Presented by The Bridge Alliance Education Fund.

The views expressed in blog posts are strictly those of the author and do not represent the views of the Bridge Alliance or its affiliates.

Hamilton and the Transpartisan Movement.

Posted by Jelmarie Maldonado on April 23, 2016

Hamilton.pngYou may have heard of a little-known play, Hamilton: An American Musical. It has won several major awards, from a Grammy to- most recently a Pulitzer for best drama. There is no doubt of Hamilton's status as a juggernaut. Sold out until 2017, many critics are calling it the 'best play you will ever see.' On Wednesday, April 13th, I saw for myself why this show is unlike anything you'll ever get to experience. Hamilton is a hip hop musical about the youngest founding father, Alexander Hamilton. If that sounds odd to you, you are not alone. The story of how Hamilton came to be is full of twist and turns. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer of Hamilton, first rapped the title song of the show (or what then was supposed to be a mixtape) at the White House in front of Barack and Michelle Obama. "I'm going to perform a piece of someone I think embodies hip hop, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton." Everyone laughed at the absurdity, but by the end of the song, President Obama and the rest of the audience gave Lin-Manuel a standing ovation. The word 'unlikely' essentially sums up the beast that Hamilton has become. It made America's early history relevant to a younger generation. Founding fathers are now cool. Unlikeliest of all, it has brought together people from all background, from the poor to the rich, from the young to the old, from the east to the west, and from Democrats to Republicans. President Obama even joked that Hamilton might be the only thing that Dick Cheney and he can agree on.


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My First (Almost) Caucus

Posted by Rebecca Nunziato on March 01, 2016

Screen_Shot_2016-03-02_at_2.59.00_PM.pngIt was a beautiful sight - hundreds of people pouring in from my neighborhood. Families, young professionals, the grey hairs, couples, friends and strangers all walking into a central location. The line snaked around the block - TWICE. I laughed along with my new queue acquaintances as newcomers walked up, shocked at the amount of people they would sigh and exclaim, “wow, should have come earlier!” or “where the heck is the end of the line?!” It was amusing and magical, I have never minded a line less in my life. After all, in our modern society it is rare that neighbors congregate. Most of us commute to work, enter and leave our homes from behind a garage door and even shop for churches unrestricted by walking distance. Consequently very few of us know our neighbors or attend community gatherings where we experience what our “precinct” actually looks and feels like.

Yes, it was magical. But when I got to the doorway (after standing in line for an hour, talking with my new friends about my work with the Bridge Alliance and my research and editing for a book published today (The Reunited States of America)) I had to turn around.

It was my first almost caucus.

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Curiosity Unbound: Song of the Angels

Posted by Parisa Parsa on January 15, 2016


President Obama’s tears during his speech on gun control last week made a big splash in the media circuit. As he spoke of the first graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012, his speech faltered and cheeks dampened. Those tears, and everything behind them, are presumably the foundation for the policy reforms he proposes to put into place via Executive Order, which he implores Congress not to impede.

There have been countless causes for tears in recent months. Lives lost to brutal and capricious violence have made the headlines almost too often to tally, both here and abroad. With each news cycle we move with more speed toward and cling with increasing rigidity to what we think is “to blame”: gun laws, mental health services, economic despair, immigrants, Islam, Christianity, government overreach or incompetence, police brutality. And we rail for or against whatever laws or policies we think are needed to fend off the discomfort of vulnerability. We just want it to stop.

We barely let the tears fall before wiping them away with our preferred stance of outrage. The blinders close in. The others who bear the fault become one-dimensional, naïve, backward, hateful. The less we see each other, the more intractable the problems become. And the next time the tears come faster, the walls draw in closer, the finger is pointed that much more sharply.

As Obama’s tears fell, speculation about their authenticity and criticism of what some saw as a sign of weakness flowed freely. Our assessments shift depending on how much the ideology of the people in the spotlight reflect our own.

The tallies of the last year, good, bad, ugly, have flown past us in lists and resolutions. The calendar page has turned and once again we learn that it takes more than the passage of time to make us new, to change us and our world.

Now it is time to take a deep breath. To pause in wonder.

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A Knight on a White Horse?

Posted by Mark Gerzon on January 07, 2016

knights.jpgNow that we have entered 2016, we can count on two certainties: a national election and more terrorism. So it is no surprise that every candidate claims that he — or she — is the knight on a white horse who will save us from ISIS. But as every military strategist since Sun Tzu knows, they are missing the crucial element in self-defense. If we don’t address this vital ingredient in a national security strategy, our ruthless, many-headed terrorist enemies will find our country to be easy prey.

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Conversation Starter: Dialogue Across Political Differences

Posted by Jessica Weaver on November 03, 2015

Phil Neisser teaches political theory at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where he also serves as the Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences. Jacob Hess is an educator and nonprofit leader passionate about mental health awareness and mindfulness. Apart, impressive. Together, unstoppable. Phil, a staunch atheist and leftist, and Jacob Hess, a Christian conservative, started a conversation about the effects of ugly partisanship destroying any prospect for civil conversations about the issues that mattered. That conversation launched a genuine, respectful, and sustained dialogue about their respective values, beliefs, and concerns for the future, covering tough topics including same-sex marriage, power, government, media, religion, morality, race, and more.

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Millennial: Neither Republican nor Democrat

Posted by Rebecca Nunziato on October 08, 2015

As a Christian, the Republicans assume they can win my vote; as a Latina woman, granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, the Democrats think they can count on me. They are both wrong.

Like so many of my generation, I am living evidence that the red-vs-blue portrait is severely distorted. I see a technicolor, complex and challenging reality and neither party’s monochromatic platform has won me over.

Smackdab in the center of the millennial generation, born in the early 90’s, I live a life much like many of my peers – a life of multitasking, technology, self-expression and open-mindedness. When it comes to political and civic engagement, however, we millennials often opt for community service and Silicon Valley over D.C. and traditional left-right politics.[1]


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Trust and the Table: A Series on the Iran Deal. Part 3: What Happens Now?

Posted by Jessica Weaver on September 09, 2015

Image via The Wall Street Journal
Image via The Wall Street Journal

The Aftermath of Negotiations: What Happens Now?

This is part three of a three-part series on the role of trust in the Iranian negotiations. To read about getting to the table and negotiating with the enemy, read parts one and two here.

The first two parts of this series established relationships as the cornerstone to building trust in negotiations. In the absence of trust, policymakers built informal relationships for twenty years before formalizing diplomatic relationships. Even after returning to diplomatic functions, representatives met in private to build a foundation in personal relationships before taking the risk of making negotiations public.

And when negotiations began, building relationships took priority for Kerry and his team. As a result, mistrust certainly remains among the involved international powers (P5+1) and Iran, but relationships became resilient enough to withstand that mistrust and fundamental disagreements, paving the way to a joint action plan. The release of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was not, however, the end of the negotiation process.

As the world approaches the stages of approval and implementation, relationships remain integral to continuing diplomatic relationships. Each state must approve the agreement, and the United States remains the most tenuous proponent of the Plan.

They came to an agreement – so what does that mean for US approval?

While the ultimate success of the Joint Plan of Action in preventing Iran’s procurement of nuclear weapons is important, it is not the only issue at stake in the agreement. No one expects that this agreement will satiate all of America’s concerns, in particular the “profound concern about human rights violations committed by the Iranian government or about the instability Iran fuels beyond its nuclear program, from its support for terrorist proxies to repeated threats against Israel to its other destabilizing activities in the region.”

Indeed, the Washington Post reported, “In the short term, the Iran deal could well lead to more rather than less confrontation across the region, as leaders on all sides seek to prove to their domestic and regional constituencies that they have not capitulated. Both the Iranians and the United States may well seek to escalate in Syria or Yemen in order to prove that they remain committed to maintaining their image and pursuing what’s in its interest.”

So, the deal with Iran is not perfect, and in many ways, it reflects the lingering hostility among the states that negotiated the plan. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “It would be surprising if the U.S. negotiators themselves wouldn’t want a slightly different agreement, but they must have concluded that this agreement represented the maximum they could get not only from the Iranians, but also the Russians, Chinese, and others in the negotiations.”

But where this agreement does not ensure universal satisfaction or guarantee stability, it does accomplish a critical purpose of international agreements. Beyond its singular merits or weaknesses, it opens the door for further cooperation and diplomacy around issues of vital importance to all parties moving forward. And it presents opportunities to build trust internationally, in areas where trust hasn’t existed for decades. Ambassador Zarif has said that this agreement “provides a solid foundation for further and more effective diplomatic interaction." He sees hope that the agreement will usher in "a new chapter" in the country's relations with the United Nations and the six states of the negotiations.

Ambassador Zarif’s words echo a comment from a recent book tour by Senator George Mitchell. In responding to a question about the lasting impact of the Good Friday Accords he orchestrated in Northern Ireland, Senator Mitchell spoke to the power of peace agreements on the international stage. “The Good Friday Agreement does not mean there will be peace or reconciliation,” he said. “It means that they are possible.”

As for the possibility of improvements or adjustments, the time has passed – a better deal is not an option at this time, and “advocating for improvements on the agreement that already has been made is moot point.” Now, Congress must debate the merits of an agreement and decide to support it or not. And it must do so within 60 days of the United Nations vote.

How Congress Negotiates

In the approval process, Congress now has a responsibility to weigh the opportunities against the risks, taking into account our vital interests in the world while acknowledging limits to American power. Just as in the negotiations themselves, the debate surrounding the agreement will be contentious and risky. Divergent perspectives on issues of threat, security, and America’s identity in the world will take center stage, and require resiliency among members of Congress to remain present in such difficult conversations. But where the Iranian negotiations built on a foundation of relationships, personal relationships within Congress have been falling since 1995.

In 1995, Congressional leadership changed the legislative calendar to encourage members of Congress not to live in Washington, D.C., and instead fly into the District for two to three days per week. Where members of Congress used to move to Washington after election, enroll their children in the same schools, and socialize after working hours, they began to only interact in the context of political positioning. At the same time, leadership eliminated the seniority system for committee leadership, instead awarding leadership based on commitment to party ideals. Essentially, at the same time that leadership began discouraging friendship across the political aisle, they began rewarding political intransigence. Both led to a void of trust and relationships, discouraging constructive conversation across party lines.

As such, the conversation witnessed by the American public is vitriolic and caustic – unproductive, uncompromising, and sometimes even personal. In speaking about the deal and its negotiators, Republican Committee Chairman Bob Corker suggested, “I believe you've been fleeced.” Republican Senator James Risch declared, “You guys have been bamboozled.” Senator Lindsey Graham called President Obama the “Neville Chamberlain of our time.” And in a show of bipartisan mistrust, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez questioned whether the language in the deal is tough enough. Democratic leader Chuck Schumer openly opposes the deal.

In response to his opposition, Secretary Kerry bemoaned: “We've got 535 secretaries of state.” To an outside observer, it would seem there is no interest in understanding the other side, their motivations and their interests. There is no resiliency to support Congressmen and women to remain at the table after hearing things with which they vehemently disagree.

In this process, the glaring difference between what was accomplished with Iran and the current struggle within Congress now reveal glaring contrast. Members of Congress have a responsibility to ensure that any international agreement accurately protects core American interests, but they also have a responsibility to negotiate with their fellow members, and with the country’s international representatives. And that’s where the lack of personal relationship building is most starkly evident. Regardless of Congress’ ultimate decision regarding the plan, it has revealed a glaring and persistent weakness in the American Congressional system: without relationships in place, constructive conversation around different perspectives will continue to fall apart.


Negotiation – whether within our own communities or on the international political stage – takes place within the context of the relationships and trust among the people involved. In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, negotiations required almost 20 years of groundwork to build relationships amidst glaring mistrust. Once negotiations began, policymakers made relationships a priority, culminating in shared meals across divides.

Mistrust still pervades every aspect of this plan, but the relationships formed by diplomats created a resiliency that allowed negotiations to continue in the most difficult moments. The most important aspect of this agreement, then, is what it represents. This agreement does not symbolize healed relationships and reinstated trust. It simply sets the groundwork to see if peace and reconciliation are possible. An agreement is the first step, rather than the final one. There is still a long way to go.

Perhaps, ironically, negotiating with one of our most historic global enemies could teach our own government about negotiating across divides. With more resilient and intentional relationships, perhaps Congressmen and women could debate and govern with an eye to further cooperation and collaboration, rather than digging in their heels at the first sign of disagreement. So as Congress debates the merits of this agreement, they could take a page from the P5+1 and begin their debates by sharing a meal. I would be hesitant to recommend wrestling, though.

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Trust and the Table: A Series on the Iran Deal. Part 2: Negotiating with the Devil

Posted by Jessica Weaver on September 09, 2015

image via
image via

This is the second part of a three-part series on the role of trust in the Iranian negotiations. To read about getting to the table in the absence of trust, read the first part here. To read the final installment about what happens next, read the third part here

Negotiating Without Trust

To catch you up, zoom in on 2012: the U.S. and Iran meet amidst mutual suspicion, despite 35 years of diplomatic silence. From there, negotiators met in secret for two years around the Iranian nuclear program and international security. But even after meetings turned public, they hesitated to build personal bonds with their counterparts. Diplomats ate meals separately…for 20 months. “At a certain point, it just started to feel strange that they had never actually shared a meal together,” an aide for the U.S. team said.

Breaking Bread

After a near collapse of the negotiations and several missed deadlines, on July 4, 2015, Iran’s chief negotiator and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif invited U.S. Secretary of State and chief negotiator John Kerry and his team to lunch in the Iranian dining room for Persian food. Kerry and Zarif commiserated about the pressures of the negotiation at home. The invitation did not go unnoticed, in many senses. The food was “ten times better than the food we ate on our side of the house,” according to a Kerry aide.

image via

The very next day, tensions increased and shouting could be heard down the hall…but both sides remained at the table. Two weeks and undoubtedly many shouting matches later, Iran and six major world powers declared: “With courage, political will, mutual respect, and leadership, we delivered on what the world was hoping for: a shared commitment to peace and to join hands in order to make our world safer.”

That pivotal lunch almost certainly did not decide the fate of 20 months of negotiations, but it did reveal the power of building relationships as an essential component of negotiations. Negotiators discussing these issues remain firmly entrenched in opposite sides of other conflicts and disagreements around the world, from Ukraine to Asia and Syria. There was deep mistrust. According to Kerry’s aide, talks were “brutal, just brutal.” In the midst of mistrust at the table, each diplomat represented his or her country’s interests at the table, responsible to citizens in his or her home country. It seems safe to assume that negotiations were heated at points, and the talks threatened on more than one occasion.

Relationships Matter

What held the talks together, though, was a simple but powerful concept: personal relationships. “Kerry’s whole approach to diplomacy writ large is premised on the belief that personal relationships matter, because they enable you to get things done, even in very difficult situations,” an aide said. “It was Kerry’s belief that this was going to be a relationship that would really matter.” Most importantly, Kerry found a partner in Zarif who acted on the same principles.

Image via

After 20 months of negotiations, that lunch on July 4th revealed, for American diplomats, “these relationships had really developed over time.” These relationships did not make negotiations easier or ensure success. They did, however, build resiliency in the difficult moments. In arguably the most contentious aspect of negotiations, negotiations almost broke down again, this time over non-nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the U.S. agreed to lift restrictions on conventional arms in five years and ballistic missile technology in eight, assuming full compliance with the terms of the agreement.

While recognizing the international importance of a UN vote prior to a US Congressional vote, Kerry also convinced the United Nations to hold the implementation for 90 days, allowing for the 60-day review period in Congress to review and vote on ratification of the deal. Negotiators also compromised on a 24-day notice for inspection of Iranian facilities stripped of almost all capability to make a weapon and end U.N. and international sanctions.

Ultimately, no country achieved its perfect deal, but all countries deemed the terms acceptable. There is no precedent of Iranian cooperation with the terms of an international agreement, but international diplomats signed the agreement with cautious optimism. Regardless of your opinion on the merits of each individual negotiation, this unique period in history speaks to the fact that building relationships takes time – even in heated debates over deeply held beliefs and values, sometimes you just need to sit down and eat a meal together - even when mistrust remains pervasive.

A State Department official remarked of the negotiations: “It’s such a complex set of relationships…We know each other. All of the mistrust that has been there for these decades remains. It’s not gone. It’s incredibly present all the time. But it fights against the fact that we’ve spent two years getting to know each other.”

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Trust and the Table: A Series on the Iran Deal. Part 1: Trust Beyond the Negotiating Table

Posted by Jessica Weaver on September 09, 2015

Leading up to Negotiations: Trust Beyond The Negotiation Table 

If you’ve tuned into the news about the recently issued plan to contain Iran’s nuclear arms program, you may have noticed the broad spectrum of strong opinions surrounding the deal struck by the Iran and the U.S., Russia, China and three members of the EU – also known as the P5+1. Take a minute to let that soak in.

In today’s world, looking simply at the lineup of participants, an agreement seems unlikely. But Iran and the P5+1 did agree on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last month, a plan that reflects 20 months of negotiations after 35 years of formal diplomatic silence. And yet, even after the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) endorsed the plan with a resounding 15-0 confirmation vote in July, the ratification and implementation of the agreement still have a long way to go.

As the U.S. Congress debates approval of the agreement, the role of trust – before, during, and after negotiations – becomes crystal clear. The debate around the deal cannot simply focus on the details of the agreement, but also what that agreement means for relationships with the international community. The Plan of Action reveals the power of diplomacy to build trust, and the centrality of trust in international relations.

A Void of Trust: How to Start from Nothing

Ambassador William Burns first reached out to Iranian diplomats secretly in 2008, working tirelessly until 2014 to jumpstart clandestine negotiations. Speaking with NPR after the deal was announced in 2015, Burns reflected on starting to reach out to Iran: “There was an awful lot of political baggage on both sides and a great deal of mistrust, much of which continues to this day.”

This mistrust is well founded. Even during negotiations, none of the involved governments actually believed that the Iranian program had ever been exclusively peaceful (as Iran has long claimed). In the midst of such deep and inherent distrust, it is easy to argue that this “makes any nuclear agreement with the country suspect on its face.” So why negotiate at all? And where do you begin to engage, especially in a way you haven’t spoken in decades?

It turns out, engagement didn’t begin through formal negotiations. It didn’t even begin with discussions about the issues at stake. It began with wrestling. While American and Iranian diplomats struggled to build relationships across the table in 2015, that table was built on a foundation for negotiation made possible by athletes, engineers and musicians.

After failing to mend diplomatic ties in 1999, the Clinton Administration and their counterparts tried another route: sports diplomacy through wrestling. And ever since Americans first marched into an Iranian arena with an American flag in 1998, American and Iranian wrestlers have competed in both countries more than a dozen times.

US President Bill Clinton congratulates John Marks and the American wrestling team upon their return from Iran in 1998. Image via

In addition to sports diplomacy, Iranians and Americans have collaborated in environmental protection, astronomy, health care, and even music. So-called cultural diplomacy, according to retired Ambassador Richard LeBaron, holds profound power in negotiations: “As the [Iranian] conservatives argue against the [nuclear] accord, the buildup of civil society in Iran through exchanges creates a constituency that can push back against them.”

A few months after a visit to Kentucky for a music exchange, an Iranian musician wrote a letter to a member of an American bluegrass band. She wrote in English: “Dear friend…This is Sara Ahmadi, the player of an Iranian percussion daf who had a chance of being in the U.S. about two months ago. I hope you still remember me. I think when I was there, I had the best time of my life.”

These relationships move in both directions, and are found even in surprising places: officials in Mississippi adopted an Iranian system for providing health care in rural areas. Relationships humanize the other, and build bridges even in the absence of formal diplomatic relationships.

Despite personal relationships on the ground, though, exploring diplomatic possibilities amidst overwhelmingly acknowledged distrust proved an uphill battle. Even as hostilities eased, diplomats had to travel in unmarked government planes, use back entrances, and keep all travel off of State Department public schedules. After 35 years of diplomatic silence, secret talks lasted years before going public. In order for talks to even begin, individuals had to build relationships outside the public eye.

Lessons Learned: Relationships Open Doors

Prior to 2009, the last time American and Iranian diplomats formally engaged took place with American hostages in the Embassy in Tehran. After 35 years of trade embargoes, an Axis of evil, suspect nuclear inspections, and denial of September 11, a unique opportunity opened doors to engagement. So what happened?

First, politicians had a foundation in personal relationships, risking non-political interactions that humanized both Iranians and Americans.

Second, leadership shifted to individuals willing to work toward a peaceful agreement. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and chief negotiator, echoed this sentiment, stating, “We are not going to have another time in history when there is an Obama and a Biden and a Kerry and a Moniz again…And there may be no Rouhani, Zarif and Salehi.” With specific leaders open to a different kind of diplomatic relationship, representatives built personal relationships in private before revealing the possibility of negotiations.

Image via

As leadership in Iran and the United States met with leaders from Russia, China, the U.K., France and Germany, distrust surfaced repeatedly throughout the 20 months of negotiations. But those negotiations were built on decades of relationship building and off-record talks that laid a foundation strong enough for negotiations to at the very least continue. While negotiations revolved around issues of nuclear capability and security, negotiations only began due to foundations of personal relationships. In the absence of trust, begin with personal relationships, out of the spotlight. 

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To Be An Agitator

Posted by Andy Smith on August 30, 2015

Right now in America a broad movement exists calling for change. It cannot be defined by any single label. Independent, Common Sense, Moderate, Centrist, they have all been used to characterize aspects of something much larger. 

It is a movement driven by a deep disillusionment with politics. Its members are the crazy voters, the ones who view the low standards of leadership, the lack of government responsiveness, and the failure of Congress to do anything meaningful, and say "Enough is enough."

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