Push, Anchor and Flip
That’s a question Brad Snyder has surely asked himself many times, but two of them, at least, stand out.
The second time, Snyder told the crowd of his classmates and their families at The Fletcher School’s Global Master of Arts Program 2019 graduation, was that very day—graduation—as he wondered what was next for him, for his class, and for the world.
The first time was when he woke up blind.
In 2011, the then-27-year-old Navy lieutenant stepped on an improvised bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He took the force of the blast in his face. More than 100 hours of surgery couldn’t save Snyder’s eyesight.
During those months in the hospital, after nights filled with visions of the fine ridges of wood grain and the bumpy ink of printed letters, waking up was the hardest part.
“When I dream I can see, and I remember all the things I can see,” Snyder said. “But then the alarm clock goes off, and I wake up, and it all goes away. It’s dark again.”
It’s not that graduation day and adapting to blindness are at all the same, Snyder said. But there might be lessons to be learned, especially from someone who not only adapted to his blindness but has gone on to swim in consecutive Paralympic Games and win seven medals, five of them gold.
Push yourself to your boundaries and anchor yourself in a reason to push, Snyder told his class. Most importantly, flip your perspective. That particular lesson he learned after a particularly hard day waking up in the dark and a talk with his mom.
Every day, I’m going wake up and be unable to see, he’d told her.
Think of it this way, instead, she replied: Every day, you get to go to sleep and see again.
Push, anchor, and flip. Those are the answers he found to “What now?” They are also, he believes, the keys for his GMAP class to fulfill their goals and brighten a world that seems to be dimming all around them.
GMAP is a one-year Master of Arts program, which since 2000 has been training students across the world designed to allow students to remain working full-time in their careers, while completing their studies. The only hybrid program of its kind, most GMAP coursework takes place online but is cemented together by three, two-week residency sessions: one at an international location, and two on The Fletcher School campus. Its purpose is to shape global leaders to tackle global challenges.
“I was pretty unsettled by my perception of global affairs before I came to GMAP; I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more unsettled.” Snyder said. “All of you have a reason why [you took this program]. There’s a deep emotional reason why you want to make the world a better place.
“We still have a beautiful planet. We still have an opportunity to fix it.”
That was the theme that ran straight through GMAP graduation, which alternated between gloom about the state of things—rising ethno-nationalism, challenges to the liberal economic order, and tensions between regional and global powers—and hope that they can still be fixed.
“I hope you feel, as I do, that we’re not destined to descend into destruction, chaos, Cold War and authoritarianism,” said Professor Diana Chigas, who taught the graduating class international negotiation and also spoke at the graduation ceremony.
Like Snyder, graduation speaker Radmila Šekerinska Jankovska has faced her share of challenges. The 2007 Fletcher School GMAP graduate is the current Minister of Defense of the Republic of North Macedonia, but before that she spent years as an opposition leader fighting against an increasingly authoritarian government in the former Republic of Macedonia.
Fourteen years ago, the world was a different place, Jankovska said, but it wasn’t a peaceful place. Global challenges were different, but challenges and turbulence existed nonetheless. And the real dangers, she said, came from within—just like they always do.
First elected to the Macedonian parliament in 1998 following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Jankovska was reelected in 2002. She became the leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia political party and began pushing the government toward free and fair democratic elections. In those years, Jankovska said, she once joked to a colleague that entering the Macedonia parliament chambers was like entering Dante’s Inferno.
“Those who enter, give up all hope,” she said.
But over time, the pressure— “fight, protest, negotiate; fight, protest, negotiate”— had an effect. After 12 years of pushing, open elections at last took place in December 2016, but the ever more despotic prime minister Gjorge Ivanov delayed the formation of a new government that would dump him from power. In April 2017, a “bought-and-paid for,” organized mob stormed the parliament and attacked its members. Jankovska was dragged out by her hair, a beating that would leave her with six stitches in her head.
She returned to the chambers to face down the mob. Then in May 2017, Jankovska’s party at last took its elected place at the head of the government. Jankovska herself was instrumental in negotiating Macedonia’s ongoing ascension to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, as well as the settlement with Greece over a long-frozen naming dispute that allowed its name change to North Macedonia.
“This rendezvous with death makes you more humble, but it also makes you stronger,” she said. “I simply could not accept the idea that something like this could happen in my country, in my municipality, in my back yard. … This is why we have to continue believing that some things are unacceptable, inconceivable, while still preparing for them.”
Deborah Nutter, senior associate dean, Fletcher professor, and founding director of the GMAP program, said she believes the 2019 class of Fletcher’s GMAP program is uniquely positioned to prepare for those inconceivable possibilities because of what she called their “intellectual intimacy,” because “what really makes this what it is, is how much they like each other.”
After thousands and thousands of posts shared from locations across the world, they’ve formed a special bond that will allow them to attack global problems.
“They have developed a really fantastic spirit of comradery,” GMAP associate director Kate Taylor said. “I think international relations is all about building relationships.”
Using those relationships, Jankovska said the class of 2019 has a chance. In 2005, liberal democracy was the only game in town. Today, it’s in retreat across North America and Europe, with as many as one-fourth of millennials in those regions saying they don’t believe democracy is a workable form of governance, she said.
The only way to combat that, Jankovska said, is with stories.
“We have to tell the world a new, real story of the liberal world order. … A story of liberal democracy that can continue to shape the world for the better,” she said.
“The crisis in the world has stemmed from the failure of our institutions but also from our own complacency, and that’s why it can be challenged only by us. … We can make the world a better place. I don’t need to convince you of that because we are already here. … keep fighting. Keep fighting for your values and your beliefs.”
So, what now?