S.4 E.5: Peace and Reconciliation

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus professor of political science and peace studies, Dr. Mimi Gerstbauer.
Posted on September 29th, 2020 by

Mimi Gerstbauer, Professor of Political Science, Raymond and Florence Sponberg Professor of Ethics, and past director of the Peace Studies program at Gustavus, talks about her path to political science and peace studies, her research on peace-building and interstate reconciliation, and the role of contrition in international relations.

Season 4, Episode 5: Peace and Reconciliation

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

A recent report from the United Nations notes that [quote 00:00:25] “globally, the absolute number of war deaths has been declining since 1946. And yet, conflict and violence are currently on the rise, with many conflicts today waged between non-state actors, such as political militias, criminal and international terrorist groups, unresolved regional tensions, or break down in the rule of law, absent or co-opted state intuitions, illicit economic gain, and the scarcity of resources exacerbated by climate change have become dominate drivers of conflict.” [End quote. 00:00:56]

Reading this made me even more eager to speak with my colleague, and today’s guest, Dr. Loramy “Mimi” Gerstbauer of the political science department at Gustavus, who is an expert at international peace building and led our College’s peace studies program from 2002 through 2014. Mimi earned her BA in Political Science at Wheaton College in Illinois, my home state, and her PhD in Government and International studies at the University of Notre Dame, where she also earned an MA in Peace Studies. She has taught at Gustavus since 2001, during which time she has not only directed Peace Studies and made her mark in the classroom but also published and presented extensively on Peace Building Globally, chaired her department, chaired the annual Mayday Peace Conference at Gustavus, and been a visiting professor in Japan and Fulbright Scholar in Poland.

She is a careful and creative thinker on issues of peaceful reconciliation in the global context, including the United States, and one one reason I wanted to speak to her is because her work seemed more relevant and urgent than ever given on-going events abroad, think Syria for example, and recent events here at home, above all the police killing of Mr. George Floyd and all that has followed in its wake. So, welcome Mimi. I’m so glad we have this chance to converse. Haven’t done this in a while.

Mimi:

Thank you for having me Greg.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. I should tell listeners we were also part of a study group through Gustavus in Northern Ireland in 2002, which was, obviously, had to do with reconciliation and peace building, it was really fascinating. Maybe we can get into that later.

So, welcome.  Why don’t we start with your own story. Your background and how you came to Political Science and Peace Studies, I noted that in the intro you went to Wheaton College, where you majored in Poli-Sci, is that something you knew were going to do from the start? You know some people come to college and have no idea what they’re going to do. Others, like me, perhaps like you, know but go head. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you got to Wheaton and Poli-Sci.

Mimi:

Yes, I was pre-med. So, that’s where I started, like many people and it was one unacceptable to me grade in Chemistry that made me drop that. But, I probably would have really enjoyed being a doctor actually. But what I really was interested in, in going to Wheaton, which was kind of a last minute decision, I was set to go to the University of Michigan, paid my deposit, everything. Grew up in Ohio. A person at my church told me about Wheaton and I just got real excited about going there. I was interested in being a doctor but I was interested in living overseas, working in medical field in other countries, in particularly in developing nations. So that was my goal.

Really, the history behind that, I am probably a poster child for the importance of global travel. I did not come from a wealthy family but my mother, in particular, loved to travel. I was able to travel a lot at a young age and see the world. I just fell in love, probably with being a tourist, quite frankly, but I also had a lot of opportunities for deeper travel. Especially at age 15, my mother and I traveled to India with the United Methodist Church and it was not a mission trip, per se, it was a trip to visit places that Methodist Church dollars had helped collaborate with in India over the years. We visited many hospitals and girls’ schools. I visited one of Mother Teresa’s homes for the destitute in [Gian 00:04:41]. So it was not a typical tourist trip.

So all those experiences not only awakened in me an interest in the globe and global affair, cultures but also social justice issues. So, I was interested in pre-med, a roommate told me to take a Political Science class with Dr. [Amstance 00:05:03], was an Intro to Political Science class because she liked the professor. So, I took that, I think as a Sophomore, as I recall. We read about Shantung Compound, which was a prisoner of war camp in China where Eric Little, who was featured in Chariots of Fire, he was this Olympic runner-

Greg Kaster:

All right.

Mimi:

Had died. He was one of the leaders in the camp. The book, which is a bit of a classic, was really about how people organize themselves and provide order, even in the horrible situation of a prison camp. So, how did the prisoners basically self-govern and solve conflicts and survive. I remember … that’s really the only thing I remember about that class, other than we talked about conflict a lot but I did start to have interest in Political Science at that point.

I never was a political junkie in high school. I didn’t follow politics at all, I wasn’t interested in campaigns and elections. Honestly, still that’s not my interest. I did my dissertation on Non-governmental Organizations, on NGOs. So, I’m really interested in International Politics, the global interactions of people, poverty and conflict, and trans-national issues. That was my introduction to Poli-Sci.

Peace Studies really came also out of that social justice awakening that happened through exposure to poverty in other countries, as well as in the U.S., but Wheaton had a unique study abroad program, this is Wheaton College in Illinois.  [inaudible 00:06:46] Hunger Program, Human Needs and Global Resources, Human Needs and Global Resources, and this program, which they still have today, was a very well designed study abroad program basically but it included an internship, an independent study component, and then cultural immersion and it was six months. I actually remember sitting in my neighbor’s yard in Cincinnati reading the brochure about the Hunger Program and thinking, this is for me.

So, that was actually a big draw for Wheaton College and that is something that I intended to do even before I was interested in Political Science. So, my advisor for the Hunger Program, who just died actually. His name was Robert [Stickney 00:07:34], he was an Engineer by training and he helped me to identify a good place to study abroad, an internship, and an independent study that fit my interest. That was to go to Nicaragua, this was in 1992 right after their emerging from their decades of civil war and my role was to work with [Saypod 00:07:58], it was a local development agency and document the peace building work that had happened post war, which was part of a national reconciliation commission that was formed by the Peace [Corps 00:08:12] in Nicaragua but also had local or region peace commissions has part of the process.

So, I was sent out to two areas of Nicaragua, out in the remote eastern side of the country and my role was to work with Sauropod to document the peace building work of the development agency, but also of these local peace commissions. So that was something that Robert Stickny helped me to find and it really solidified my interest in peace studies. That was the story there.

Greg Kaster:

It’s a great origin story and definitely a major theme of this podcast, is what I would call the role of contingency or chance in how so many of us find our way to a particular passion, major, and career. So, pre-med. That’s interesting. Were there … that’s where you started and like so many students, one lousy grade and “Naw, that’s not for me.” Then, but what if the roommate hadn’t recommended that professor? Were there any doctors in your family? What made you think of pre-med?

Mimi:

No there were no doctors in my family. Honestly, it was a helping profession. I think that’s basically … I love science but I’m a true interdisciplinary liberal arts person by nature. I love learning about all kinds of things. I wasn’t totally blind going into the pre-med idea. I had actually done a lot of high school enrichment opportunities where you’re shadowing doctors and going to visit … have extra curricular activities where you could explore the medical field. I got a scholarship to be a nurse. I wanted to be a nurse and a doctor, which didn’t really seem to work. Back then, there weren’t these nurse practitioners and things like that as much, where you could kind of combine the mindset of nursing with more medical practice.

I was confused, obviously, but also a helping profession was my impetus, it wasn’t for money. That was not a goal at all. Certainly, I thought I was a good student, so I wanted to challenge myself. It seemed like a good profession, so …

Greg Kaster:

That emphasis on helping fits with, obviously, with what you went on to do and still do. When you went to Nicaragua, were you already fluent in Spanish? Had you already studied Spanish?

Mimi:

Yes. I was more fluent than I am now. I had an excellent high school teacher. Actually didn’t take any language in college but I was pretty well suited to do interviews. I did about 30 interviews in Spanish with people who were involved with the peace commission, peace process. From people that were in positions of leadership to just the local guy down the road. The area I was sent to, [Nueva Guenia 00:11:18] was kind of the end of the road, actually in eastern Nicaragua. Took a full day and a half to get there from Managua, the capital. Has it happened, my supervisor there was from my internship, sent off to Denmark within a few days of my arrival there. So, while I was supposed to work with this development agency, Sauropod, and their regional office out in Nueva [Gadaya 00:11:48], my supervisor basically disappeared on me.

I made a list of things to do. I got kind of bored, I was staying with a family, in their two room house. I made a list, which included learn to know [Pacow 00:12:02] and most of the list didn’t happen but I did have wonderful opportunities out there to learn about the conflict between the [Contras 00:12:12] and the San [Dinestas 00:12:13], that area had been an area of a lot of conflict and a lot of Contra sympathizers. So the conflict became very complex for me. Gave me a really deep understanding into the Nicaraguan conflict, as well as the U.S. support of the Contras, real people on the ground weren’t just puppets of the U.S. but there were real grievances that helped them to joint he Contras and this was an area where they could go down to Costa Rica.

Later on in my internship, I spent time in [Portacabasis 00:12:48], on the Atlantic coast, which is close to Honduras and that is an area with large indigenous population within Nicaragua and I remember one interview I did with a man from the [Misquito 00:12:59] indigenous group and he would not speak to me in Spanish because that was the colonial language. So I have a interpreter for that particular interview and has a 20 year old, I remember how profound that seemed to me that his principle rejected that language, even though he spoke it. He didn’t want to be interviewed in Spanish. So that area also, Portacabasis, had a lot of Contra activity and people who did not identify with the San [Denista 00:13:30] government. And the reasons are very complex but basically that area had been isolated from western part of Nicaragua all through history.

It was the British Hondorus, it never identified with the Spanish history of Nicaragua and so when the San Dinestas came to power and started sending out people to the area to … literacy campaigns, whatever, even good work they were doing, it was an intrusion from outside and there were also, in addition to the indigenous identities, different religious identities in that area. There were [Merravian 00:14:04] Churches, I had never heard of that before arriving in Nicaragua and not Catholic identities. Much identity conflict go intermingled with why those people in that area identified with resistance to the San Denista government. So, that was a huge benefit for my education and peace studies.

Actually, my first publication came out of my time there. It was called The Church Works for Peace in Nicaragua. So …

Greg Kaster:

Was that about the Morovian? What church were you focusing on?

Mimi:

It was really Sauropod, this organization with whom I did the internship was a consortium of churches. So Mennonites, Morovian, all kinds of different Protestants. Probably Catholic too, I’m sorry, I don’t remember. But it was an organization that had early on organized against actually the Samosa dictatorship and then didn’t have a clear identity whether it was pro or anti San Danista. It was a progressive group overall I would say. One little aside here, when I was in [Puerta Cabasas 00:15:22], a sleepy little Caribbean town, I ran across in the library there, the dissertation of John Paul Lederach, who is perhaps one of the best known scholars of conflict resolution, he doesn’t use that term. He uses the term, conflict transformation and he had been involved has a negotiator basically in the Puerto Casabas region to help with the conflict.

So, his dissertation was in the library, he was a big of a famous person there and that was my first exposure to some of his ideas on how to deal with conflict.

Greg Kaster:

That’s amazing. The whole story … the whole experience must have been incredible. I remember I was in Mexico has an undergrad for, I guess, a semester, you know studying. Nothing like what you were doing. How transform of that was I can’t imagine what it was like for you. Especially cause you were essentially alone. Not literally alone but the fellow who was supposed to be your mentor or whatever had gone off to Denmark. This also reminds me that when I was a graduate student, I was team teaching with a fellow graduate student one summer at Boston University and a student left behind his wallet and we of course opened it and wanted to find out who it was and it was either the grandson of the dictator Samosa, that was his last name. He was taking a course on the History of American Radicalism and it was interesting to have him in the class.

It must be so difficult, reconciliation or conflict transformation but it does happen. It happens, I suppose, unevenly and it also can … there can be reversals even when there’s progress. I’m thinking about Northern Ireland and also South Africa. But could you talk a little bit about the process in so far as you’ve learned about it from your … not just reading about it but actually observing it and being a part of it, the process of reconciliation, whether it’s in a place like Nicaragua or South Africa or Northern Ireland, just for example. Or we can think about Israel and the Palestinians as well.

Mimi:

Right. Yeah, that’s a huge question obviously. What is the process of reconciliation and for me, I’m interested in a huge definition of that term, reconciliation. Not just therapeutic trauma healing and not the international legal side, like the international criminal court and not just truth commissions or reparations but this entire spectrum of activities that might be included in what I call the politics of reconciliation. I learned … there’s all this debate about the Confederate memorials, etc … [crosstalk 00:18:33] statue that came down in the Twin Cities and in Berlin, when I was in Poland, went to Berlin also and I learned a term there, a phrase, the debate is the memorial.

I love that because when I was first in Berlin for the purpose of looking at post World War II, effective memory and how we memorialize the war and I was struck that didn’t they already create that memorial over there? Why did they need another one?  [inaudible 00:19:11] going on? That was taken care of it, right? We dealt with that issue, let’s move on. But it’s never ending. There’s always a new group that wants a memorial for their group or there’s new generations that come along that need to deal with this in their way. Stories of reconciliation are never all wrapped up. At least not for a very long time. There’s continual reinterpretation, new understandings, new generations, new groups whose grievances haven’t been addressed. So I think of time has a crucial element and I think of the idea that we’re never going to be neatly wrapped up with a bow is incredibly important to remember.

So, when I think about … you mentioned how conflict revives in Northern Ireland or South Africa, Nicaragua. I mean, who’s the president right now in Nicaragua? Dani Ortega, who was ousted right before I came in the 1990 elections, he was ousted has this symbol of San Distasonis and whatever people think of him, he has certainly become a abuser of power at this point in Nicaragua.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Mimi:

So, reconciliation to me is this broad spectrum of processes and it’s never ending process. So, what I think about the specific tools, I mentioned some of them … international legal processes and reparations and truth commissions, etc. We see those happening all around the world in various combinations. I also, in addition to reconciliation, think about the idea of transitional justice. That’s a term that was used … transitional justice would be places like [Keylay 00:21:04] or South Africa that have elections and mark the end of regime that was undesirable [inaudible 00:21:04] in Chile or the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

I think what’s interesting now is this idea of transitional justice that in a transition from a dictatorship to a democracy, we need to deal with the abuses of the past regimen. That’s the idea of transitional justice but now that terms is being used not just for countries like Chile or South Africa that have done a transition, but to long standing democracies like Canada dealing with their indigenous grievances or United States thinking about torture under the Bush administration or the treatment of African Americans. So transitional justice has become much broader. It’s not just about countries that have moved towards democracy but all countries in the world.

Greg Kaster:

That’s interesting. That’s a term that’s new to me, transitional justice. I also love that phrase by the way, the debate is the memorial. I think that’s so important. For a lot of historians, that’s where we’re at around the statues or memorials controversy. I think some should come down but not all and to the extent that we can have an ongoing debate about it, there’s perhaps education and hope. Also, what you said about it being an ongoing process. Not something that gets sort of tidied up. I wonder about the role … you mention the NGOs, the non-governmental organizations, I wonder about the role of those organizations in peace building, conflict transformation. I assume there’s no one group that is involved but could you say a little bit more about the NGOs and the role they play?

Mimi:

Yes. So, my dissertation was on trying to discern how faith based NGOs and, for lack of a better word, secular NGOs engaged in international peace building. So, I looked at case organization, Mennonite Central Committee, Catholic Relief Services, Conflict Management Group based in Cambridge Massachusetts, and Institute for Multi-track Diplomacy in Washington, and a couple of other organizations. So all of these NGOs were working, in some fashion, in international peace building. What that was or what that entailed looked different for the different organizations. But one thing that’s fairly common, especially among the faith based organizations, is that they were relief and development organizations who realized that their aid work was inherently wrapped up in conflict. That they could no longer just give aid without paying attention to conflict dynamics in the countries that they worked in.

That may seem very obvious to us, of course. Yet, it was really Rwanda that was the wake up call for those organizations, that they needed to pay attention to conflict. Before that, the aid industry, like many things, has fashionable trends and so over time, what those are varies. So, I was hitting my research at a time, the late 1990s, where these organizations were going through massive shifts. For many of them, a very explicit peace building agenda was new to them. Of course, not to say they never thought about it but to be very purposeful about how they related to conflict dynamics was new. So, my dissertation advisor and I at Notre Dame is where I did my graduate school work, joked that I was really studying a moving target.

So, I went and most of my research, across time, has been through interviews and I went to the head quarters of all those organizations, interviewed their staff and they had a really hard time articulating what they were doing, to be quite honest. Catholic Relief Services had recently hired someone that was … had the peace building portfolio basically, has their job mandate and so, not only was … the moving target was the peace building aspect for them but also really hard to identify and articulate was whether their faith made a difference in their organization compared to the secular organizations.

Greg Kaster:

What did you find about that? What do you personally think about that based on your research? That question, I’m interested in that question. Does it make a difference? And if so, how?

Mimi:

Yeah, I think what happened is the … I don’t even know if I should get into this but the dissertation had some other issues in that the faith based organizations tended to be these relief and development organizations whereas most of my “secular” organizations were conflict specialists, not involved in relief work. I would say that I could identify two differences right now and there were more in my dissertation.

One would be that faith based organizations had strong networks on the ground to local churches. That’s why they, generally speaking, have been involved in this relief and development work, working with partners on the ground that were natural partners for them. A lot of the other organizations I looked at didn’t have those natural partners on the ground. So stronger networks. A lot of people that do research on faith and politics, and other kinds of aspects of how faith and our social world relate will identify that too, right? That the institution of the church is something physical and it’s a community and organization that people can work with. So that would be one thing.

The second thing was, I think, harder to name and explore but none of the organizations I looked at exclusively worked with Christians either in terms of who they served, I looked at just Christian organizations or in terms of who they hired, their staff were not all of the same faith or any faith. Same with the people they served. So to say that Catholic Relief Services is just a Catholic organization probably isn’t fair. That’s not everything they are. But the leadership is. So I doubt that the would hire top administrators that don’t identify with the Catholic faith.

So that pervades the organization. Interestingly, I named them because they were in the process of looking how Catholic social teaching affected, not just their work, but how they operated has an organization. Which I thought was kind of cool. I’m not Catholic, I say that because I went to Notre Dame, people might start thinking I’m Catholic but they wanted to examine how they related together has an organization, how they treated their workers. Their finance procedures, all their processes, has an institution and identify were they working on the principles of Catholic social justice, Catholic social teaching. So it was an internal examination has an organization and I thought that was pretty cool.

Greg Kaster:

That is. I think the whole, and the point has you said I guess it … thinking, hearing you talk about it, I guess yeah, it’s obvious that aid work and relief work, that’s conflict resolution or conflict transformation work and yet some, maybe many obvious points is profound. Especially given scarcity of resources, which could only worsen with climate change. That aid work is inseparable from conflict resolution work, I guess. I find that quite interesting and profound.

The other thing I really am fascinated by about your work, is the concepts of apology, forgiveness, and mercy … concepts that can seem sort of mushy and you make it clear that those are at work in international peace building and I know you’ve written a book, came out in 2017, called U.S. Foreign Policy and the Politics of Apology. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about what you argue in that book and the role of mercy, forgiveness, and apology internally, globally in terms of conflict resolution.

Mimi:

Sure. So, it’s not very popular to think about apologies and forgiveness in international relations.

Greg Kaster:

That’s what I would imagine.

Mimi:

And yet, I keep hitting these moving targets in my history research. This was an emerging thing as I started it, I think probably in the early 2000s or so, starting this research. So increasingly you’ll see books about politics of apology and forgiveness and international relations but generally it’s not something we think of has state actors doing.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Mimi:

I definitely felt that in a presentation I gave in Warsaw to the institution that was hosting me, I gave a talk to their international relations department and it was a sea of men. There was … I kind of prepped myself going into it, I thought, “This could be a male only audience.” And it was. That happens sometimes in international politics, in the sub field of clinical science. They were definitely not buying my forgiveness in politics. It was a more traditional department there is what I’m trying to say.

Back to John Paul Lederach, who I was first exposed to in Porta Casabas Nicaragua. He talks about … it’s actually based in a biblical Psalm, maybe Psalm 85, not remembering. He talks about reconciliation as truth, justice, peace, and mercy, all meeting together. I love this. He actually does a really cool workshop which I have tried to repeat with students here where he embodies truth, justice, peace, and mercy has a person, a student becomes, “I am truth and in conflict, I care about blah, blah.” Truth and justice maybe go together but mercy and justice don’t seem to go together. Those who demand justice don’t necessarily want to be merciful.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Mimi:

He argues that all four of those have to go together. Hunter [Arent 00:32:37] said, “Without forgiveness we can’t go forth with politics.” So back to that never ending process, the debate is the memorial, we’re never going to be done with the debate. If you don’t eventually let some things go, you’re never going to move forward. I actually believe that. The question becomes what can we let go? Where does mercy enter into or forgiveness enter into these questions of reconciliation because it is not always appropriate and it is definitely something we need to be very careful about demanding of others. Well, you just need to forgive you. Indigenous folks in Minnesota right, just let it go. That is not appropriate it. That is not what I’m talking about.

So, actually has I did my research on the book, and thinking about forgiveness and apologies, a lot of it has to do with the roles of leaders. I think leaders set a huge tone in moving countries forward in a process of reconciliation. I think of … I actually use the term in my book, “acts of contrition.” Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, I start the book with that. It was kind of sold has an apology to the Muslim world has he comes to power after the Bush administration, the ware in Iraq and Afghanistan, of course that was still ongoing at that point but he gives this speech in Cairo, in 2009. He unflinchingly names some of the abuses of the United States and we could say the whole western world to the Muslim world.

He mentions the Crusades, he mentions Colonialism, but he also doesn’t make any excuses for the attacks on September 11th. He doesn’t say the U.S. brought it on herself has some in some circles had argued, “our politics in the middle east caused this.” But he identifies a lot of common ground with the Muslim countries in the United States and again, western world. That set a tone of contrition, it set a tone of acknowledgement. People want their grievances to be acknowledged. They want to know that their grievances have been heard and they want to potentially find common ground. That would be one example of a leader’s speech that tried to offer some contrition or acknowledgement of grievances while not saying that the U.S. is a horrible country and we’re so terrible. So you can celebrate your own greatness while still acknowledging the bad things your country has done.

That’s what leaders are really bad at doing for the most part because it’s really unpopular to say bad things about your own country. Nobody wants to hear that, right. So we’re great. We’re just great. Yet, to be able to do that is a real skill. To be able to name our faults while at the same time celebrating our greatness. So … no, go ahead.

Greg Kaster:

I was just going to say, I couldn’t agree more and I’m thinking about the role of historians who … to point to flaws, evils even, like slavery, and the American past to somehow be seen has denigrating the nation. That’s just not true, right. That is the role of historians to point to the complexities, the good, the bad, the ugly. I always tell my students, my heroes are … among my heroes are abolitionists. Well what were they all about? They were about fighting one of the great evils in our country’s past, which had been a global evil, slavery. So, yeah, I just couldn’t agree more with what you just said about the importance of acknowledging flaws, failings, sins some people would say. The sin of slavery, American’s original sin some say.

But also that does not mean that you cannot celebrate because due to the history of slavery, you can celebrate the abolitionists, even as you acknowledge the awfulness, the horrors of slavery. It’s not an either, or. In any case you sent me down that path has I was listening to you. The stuff about forgiving, I think doesn’t mean forgetting. I don’t think it … am I right about that? To forgive and kind of let go, doesn’t mean to forget or does it? That would worry me has a historian.

Mimi:

Definitely not. So one of the things … I teach a seminar on political science, the politics of reconciliation and one of the first class sessions we write a continuum on the board of the one side totally forgetting and the other side too much memory. Where on that continuum do we want to be placed? We could just be stuck in the past with our anger, outrage, and never letting it go or dealing with it even. Or we could … that’s too much memory or we could be forgetting and sweeping it under the rug.

There have been some interesting books written, one I’ve used some chapters on for my students that have argued that sometimes doing nothing is appropriate. That doesn’t mean forgetting, but all the tools we have are reconciliation, truth commissions, court processes, reparations, etc., that ultimately we can not do any of those and so get along fine. Mozambique is a country that this particular author mentioned has not doing anything after their civil war in the 1980s and coming out just fine whereas Northern Ireland and South Africa, etc., had continued problems. I think that’s not an easy argument to make but I think that … back to my book in general and thinking about this is not about forgetting.

When I think about the continuum, all the different tools we have for reconciliation, that forgiveness is part of that but I don’t exclusively look at forgiveness and apologies, it could just be that we’re acknowledging what happened, admitting responsibility, agreeing on truth of what happened, which is very difficult. We move then to having empathy, having remorse for what happened and then making amends, paying reparations, punishing those who are responsible. What does that look like? Then taking action to prevent future abuse and having a situation where we have a more full bodied reconciliation. There is definitely a continuum of actions. They don’t necessarily even occur in a particular order.

But my book focuses on the role of the U.S. in this, which was pretty unique and looking at interstate relations. I want to say one word about that, my observation had been that a lot of the cases had been about domestic conflicts, Rwanda, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Chile, and I really wanted to look at interstate cases, which at the time I started my research, mostly focused on World War II, Japan and Germany especially after World War II. Now you’re seeing more research about post colonial apology, like Belgium apologizing for their role in Rwanda, for example. Catholic church also has made some apologies. So, NGOs can make apologies. We haven’t really reached a place yet where we’re having much apology or contrition about the Cold War. So that might take time.

Greg Kaster:

Or slavery in this country’s history and the reparations issue.

Mimi:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

This is all so fascinating because really a lot of this, we’re kind of … I don’t know if dancing around is the right phrase but we’re … let’s just stipulate that a lot of this really does have to do with memory, historical memory, collective memory, and how the past is remembered. I’m thinking about has you speak, I’m reminded of the extent to which there was reconciliation and there some new scholarship that suggest it wasn’t to the extent that the reconciliation wasn’t as large as some of us have thought. But after the U.S. Civil War, and how in the course of that reconciliation between Southern whites and Northern whites, to the extent that that reconciliation took place, lost was what the war, in fact, had been about, which was about revolution. About destroying slavery has a system in the society in the south that had been based on it.

So, I think, the question of reconciliation is bound up with memory in some ways. Didn’t you do a little work on that by the way at some point in your scholarship on memory? I may be misremembering.

Mimi:

Well, it’s an interesting … I have [inaudible 00:42:27] research on the Comfort Women in Japan and [inaudible 00:42:30] I have had arguments that kind of the collective memory literature and then the transitional justice or politics of reconciliation literature is don’t always talk to each other very well. It’s really odd that they don’t. So she and I have had these arguments over the years, like, “No, I’m doing something different than you.” And I said, “No, this collective memories totally related to what I’m doing.” I haven’t done the memory stuff deeply myself. Although I would say that one of the main conclusions of my book has I look at cases of the U.S., foreign policy in Nicaragua, in Iraq, and in Vietnam that it’s the domestic politics and how we remember those conflicts domestically that has inhibited the ability to have the interstate reconciliation in each of those context.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Mimi:

Until we can deal with our own Vietnam history within the U.S., we’re not going to make amends with Vietnam, although U.S. Vietnamese relations are quite good right now, over all.

Greg Kaster:

That’s an excellent point. That’s kind of what I was driving at is that we have to confront how we remember events we’re trying to reconcile over events in the past or near past. This reminds me too that you were in Poland. Was that 2015, I think, when you were there?

Mimi:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

The spring. What about efforts there around reconciliation between Poles and Germans or Poles and Jews, Polish Jews? Can you talk a little bit about what you learned about those efforts?

Mimi:

Yes. It was interesting because so many had researched and published about the German case and even Germany and Poland that was never one that I wanted to explore very deeply. I kind of avoided it, “oh everybody else is doing that.” Yet, it was fascinating to be there and it actually provided a lot of good grounding for my research. So, there … what surprised me most was how ongoing debates … how much there were ongoing debates. Germans that had been basically dislocated at the end of the war has the borders of Poland shift and take over part of Germany, were still dealing with their grievances and there was an active group in Germany of people that have been affected or their relative affected or their relatives who were still trying to get justice.

A question about who died in Poland. Many Jews from around Europe were brought to Poland, which the Germans had no regard for, and the death camp population there was of course huge and they killed … massive scale of killing in Poland was enormous. So, there’s a lot of internal debate in Poland about who died at the hand of the Germans. Many Poles died who weren’t Jewish, right. So that’s a grievance of the Poles, the relationship between Polish non-Jews and the Jewish history there is quite complex. One of the things that stuck me, to this day I do not have a good understanding or answer for it but in the little street markets in Warsaw, you could buy … what I found to be very disturbing trinkets of Jews holding a coin for example, a little wood carving of Jewish dressed in some sort of traditional Jewish dress holding a coin. These kind of stereotypes of the Jewish banker or money … asking about this, even with academics, you would just kind of get well it’s complicated.

How can we have these stereotypes being sold has trinkets and there was a new [inaudible 00:46:49], a new, very well done, museum about Jewish history in Poland that was there. I wish I could have spent more time there. I only went once but the history of Poland has many people know, one of the most welcoming places for Jews within Europe at various times in history and that’s why there were so many Jews there by World War II. Yet, the legacy is also more complicated than that. So even though a friendly place for Jews, you had situations within Poland where neighbors kill neighbors, or the famous book that was quite controversial about a group of Poles killing their Jewish neighbors around the time of World War II. Cover ups related to that, basically the story that came out was that the Germans had done it. That was not the truth has later was revealed.

So, there’s a … basically my lessons again, back to my time in Nicaragua, conflict is incredibly complex and my research has been interviews, case studies, yet I’m not an expert in a particular region in the world, other than my time back in Nicaragua. I do have Latin American politics has my grad school training. Yet, I strongly feel that the in depth knowledge of a conflict is really what is needed to have any kind of understanding to move forward because there aren’t easy answers and to be able to understand all the different groups, multiple groups involved, it takes some time and deep involvement.

Greg Kaster:

I guess that to achieve that understanding it requires an interdisciplinary approach. I’ll come back to that in a second, talk about your liberal arts background, but what … my sense of view, I’ve never talked explicitly with you about this but my sense is that you’re a hopeful person. Is that accurate? What makes you hopeful in the face of all of this … all of these immense challenges around the world with respect to peace? Is it the fact that the process is ongoing?

Mimi:

Yes. I probably am a bit naive still in that I want to find good in everyone. I do try and live by that principle. Very disturbed by rheteroic in the U.S. Current tone of conversation. Where basically it’s become a battle of good and evil everything. I probably need to realize that more than I do at times. I do see evil sometimes, for sure and in certain styles of leadership or whatever that definitely need to be condemned. For me, what gives me hope personally is my faith. I’m a Christian. But I also, I am not sure Greg, are we on some kind of path of progress or not. I think we like to pat ourselves on the back and think that we’re becoming more enlightened and more progressive has time goes by.

Greg Kaster:

The historians call that the Whig-ish view of history. Whig-ish with an H, after the Whig party. In any case, exactly, that there’s this idea that there’s linear progress.

Mimi:

I’ve asked my students that before in some of my classes, you know, as we think about, one scholar called it the justice cascade that [crosstalk 00:50:33] Cold War or there’s this huge movement towards, again, all these transactional justice processes. Creation of an international criminal court, the advance of human rights. It looks really good until you see how flawed some of those institutions are. I’m a fan of the international criminal court overall and yet, it’s not perfect by any means. As long as humans are involved in all of these institutions, I do feel like they’re never going to be perfect and I’m not sure that we really are on any kind of path of progress or there’s anything new under the sun, so to speak. I’m not sure if students do either.

I know there’s been some thought pieces recently, again back to the tearing down of memorials, statues, etc., what are future generations going to judge us for. I think we need to think about that right. Has we think about slave holders from the past and legitimately … many of them do need to be criticized, if the writing’s already on the wall, this is an evil institution and it’s going … and I’m still supporting it, then we don’t need to have a lot of sympathy for those people but at the same time, where are our blind spots and what will we be judged for in the future? I know many of us are thinking about that. I have hope because … perhaps because I think about, even though I’m a person who deals with international politics and processes, I think about the small scale and I think about my students here at Gustavus, that blow me away with their dedication and excitement about making a difference in the world.

Maybe some of them will become more jaded over time but even right now, many of them are doing work that is important to make positive change in their communities. So, I see hope in those things. My students this fall are going to read Samantha Powers book, The Education of an Idealist.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Mimi:

It’s a memoir, it’s a long book. So I hope we get through it but I’m a bit of a fan of hers. She was Obama’s ambassador to the U.N.

Greg Kaster:

I am also.

Mimi:

I actually invited her to, when I was Peace Studies Director, invited her to come here to Gustavus and I actually got an email back from her but that was a long time ago. I admired her work on genocide and thinking about the U.S. role in genocide and she’s done a lot of interesting work since then. But, she’s someone who also I think has that kind of positive mindset that even the U.S. can be a force of good in the world, I believe I’m incredibly privileged just to be born in this country. My book is a lot about the faults of the U.S. I don’t think some people in my family want to read it. I didn’t want them to read it because they think I’m just anti-U.S. or something.

But at the same time, I have hope when the right leaders get in place, that we can make a difference in the world but mostly it’s a hope for the local level people and my students. Small scale change I see. I’m part of a group right now that’s working in the Indian region in Latin America. Working with local communities and that’s, to me, increasingly what I realize where the hope is, is the smaller scale. Which connects [inaudible 00:54:04] to the bigger scale, they’re interconnected but all politics is ultimately local.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I agree. That gives me hope. Certainly knowing about what our students are up to, some of them around these issues. I’ve interviewed and will interview more for the podcast, Nathan [Baring 00:54:24] for example, who is involved in the youth climate change lawsuit. Then, yeah, how you know, I sometimes think there’s all this wonderful creative and positive and successful energy at the local level, how to scale that up to the national level.

But hope should be [inaudible 00:54:44] as far as I’m concerned. The other thing you mentioned earlier is your interdisciplinary outlook and I know that comes through in your teaching and in your work at Gustavus. Could you say a little bit more about the role of the liberal arts college? You attended one, Wheaton in Illonis, we’ve said, and you teach at one. What’s the case for a small residential liberal arts college like Wheaton or Gustavus?

Mimi:

I think has myself someone who was interested in exploring many different things, I was science, cultures. I wanted to be an archeologist, anthropologist, historian, political science, all those things. I think it affords students the ability to be educated broadly like that and explore their interest and I think it was one of the deans here at Gustavus who basically said that, “All of the interesting challenges and questions of our time, have to be explored with interdisciplinary work.” So, I think a liberal arts education is inherently inter disciplinarian, certainly peace studies is. That is one angle of it, how we can be educated broadly and explore many different interests and interdisciplinary questions and answers.

The ethical component is also important to me. I remember when I was interviewing to go to Notre Dame, which is not a liberal arts college, but it has some feel of it, I’d say. That someone mentioned that you can explore normative questions there. I thought, “oh, okay. Whatever.” I think the ability to look at the whole person and how we educate our students and to me, that ethical component, that we think about if you’re at Gustavus, we can think about our education in terms of our faith and identity and our hope for the future and our academic interest and our extra curricular activities, which are quite strong here. All of those intermingled and a whole person-

Greg Kaster:

I agree. I think that the emphasis on ethics at Gustavus, and we should note I neglected to note in my intro that you’re still the [Sponburg 00:57:18] Ethics Chair at Gustavus, is that right?

Mimi:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. So the fact that there’s a chair in ethics and the ability to investigate and think about ethics across the curriculum, I find very exciting about Gustavus. It’s been great to talk with you Mimi, I just find your work so interesting. It’s obviously important. It’s so relevant to so many … in so many ways, has you say at the local level. Maybe you have to do a little conflict resolution within your family too, around your book, I don’t know. But it’s really been great. Thank you so much. Look forward to seeing you back on campus, when we can.

Mimi:

Thank you Greg.

Greg Kaster:

You’re welcome. Take good care.

Mimi:

You too.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks, bye bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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