IA Symposium hosts wide range of perspectives

Courtesy of IA Symposium

THIS year’s International Affairs Symposium — the 62nd at Lewis & Clark — highlighted a set of contentious debates on pressing, modern issues and featured twelve notable speakers. The symposium, entitled “Strings Attached: Tracing the Global Systems that Bind,” involved a series of debates with topics ranging from piracy and intellectual property to the importation of foreign ideas to the logistics of humanitarian intervention.

These debates were carefully designed by co-chairs John Mbanda ’25 and Alie Cicero ’24, as well as its steering committee, to bring a variety of perspectives to campus and to engage meaningfully with controversial topics. To achieve this goal, the organizers invited a variety of speakers from a multitude of backgrounds to debate at this year’s symposium.

On April 8, the first debate, entitled “Bridges or Barricades,” hosted two speakers to debate border policy, Todd Miller and Christopher Rudolph. Miller is currently an investigative journalist and editor on border and immigration issues for the North American Congress on Latin America Report and its column “Border Wars.” Rudolph is a political scientist who specializes in international relations, national security and immigration issues.

Miller described his experience speaking at the symposium.

“It’s just so well organized and I like how it’s so student driven. There’s a lot of commitment put into this and getting these kinds of debates going that can be controversial,” he said. “I was very happy to be a part of it. I’ve done other debates in other schools that have been much less satisfying … I felt very welcomed and appreciated as well by the organizing committee, which goes a long way.”

After being invited to speak at the 2024 International Affairs Symposium, Miller shared that he was eager to speak on this topic at LC  because he finds there to be a simplified narrative surrounding border policy, particularly as the 2024 election approaches.

“The border becomes kind of a sacrificial lamb for politicians, especially when the election is at the presidential level. And along with that, narratives that tend to be hyperbolic narratives don’t really reflect the reality of what’s happening on the border. The history of what the border is has become the history of border enforcement, what happens when people cross the border, why people are crossing the border … what’s happening and how. It just seems to be put into this simplified election narrative,” said Miller. “I wanted to come and speak out about the narratives that I know are the on-the-ground reality of the border, as I know it as a reporter who’s been reporting on this for two decades.”

The second debate was between Dr. Juan Sebastián Chamorro, a former Nicaraguan presidential candidate and current political leader and human rights defender, and Ambassador John Bolton, a Republican politician who has served as Attorney General, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and most recently National Security Adviser to former President Trump. Bolton published a book in 2020 entitled “The Room Where It Happened,” exposing what he saw as serious problems within the Trump administration. 

The topic of the debate explored the balance between humanitarian intervention and state sovereignty. The IA Symposium website framed this problem by asking “Does the international community have a moral imperative to relieve suffering from compromised communities, or are the political implications of compromising state sovereignty too great?” 

The debate itself explored two very different perspectives on international accountability in human rights violations: Chamorro, who has experienced first-hand the consequences of a more hands-off policy in the face of human rights abuses, implored political leaders to take on a more active role in human rights intervention. Bolton, on the other hand, argued that the United States cannot always be compelled to act in the face of human rights violations, and must act in favor of its national interest, which may or may not align with the country facing human rights violations. He argued that more often than not, national interest lies in the favor of humanitarian intervention. Bolton rejected the idea that international organizations or international pressure should force the United States to intervene. 

The debate began with an opening statement from each speaker.

Chamorro, a Nicaraguan exile, spoke first on his experience as a political dissident and eventually prisoner in his home country. He questioned the efficacy of local institutions in preventing abuses, highlighting his own sham trial and imprisonment at the hands of the Ortega regime.

“Where should I go as a victim?” asked Chamorro. “More importantly, where should the family of the more than 350 people assassinated by the regime of Nicaragua go?”

He outlined his dissatisfaction with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its inability to enact any real change. Highlighting that the ICC has only ever convicted “a handful of individuals” and its lack of enforcement mechanisms, Chamorro then spoke about the importance of intervention in such cases where international organizations either will not or cannot help. 

“If there is something that the most brutal criminals in the world, like Pablo Escobar, Noriega and Maduro fear, it is the United States legal system,” said Chamorro. 

He urged the United States to take a more active role in international justice, highlighting the integrity of the American judicial system compared to many other countries. 

The crux of Chamorro’s argument was that while he understands the need to protect sovereignty, that same idea is used to shield the worst crimes from punishment. Thus, he argued, it is sometimes necessary to encourage intervention in cases of human rights abuse even when the interests of the intervening country may lie elsewhere. 

Bolton spoke next, beginning with a discussion of the origins of modern conceptions of sovereignty, specifically as were developed in early America. 

“Indeed the very legitimacy of government was found to rest not in the sovereign, but in the people,” Bolton said. 

He explained how Americans today feel little of that sovereign power, arguing that we are far removed from our government and its decisions. 

With regard to intervention, Bolton argued that sovereign nations cannot be compelled to intervene on behalf of others. He also argued that it is often the case that the same violations that require intervention also create the interest for intervention within states. 

“In many senses, (human rights violations) have put them on the wrong side of the United States,” said Bolton. “I would argue that there has to be a compelling American national interest.”

Bolton brought up the example of the Taliban in Afghanistan and how the U.S. national interest in preventing terrorist attacks coincided with the humanitarian interest in upholding women’s rights in the country. 

The main idea of Bolton’s argument was that while United States national interest and human rights often align, the US should not be compelled to intervene absent that national interest.

The debate came to an end with questions from Assistant Professor of International Affairs and moderator of the “Rights Overruled” debate, Suparna Chaudhry and other audience members. 

After the event, co-chair Mbanda spoke to the decision to bring Bolton and Chamorro to campus.

“I think it’s incredibly important to bring people who come from different perspectives so that students can understand nuanced ideas,” said Mbanda. 

Miller, who spent only a day at Lewis & Clark, was able to attend the second event later that day, and shared an interesting perspective on the issues raised in the debate that addressed the question of whether or not humanitarian intervention is worth compromising state sovereignty. Though he did not agree with John Bolton’s sentiments, he described the debate as “important” and “educational.”

“It was super interesting to me, and super educational, to hear a U.S. official and have him say the things that he said that were pretty outrageous at times,” Miller said. “He mentioned the U.S. support of dictatorships, and then pretty much he says that the United States should do whatever it needs to do within its interests — political, economic, military interests. Him just doubling down, tripling down on that, to me, is super (interesting). To have him set out in front of a crowd, who’s critical of him, set up against a debate partner who’s critical of him.”

Miller appreciated that the symposium delved into a variety of controversial issues with a variety of perspectives, acknowledging Bolton as someone with significant political experience whose views inform U.S. actions. 

“I was seeing the blunt knife of US foreign policy that we’ve seen over many years, over decades even, and he was very much representing that,” said Miller. “It wasn’t like he sat in front of people and was just brainwashing them … He was putting them out there to a political audience — student groups or students — that would let him know that he didn’t like what he was saying. I liked the fact that Lewis & Clark brought him in and put him into conversation.”

Not all those present shared this perspective, though. Some students interrupted the debate at multiple points to boo at Bolton and yell at him from the audience. 

Prison Abolition Club Chair Natalie Connelly ’26 expressed her disappointment with the International Affairs Symposium organizers for bringing Bolton to campus.

“I was disappointed to see that John Bolton was chosen as one of the speakers, people who missed it honestly didn’t miss very much in my opinion,” said Connelly via email. “His speech seemed pretty consistent with his views when he was under Trump’s administration. I only wish that I and the other disrupters had interrupted him more, it seemed to have actually annoyed both Bolton and the majority of the attendees and that was pretty entertaining and worth it to some extent for all of us.”

This, though, was indicative to Mbanda that the symposium had in some capacity achieved its goal of engaging with controversial speakers and topics in order to foster deeper understanding.

“Humanitarian intervention is a topic that many of us care about deeply. I personally have a connection to it as a person from Rwanda, a country that experienced genocide and never saw the lights of intervention,” said Mbanda. “Of course, there was some heckling that happened, but some might even say that’s a sign that the conversation is rolling.”

At the end of the first day of the symposium, Mbanda shared that he was pleased with how the second debate had gone.

“I would say everything went well tonight,” he said.

Professor and Chair of International Affairs Bob Mandel served as the faculty advisor for the symposium. He described the debate format as a means to promote tolerance amongst the student body.

“It was a great opportunity for Lewis & Clark students to hear a view that’s very different from the standard Lewis & Clark view,” Mandel said. “Specifically, to hear it in the context of a format which requires that different views were expressed. And I think that’s the key. It’s not whether we agree with John Bolton or (Juan Chamorro); it’s a question of whether we’re willing to have an opportunity for students to hear both sides of the issue, and the way this symposium is formatted, we guarantee that that happens.”

The fourth debate, entitled “Divine Diplomacy,” examined the role of religion in Peacebuilding and conflict resolution and featured Martine Miller and Jason Klocek. Miller is currently the Executive Vice President of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy in Washington, D.C., and has worked in post-war reconstruction in 90 countries. Klocek is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham and Faculty Affiliate of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society, and has conducted extensive research on the intersection between religion, violence and politics.

Miller spoke first, identifying 9/11 as a factor in the international perception of religion.

“Post 9/11, religion entered the international stage as a problem,” she said. “It was very much framed as religion is a problem that drives conflict, and also phrased certain religions as conflict makers and extremist.”

She noted the relevance of religion as a factor in navigating international conflict, given its prominence across the globe.

“Part of it is that 85% of the population recognize themselves as being religious. And that’s key to who they are. Identities are fluid, but that is a key element of how people engage,” said Miller. “The other element is this: Across most religions, there’s a common denominator, and that is peace. So if I read a list, like different things from different religious texts, they’re all referencing elements of peacemaking.”

She highlighted the credibility of religious actors in many countries as institutions that have provided education to their communities when the central government did not.

“Religious actors hold a very specific trusted space in the communities,” said Miller. “Religion has played a very important role in identifying injustices within society.”

Miller emphasized the potential for religion to facilitate conflict resolution around the world, citing South Africa.

“In South Africa, for instance, various churches were at the vanguard of the struggle against apartheid,” said Miller. “Numerous religious actors have been engaged in negotiating humanitarian corridors, ceasefires and peace processes around the world. We’re just not hearing about them. We’re hearing about the negative aspects of their agenda.”

She mentioned South Thailand, Afghanistan and Libya as examples of countries where women who practice religion stand at the forefront of conflict resolution.

“Afghanistan is an interesting case,” said Miller. “There have been documented cases of women negotiating with the Taliban to ensure that young people are able to access different resources. And the reason they say they’ve been successful in that was the women, women of faith were perceived as pious, non occupational. And they were much more listened to and respected than male counterparts.”

Miller was a strong advocate for the involvement of faith in negotiating peaceful relations.

“It’s not all documented,” she said. “But more and more is being documented, so I think it’s important to recognize that these are things that we can tap into as a vital resource.”

Klocek, on the other hand, presented an inverse argument.

“In brief, I’m going to contend that the evidence base for religious conflict resolution and peacebuilding simply is too thin at the moment. We’ve rushed since 9/11. And we haven’t learned lessons yet,” he said. “We simply don’t know about when, why and how religion can support a system and when it will not, or when it will make things worse. So it’s therefore dangerous to include religion in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.”

Klocek described the potential risks of incorporating religious actors into peacebuilding efforts.

“​​Bringing religious actors in does expand the number of participants in the process. But in some contexts, it also creates additional tensions, especially around moral values,” said Klocek. “Working with religious actors will bring them into the forefront of peacebuilding. It simply makes religious identities more salient in a post conflict setting.”

He shared an example of how religion could exacerbate poor relations between political actors.

“Over-emphasis on the religious dimensions by policymakers has turned what was a non-religious conflict into a religious conflict by ignoring other issues such as ethnicity, economics, politics and local dynamics,” he said. “The way aid and other resources are distributed can further fuel the dissent. The Trump administration, for instance, tried to influence how the USA distributed funds in Iraq, leading to the perception that Christian communities were favored over Sunni and Shia communities, and this worsened sectarian conflict in the country.”

He asked the audience to think cautiously about the lack of evidence regarding the role of religion in conflict resolution.

“What I want you to be is a skeptic,” said Klocek, addressing the audience. “Don’t accept conventional wisdoms and assumptions at face value. Question why people hold their strongly held beliefs and consider the alternatives. Don’t take assumptions as given; interrogate the logic and demand empirical evidence. When it comes to the role of religion, conflict resolution and peacebuilding, acknowledge the gaps in our understanding.”

Each of this year’s six debates were carefully planned, and boasted a wide array of perspectives, knowledge and expertise.

The symposium ended on April 10.

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