Skip to content

Shaheen, at Keene State, urges 'seat at the table' for US on global stage

At the outset of a foreign policy speech at Keene State College Tuesday, there was a palpable feeling in the luminous Mountain View Room that a business-as-usual approach would not be appropriate.

After being introduced by Keene State Democrats President Davis Bernstein, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen set aside her prepared remarks for the college’s forum on foreign affairs and took a pause.

“I started this speech a few weeks ago, before the events of last week,” the New Hampshire Democrat said in reference to pipe bombs being sent to more than a dozen top Democrats and a deadly mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. “(These events) have really punctuated what we’ve seen over the past few years in terms of the rise in hate crimes, the increase in fear mongering and hate speech.”

Shaheen cited President Donald Trump as a major source of the vitriol she was describing, but the senator also put the president in the context of a more global phenomenon of “populist and isolationist” regimes coming to power, most recently with Sunday’s presidential election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Bolsonaro has gone on record criticizing his country’s former military dictatorship for not killing enough dissidents, among other comments about sexual assault and homosexuality that have caught the attention of political and human rights observers worldwide.

Shaheen appeared somber and gave her opening monologue with a sense of urgency before returning to a more academic cadence for the bulk of her prepared speech, which centered around the international order.

Starting in the aftermath of World War II, Shaheen pointed to how various multi-national agreements have led to prosperity in the United States and beyond.

“Today, we see an increase in the forces that are working to undo this structure,” Shaheen said. “That means we need even stronger U.S. global leadership to step up and confront these challenges. ... The international order has always been in America’s interest.”

A particular concern for Shaheen came in “the assault against free speech and media freedoms” across the globe. She added that the U.S. should not be assumed to be a beacon for the freedom of the press, sitting at 45th in the Press Freedom Index behind countries such as Romania, South Africa and Cyprus, according to the latest annual report issued by Reporters Without Borders.

“Make no mistake: The killing and harassment of journalists is meant to send a message to everybody,” Shaheen said, referring to the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. “A message that the rules we live by don’t matter to some of those who are powerful enough not to care about them. ... And each time we turn a blind eye to these abuses, we put hundreds more at risk; we open the door to more silencing, more censorship.”

Shaheen kept harkening back to her central argument, that when America does not weigh in on international issues of human rights, other countries with influence — such as China, Russia and Iran — will.

“When the U.S. is silent ... that sends a powerful message to those who are struggling under those leaders who want the United States, or someone, to defend their human rights.”

After completing her prepared remarks on international affairs, Shaheen said she wanted to carve out enough time to take questions from students and members of the community.

Talia Kutzen, a sophomore public health major from Newton, Mass., asked Shaheen about Russian interference in elections and was pleased with the exchange.

“You can feel very secluded from all of these important issues on a college campus,” Kutzen said. “But I’m really glad (Shaheen) took the time to come here and have such an enlightening dialogue.”

Speaking exactly one week ahead of the midterm elections, Shaheen urged the room filled with students to make their voices heard and participate in the democratic process, starting with voting next Tuesday.

“If we’re not at the table, then we’re not going to be able to influence what the outcome is,” Shaheen said of both America’s role on the international stage and Americans’ role in their own political system. “Democracy only works if we make it work as individual citizens.”