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Point of view: The Internet as a New International Public Sphere: How can the Internet soften international conflicts and help human rights?

In this post we hear from Armenian BIN ‘18 member, Davit Musaelyan, on the power of the Internet as a tool for development.

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The Internet as a new variable

It is evident that the creation and popularisation of the Internet has changed a lot in politics. It has created an unprecedented environment in which information can travel around the globe in a matter of seconds. The social power of the Internet doesn’t come solely from its technological abilities alone. It gains its power from its accessibility and inclusiveness. The political and social situation of the past was very different from today’s, since there was no widespread access to the Internet, and its popularity is only a rather recent thing. While in 1995 around 1% of the world population had access to the Internet, today more than 50% of the world has almost all the knowledge of mankind at their disposal. It means that any socio-political event of the 21st century is historically unique because of the new circumstances that were never prevalent before.

What did the Internet change in the socio-political arena?

There are several ways that access to the Internet has shifted the socio-political arena. First and foremost, the most significant global change is that events in any state are very difficult to hide. While before it took months for the news of major events to spread, today it can be streamed live to millions of viewers all over the planet. If, for example, the government does something unlawful, it can no longer hide it as it could do only a few decades ago. It has created more incentives for states to be lawful and avoid human right violations.

Because of the numerous social websites, people from all over the world can come together into their own small communitiess for people with similar interests. Not only can they find people with the same ideology from the other side of the globe, but they can also find people who disagree with them over everything; both of which are equally useful. This creates a platform where people exchange ideas, which makes social beliefs evolve. At first, this seems somewhat whimsical and ideological, but in the long run, this is extremely useful and practical if we remember how big the role and the influence of propaganda was half-century ago. From the historical point of view, we can look at the second half of the 20th century as the “golden age of propaganda”, if we remember the situations in Nazi Germany, the USSR, and basically the whole world during the Cold War. It is reasonable to assume that it would be really hard to achieve such effective propaganda if the Internet had been a thing back then. It could have created freedom of expression, information, and ideas, which can ensure that people are able to think for themselves. It makes it harder for the government to spread hatred towards a minority, ethnicity, religion, or nation if people can easily interact with those people from their homes.

How can access to the Internet help human rights?

But what can people do with all the information that they have at the tip of their fingers? Having access to data is only one step, which doesn’t do much to influence political dynamics by itself.

At this point, it is important to mention another variable that significantly reduced violence and conflicts around the world. That variable is the spread of democracy. To begin with, history shows that democratic states rarely fight against each other. In combination with the freedom of information that the Internet provides, it can reduce violence even more.

Democracy does not reduce the number of wars because it is such a divine thing or because democratically elected leaders are saints from above that came down to earth to save us from war and sin. Democracy is more peaceful because democratically elected leaders understand that war is unpopular and decreases their chances of re-election. The Internet, in this case, makes sure that the warmongering democratic politician thinks before acting, as their reputation could be destroyed in a matter of seconds. It would not be easy for them to convince people through propaganda that this war is just and that it is for the greater good. People would have more access to the facts and, in addition to that, they would be on average better educated due to the access to the internet.

That would mean that democratic leaders will have to consider what people think about their policies. The Internet serves as a worldwide discussion platform for the citizens to gather data and talk about what they think and feel. While democracy in itself might enforce more peaceful international relations and improve human rights, access to the Internet makes it all the more effective.

Some might argue that according to these statements, the Internet doesn’t improve the pace of development in non-democratic states, and it only works as a booster for the already established democracies. That would not be entirely true. Even in non-democratic and dictatorial states, wide, free access to the Internet can greatly accelerate the peaceful transformation of the state, as well as it can quickly reduce the state’s toleration to violence.

The reason for this is that basically no state can survive on its own. All states have to trade with other states in order to function. And since most of the states of the world are democracies, any authoritarian state will have to respect their opinions to a certain degree. If the population of the authoritarian state has access to the Internet, all the human right violations in that country can be instantly known to the world. That will likely provoke the democratic states to use measures (sanctions and/or political means) to enforce the authoritative government to respect human rights.

Again, democratic states don’t help because their leaders are so kind and benevolent, but because their democratic population (constituency) might demand it, and doing what people want is a great PR move for the democratic government members.

In the very long term, the population of the authoritarian government is going to benefit from access to the internet by becoming more educated and informed, which would make the population more self-reliant and able to fight for themselves.

From the point of view of international relations, the Internet can provide great long-term benefits as well. Even though this is a somewhat vague statement, it is not unreasonable to believe that access to the Internet can reduce racism and chauvinism. The Internet is a platform, a public sphere, a “place” where people interact with other people of all types. People who have constant access to the Internet are used to seeing and hearing people with diverse ideas. That makes it difficult for such people to become xenophobic in any way.

Nobody can order anyone to dislike a certain group of people. It happens only via propaganda, or the person himself comes to that conclusion. If he has the access to the World Wide Web, propaganda almost falls out of the equation.

Conclusion

Ever since the end of WW2, the world is steadily walking towards a more peaceful future. It is undeniable that there are many problems left to be resolved, but still, the world today is more peaceful and safer than it ever was. We need to look back and understand what did we do that worked so well.

For many years we tried to spread democracy in order to make the world peaceful and it worked well. For even a longer time, we have tried to endorse education because it also helps human rights to flourish. Today we need to work on spreading information since it is the new cornerstone of progress. If we focus on spreading access to the internet in places like the Middle East and Africa, we are sure to promote the spread of democracy and the development of human rights. Not only is it the most efficient way to make many authoritative states less dictatorial, but it also has relatively few downsides. Technology has given humanity uncountable ways to make war, and now we must use its powers to spread peace and prosperity.

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Point of view: Experiments with Democratic Governance

In this post we hear from Georgian book publisher and BIN member, Giorgi Arziani, on the difficulties faced by Democracy in the 21st century, and an idea as to how we can possibly help it.

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“Democracy is in Crisis” is a very common title for numerous articles. However, Trump, Brexit, Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, Iran or China lie beyond the scope of this essay. In no way am I suggesting any solutions, nor am I providing a comprehensive analysis of the problems. In this essay I would like just to touch upon some of very basic issues of representative democracy, that has caught my thoughts in the last days.

To begin with, there are a lot of problems with the electoral systems themselves. The scope of the problems here is extremely wide and deserves a separate essay (to say the least), so I suggest you a good article, ‘Electoral dysfunction: Why democracy is always unfair’, which provides with an elaborative analysis of some of the problems. Still, I believe, every country can find a system that suits it at a particular period of time, and these problems can be compensated by the fair execution of the established rules so that the political actors can adapt, promote their agenda and perform accordingly. But free – and, to the greatest possible extent, fair – elections do not alone guarantee the virtues of democracy.

Another problem is the politicians, as they are oriented to receiving dividends from their positions, and perform according to their egoistic interests. Every political system has its operating rules, which restrain every politician with numerous formal and informal rules, trade-offs, party discipline, etc. Common sense suggests that there is a negative selection in politics, meaning that a political success of an actor is proportional to his or her dishonesty. Look at the polls: no one trusts politicians; as a result politics itself is often jeopardized (How often have you heard the phrase: “let’s not make it political”, when debating over different issues?).

But let’s be honest, politics is an art of the possible and what can an idealist put against the stunts of political technologists and commercial Mass Media? Many historians suggest that modern democracy was born as a side effect of inter-elite compromises, so the best-case scenario is when the elites (in order to retain power) cooperate, become more efficient and develop their societies, so that their status and privileges will not be threatened. One of the positive externalities of this is the well being of the society in general. However this situation seems to lack some virtues.

Another spectrum of the problems lies within the voters themselves. We can imagine (and modern technologies can provide us with the means) a society where every citizen can vote on every issue. We can add blockchain, so that there will be no voter frauds, but will this system be the most effective or the fairest one? Voters are usually extremely ill informed and easily manipulated, which is a case for a broader human problem of Bounded Rationality. And it seems to me that there is no effective way we can make everyone pay attention to the current affairs and critically analyze it: some are interested in football, others in politics; some people paint, others ride a bike. The motivation that lies behind these activities is the same, but the application is different. Also the chances that a ballot of a particular voter will be the decisive one are close to zero. In addition to that, politics has a very indirect impact on the life of the supposed particular voter. This makes it seemingly pointless for an individual to invest resources into the better understanding of current affairs (that are basically the function of a Black Box). Moreover, Mass Media, which is supposed to play a role as a fourth branch of power, needs viewers, and works as an entertainer (politicians sometimes do this as well), and has the same problems that other branches have (trade-offs, supremacy of loyalty over ability and discipline); Social networks rely on the algorithmically identified preferences of their users to present them with news that avoids challenging their global outlook, creating bubbles of like-minded, seldom tested ideals.

So basically the voters are left alone with their instincts and moral beliefs, their individual decisions have a very indirect impact on real politics, at the same time doing politics, both on local and higher levels, requires overcoming extremely high entry-barriers.

What can be done?

Humanity has been experimenting with democracy and freedoms for thousands of years, and it is only for the past two hundred years that democracy has become synonymous with elections. This was not a case before. To cut a long story short, I would like to quote Aristotle, who, when comparing Athens to Sparta said, that Sparta is not a democratic polis, since there are only elections but no sortition [where politicians are picked at random from a larger pool of candidates], and elections are the tool of the aristocracy. So what is an ideal form of democracy?

I advise you to read about the classical republican tradition in the works of Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, who suggest that the direct participation of the citizens in Re(s)Public-an affairs is a democratic ideal that we all need (I find these thoughts nicely fitting the ideals of the movement for Deliberative democracy). The core thesis that underlies Republicanism as a political philosophy is the understanding of freedom as non-domination in the first place and not reducing it just to the negative or positive concepts of freedom. One of the ways to achieve it is to have equal chances to govern and be governed for some time by holding government positions. Their work resulted in the comeback of sortition, an ancient tool for democratic participation. A very concise explanation of sortition can be found in a good, though a bit radical, Ted talk by Brett Hennig “Sortition – doing democracy differently”.

At the moment I am writing a draft of a project, which aims to implement sortition on local self-governance level alongside with the participatory budgeting. The idea is simple: people in each place directly decide on how to spend budget money themselves. But they do it not through plebiscite, which suggests that around 40-50% of ill-informed voters get to decide to how to allocate scarce recourses. They will do it in a more effective way, through participation in the work of permanent committees, which are formed with the help of sortition and rotation mechanisms. The procedure will be similar to the court procedure of jury selection with some nuances. The citizens will receive letters inviting them to take part in decision-making process. This is the first stage selection: people who are interested in the issues and are motivated will reply. The second selection stage is a compulsory intensive issue-oriented training, after which a citizen becomes eligible to participate in sortition. The committee members later are changed by rotation. The work of such a committee is organized as an open public debate/hearing with the participation of experts and concerned parties. The decisions are made by voting within the committee.

To my mind this kind of civil institutions will make the local self-governance less corrupt in broader meaning if this word; it will provide a real tool of direct democracy and participation in decision-making for people, who are concerned and are motivated to work for the benefits of their communities. Rotation mechanisms will ensure, that the committees will be open to newcomers (hence in a long run they will not become corrupted) and at the same time will allow people to save the experience and expertise and transfer it to the new members.

This will be the best school of citizenship that might change the very texture of the society. It will raise the social capital and allow new idealistic leaders to appear and at the same time will ensure that the decision-making process will be effective and professional. A work in such institutions will teach how to cooperate and meet half way; the citizens will get better informed about complex social, political and economic issues and learn to take responsibility for the well being of their communities.

Democracy and Freedom need experience as well as a real infrastructure. Going to the election polls once in four years does not seem to be the best example of such infrastructure.

Giorgi Arziani is a Georgian-based book publisher and a member of the Borjomi Innovators Network 2018.

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Laura Lale Kabis-Kechrid

Laura Lale Kabis-Kechrid is a program officer with the German Council on Foreign Relations’ (DGAP) Middle East and North Africa Program.

In this capacity, she works as a policy analyst on Turkish foreign (currently predominantly EU/Germany-Turkey relations) and domestic policies, and supports the program’s projects in/on North Africa, particularly in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.

“When I started my undergraduate degree in Business Administration at Humboldt University in Berlin, I thought I would pursue a career in the private sector – most likely business consulting. However, while I enjoyed my BA studies, I quickly realized that my real passion was politics. After taking some introductory classes in International Relations during my year abroad in London, I decided to follow my passion and completed two MA degrees in International Relations and History at Dubrovnik International University and Queen Mary, University of London. I have never regretted my choice.”

“Being German and Turkish, political developments in both countries as well as discourses on identity and integration have been an integral part of my life from a very early stage. Being able to work on these issues with decision-makers as well as inspiring young professionals has been very rewarding (but also challenging at times). I recently took part in the Stiftung Mercator’s Turkey Europe Future Forum (TEFF), which brought together around 30 European and Turkish young leaders from diverse backgrounds to discuss current developments in our respective countries. We are currently working on developing our own projects to positively contribute to some of  the social and political issues in our regions. Platforms like TEFF, BIN and most of my work experiences inspire and encourage me to stay engaged despite some of the grim developments across the globe.”

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Ghada Alhamoud

Ghada Alhamoud is a Saudi SOAS graduate with a Masters in International Studies and Diplomacy.

“I am currently working as a Strategic Partnerships Manager for a government entity. It’s been really exciting to make my way back home less than a year ago, after living abroad for quite some time. I get to feel and be part of the transformation Saudi Arabia is going through.”

“Recently I went on the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s official visits to the UK and France as part of the supporting delegation. The changing faces and dynamic of the supporting delegation is an indication of the major and positive leaps the country has taken. A young, ambitious and determined group to support and directly contribute to the changes.”

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A book recommendation from Giorgy Arziani

Moral Tribes

“Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them” by Joshua Greene. It’s a wonderful piece of academic, but popular writing, which explains the very origins of human morale. The book is full of numerous social and psychological experiments, which show us the way our moral judgments work. The author also provides readers with deep insights into the issues of utilitarian philosophy. Here is a small piece from the dust jacket: Continue reading “A book recommendation from Giorgy Arziani”

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Have your say: time for BIN members to be expressive and creative

Have your say – an opportunity to express your views, opinions, feelings or emotions on a subject that you care about.

creativity_technologyAs part of their one-year participation in the Borjomi Innovators Network, BIN Members are invited to produce a piece of work that will be an expression of their views, opinions, feelings or emotions on a subject that is of interest to them, and which is relevant to wider society. The piece of work can take the form of an essay, an op-ed, a short documentary, a painting or sculpture, or any other form of expression that will be agreed with the BIN secretariat. We particularly encourage submissions that have an innovative message, or that present ideas in an innovative way. Continue reading “Have your say: time for BIN members to be expressive and creative”

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Point of view: Regional co-operation is necessary

One of the themes of the BIN network for 2018 is regional co-operation. On 12 February, BIN co-chairperson, Dennis Sammut, kicked off the debate with an op-ed on commonspace.eu.

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The last two years have not been particularly good for regional co-operation and integration models in different parts of the world. In Europe, Brexit has rattled the European Union and dented its record of successful expansion. In the Middle East, the Gulf Co-operation Council, once hailed as a model, tattered on the brink of collapse as it dealt with an existential crisis resulting from the confrontation between some of its members and Qatar.

In the South Caucasus regional co-operation involving the three core countries has been non-existent. This has been largely, but not solely, due to the Karabakh conflict that has pitched Armenia and Azerbaijan against each other in a messy, and as yet unresolved, conflict.

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With reference to the South Caucasus Dennis Sammut said

Regional co-operation in the South Caucasus makes sense and will benefit all the people of the region. It is also essential for lasting peace and prosperity, and the EU is uniquely placed to push the process forward.

This debate is now open and we encourage members to contribute their ideas, based on the experience of the regions they live in.

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Intermediaries and the Ottomans: Why Albert Hourani’s ideas remain relevant

Intermediaries and the Ottomans_bin_websiteAlbert Hourani (1915-1993) is a much-celebrated historian born to Lebanese parents in Manchester. His writings on the middle east are priceless. One of these is “Ottoman Reform and Politics of Notables” first published in 1968. In this short review Armenak Tokmajyan says that the debate it started is still relevant and ongoing. Continue reading “Intermediaries and the Ottomans: Why Albert Hourani’s ideas remain relevant”

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Point of View: The Undervalued Virtue of Kindness – William Murray-Uren

Kindness

A number of weeks ago, I was at the wedding of my former boss and was sat next to one of his old school friends. After the speeches had been delivered, the wine was flowing, and the spirits were high, my table companion turned to me and asked what I thought was the best thing about the groom. Now, through the two years that we had worked together, I formed a very strong friendship with this man and he became somewhat of a mentor to me, so there were very many ways in which I held him in high regard – both in personal and professional senses. After some thought, I decided my friend’s most salient and consistent virtue was his kindness. Continue reading “Point of View: The Undervalued Virtue of Kindness – William Murray-Uren”