IA Symposium disputes idea of sovereignty

Photo by Ary Hashim

By Audrey Barrett

From April 9 to 11, the 56th International Affairs Symposium highlighted the complexity of global issues by framing speaker events in a debate setting. Entitled “The Scramble for Sovereignty: Modern Challenges to an Age-Old Construct,” the symposium provided the opportunity for visiting speakers to consider issues from opposing sides of discussions. There were two debates a day for each of the three days.

Acclaimed by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education, this symposium is one of the most prestigious events at Lewis & Clark. It is also entirely student-run.

“What is so wonderful about this symposium to me is that it is created by our students, so it is really a project in itself,” President Wim Wiewel said. “It is not just getting speakers who have wonderful things to say, but the very act of thinking about what are the important topics and who are the people who can talk about those topics in a way that will elucidate them and allow us to see the different perspectives.”

This is the oldest student-run symposium in the United States; Wiewel said that it has been held for more than a third of LC’s history.

Symposium co-chair Vinaya Bharam ’19 acknowledged the hard work that she and her colleagues on the steering committee have put in over the past year.

“It is important to acknowledge that this event would not be happening were it not for the incredible student committee,” Bharam said.

Co-chair Sam Stites ’18 agreed.

“We embarked on a year long journey to share this symposium together,” Stites said. “We have had the exceptional privilege as co-chairs to witness this year’s event from its conception when (Bharam and I) sat in the Trail Room together and decided we wanted to take on this role with a combination of both fear and excitement guiding us.”

On Monday evening, Professor Aleksandar Pavković, an Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government Representative to the United States, evaluated the legitimacy and dynamics around state secession.

From the academic viewpoint, Pavković discussed the broad interaction of sovereignty and secession.

“There is no law governing creation of states,” Pavković said. “States are not commodities or prizes which are given to people for any sort of achievement. This is a way of thinking that prevails among nationalists and secessionists. States are not prizes in the sense that you do things, and someone says, ‘Ah. Have a state.’”

Rahman’s discussion stemmed from a more personal perspective. She is an Iraqi Kurd and had family in all of “the four Kurdistans,” referring to parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In the debate, she only spoke on behalf of the Iraqi Kurds.

“Those artificial borders that were created after the first World War have split my family into four different identities, but we are one family,” Rahman said. “We are one blood. We speak one language, we have one history, we have one identity.”

Rahman believes independence is important for the Kurdish people, who have historically suffered at the hands of the dictatorial state. The Kurds voted for secession, but the result of the referendum was not received well in Baghdad.

“(Secessionist movements) exist because the sovereign state has failed them,” Rahman said. “My view is you should not really need permission … to secede.”

Volunteer student ambassadors helped guide guest speakers around Portland, and in doing so developed a rapport with the speakers they hosted. One of these ambassadors was Toby Perkins ’19. Perkins introduced speaker Andrew Mwenda, founder and editor of The Independent in Uganda, on the second evening of the symposium.

“There are two things Mr. Mwenda insisted that I mention: first, his love for ancient Greek and Roman literature; reading these texts at a young age was inspiration for a life spent loving the pursuit of wisdom,” Perkins said. “Second is his age. At 105 years old, Mr. Mwenda is our most elderly speaker at the symposium.”

Hannah Selwyn ’18, a member of the steering committee, introduced Samuel Jones, the other speaker in the debate that night, an Associate Professor in the Development Economics Research Group at the University of Copenhagen.

“Unfortunately, Dr. Sam Jones and I have not worked up a stand-up,” Selwyn said jokingly.

While the committee spent less time driving the speakers around than the student ambassadors, she and the other committee members still had time to get to know them.

“When I asked (Jones) why he was studying economics, he told me he wanted to learn a language to help change policy around the world,” Selwyn said. “What I most appreciate about Dr. Jones is that he has been so approachable over the past few days … Other steering committee members tell me how kind and personable he is.”

Jones and Mwenda debated about the effect of foreign aid on the sovereignty of local governments in developing countries. Mwenda argued against aid; he favored private enterprise and entrepreneurship as the road to development.

“Aid is not politically neutral,” Mwenda said. “It comes with ideological and policy strings attached to it. The welfare state in rich countries is a consequence of development, not a cause of it.”

Jones supported foreign aid. He said that aid, while not capable of developing a country in and of itself, is a positive net force.

“Aid is not a cause of weakened sovereignty,” Jones said. “The need for aid is a symptom of longstanding problems of deficient effective state formation and sovereignty. Removing aid will not amount to a miracle cure.”  

Speakers at the final event discussed globalization and the growth of corporate economic power in relation to state sovereignty.

Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York and a member of its Committee on Global Thought, and she spoke on global economics on the final night of the symposium. Sassen said she likes to explore the very edges of knowledge to find new insights.

“(I like to) position myself at the edges of the paradigm so that I have the freedom to discover stuff that might not otherwise be contained within the knowledge silos that we generate within disciplines,” Sassen said. “What do I see in the fuzzy edges of the paradigm? The heart of the paradigm is strong, but at the edges of the paradigm you come to discover emergent conditions.”

All of the debates revealed the intricacy of the issues at hand. The speaker who debated Sassen, John M. Kline, Professor of International Business Diplomacy at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, encompassed this underlying fact in the concluding sentence of his talk on globalization.

“Is this all good, or is it bad? The answer is yes,” Kline said.

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