While we wind down this year’s nominating season, and with it, the possibility of our nation’s first woman president, the New York Times reported today on President Bush’s visit to another first and only, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She is the much beloved leader of a country whose current situation makes any economic issues in America look like minor tribulations. Surviving over a decade of bloodshed, rape, destruction and terror that impoverished this nation, Johnson Sirleaf, who is also called Mama Ellen, was overwhelmingly elected to rebirth a country that has little running water or power, an 80% unemployment rate, and a life expectancy of 42 years.
Though its civil war may have come to a close, Liberia still faces the dubious challenge of restoring human security: clean water, safe streets, access to jobs and energy, healthcare and education. The concept of human security was first proposed by Dr. Jessica T. Matthews, in an article for Foreign Affairs in 1997. She pointed out that the security of an individual does not necessarily derive from the security of the nation, and that threats to human security often lead to physical instability and conflict. Though these threats are more apparent in weak states than strong states, the conflicts that turn into war are less about state verses state and more about internal crises that pit tribe against tribe, region against region. Kenya’s recent debacle is the latest manifestation of human insecurity.
Matthews’ hypothesis was borne out of research released in 2001 by the Aspen Institute, entitled “A Women’s Lens on Global Issues.” The study identified a number of threats to global stability, including environmental degradation, economic development, human rights, and healthcare issues. What it confirmed was this: these are the issues to which women have been intimately connected and advocating for throughout time, and that they are the ones who are most likely to bring about the change that the global community needs to combat our shared threats.
These challenges are mounting on a daily basis, and they urgently require the global community’s intellectual, social, and financial capital to find and implement creative and lasting solutions. This is why the International Women Leaders Global Security Summit, a project of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands in partnership with The White House Project, the Council of Women World Leaders, and the Women Leaders Intercultural Forum, convened over 75 high-level women leaders from over 40 countries this past November, in a Call to Action on international security. Co-hosted by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, and Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada, the Summit brought together the world’s most powerful women leaders to create a new global security paradigm, addressing our most critical security issues including terrorism, climate change, the responsibility to protect, and economic insecurity.
Though Johnson Sirleaf was only able join the Summit via video, her Minister of Foreign Affairs, Olubanke King-Akerele, attended in her place. We listened in horror as Minister King-Akerele talked about the extreme challenges her administration has faced: a complete dearth of records, infrequent electricity, and a near-complete lack of infrastructure in which systems shut down completely and frequently with no warning. That’s not even mentioning the recurrent threats of physical violence that these women leaders regularly confront. I marveled at their strength in the face of such daunting tasks – with the size of the problems that are theirs to oversee, the conditions sounded impossible.
Liberians have placed extraordinary confidence in this new administration, whose leader is a not only a woman, but a Harvard-trained economist who endured imprisonment under former Presidential demagogue Charles Taylor. She is slowly revitalizing Liberia – from the infrastructure of its shanty towns to the local economies driven by “market women.” No wonder she is otherwise known as the “Iron Lady” – she is living proof that inspiration and action are both necessary for leaders in times of insecurity.
Johnson Sirleaf understands that to keep a nation in peace requires more than the dropping of weapons and the signing of ceasefires; that the military is one tool amidst a bevy of necessary means towards peace. She knows that the security of Liberians is even more dependent upon job growth, functioning hospitals, and accessible education. She understands that a strong military must be accompanied by the human security that a decade of war has taken away.
There are two ends to the security spectrum, and Johnson Sirleaf is busily mending its entirety. We must learn to do this in our own country, as well as in our foreign policy and diplomatic dealings with other nations. What Johnson Sirleaf knows is what the Bush administration failed to understand in Iraq: that the first and most important issue is to secure the people. Her seemingly real warmth and regard for Bush this week is fortunate. Perhaps from this affable relationship will arise a more nuanced understanding of how our powerful nation should be and act in the world. Because the lesson of human security is the key to our survival as both a nation and a global community.