The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Tag: U.S. foreign policy

Money in Politics

“Elections should be determined by who has the best ideas, not who can hustle the most money from the rich and powerful.” There are the words of Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democrat nomination for the 2016 presidential election, famous for being a self-described democratic socialist and the longest serving independent in Congress. While Sanders is known for pushing political boundaries, his views on money in politics are not exactly radical. A recent CBS-New York Times poll has shown that a whopping 84 percent of people (90 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans) think that money has too much influence on political campaigns today. 46 percent of respondents believed that the system for funding political campaigns is so flawed it must be completely rebuilt.

Although campaign financing did not rank high on the list of most important problems facing the United States (the economy and jobs, predictably, dominated the poll), campaign funding is becoming an important talking point in the long run up to next year’s election. For example, Hillary Clinton, the predicted front-runner for the Democratic nomination, has made campaign financing a key element of her campaign. “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all—even if it takes a constitutional amendment,” Clinton said at an event in April 2015.

The controversy around money in politics revolves largely around recent developments in laws about campaign funding. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that there cannot be limits on third-party spending on political campaigns. This ruling was based on the First Amendment. But why is third-party political spending important? What is the public’s concern?

The New York Times released the following video, explaining “the murky process of campaign contributions and the impact of anonymous donations on the political system.”

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In many ways, the question of campaign finance is similar to many other questions we ask about the government, the United States, and the world we live in. Decisions about issues like how money in politics should (or should not) be regulated revolve around values. Values play a key role when defining the broad parameters of public policy. What do we believe about ourselves? What matters most to us? When strongly held values come into conflict, which are most important? Equality or free speech? The democracy of changing a system that most people believe to be in need of an overhaul, or the stability of maintaining a system that is not ideal but works? Some values fit together well. Others are in conflict. Governments and their citizens are constantly being forced to choose among competing values in their ongoing debates about public policy.

The Options Roles Play in Choices curriculum units not only invites students to identify and express the key values present in different policy perspectives or options, it also creates a framework where students can identify and prioritize their own values.  As the United States enters this long campaign period, recognizing values and how they relate to policy will be a vital part of being an engaged citizen and choosing a government that will help create the kind of future you want to see.

 

Related resources from the Choices Program:

Considering the Role of Values in Public Policy is an activity that uses “value cards” to analyze how political values play a part in civic life.

U.S.RoleStudentThe U.S. Role in a Changing World is a full-length curriculum unit where students reflect on global changes, assess national priorities, and decide for themselves the role the United States should play in the world today. It places U.S. policy in global perspective, inviting students to decide how the United States should frame its future.

A Changing Cuba

Since December 17, 2014, when Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize relations after over fifty years without any diplomatic ties, Cuba has dominated U.S. headlines. Some people see this historic shift as the latest in a series of short, dramatic periods of change that characterize Cuban history—starting with Cuba’s struggles for independence from Spain and U.S. occupation at the turn of the twentieth century to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that continues to this day. These people view Cuba as a “place frozen in time,” characterized by vintage cars and crumbling buildings. But in reality, Cuba is constantly changing.

Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow

“Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow.” Bruce McCall, The New Yorker.

For instance, Netflix received a lot of attention earlier this year for announcing that it would make its TV and movie streaming service available in Cuba. The announcement was one of the first from many U.S. companies lining up to do business in Cuba as U.S. restrictions are lifted. As many critics noted, the Netflix announcement was primarily symbolic, for only about 5 percent of Cubans currently have full access to the global internet. Furthermore, Netflix would cost users $7.99 per month, which is almost half of the average Cuban’s monthly salary.

But less well-known is that Cubans have been watching shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black for years, albeit illegally. Despite limited access to internet and outside media (both due to government censorship and the U.S. embargo), Cuban citizens have developed various strategies for accessing the news and entertainment they want. Many Cubans pay a small fee to receive what is called El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Packet), an external hard drive containing downloaded newspapers, movies, TV shows, music, sports, magazines, and other content produced in countries around the world. A new paquete is produced at the end of every week. Some have called this creative way of accessing media Cuba’s “offline internet.”

In addition to initiatives like el paquete that come from the Cuban people, the government has been making changes that originated well before negotiations to restore relations with the United States began. Since becoming Cuba’s president in 2008 after his brother Fidel stepped down from a nearly 50-year hold on power, Raúl Castro has passed a number of significant reforms, gradually but fundamentally transforming the Cuban economy and society. In this video interview with Choices, former research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations Michael Bustamante discusses some of these many reforms.

 

[mediacore height=”225″ public_url=”https://brown.mediacore.tv/media/what-economic-changes-did-raul-castro-make-when-he-became-president-of-cuba” thumb_url=”https://mediacorefiles-a.akamaihd.net/sites/11066/images/media/3622825l-AnZZfq0Z.jpg” title=”What economic changes did Raúl Castro make when he became president of Cuba in 2008?” width=”400″]

 

While the recent shift in U.S.-Cuba relations is indeed a major turning-point for Cuba, the country—both its people and its government—has not been idly waiting for the United States to change its policies before making changes of its own. Yet many questions remain about what Cuba’s future holds. How will the economic changes in Cuba affect ordinary Cubans across the island? Will these economic reforms be paired with greater political freedoms? Will Cubans still have access to free health care and education? How will Cuba relate to other countries, particularly the United States?

 

History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for CubaChoices new curriculum History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for Cuba helps students understand Cuba’s most recent economic, social, and political changes with a historical framework stretching back to the country’s precolonial past. The curriculum puts special emphasis on the many perspectives Cubans on the island have about their country’s history and its future.

Can We Trust Iran?

“If the nuclear crisis is ever to get resolved, now is the time for it to get resolved.”

—Payam Mohseni, Director of Iran Project, Harvard University

With the deadline for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program drawing near, The New York Times put out a video today outlining what is at stake in the Iran negotiations.

 

What's at Stake in the Iran Negotiations

 

As the video makes clear, reaching a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is a challenge, and violence is a real possibility if the negotiations fail. Domestic politics in both the United States and Iran presents huge obstacles, as do conflicts and instability in numerous other parts of the Middle East. But the video seems to claim that the core issue facing U.S. negotiators is whether the United States can trust Iran (and vice versa—whether Iran can trust the United States).

Lesley University Professor Jo-Anne Hart, an expert in U.S. and Iranian security issues, takes issue with this claim. In this video interview with the Choices Program, she argues that international agreements are never based on trust.

 

[vimeo 104646589 w=500 h=281]

 

So which is it? Is trust the key ingredient to international relations or is it just an easy framework to latch onto when trying to understand exceedingly complex issues? What are the implications if we understand negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program as based on legally enforceable agreements instead of just on trust?

Choices has multiple curriculum resources to help students grapple with these questions. Our free online lesson Good Atoms or Bad Atoms? Iran and the Nuclear Issue pushes students to explore, debate, and evaluate multiple perspectives on U.S. policy toward Iran and its nuclear program. In addition, we have just released a new edition of our full-length curriculum unit The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy, in which students analyze the history of Iran’s nuclear program as well as other pressing issues in the region, including the significance of oil, the rise of ISIS, the U.S. relationship with Israel, and instability in Yemen.

 

The United States, Iran, and Flipping the Coin on Nuclear Non-Proliferation

For many this November, anticipating the outcomes of soon-concluding nuclear negotiations with Iran seems impossible. The idea that we could only predict the resolution (or lack thereof) with a “coin toss” is complicated by this video by Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares fund.

This concept of the interdependence of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament brings new questions about the role of nuclear countries in ensuring that Iran does not gain nuclear weapons. The questions we have been asking so far of the U.S. government and other countries at the table have been about how to deal with the talks themselves (how to create a mutually beneficial and binding agreement, how to ensure that Iran keeps its commitments as a signatory of the NPT, what to insist upon or where to compromise). What has perhaps been lacking from the conversation are questions about how the United States and other countries with nuclear weapons can create a global atmosphere where nuclear non-proliferation makes nuke-less countries feel more (rather than less) safe. According to Cirincione’s portrayal of nuclear politics, this safety comes from the other side of the coin—disarmament.

Despite President Obama’s rhetorical commitment to nuclear reduction (his Nobel Prize award was marked for his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”), the White House has not effectively signaled to the rest of the world that the United States is taking any serious steps towards reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. In fact, the Pentagon recently announced it intentions of vast increases in nuclear spending. Most of this spending will be on improving the safety of nuclear equipment and training the security forces in charge of them, but the failure to attach reductions in nuclear arms to the expensive nuclear development plan means the measures signal something very different to the rest of the world.

In an article in People’s Daily (the official daily newspaper of the Chinese government), Wen Xian Wang Hongjie calls the program a “new policy on revitalizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent” and implies that it is linked to disappointments in the outcomes of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article ends cynically– “It is ironic that on the one hand the American government is taking vigorous action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, while on the other hand it is preparing for a complete overhaul of its own nuclear arsenal.”

The implications of these type of viewpoints are considerable. If the United States is not showing adequate commitments to nuclear reductions but is rather (in the eyes of many other countries) increasing its own nuclear armament, the prospects for wider disarmament and non-proliferation may be severely reduced. Regardless of the true intentions of the nuclear re-vamp, the fact that it was not linked to reductions in nuclear arsenals has led to many parts of the world perceiving the actions as projected increases in U.S. nuclear power. Cirincione’s coin flip, from non-proliferation to disarmament to non-proliferation and so on, can work in reverse. As nuclear powers like the United States are seen to be increasing their arsenals, their nuclear neighbors may do the same to maintain the balance of power, and non-nuclear countries in an increasingly nuclear world may face greater security pressure to develop nuclear weaponry.

As well as asking how the United States and other nuclear countries are using negotiations to keep Iran committed to non-proliferation, should we be asking what they have done outside of the negotiation room to make an agreement possible? Is it time to flip the coin?

 

Bring some of these questions into your classroom with Choices’ FREE Teaching with the News lesson, Good Atoms or Bad Atoms? Iran and the Nuclear Issue . The lesson features videos from outstanding scholars, Jo-Ann Hart, Trita Parsi, and Joe Cirincione and includes one of Choices’ hallmark Options Role Plays. View this and other Teaching with the News lesson plans here.

 

The TWTN lesson is a great supplement to these full-length units:

The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons

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Iran Through the Looking Glass: History, Reform, and Revolution

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The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy  (new edition coming soon!)

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Teaching a Long View of Russia and the United States

The Choices Program was founded in the 1980s during a period of high tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thomas J. Watson Jr., U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1979-1981, and a former president of IBM, proposed that Brown University create a foreign policy center where scholars and practitioners could work on U.S.-Soviet relations and U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Thus, the Watson Institute was born. We at Choices are one of its offspring and have retained a focus on U.S.-Russia relations. Over the years, a fantastic group of scholars has helped Choices present this important topic for high school classrooms.

http://youtu.be/WADk3YFaPho

The situation in Ukraine tops the news right now accompanied by many pronouncements and speculation about what it means for the United States, Europe, Russia, Ukraine, etc. The situation is serious, but often the analysis in the media seems incomplete, unhelpful, and contradictory.

The challenge is to make sense of the events for ourselves and our students. Russia’s Transformation: Challenges for U.S. Policy provides a rich historical overview of U.S.-Russia relations from the Russian Empire through the present day. The materials cover the social and economic upheaval that followed the end of the Soviet Union, and then helps students assess the most recent challenges for U.S.-Russia relations. It’s a great way to come to an informed judgement about these important events and the U.S. relationship with Russia.

Russia’s Transformation is also available as an Ibook. It is visually really attractive, contains informative videos like the one above, as well as text that helps put current events in a historical context. It is a great resource for anyone looking for a rich, but concise overview of this important issue.

Finally, we also have a new Teaching with News activity: Unrest in Ukraine. This free lesson provides a background to the ongoing crisis, has students analyze political cartoons, and helps them to monitor the Ukrainian crisis in the news.

 

Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda

On November 8, the typhoon known as “Haiyan” or “Yolanda” made landfall in the Philippines causing unimaginable destruction and loss of life.  As of November 20, an estimated ten million people in the Philippines have been affected and the death toll has risen to over 4,000. These numbers are predicted to climb. The international response—humanitarian assistance in the form of search and rescue operations, the provision of relief supplies, and logistical support—is well under way. The United States government has pledged $37 million in aid. President Obama announced on November 14:

As I told President Aquino earlier this week, the United States will continue to offer whatever assistance we can. Our military personnel and USAID team do this better than anybody in the world. And they’ve been already on the ground working tirelessly to deliver food, water, medicine, shelter and to help with airlift.”

esidents from Tacloban, one the hardest hit cities, wait in line for transportation aboard Philippine and U.S. military cargo flights to other cities such as Manlia and Cebu.USAID/Carol Han, OFDA

Residents from Tacloban, one the hardest hit cities, wait in line for transportation aboard Philippine and U.S. military cargo flights to Manlia or Cebu. November 16, 2013.
(USAID/Carol Han, OFDA)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda has prompted discussions on natural disasters and international relief efforts in your classroom, Choices’ updated unit Dilemmas of Foreign Aid: Debating U.S. Policies (Fifth edition, October 2013) is one way to expand upon the questions and concerns raised by students. In the unit, students explore the history of U.S. foreign assistance and the institutions that distribute aid today. Readings, case studies, and primary sources prepare students to consider the trade-offs of foreign aid and articulate their own views on the future direction of U.S. policy. A large section of Dilemmas of Foreign Aid focuses on humanitarian assistance and raises questions that can be applied to the recent disaster in the Philippines. The unit is available in multiple formats (e.g. print, eText, iBooks Textbook) and meets Common Core standards. 

Additional Resources

  • For information on U.S. humanitarian assistance in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, visit USAID. The website features a useful factsheet with information on key developments, statistics on the millions of people affected by the typhoon, and a breakdown of U.S. assistance.
  • The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council—part of the government of the Philippines—publishes daily reports (often multiple times a day) with information on causalities, damaged houses, the ongoing emergency response, and international aid.  Note: If you share the reports with students, be advised that the section “Effects of Typhoon “Yolanda” (Haiyan)—Causalities” includes names of the dead and lists the cause of death. You might choose to remove these pages before distributing the reports to students.

Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empiricism

There’s a good read at Foreign Policy about the misperceptions that contribute to the debate about Afghanistan. It has a list of the limited number of Afghanistan experts in the United States. Several of these scholars helped Choices with its curriculum unit The United States in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan will continue to be a topic of debate in U.S. foreign policy, and will likely garner extra attention because of the presidential election. Our curriculum materials are a good way to bring the expertise of those few scholars of Afghanistan into classrooms and then on into the hands of students. Watch the video clip to get a sense of what they have to offer and some the issues raised in the unit.

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