“Sat Paul, Do you disagree with me?” Learning globally to act locally

Read in Japanese (日本語 )

by Akio Matsumura

The media coverage over the U.S. health care debate throughout the last month has been extraordinary.  Put aside your thoughts on the outcome—the coverage helped viewers become more familiar with U.S. politicians and the U.S. political process.  And many were left disappointed.  The deep rift that splits American politics invites bitterness and disappointment at all levels.
As I have had the pleasure of meeting with so many politicians, in and out of the U.S., in my thirty five years at the UN and other international organizations, I would like to share my perspective on the potential power of our elected leaders.   I think I can paint a more hopeful picture than the one we are witness to currently.

Akio, Rep. Scheuer, former President of Costa Rica Carazo, and Senator Mittal

Politicians share a host of characteristics.  First, their sensitivity to and engagement of broad population groups is important.  It is why they are elected.  Second, they promote ideas and opinions with a success that other sectors struggle to match.  Their goals are threefold: to build consensus, foster action, and finally succeed with legislative implementation. Particularly impressive is their ability to transcend tough challenges—whether they are daily hurdles or national referendums.  Here, I find their dynamic spirit of sympathy to be invaluable.  Politicians can identify and sympathize with another person; bureaucrats find this very difficult.

My wife Maki and I had the great pleasure of welcoming so many political leaders to our small apartment in New York.  Through these visits and long-lasting friendships I have been fortunate to glean many insights from the political world.

One of our most frequent guests was the late Representative James Scheuer (D-NY), chairman of the House Subcommittee on natural resources, agriculture research and environment.  Even Rep. Scheuer’s mother and his wife Emily’s mother have visited my home.

Several stories of Rep. Scheuer and other politicians are worthwhile to share—they are indicative of the capabilities of strong politicians.  Many of these relate directly to World War II, an event that erected the steepest barriers that we have had to overcome for the last sixty years.

Many years ago, Mr. Takashi Sato—junior MP from Japan, and future Minister of Agriculture—was visiting Washington, DC.  Much earlier, he had been assigned a kamikaze pilot mission in August 1945, but Japan’s surrender on August 15 saved his life.  When Mr. Sato visited Washington, I pushed hard for him to stay at Rep. Scheuer’s home, without anyone from the embassy or the help of an interpreter.  Mr. Sato spoke no English. Mr. Scheuer spoke no Japanese.  Both agreed to the challenge, and there was great success.  The next day, there sat Mr. Sato, explaining to his boss, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, his extraordinary time with Rep. Scheuer.  Evidently Mr. Sato, Rep. Scheuer, and Emily had found a way around the barrier.

It is also important to mention Rep. Scheuer’s relationship with Mr. Peter Petersen, a member of the German Bundestag.  Mr. Petersen and his young colleagues were not aware of the full extent of the Holocaust as it transpired.  Many of Mr. Petersen’s colleagues committed suicide when they learned of the horrors their government had carried out.  Instead, Mr. Petersen launched his political career, inspired to never allow such an event to reoccur.  I remember when Mr. Petersen met Rep. Scheuer, who was Jewish.  Their frank and compassionate discussion surprised me.  The importance and productivity of open, candid dialogue cannot be understated—we would never see such a conversation in the UN, or any other public forum, today.

Another time, Rep. Scheuer was speaking at a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York.  Among others, Senator Sat Paul Mittal, a friend and Indian political leader, was in attendance.  In the middle of the speech Rep. Scheuer interrupted himself suddenly. “Sat Paul,” he asked, “do you disagree with me?” There was no response, so he continued to speak.  But he stopped again, repeating, “Sat Paul, Do you disagree with what I am saying?” We were all confused as to what was going on.  I looked over to Senator Mittal—he was smiling and shaking his head to the right and left.  In India, this is a sign of agreement.  Of course, in the United States its meaning is construed differently.  Later, after some explanation, they laughed and laughed.  (It is worth mentioning here that Mr. Sunil Mittal, a son of Senator Mittal, along with his brothers, is now one of the world’s most important business leaders).

Looking at the trust and friendships that Rep. Scheuer had built with Mr. Sato, Mr. Petersen, and Senator Mittal,  I was convinced that politicians could act to build bridges between nations. These four overcame incredible historical barriers to become friends.  Politicians have enormous influence that could be put to positive use.

I would like to encourage U.S. congressmen to travel abroad during their Congressional recess—especially to Muslim countries.  It is imperative our politicians work to continue dialogue and construct personal relationships here. It does not matter if they stay at a nice hotel or drink French wine.  Even small trips build understanding and personal sympathy for a place; reduce tensions and the possibility for miscommunication.

This is the power of a politician.  History shows that when war breaks out, the official diplomatic communication is cut off and both countries depend heavily on the private channel.  Personal relationships between politicians could keep dialogue from freezing and keep relations from sliding toward the worst possible outcome.  A politician must learn globally and act locally.  Their global views are helpful to their constituents and their nations.  After all, we live within the political laws they write.

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