go there?” or, “Don’t you know that they will not like you?” and other questions and comments. I responded to this by telling them that not only was I very excited for my first international experience, but I was also looking forward to everything I knew I would learn.

The study tour was phenomenal. It begins in Amman, Jordan, with excursions to Petra, Wadi Rum, Jerash, and others. After Jordan, you go to Tel Aviv, Israel, and see a very different side of the Middle East, despite the two cities being only a short bus ride apart from each other. Jerusalem is the last stop on the tour, and my personal favorite. It is an historical and cultural melting pot, with friendly people and so much to soak in. The program provides a healthy balance of lectures and tours with free time for students to explore the cities or book their own excursions. This program does help to break the stereotypes students might hold going into it. You learn that the region is not just a desert, that people are actually quite hospitable and want to get to know you, and it is more than just the conflict that is always being portrayed in the media.

Participating in this program helped me to realize how much I love learning about the Middle East region. After studying abroad for a second time, I returned to school and knew I wanted to continue learning as much as I could about the culture, and I declared a minor in Middle Eastern Studies. Next summer, I will be returning on the same program to Jordan and Israel to conduct field research for a project. I am very excited to see where this takes me and how I will be able to develop a career for my future.

About the Author
Mikayla Elia is a junior at the University of Central Missouri studying Anthropology with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies. She in interested in nonprofit work and was a part of Nonprofit Shadow Day at the IRC. 

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