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Friday, July 1, 2011

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan’s extolling of individualism amid the problem that he saw as government itself resonated with the religious overtures of American divine providence as a city on a hill—a promised land akin to the New Jerusalem. Even as material self-interest taking advantage of unbridled markets under the guise of competition was not Reagan’s primary orientation, greed could easily trump the force of Reagan’s normative envelop, human nature such as it is.

According to Madrick (p. 116), “The transformation of a political and economic message to a moral one was Reagan’s strength.” Religious would have to be added to moral for one to get a sense of Reagan’s individualism beyond its economic and political aspects. In a speech in 1963, for example, Reagan said that the inalienable rights of individuals are “God-given,” and that this individualism “puts us in opposition to . . . a prevailing attitude of many who have turned to a modern-day secularism” (Madrick, p. 117). Freedom is God-given, whereas totalitarianism is inherently secular. Hence, Reagan referred to the U.S.S.R. as the “evil empire” on more than one occasion—even as far back as in his television work for G.E.

Reagan saw the American welfare-state in as being similar to the totalitarian regime of the Soviets. According to Robert Dallek, “To Reagan . . . there are striking similarities between a Communist Russia and a welfare-state America that [he sees] as abandoning its traditional spirit of rugged individualism” (Madrick, p. 116). Reagan claimed that American government had failed to protect those truly in need of sustenance, but I do not believe he thought that government should enable the survival of those individuals whom misfortune or illness would otherwise kill. Reagan’s mindset was formed in the twentieth century largely before the rise in divorce and the associated fragmentation of the American family.

In Reagan’s America, it was generally assumed that church, charity and family could be relied on—albeit perhaps idyllically—to sustain those who could not survive otherwise on their own. Whether Reagan’s concern for the working class would include support of government aid for the long-term unemployed as a last resort in another era (i.e., the other safety nets being compromised) would have to encounter his disdain for lazy people living off the work of others.  Reagan agreed with Paul’s dictum that those who do not work do not eat. In more abstract terms, Reagan’s value on individual self-reliance and his association of the welfare state with totalitarianism together trump a solidarity value based on the human right to life qua “right to survival.”

Similarly, Reagan associated government regulation with totalitarianism. Accordingly, he viewed deregulation as essential to individual freedom. In a speech in 1959, he said that the power of “the stultifying hand of government regulation and interference . . . under whatever name or ideology, is the very essence of totalitarianism” (Ibid.). His push for deregulation was therefore not primarily to enable corporations to become bigger and richer; freedom as divinely-endowed rather than mere materialism was Reagan’s sun.

In a speech in 1967, Reagan said, “The world’s truly great thinkers have not pointed us towards materialism; they have dealt with the great truths and with the high questions of right and wrong, of morality and of integrity. They have dealt with the question of man, not the acquisition of things” (Madrick, p. 124). The moral (and religious) basis of Reagan’s political and economic ideology discounts not only material gain, but also the underlying self-interest. Madrick (p. 124) observes that “Reagan mostly avoided making economic self-interest the centerpiece of his economic program. . . . It was the selflessness of hard work, self-reliance, and courage associated with an American Protestant ethic. Material success was its by-product, not its objective.” Selflessness is indeed a value in American conservatism, even if was relegated by the version oriented to economic self-interest following Reagan. Indeed, individualism itself need not be reduced to selfishness and greed, even in conservatism.

However, in advocating deregulation, Reagan’s religio-moral individualism allowed for the ensuing materialist-based, free-market economic conservatism that has been so susceptible to unfettered corporate empire-building and the related love of gain, or greed, as an end in itself. For example, Madrick (p. 116) points out that “Reagan agreed with Friedman that unfettered capitalism gave people the freedom to find their own way; this was its greatest benefit.” Even though Reagan’s orientation was on freedom, it allowed for the unfettered capitalism that enabled the unregulated sub-prime mortgage derivatives that in turn nearly toppled the financial system in 2008. Madrick (p. 124) concludes that Reagan “planted a visceral distaste for government in the American belly, justifying to many, and even making moral, runaway individualism and greed.” Whereas Reagan’s religio-moral orientation was not tucked within an economic paradigm of economizing self-interest, his anti-government plank enabled even a moral basis for such self-interest; such a moral basis is not that of Adam Smith’s moral sentiments that constrain competition.

Reagan’s legacy is not his religio-moral basis for individual rights; rather, he is known for having facilitated and consolidated a fundamental shift in the American psyche, which had begun in the context of the Vietnam conflict and Watergate. Reagan made it explicit that government was the problem rather than a solution; he made this into a cause. The financial crisis of 2008, including the failure of regulators to check the greed on Wall Street, can be related directly back to this paradigmatic shift. In fact, it is likely that economic self-interest unfettered by “evil” regulations came out on top as a result of the shift—even compromising Reagan’s God-given individual rights through the organizational power made possible by deregulated (and thus consolidated) corporate capitalism. Indeed, it could even be argued that the latter is more of totalitarianism than is government regulation, at least from the standpoint of the mere individuals who happen to be citizens.

The triumph of the legal persons doctrine with its associated rights is just one indication of the hypertrophy that has dwarfed Reagan’s highest virtue even as the reductionism has sprung from Reagan’s very own apparatus. Had the former president modified his anti-government plank such that government should be put in the positive service—government service being ideally selfless—of protecting and furthering fundamental individual (not corporate) rights against commercial as well as governmental totalitarianism, the materialist hypertrophy of economic empires may not have been able to gain so much power over individuals.

Click to add a question or comment on Ronald Reagan’s ideology and its legacy.


 Jeff Madrick, Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2011).

Partisan Political Ideology in the U.S. Supreme Court

Observing a pattern of sustained ideological proclivities in the decisions of justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, The New York Times editorializes that the “court cannot maintain its legitimacy as guardian of the rule of law when justices behave like politicians.” One could just as easily say “behave like human beings,” for juridical interpretation itself contains ample space for an interpreter’s ideology to have a role, given human nature. In other words, ideology may be part and parcel of the essential function of a constitutional court. Rather than being a technical application of a constitution to a matter of law, constitutional interpretation may be one of many ways of pushing for one’s view of the optimal government and society. Among the implications, the arrangement wherein a constitutional court is the final decider of the constitutionality of law, short of a constitutional amendment, may be untenable to the extent that it enables the ideologies of a few unelected citizens qua justices to rule, in effect.

The editorial in The New York Times displays a tendency to skirt the basis of the problem. For example, the editorial castigates justices who have attended political events in violation of the ethics code that applies to the rest of the federal judiciary. Such conduct compromises the appearance of being impartial and independent. This appearance in turn is based on the presupposition that the judiciary is not a political branch. Justice Ginsburg, for example, makes this assumption explicit in pointing to its tenuousness: “What I care most about I think most of my colleagues do, too, is that we want this institution to maintain the position that it has had in this system, where it is not considered a political branch of government” (Biskupic, p. A1).

I contend that not considering the U.S. Supreme Court as involving political ideology is to ignore the space for ideology allowed in constitutional interpretation. No human being is impartial internally concerning matters of government and society. Beyond the reach of ethics codes, the space allowed by interpretation is naturally to be filled not only by “pure reason,” but also by ideology informed by one’s values and beliefs concerning the good society and ideal governance.

In the Court’s 2010-2011 term, ten of the sixteen 5-4 decisions were split along the familiar ideological grounds, according to the Times. The conservative majority showed “contempt for laws that provide some balance to the unlimited amounts of money flooding the political system,” “made it much harder for private lawsuits to succeed against mutual fund malefactors, even when they have admitted to lying and cheating,” made it more difficult for citizens to hold prosecutors accountable, and struck at consumer (ATT) and labor (Wal-Mart) rights. The similarity between this judicial conservative majority and the political right makes these rulings particularly suspect. Were the Court’s “conservative” majority conservative in a distinctly judicial sense distinct from the planks of political conservatives, the role of the judicial ideology would not be as harmful or baleful to the republic. The fear, in other words, is that politically partisan agendas operate through judicial decisions of the Court via the discretion involved in judicial interpretation. Conservatives had a sense of this from the Warren Court just as liberals suspect the influence of politically conservative ideology in the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts. Neither conservatives nor liberals go far enough, however, in recognizing that constitutional interpretation itself allows for ideology.

The Times points to the superficial distinction that informs the design of the U.S. Supreme Court. “The framers of the Constitution envisioned law as having authority apart from politics. They gave justices life tenure so they would be free to upset the powerful and have no need to cultivate political support.” However, the source of the political ideology is less due to political support and more a function of a justice’s own ideology. This is why an ethics code ought not be relied upon to eviscerate the interlarding of partisan politics in the Court. The justices are human, all too human, just like the rest of us. Perhaps we ought not assume otherwise.

The editorial touches on the inevitability of partisan ideology in the Court in the following passage: “Constitutional law is political because it results from choices rooted in fundamental social concepts like liberty and property. When the court deals with social policy decisions, the law it shapes is inescapably political — which is why decisions split along ideological lines are so easily dismissed as partisan.” Being “dismissed” as partisan might be too loose; the decisions cannot but contain a partisan element, given human nature and the space in interpretation.

Rather than expecting the justices not to be human or assuming that an ethics code would do the trick, we could admit to the inevitability of political ideology in judicial interpretation. If the ideologies of five to nine citizens who serve on the U.S. Supreme Court ought not be definitive, judicial review ought not be the final decider short of constitutional amendment. A supermajority in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, or a supermajority of the state legislatures, could be given the authority to overturn a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. I would suggest that both Congress and the state governments could act thusly to have the final say short of undergoing the constitutional amendment process. All branches of all governments in the United States are duty-bound, after all, to consider the constitutionality of their respective laws. Constitutional interpretation is an exercise not devoid of political ideology, as one’s values and beliefs cannot but come into play.

Click to add a comment or question on ethics, politics and judicial interpretation at the U.S. Supreme Court.


The New York Times, “Ethics, Politics and the Law,” Editorial, July 1, 2011, p. A22.

Joan Biskupic, “Justice Ginsburg Wields Greater Sway on High Court,” USA Today, July 1-4, 2011.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Charismatic Leadership: A Reply

I am particularly taken by the following passage from Edith Luc’s essay on charismatic leadership: “(I)t is risky, almost utopist to wait on manifestations of a charismatic leader believed to be of unique and exceptional nature, and able to mobilize everybody at the same time.” I am reminded of the emphasis that American corporations place on the CEO position and the U.S. Government places on the U.S. President. The focus on one person, rather than a council, presumes that certain individuals are so unique and exceptional that perhaps even human nature itself is surmounted. In other words, the theory behind charismatic leadership may imply such extraordinary differences within human nature that some people are essentially super-human, and thus subject to hero-worship.

Charisma, which comes from charismata, literally means “gifts of the spirit”—implying that a person with charisma has something special bestowed by God. Hero-worship may thus be part and parcel of charismatic leadership. While such worship may be viewed as innocuous when Barak Obama is the beneficiary, Edith Luc reminds us that Hitler, too, was regarded as a charismatic leader. The film Triumph of the Will shows that he was worshiped by many Germans and even Hitler himself presumed his survival of assassination attempts was a sign that God approved of his mission.

In short, it can be dangerous to get carried away with one-person leadership manifested with charisma. The one-person approach itself may encourage or invite this danger wherein a suspension of critical belief accompanies an exaggerated focus on a particular leader’s person such that a charismatic leader can even get away with mass murder. Hence, it might be useful to re-evaluate the assumptions behind charismatic leadership and consider the viability of alternative types of leadership.

If human nature is not as wide-ranging from ordinary to exceptional as charismatic leadership theory requires or supposes, then even the emphasis on a single individual in an organization or government may be artificial and excessive. Implications from a more egalitarian approach to leadership include substituting councils for individual top leaders. In the U.S. Constitutional Convention, for example, delegates debated a presidential council as an alternative to a one-person office. With the revolutionary war not long in the past, the delegates decided for the latter because of the energy required of the commander in chief. In a world wherein the default for leadership is “one-person,” the shift to the council alternative can seem radical. This over-reaction to such a change may attest to the addictive properties involved in the recognition of charismatic leadership, rather than to any “radicalness.” Therefore, it might be useful to consider alternatives to charismatic leadership within the one-person approach.

Within the one-person leadership tradition, implications from begging off of charismatic leadership include re-evaluating the pay differential between the workers and the CEO of a given company and reducing the duration of the presidential election campaign (which is now almost two years—half of a term). In other words, if charismatic leadership tends to exaggerate the unique and exceptional characteristics of leaders of organizations and governments, then the rest of us should pay less attention (and money) to the individuals who rule our organizations and governments.

Even though the one-person leadership arrangement that supports charismatic leadership may be over-extended in modern society, the notion of a collective intelligence strikes me as anthropomorphic, as intelligence is a quality of a mind rather than an organization. Relatedly, treating a society or organization as an alternative to a charismatic leader may be faulty—meaning going too far in the other direction. Treating everyone as “participating” in leadership risks making leadership itself a tautology; everybody does it. Also, if everyone is simultaneously a leader and follower, the terms may lose their respective meanings on the way to a muddle. The recognition that is required for charismatic leadership does not in my view render the followers leaders; the leader’s leadership is not usurped and thus democratized to the whole. I am not suggesting that Edith Luc goes so far as to assert these claims, but someone could reach them from the notion of collective intelligence, which she does assert and I deny.

Perhaps the notion of collective intelligence comes from small group dynamics wherein a discussion gains momentum and results in a conclusion. I would argue that such a process is a function of exchanges of information between discrete intelligences (i.e., minds). With regard to charismatic leadership, I believe the recognition depends on the leader being of a sufficiently large organization (or government). At close range, such as in a group, a leader cannot seem “larger than life” and thus is not apt to seem unique and extraordinary. In other words, some distance is necessary for the illusion of a charismatic leader’s “superhuman” quality to be apparent. “No one is a prophet in his or her hometown” may be getting at this point. So I submit that charismatic leadership does not apply to the group or department level, but, rather, to upper echelon leadership in an organization or government (and even then, to a sufficiently large one).

Click to add a question or comment on my reply on charismatic leadership.


Charismatic Leadership: Between Fact and Fiction

A Guest Post by Edith Luc, Ph.D.

A remark I often hear about leadership is that true leaders are inevitably charismatic. I am often bewildered such remarks, because they insinuate two misconceptions: first of all, that leadership is limited to extraordinary people, and that the group leader is entirely responsible for mobilizing his/her group around a common vision.

In an era where organizations depend more on collective intelligence than solely on the chief’s charisma, it is risky, almost utopist to wait on manifestations of a charismatic leader believed to be of unique and exceptional nature, and able to mobilize everybody at the same time. What we really need is the combination of every worker’s leadership. Can it be then, that the definition of charismatic leadership is not the same for everyone? This brings us to ask the question: What is charismatic leadership?

Charisma: A gift, an exceptional influence that a person exercises on others.

According to fundamental writings on the subject (those of Max Weber, of Holl, 1985; Sohm, 1982; see Ouedraogo, 1993), there are five fundamental characteristics that define charisma:

1.       It is a relational phenomenon;

2.      where a person exercises a strong influence on others;

3.      by means of exceptional strength or natural charm;

4.      This charisma is recognized by followers, or disciples;

5.      Finally, the charismatic leader and his/her followers share an experience that is both emotional and enthusiastic.

Charisma: A phenomenon that depends on recognition, which is what creates followers, or “disciples”.

The charismatic individual is gifted with an extraordinary power stimulated by the support of his/her immediate followers. A so-called “emotional community” is created   between the leader and his/her followers, that is , a sharing of emotions; a communal, emotionally-charged experience highlighted by admiration and enthusiasm; a quasi-invisible trust and a feeling of power.

The recognition of others:

In other words, charisma is an attribute that requires recognition in order to be manifested. This recognition is what creates a group of individuals who will obey to the call and vision of the charismatic leader. A recognition that depends on the individuals, on their emotional connection in the presence of this leader, and on the faith they have in this person. It is also important to note that the leader’s influence is not universal. That is, not everybody feels the same enthusiasm towards the individual in question.

Hitler then, was charismatic for some but not for others. In the same way, Obama is charismatic for some, but not for all. Let us take the case of Dominique Strauss Khann. Before May 14th 2011, many (but not all) described him as a charismatic leader, ready to follow him in his presidential aspirations. However, since this fatal date, Khann’s charismatic leadership has significantly evaporated due to a lack of social recognition, a lack of faith in his person and in the exemplarity of his presumed actions. This is so even though the individual’s “exceptional” talent remains the same. What has changed is the admiration manifested by his initial admirers. Therefore, there is no charisma without the eyes of admirers, of followers. Charismatic leadership then, is a volatile and impermanent attribute.

Does one need a quality similar to charisma to practice leadership? Must one have a certain influence on others?

First of all, let us remember that leadership is an influential process between individuals mobilized by a common objective. It is not at all necessary to have an exceptional gift such as charisma to exercise influence at the heart of a group. What is more, the exercise of leadership belongs to all those who want to and are able to influence the development of a situation or the resolution of a problem.

However, some specific elements are needed in order to encourage the desired impact on the group, among others:

1.       The conviction that the objective is worth the time and efforts to reach it. This conviction can bring timid people to get out of their usual path.

2.      Credibility. It comes from experience, expertise and reputation. This credibility needs to be constantly developed in relation to one’s domain of activity. It encourages the attention and interest of collaborators, while at the same time reinforces one’s personal sense of worth.

3.      Trust. Not only in yourself, but also in your decision and actions. It is the opposite of doubt and incertitude, which are sometimes necessary for self-improvement, but are harmful to leadership when chronic or unjustified.

4.      Verbal and non-verbal transmissions. These are necessary for successful communication of convictions, credibility, self-confidence, enthusiasm, as well as the belief in the chances for the objective to be achieved. Whether verbal, non-verbal, written or oral, all facets of communication are useful in the practice of leadership.

5.      The ability to valorize competencies (interests, motivations, aspirations, supports and abilities) of your collaborators, clients, suppliers and collectivities. The practice of leadership is not undergone in a closed atmosphere; rather it needs to be done in a social environment. A true leader is someone who achieves the expected results, while at the same time adapts a collaborative environment around him/herself. To achieve profit goals by alienating oneself is a characteristic of greed, not of leadership.

To conclude, one of the misconceptions of leadership is that only a few people, gifted with unique charismatic abilities, can influence and mobilize others. In reality, leadership needs to be shared and practiced everywhere and by everyone in organizations and societies. These days, enterprise executives look to be surrounded by partners that will help them solve problems and that will be able to put forward innovative solutions that go out of the beaten path.
© 2011, Edith Luc. All Rights Reserved.

Click to add a question or comment on charismatic leadership.
See related essay: "Charismatic Leadership: A Reply"

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Right in Europe and America: Tale of Two Cities

The far right in Europe is quite different from the right wing in American politics. Putting aside the usual caricature of “people in pointy hoods and the Ku Klux Klan,” Marine Le Pen says she still believes “the American right is much more to the right than the National Front.” She might agree with those who want to manage American frontiers more effectively and prevent massive illegal immigration, but she’s also a big believer in the state’s ability and obligation to help its people. “We feel the state should have the means to intervene,” she says. “We are very attached to public services à la française as a way to limit the inequalities among regions and among the French,” including “access for all to the same level of health care.”

The American right is more far-right than is the European right wing in terms of government providing a survival net, but perhaps not in terms of immigration and other issues. In terms of government services, it is particularly striking that the European right advocates universal health-care. To the American right, even a “public option” is odious socialism. Moreover, the wealthy “I don’t want to help others with my tax dollars—just defense” rationale for keeping their money does not seem to get much political traction in the European right.

In terms of federalism, the “euroskeptics” are much more skeptical of the E.U. than the state rights advocates in America have been of the U.S. Whereas many euroskeptics would break up the E.U. if they could, the states’ rights movement through American history has merely sought to shift the balance of power from the federal government to the state governments. In other words, in terms of federalism the European right is more to the right than is the American right.

Immigration is another policy area in which the European right is further right. Sarkozy’s attempt to send the Roma out of state makes Jan Brewer’s legislation allowing the police to verify the citizenship of people already involved in a police action seem down-right moderate. Whereas in the spring of 2011 the Danish government considered putting up border guards to keep African immigrants out, the Arizona government did not add border guards of its own in 2010. Of course, European federalism is more balanced than is American federalism, but the European right is almost certainly more strident in its efforts to keep undesirable peoples out of the E.U. Even within the E.U., some establishments in the Flanders region of Belgium have signs indicating “No Walloons Allowed”—similar to “No Blacks Allowed” in Alabama until the 1970s.

Perhaps it could be said that whereas culturally and in terms of federalism the European right is more to the right, the European value of solidarity moderates the European right appreciably—even beyond “liberal Democrat” in American politics. Accordingly, caution should be exercised when comparing seemingly-parallel parties in American and European politics. The two unions have rather distinct politics even as “right” and “left” apply to both.

Click to add a question or comment on the right wings in the E.U. and U.S.


Tracy McNicoll and Christopher Dickey, “What a Tea Party Looks Like in Europe,” Newsweek, September 6, 2010.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Obama's Economic Stimulus: Insufficiently Focused

The $800 billion stimulus law had as much (or more) to do with improving the education system and rail lines, installing universal broadband, and modernizing electrical grids as reducing the unemployment rate. Consequently, the best that can be said regarding the spending is that it probably played a role in keeping unemployment from getting even worse than it did. 

As an alternative, Barak Obama could have proposed something akin to Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was a public work relief program for unemployed men between the ages of 18 and 24; the program ran from 1933 to 1942. The corps was primarily geared to providing work (and a pay check) to unemployed youth. The conservation and development of natural resources in rural areas of the U.S. was merely the application. The CCC was the most popular New Deal program among the general public, providing jobs for 3 million from families on relief.

Essentially, had providing an on-going paycheck to those on or off unemployment compensation been Obama’s priority, the president would have sought more labor-intensive uses for the $800 billion. A new CCC for men and women over 18 could have operated in many towns and cities throughout the U.S. In keeping with the enumerated powers in American federalism, the federal government could have made the funds available for states to use (or not use) as they saw fit.  Job retraining oriented to vocational areas least over-supplied could have gone along with the program.

In short, the $800 billion could have been more focused on the immediate problem of unemployment.  This would not have hurt Obama’s prospects for getting re-elected. I am not surprised that the republicans are able to portray the stimulus spending as ineffective with respect to jobs, though to ignore the unemployment problem or argue that a tax cut would somehow prompt companies to hire seems naïve at best.

Please add a question or comment on the New Deal versus Obama’s stimulus program.


Matt Bai, “Crisis Past, Obama May Have Missed a Chance,” The New York Times, September 8, 2010.

When Platitudes Undermine Proposals

Barak Obama’s 2010 speech at the UN’s annual opening lacked tangible proposals.  For example, he urged progress on the Middle East peace talks, but proffered no proposal.  He said Africa could be prosperous agriculturally, but gave no proposal for how.  He claimed that corruption in governments of developing countries is a problem, but offered no solution.  Pointing to corruption in general diffuses responsibility so talking about it does not shame anyone into making hard choices. 

The president could have urged African leaders to cede more governmental sovereignty to the African Union, which in turn could act as a check on government corruption at the state level.  Also, he could have proposed a loose federal confederation for the Middle East, which would mitigate the middle east conflict. Finally, he could have gone beyond citing his efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation to announce that the U.S. would join the ten countries that have created a movement with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons completely. Meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, the ten countries launched the new initiative to work towards a world without nuclear weapons. Foreign ministers, led by Japan and Australia, hoped to bring new life to efforts for nonproliferation and disarmament. Their mission statement said: “The only guarantee against the use and threat of nuclear weapons is their total elimination.” This would indeed be real change.  In contrast, Obama said only that his goal is securing loose nuclear material around the world in four years. 

In short, real change goes beyond politics as usual and platitudes. It goes beyond incrementalism to proffer systemic change. Sadly, being tied to the vested (i.e., wealthy) interests of the status quo severely delimits the range of policy prescribed. That is to say, refusing the challenge the status quo closes restricts one’s ability to lead.


Catherine Bolsover, “Germany Joins New International Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament,” Deutsche Welle, September 23, 2010.