• Juxtaposing images of President Barack Obama and Republican candidate for the presidency Donald Trump pointing into the crowd at speaking engagements.

    Picks of the Week: Obama & Trump

    Just how much do these men have in common?

    In Donald Trump’s Worldview, America Comes First, and Everybody Else Pays | The New York Times

    A transcript of Donald Trump’s meeting with The Washington Post editorial board | The Washington Post

    The Obama Doctrine | The Atlantic

    A terrorist bombing in Brussels, Belgium, last week took at least 35 lives, as of this writing.  Lost among the proper focus on this latest attack on the West were two important interviews given by the frontrunner for the Republican nomination Donald Trump.

    Most of the punditry has criticized Trump for a complete lack of awareness about the post-Second World War world-order.  He questions America’s commitment to European and Asia security.  He says that NATO has to pay its own freight.  In Asia, the candidate said that if Japan and South Korea have to develop their own nuclear weapons because the United States was pulling back, then so be it.  In two interviews, someone who is a very credible candidate for president swept aside 60 years of American foreign policy consensus that said more nuclear armed states is bad and that the United States must remain preponderant in both Europe and Asia.

    The bottom line for Trump is that the United States, under his leadership, won’t coddle free-riders: governments in Europe and Asia that shortchange their own investments in security because the United States has their back.  The burden in these scenarios to police the world, to oppose Russia’s resurgence in Europe and China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea all falls to the American military and taxpayer.

    What’s remarkable is that while much more politic than Trump, President Obama’s own views of the world may not be all that different.  In a remarkable essay in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg describes “The Obama Doctrine.”  Specifically, in examining the decision not to attack Syria after its President Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons against his own citizens, Goldberg explains that he has “come to believe that, in Obama’s mind, August 30, 2013, was his liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East—countries, he complains privately to friends and advisers, that seek to exploit American “muscle” for their own narrow and sectarian ends.”

    America’s allies in Europe and Asia are vital to American national security, but that case has not been made effectively by either American or allied leaders in a long time.  Worse, there is a broad and generally accepted view—and one that is not completely inaccurate—that the United States does all the heavy lifting in the world.  This message resonates with Americans of every political stripe who are exhausted after 15 years of nearly persistent conflict, who have seen middle class incomes shrink, and who fear America’s best days may be behind it.  President Obama won’t say it quite so pointedly, but his policies have clearly signaled in Europe and Asia that America’s allies need to do more.  Trump simply says it. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Photo of a person holding a life-size version of the cover of Donald Trump's book, Think Big and Kick Ass In Business and Life, among a crowd of others.

    Picks of the Week: Creeping Authoritarianism


    The Governing Cancer of our Time | The New York Times

    The best predictor of Trump support isn’t income, education, or age.  It’s authoritarianism. | Vox


    More than five years ago in The Providence Journal, I wrote of a specter haunting America. Then I was concerned about impatience on the left of the political spectrum and my growing sense that authoritarianism was gaining in popularity. I repost those views this week in light of the rise of a clearly authoritarian candidate to prominence in the Republican party.

    It doesn’t matter what your political perspective—politics is essential to democracy. You can disagree with the compromises that are made, but it is the best process humanity has created to govern.


    In the U.S., the lure of authoritarianism

    Originally published in The Providence Journal, October 20, 2011

    There is a specter haunting America—the specter of authoritarianism. It is not yet mainstream, but it is creeping into mainstream discussions about fixing Washington’s broken politics.

    To be clear: there is a crisis in our democracy. Our governing system, strained by partisanship and poll-watching, has lost its ability to tackle difficult issues. Instead of leadership from any corner, we find a palpable desire, especially in Congress, to pass the buck, to avoid responsibility, and, as a result, to avoid issues of importance.

    The result is a dysfunctional political process that looks paralyzed.

    For those who believe that government is the solution, if it would only get out of its own way, the temptation to dismiss democracy as a hindrance can be overwhelming.

    Such instincts, though are not only misguided, they are dangerous and should be repudiated immediately and emphatically.

    Take for example Peter Orszag, the former Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the first 18 months of the Obama Administration. Writing in The New Republic, Orszag said,

    To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.

    But he’s not alone. James Hansen, of NASA and Columbia University, wrote late last year with an unabashed admiration for the way in which China’s brand of authoritarianism makes it possible for that country to lead on an important (and real) issue like climate change:

    I have the impression that Chinese leadership takes a long view, perhaps because of the long history of their culture, in contrast to the West with its short election cycles. At the same time China has the capacity to implement policy decisions rapidly. The leaders seem to seek the best technical information and do not brand as a hoax that which is inconvenient.

    Of course admiration for a government’s responsiveness to big issues is a far-cry from advocating constitutional change—but it is a slippery slope. And it is one that Americans have stepped onto time and again when difficult challenges have arisen.   Recall the adulation given to German economic progress in the 1930s, or the envy of Soviet achievements in space and science in the late 1950s.

    The current appeal of technocratic authoritarianism is best exemplified in the struggle to get America’s national debt under control.

    In recent years we have heard both Democrats and Republicans propose a statutory budget commission whose recommendations would, in effect, have the force of law.

    A statutory commission with such sweeping authority is not unprecedented. For several decades, Congress has relied on this model to close excess military bases. After study and review, the commission makes its recommendations. If a resolution of disapproval is not passed in both houses of Congress in a certain period of time, the recommendations take on the force of law.

    It’s an ingenious device. Public comment periods built into the process provide members of the House and Senate the opportunity to posture and pontificate while knowing they will never have enough votes to stop the process from proceeding.

    It’s also a complete abdication of constitutional responsibility. Instead of grappling with great and difficult issues, members of Congress cede the authority vested in them by the Constitution to a panel of unelected, unaccountable oligarchs.

    In the case of a statutory deficit commission, Congress would be abandoning the principle of self-rule—authority over our own taxes and our own expenditures—that inspired our founders to seek independence from Britain 235 years ago.

    We should not be seduced by an expedient solution that is inconsistent with our form of government and dangerous to our Constitution. If we conclude that our elected representatives are unable to decide what we should pay in taxes and what we should spend on programs, then someone will soon ask “What do we need them for?”

    The challenges facing the United States are not too big to solve. Nor is the United States too big to fail. Leaders have to lead and accept the electoral consequences of their actions. Anything less leads to paralysis or, worse, a diminished democracy. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Picks of the Week: Cold War Redux? “How could we have let this happen?”


    Russia’s hybrid interference in Germany’s refugee policy | European Council on Foreign Relations

    Navy aircraft returning to former Cold War base in Iceland | Stars and Stripes

    NATO to send more forces east to face Russia threat | Stars and StripesRussia

    In the long line of American defense secretaries, few stand out for quiet brilliance. One, however, does: William Perry. Unassuming, likable, and brilliant, he’s a student of both global politics and technology. It was Perry, among others, in the Carter administration who championed an approach to technology that others would later describe as a “revolution in military affairs.” Stealth and precision guided munitions, Perry argued years before he would serve as Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, could have strategic consequences. The history of warfare since 1991 has confirmed Dr. Perry’s insights.

    But Bill Perry didn’t prescribe a military technical revolution to fight terrorists or third-world dictators. He, and others, saw it as a way to offset Soviet numerical superiority in Eastern Europe.

    In 2004, bristling from Europe’s repudiation of the Iraq war, the administration of President George W. Bush announced it was withdrawing the bulk of American forces from bases in Europe—especially in Germany. The administration—clearly wanting for a map—argued that American forces would be closer to the fight if they deployed to the war on terror from Kansas rather than Germany. It was anger and frustration—a reaction to allied opposition to America’s war of choice in Iraq dressed in the rhetoric of “cost savings” and a transformed relationship with Russia.

    Recent U.S. Military Events in Europe

    Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense via www.defense.gov/

    Unfortunately, as Secretary Perry observed recently, the U.S.-Russia relationship is in tatters. Russia has used force against its neighbors with relative impunity. While their economy buckles under the combined blows of sanctions and the low price of oil, Russia still holds Crimea, still controls a sizable portion of Eastern Ukraine, and appears to have altered the reality on the ground in Syria.
    And now, American policy appears to be stiffening. Military hardware is again moving to positions in Eastern Europe. American and allied aircraft are performing routine intercept operations in the skies over the Baltic Sea. The U.S. Navy is repositioning submarine hunter-aircraft and probably thanking its lucky stars that they didn’t close the submarine base at Groton in the last round of base closures.

    It would be trite to blame any single American administration for “losing” Russia. In the first place, it was never ours to lose. But the ebbs and flows of U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War should remind us of the enduring value of power in the international system and the sheer silliness of making policy decisions out of pique. – Executive Director Jim Ludes


    Feature photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense via www.defense.gov/


  • Pell Center Executive Director Jim Ludes speaks candidly with colleague and visiting fellow G. Wayne Miller during a podcast.

    Podcast: G. Wayne Miller

    Executive Director Jim Ludes and Visiting Fellow G. Wayne Miller discuss “Car Crazy: The Battle for Supremacy between Ford and Olds and the Dawn of the Automobile Age”, Miller’s most recent published work. Miller is the Director of the “Story in the Public Square,” a year-round initiative to study and celebrate public storytelling.

    Play below:

  • In this photo illustration, a Rock River Arms AR-15 rifle is seen with ammunition on December 18, 2012 in Miami, Florida.

    Picks of the Week: 354 Mass Shootings in 336 Days

    Rate of Mass Shootings Has Tripled Since 2011, Harvard Research Shows | Mother Jones

    How Often Do Mass Shootings Occur? On Average, Every Day, Records Show | New York Times

    “Thoughts and Prayers” Backlash After San Bernardino Shooting | NBC News

    At the time of this writing, we still don’t know the motive of the murderers in San Bernardino, California. But we do know their means. As in 353 other instances in the United States earlier this year, firearms were the tool of choice for someone intent on murder, carnage, and terror.

    Yet politicians were quick to defend the second amendment. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said, “There are law-abiding citizens whose rights we don’t want to trample upon.”

    I wonder how Mr. Ryan feels about the trampling of the rights of the 462 people killed in mass shootings in 2015 in the United States? Or the rights of the 1,314 who have been wounded? Or the vast sums being spent to increase the ability of police forces to meet heavily armed psychopaths—something contributing decisively to the militarization of America’s police forces.

    As President Obama put it, why do we allow someone who can’t board a plane buy guns without a background check?
    The National Rifle Association (NRA) wants you to believe that there is nothing that can be done, except send thoughts and prayers to the victims. I’ve said this before, but it reminds me of the old saying, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people that he didn’t exist.”

    The American people are not quite so impotent, thankfully. This democracy, rallied to action, has tackled bigger issues and defeated greater foes. But for once we have move beyond the ideological and ahistorical arguments of gun-rights advocates.

    If our elected leaders don’t agree, then it’s our solemn duty to defeat them at the polls. That’s how things change in America. I’m talking about a single-issue focus, friends. Nothing else matters. Enough is enough. – Jim Ludes, Executive Director

  • Image of a large mushroom cloud extending out from the surface of the Earth into space

    Picks of the Week: Nuclear Nightmares

    The fuel for a nuclear bomb is in the hands of an unknown black marketeer from Russia, U.S. officials say | The Center for Public Integrity

    US flies B-52 bombers near disputed islands claimed by China | The Hill


    Two weeks ago, the USS Lassen, a U.S. Navy destroyer, sailed through disputed waters in the South China Sea.  China protested and said it would respond at a time and place of its own choosing.  Several days later, Chinese fighter jets, bristling with missiles, flew through the area.  Most recently, an American B-52 bomber flew through the airspace.  If there’s one thing you can say about the B-52, there’s no doubt the Chinese knew it was there.  The venerable aircraft is big, slow, and, with large vertical surfaces, easy to spot on radar.

    You can expect the Chinese will move again in a similar fashion.

    The dispute in the South China Sea, as serious as it is and with all the potential for miscalculation that it entails, isn’t a serious cause for concern.  All the parties to the dispute are rational actors. They have substantial interests and claims about which they are quite serious, but they also recognize the consequences of miscalculation.  Balancing and traditional diplomacy and statecraft as practiced by the current players seem up to this challenge.

    More alarming is the report out this week that four separate would-be nuclear smugglers in Moldova—once part of the Soviet Union—have been stopped over the last five years trying to sell highly enriched uranium from the same source.  The really alarming piece of this story follows:

    [T]he resulting international probe into the case has sparked fresh, and previously unreported worries, that thieves inside of Russia somehow made off years ago with a full bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium. Western spies fear the thieves have been doggedly looking for a buyer for the past sixteen years, by repeatedly dangling in front of them identical, genuine samples of that highly valuable material.

    Five current or former U.S. officials who have tracked nuclear smuggling, and who declined to be named because this assessment is classified, said it is now a consensus view within the intelligence community.

    The truth is, this story raises more questions than it really answers.  But that’s the case with nightmares.  What you don’t know will keep you up at night. – Jim Ludes, Executive Director


  • Close up of a United States Army uniform and its American flag patch

    Picks of the Week | The Long Game

    President Obama: the 60 Minutes Interview | CBS News

    Rift in Obama administration over Putin | Politico

    Who is a Better Strategist: Obama or Putin? | Foreign Policy

    Last week, during an appearance on “White House Chronicle,” the show’s host, Llewellyn King, asked me whether a lack of leadership on the National Security Council and at the State Department was to blame for the impotence of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and especially in Syria.  King hearkened back to a time in American foreign policy when a Kissinger or a Brzezinski played a dominant role in American policymaking.

    Having worked for Secretary of State John Kerry when he was a United States Senator, and with Susan Rice in the 2004 campaign, and for both of them when they were members of the board of the American Security Project, I was quick to leap to their defense.  Kerry and Rice are smart, tough, dedicated public servants.  They have strong strategic instincts and an ability to master complex details.  They are committed internationalists who believe America has a unique role to play in the world.  I sincerely have the highest confidence in them, and I said as much to King.

    But I wish I had not stopped there.  Within hours of the broadcast of “White House Chronicle,” President Obama’s interview with Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes” aired.  In a sometimes heated exchange, the “great man” King was looking for in the Situation Room or at Foggy Bottom emerged.  It is President Barack Obama, himself.

    It seems like a blinding flash of the obvious, of course.  The President of the United States is the primary author of his own foreign policy.  But there was a time, as King suggested, when foreign policy advisors shaped the agenda and legacy of presidents even more than the presidents they served.  That’s not the case in Obama’s second term.  He is fully in charge as evidenced by the mastery of issues in the “60 Minutes” interview, but also in other reporting about the president’s advisors favoring more muscular approaches to Russia or to Syria, to pick two examples—an assertiveness President Obama has simply rejected.

    Instead, Obama is opting to play a long-game.  With Russia, the president is content to let Russian aggressiveness exhaust the economically challenged former-superpower.  In Syria, the president seems content to let chaos prevail because the cost of decisive American intervention is a cost neither he nor the nation he leads is willing to pay.  So instead, he’s adopted a containment strategy with ISIS while continuing to seek a negotiated end to the Assad regime. Russia’s recent intervention in Syria doesn’t preclude that kind of end-game—it may, perversely, even make it more likely.

    Critics of President Obama will argue that he is more worried about his legacy as the “ender” of the wars he inherited than responding to the challenges that have emerged on his watch.  The evidence suggests otherwise.  President Obama is managing difficult foreign policy challenges while preserving and rebuilding American strength.  That’s the stuff of strategy.  In an age where the military option is called for flippantly and with a cavalier disregard for risk, the president’s foreign policy restraint reveals his mastery of the policy making process.  As his predecessor might have put it: advisors advise, but the president decides.

    Whether Obama’s policy choices are the right decisions is certainly open to debate—but the provenance of those choices is clear.  They belong to the president. – Executive Director, Jim Ludes

  • Close-up photo of Rhode Island Senator Claiborne de Borda Pell outside of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

    The Hill: Legislating as it Once Was: The NEH Turns 50

    The Following op-ed was published originally on the Congress Blog of The Hill, the Capitol Hill newspaper.

    Legislating as it Once Was: The NEH Turns 50

    Elizabeth Francis and James M. Ludes

    Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.  It was not fast-tracked legislation, rather it was the result of determined effort by Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and his allies in the House and Senate.  In a day and age of political paralysis, sequester, and government shut-downs, when many Americans question whether government can ever accomplish anything, it’s useful to revisit the process Pell used to pass the legislation into law.

    Senator Pell began, simply, with the idea that the U.S. government should support both the arts and the humanities in this country.  Then, using the convening power of the Senate, he assembled the most important, leading voices on the issue.  Over two weeks of testimony in February of 1965, Senator Pell brought scholars and artists before his subcommittee, university presidents, like Barnaby Keeney of Brown University, and union leaders followed, as did administration officials and other members of the Senate.

    He gave these experts and stake-holders a platform from which to be heard, and then he did something radical.

    He listened.

    Senator Pell did not begin with a ten-point plan and a speech.  There was no org-chart hidden away with authorities established and structures determined.

    He listened and he worked to accommodate the concerns he was hearing.

    He did not draw lines in the sand.  He did not posture.

    He listened.

    He did not pre-judge any of the big issues facing his subcommittee.  For example, he did not begin with a conviction about whether the arts were part of the humanities.

    He listened to the people who cared passionately on both sides of that debate.

    He did not begin with a firm view of whether the new foundation should be independent or part of an existing federal agency.

    He listened.

    In the end, Senator Pell earned truly bipartisan support for the legislation.  Democrats with names that resonate still today supported the bill: Bayh, Dodd, Kennedy, McGovern, Mondale, and Muskie.  But there were others, too, who voted for the legislation: Republicans like George Murphy of California, Jacob Javits, John Tower and even Barry Goldwater.

    Why?  There’s no single answer.  But there is one common answer:  because Claiborne Pell listened.

    Time and again, whenever the legislation seemed to be in trouble, Pell and his staff—especially Livingston Biddle who played such an important role and would later become chair of the National Endowment for the Arts—showed a remarkable ability to listen, to understand what was important to others, and to accommodate those priorities in the legislation.

    Listening and accommodating were the twin elements of Senator Pell’s approach to creating legislation.  This was not sausage being made, as the old adage goes, it was a master’s class on legislating.  It’s a lesson lost on too many of today’s members of the House and Senate.

    The National Endowment for the Humanities, fifty years-on, has made our democracy healthier, our scholarship richer, and our public dialogue more reflective.  Through the creation of the state humanities councils, also driven by Senator Claiborne Pell who listened and heard a need for the humanities to reach local communities, the National Endowment for the Humanities has a direct and immediate impact, ensuring widespread access to history, heritage, and civic engagement. This is the legacy of a legislator and an approach to legislating that prized listening over winning.  That’s how you create institutions that, half-a-century later, remain true to their original mission.  It’s how you get things done in Washington.  It’s a lesson we’d be well served to remember.

    In a broader sense, the public’s engagement with the humanities supports listening, critical thinking, and reflective dialogue by all of us.  These skills are essential for informed consent in a democracy.   As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NEH, we affirm the importance of public support for the humanities to create a political community where we listen and accommodate to solve the great issues of our time, just as Senator Pell did 50 years ago.

    Elizabeth Francis is the Executive Director of the RI Council for the Humanities.  James Ludes is Vice President for Public Research and Initiatives as well as Executive Director of the Pell Center at Salve Regina University. Together with the University of Rhode Island Libraries these institutions created the Pell Humanities Initiative, celebrating the NEH 50th anniversary and honoring Senator Claiborne Pell’s commitment to the humanities in the health of the nation by showcasing the vital contributions of the humanities in our society today.  The views expressed here are their own.

  • Photograph of a handgun resting on top of an American flag.

    Picks of the Week: Another Mass Shooting: Enough is Enough

    There’s been no calendar week without a mass shooting during President Obama’s second term | Washington Post

    Deaths from gun violence vs. deaths from terrorism, in one chart | Vox

    President Obama Laments Mass Shootings Becoming ‘Routine” After Oregon School Massacre | ABC News

    I didn’t want to turn on my television tonight.  I knew what was waiting for me.  But I had to watch—and as soon as I turned it on, there it was: 10 dead, seven wounded, the red graphic screaming “BREAKING NEWS” and the sickeningly familiar scenes of students being frisked by police after some madman brought another gun into another school and killed innocents.

    I sat down to write this week’s Picks of the Week column determined to write an insightful commentary about events in Syria in the past week.  And as important as that issue is, I can’t get past the news of another mass shooting in my country.

    Another mass shooting.  After Sandy Hook it seemed certain that the country would finally pass some kind of common-sense gun control.  But the NRA ruled the day.  As more than one person has pointed out: once the slaughter of first graders became something bearable, any hope for progress on this issue disappeared.

    In the 20 years since Columbine, body armor and police response times have gotten better, but our sense of collective responsibility for each other’s safety and wellbeing has not.  So crowds gather again and again to light candles the night after a murderous rampage, we hug our kids tight, and the vast majority of us go on feeling impotent to change anything.

    But the truth is we are not impotent.  The NRA is not invincible.  This doesn’t have to be the way it is.  But the public has to demand more—we have to demand more from our politicians, from our leaders, from the people with the power to make this better.  It shouldn’t take an act of courage to go to a movie on a Thursday night in America and it should certainly not take an act of courage to send your kids to school. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Picks of the Week | Big Challenges Await Next President

    Why Americans Still Think the Economy is Terrible | New York Times

    Senators call U.S. effort to train Syrians to fight Islamic State ‘a joke’ | McClatchy DC

    Russia is Setting up a Forward Operating Base in Syria, Pentagon Confirms | Defense One


    President Barack Obama waded into the 2016 Republican primary debate this week when he said, “Despite the perennial doom and gloom that I guess is inevitably a part of a presidential campaign, America is winning right now. America is great right now.”  With all due respect to the President, that case is getting harder to make.

    Domestically, we learned that the American middle class is really under assault.  As Neil Irwin pointed out in the New York Times, unemployment is down to 5.1% and the stock market remains near historic highs, but the U.S. census bureau reports middle class incomes are flat, year over year.  More alarmingly, middle class incomes are down 6.5 percent from 2007 and 7.2 percent from 1999.  Read that again.  Middle class Americans are making substantially less income now than they were eight years or even 15 years ago.  That’s the single biggest reason American’s, by and large, don’t feel like the economic recovery has touched them.

    Internationally, the news is not much better.  Syria is emptying out of refugees, but the Russian military is going in with tactical aircraft, and T-90 tanks.  The refugee crisis in Europe has resurrected headlines like “Austria is rushing troops to its border,” that seem plucked from the graveyard of the 20th century.  And the U.S. plan to train 12,000 Syrian opposition fighters to take on the Assad regime as well as ISIS is in tatters.  U.S. officials testifying before Congress this week revealed that only “four or five” trained forces are currently in Syria.  By the end of the year, the Obama administration hopes to have that number up to “100 to 120.”

    The President is right to remind us that the American story is not one of doom and gloom.  A positive vision for the future is needed now as we debate our future course as a nation.  But we can’t be Pollyannaish about the world either or willful in our ignorance of the enormity of the challenges facing the next President—whoever that might be.  – Jim Ludes, Executive Director

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