Learn foreign policy, hone discussion skills

Written by Joan Miles March 20, 2014 02:07 pm

Great Decisions is America’s largest discussion program on world affairs. Supported by the Foreign Policy Association for over 50 years, it actually involves citizens in the foreign policy making process. It provides a dynamic framework for community discussion while encouraging understanding of alternative views. Anyone can start one of these discussion groups at any point during the year, and it’s also recommended for faith-based organizations, retirement communities, and school classrooms.

It’s an eight-week program. There are currently about 75 communities in California with active Great Decisions discussion groups, as well as several thousand of these groups around the whole country. The program model involves reading the Great Decisions Briefing Book, watching the DVD and meeting in a discussion group to discuss the most critical global issues facing America today. 

Each week’s discussion for 2014 covers a different subject, such as Islamic Awakening, Energy Independence, China’s Foreign Policy, Turkey’s Challenges, etc. Every year program participants are polled about their views on the eight topics discussed, and the results are compiled in the National Opinion Ballot Report and shared with the people who shape U.S. Foreign policy. 

The first Great Decisions group was launched in Portland, Ore., in 1954 by Foreign Policy Association Vice President Roger Mastrude and was based on the so-called “Avon” model of face-to-face, active and informal conversation. The program gained media attention, was picked up by local schools, and soon gained national attention. The Great Decisions Television Series airs on PBS stations across the U.S. and is also available in HD.

All of the above is prologue to my visit to the Great Decisions discussion group in the Brooking Library Annex on 3/14/14, which I am reporting on for the Curry Pilot. The topic was Turkey’s Challenges. There were 6 women and 5 men present, mostly seniors. They try to keep these groups small so everyone has a chance to talk. 

The interesting thing about going to meetings like this is the number of highly educated people with important backgrounds who retire in Brookings, and in Crescent City too, where this column will also appear in the Triplicate. Janice Scanlon, director of the Brookings Senior Center (Chetco Activity Center), told me that one could get an education attending their daily lunches and listening to the high-level conversations.

The meeting started with a DVD from the Foreign Policy Association, explaining that without Turkey and its strategic allies, Washington has little influence in the region. However, Prime Minister Erdogan’s (tilde over g) autocratic policies threaten to weaken the country’s alliances and Turkey’s stability. Some say Erdogan is a fundamentalist and doesn’t support democracy, though he says he believes democracy and Islam are compatible. 

The commentator on the DVD said there is great hope that Turkey could have the equivalent of the Christian democrats in Europe. However, you have to have secularism in a democracy, as well as respect for minorities, individual freedom, human rights, differences of opinion, and separation of powers. The government in Turkey still has to show that it really believes in that. It tends rather toward “illiberal” democracy, i.e. you win the election but you don’t care about minority rights.

Of course, Turkey was once the center of the world’s most powerful empire, stretching from the Middle East in North Africa up through Europe. The Ottomans controlled lucrative trade routes not seen since the days of Alexander the Great. Now Turkey wants to again use its geographical advantage and “soft power” to become a key player in talks about a contested nuclear Iran, a Palestinian state, etc. But “soft power” may have met its match with the situation in Syria. It may have to turn to its western allies for help. The U.S. can help and advise, but must not interfere, impose a solution, or become interventionist.

The group discussion started with the opinion that the video gave an overly optimistic picture of Turkey, noting that there’s really a lot of dissension, extreme polarization, problems with the Kurds, and corruption, both government and otherwise. Thomas Holub, a member of the group who spent a lot of time in Turkey, said, “You get three Arabs together, you’ve got six opinions.” He also mentioned the great food and air filled with spices. “Breathing is a joy.”

The question was put forward, “What are they going to coalesce around? The natural rights of man, or Islam? Until we know the answer to that, we’re going to be floundering.” Where is the Nelson Mandela for the Middle East? Turkey has a problem with the Kurds, as does Iran, Syria, etc. The Kurds are semi-autonomous in Iraq. It works great for the Kurds, but not for others.

Turkey wouldn’t have had such great economic growth if they had had the Euro. They are doing pretty well, but Greece will block them always as long as Cyprus can’t be won. Greece and Turkey have always been at odds, but there’s a lot of commonality on the western edge of Turkey. What do we want from Turkey? A NATO buffer? Are we looking for improvement for them or are we just looking for stability in the world?

In closing, I would like to say how much I enjoyed the round table format and the diversity of opinion. The Tea Party is great, but the people who should hear their message aren’t there, and there’s little chance for group discussion. I was able to report only a brief summary above of this 1 ½ hour meeting. But I would like to announce another discussion opportunity. The College of the Redwoods will be showing the Robert Reich film, “Inequality for All” on April 3 at 7 pm, followed by discussion and debate. 

Senior Sleuth runs every two weeks. Reach Joan Miles at 464-2729 or at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it