There is nothing as exciting in the drama-filled world of domestic American politics as national elections every two years, as we just experienced last Tuesday when Republicans dramatically secured enough seats to have a majority in the two houses of Congress. Change is expected, but nobody knows exactly how policies will evolve, now that a new political balance has been created in the capital.
When I was in college decades ago, the respected conservative author William F. Buckley, Jr. once said something to the effect that on issues of public policy he would trust the first 100 names in the Boston telephone directory more than all the professors at Harvard University. I leave it to my learned friends and colleagues at Harvard (where I am a senior fellow) to debate the central point, which is that ordinary citizens can be trusted to steer public policy.
I would humbly add a new twist to Buckley’s comment, based on my own experience in the Boston area for the past decade. I recommend that public officials in the United States who seek sensible advise on how to govern should attend a few sessions of Professor Denise Horn’s introductory class on International Affairs and Globalization at Northeastern University in Boston. I have done this for the past few years and interacted with the 100+ students, whom I also ask to write a few questions after reading some texts on the Middle East and the involvement there of the United States. This has taught me two things: The students routinely express thoughtful, substantive ideas and values that could honorably guide American foreign policy-making; and, they are an unscientific but probably accurate barometer of the thinking of many other young Americans, as I have experienced this in lectures and meetings with students in dozens of universities and colleges across the United States.
I see the heart of the students’ attitudes and values as a deeply questioning approach to world affairs, and a desire to know more about conditions in other countries before shaping American government policies. Consistently, year after year, the students in Professor Horn’s INTL 1101 ask about both the world and the United States’ approach to the world. They ask whether existing American policies abroad, heavily militaristic in the Middle East, are the best approach to adopt; whether the American public and policy-makers are accurately informed of global realities, and how they could be better informed; and, if and how people in the Arab-Asian region want the United States. to intervene in their world.
They also ask about the micro-conditions in foreign countries, related to nationalism, ethnicity, religion, economy, gender and violence. They want to know the root causes of recurring violence in the Middle East, for example, and ask whether it is accurate to see things in a good-or-evil frame. What do Arabs and Israelis feel could be done to resolve their conflict, and how could the United States intervene more effectively in that process?
They also ask about their role as citizens, understanding that they are not passive recipients of decisions by officials far away, but active actors in a democratic process that just showed its vitality again this week. Some ask, for example, what can they and other American citizens do to combat Islamophobia in the United States?
This class that I interact with annually reflects the most impressive aspect of my many encounters with young Americans in recent years, which is their expressed need to know more about the world, and to have their country craft policies that are in the best interests of Americans and foreign lands alike. I suspect they are more questioning and humble than most adults because of their own life experiences (and maybe also because they have a really good teacher who opens their minds).
This generation of young Americans has known only active warfare abroad since they were eight or nine years old, coupled with chronic and usually hysterical media promotion of terror threats at home. They are not foreign policy experts, but neither are they passive dummies. They feel it in their bones that something is not quite right when they are told that the United States must constantly fight terrorism abroad to defeat a new threat, while that battle seems to never end, and militancy and its dangers persist or even increase.
They want to know why this is, what can be done differently at home or abroad, and what is the most legitimate American role? They ask about these things because they are young, and university students, but also because they are good citizens who want knowledge and policy-making to achieve the best for their country. I am always humbled and impressed by these encounters, and wonder whether all the newly elected politicians in Washington, D.C. could take a cue from these students and their teachers.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global