Robert Johansen



In this essay, Richard Falk offers us exactly what we need, yet when we reflect on it, we recognize that it is almost more than we can bear. Before we give up in the face of challenges that carry dire consequences and nearly overwhelm our sense of responsibility, we should recognize that we are in the presence of a prophet with clear vision and accurate warnings. We should take Falk’s vision as a touchstone and return to it frequently in our own quest to find and contribute to solutions for the overwhelming problems that now threaten many people, annihilate other species, and destroy life-giving ecosystems.

Falk clearly explains the need for major change in value realization, identities, attitudes, and political and economic systems or structures. Political institutions must be less state-centric, more representative, more sensitive to long-term human and global needs, and more focused on human and planetary security.

Seeing the speed with which threats are multiplying and the relentless resistance to change among those who have the power to change, we may feel eager to declare ourselves global citizens as an antidote to the poisonous aspects of our political culture and to join a movement that assumes the harmony of all will one day win out. Yet even this is not enough to meet Falk’s prophetic understanding.

Indeed, he cautions against such initiatives because they could inadvertently perpetuate more of the same. They do not count the cost of truly redemptive behavior, they downplay the need for political struggle to achieve necessary change, and they may be insufficiently courageous in speaking clearly about the extent of change needed.

Enter the citizen pilgrim. Falk assures us that this is not to be an isolated pilgrimage, yet he believes that we cannot now be a citizen of an international community because the community does not exist. We cannot vote for it, pay taxes to it, or rely on its rule of law. What can we do?

As citizen pilgrims, if I understand correctly, we can give our loyalty to a polity that does not yet exist in reality but does exist in our minds. It is not hard to imagine that polity because it includes everyone and implements the basic values of human dignity, as well as respects nature. We can see pieces of it everywhere, sometimes inspiring action. Other times, the forces against it shatter our hopes.

Yet Falk does not suggest that we simply dwell on or proclaim our vision. He calls us to new realism, which guides each citizen’s pilgrimage into the wilderness of today’s political and economic struggles, deliberating elevating the good of all above the good of parts.

A citizen pilgrim faces constant tension between the vision of a preferred future and the call to be realistic about how to live this day. Can we be honest about the content and the extent of what is required, while still supporting incremental change that may succeed because it does not harm anyone’s security in the short run, yet opens the door to fundamental structural change in the long run? I think Falk believes that we can do this as long as we simultaneously grapple honestly with keeping the long-term vision in the immediate political struggle.

Moreover, if one of the two must be compromised, try hard to keep the vision clear. We must be clear about the values we seek even while we remain experimental about the means we use, although the (nonviolent) means themselves must be consistent with the end values. In a world where we cannot influence much of what even our own government does, integrity requires us to be absolutely clear about where we stand on value implementation which must occur if the human species is to survive with dignity.

Falk acknowledges the difficulties in the tensions and explains that, in the end, the motivation for the citizen pilgrim is spiritual. Indeed, this is what inspires the efforts to reduce human suffering. Great leaders throughout history have recognized this and sought to live lives of exemplary ethical integrity as citizen pilgrims.

In future thinking by Falk and others, readers look forward to more detail about the kinds of political struggles, social movements, and self-chosen citizen’s labels that we are likely to find most promising. Also, if the necessary scale and nature of changes require spiritual motivation, how do we ignite that spark in ourselves and nurture it in others?

How is spiritual motivation manifested in social movements? Falk criticizes some and endorses others. Can a central focus on core human rights and commensurate human duties, while eliciting sensitivity to diverse cultural applications, provide a unifying foundation for political programs for which to mobilize powerful transnational leverage, analogous to what occurred in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the US? Can we together work for better understanding of how our identities may become all-inclusive in deed, rather than merely in rhetoric, as we amplify the voices of the unheard and the oppressed? Could a transnational movement aimed at abolishing the “global apartheid” imposed by the existing international economic and political system build transnational strength? Could efforts to overcome gender oppression be a central catalyst? How can environmental protection inspire sufficient support to force change? Of course, all the preceding can be included under the rubric of human security and ecological sustainability.

How moderate or radical does the “new realism” suggest citizen pilgrims should be in setting specific goals to mobilize political action? How broad a united front should one seek at this time in history? What compromises can one accept?

Can religious organizations become more helpful, recognizing that at their best they advocate treating others as one wants to be treated by them? Can they cultivate awareness that in practice they have been heavily nationalized and even further fragmented by intra-religious factionalism that itself can become violent, as now rages in Syria and Iraq while being exploited and manipulated by others?

How can a first-order priority to abolish poverty worldwide also move toward slow-growth or no-growth economies? How can deeper sensitivity to human rights ensure simply that everyone on earth has a job? Can our support for the International Criminal Court make clear that the rule of law prohibiting war crimes and crimes against humanity must apply to all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, not just to France and the United Kingdom or, in actual practice, to officials from weaker governments? We need a deeper understanding of when and how it is better to enforce the law on some, even if it is not yet enforced equally on all, rather than not to have any enforcement at all. Can we engage people from all cultural regions of the work in envisaging how to move to more inclusive, layered identities, and from a territorially delimited state system to more equitable forms of governance, ranging from local to regional to global, that can provide human security for all and protect global ecosystems?

How can we communicate more directly and boldly that we insist on structural change? Voting for president and members of Congress once every few years is clearly insufficient, especially when elected officials usually do not even consider major change. We do need a global movement or network of movements in which we can participate and to which we can contribute.

Does our ability to communicate instantly to millions around the planet carry unrealized potential? Can social media enable more influential pressure from “below,” or more effective coalition-building by existing members of parliaments around the world to speak for the people of the world?

Falk’s analysis sobers us deeply, yet inspires us because we recognize the uncommon gravity and honesty of his words. This message rings true. May additional citizen pilgrims hear the ringing. Although the political success of the pilgrimage that Falk describes is never assured, nothing less is worthy of mature human beings in this age.


Robert Johansen
Robert Johansen is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and Senior Fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. His research focuses on how to increase compliance with prohibitions of war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the peace.



Cite as Robert Johansen, "Commentary on 'Changing the Political Climate: A Transitional Imperative,'" Great Transition Initiative (September 2014), http://www.greattransition.org/commentary/robert-johansen-changing-the-political-climate-richard-falk.


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