Monday, February 4, 2008

What students taught me about American power

In my US Foreign Policy class I offered them the option of answering the following question:
You are the new US president. You want to use American power well, perhaps even enhance US power. You are going to discuss your ideas on TV in a major national talk. Write the script that has your three main points. [For purposes of this essay, do not worry about whether the new president is a Republican or a Democrat.]" I'm still in the midst of reading the essays. Some of the students have given me permission to "show" their work. So, I'll do some posts with excerpts in the next few weeks.

I thought the assignment would give them a chance to reflect on US power and offer me a way to understand what young Europeans (plus a Canadian and two Japanese) think about the US. I was also hoping I would have a better answer for my Michigan Tech students when they ask "why do they hate us?" I think the assignment must have struck a chord, because virtually all of the students took this as one of their options. I know I have learned a great deal.

First, they don't hate us. They are frustrated by us, they feel abandoned, maybe. But, hate is not in the picture. In fact, cynicism hardly comes through. Maybe they can't afford cynicism, because they really want to get things done and cynicism never has accomplished anything. I would say they want us to lead, they want us to remember who we are and what we stand for in the world as a place of hope and freedom. I would say that they think if we want to lead, we have to have followers who feel they will be stronger for having followed the US. Some of them think, too, that to enhance US power we need to take more care at home to improve the economic fortunes of all Americans. Why? So that we can participate effectively and with confidence in the globalized world we have created.

They want American leadership to cope with terrorism, climate change, the Middle East, and the disastrous lack of policy towards Sub-Saharan Africa. They would like to see us use the UN more and to be more obviously supportive of international law. They would like us to use our power to build things anew. They would like like us to work with countries in a multilateral rather than unilateral way. They want the US to think very hard about China, India, and Russia, because they are big players. Some of them were amazed by a global poll they found that said 70% of the respondents thought China provided more leadership for the world than the US. No, they think, this cannot be. The leader they want is the United States. I guess you could say they want us present and listening and acting effectively at home and abroad.

Some of the writing literally brought tears to my eyes with the wishes of what they would like to hear from the US. I want to believe my country could not just say such things, but also to do such things. We have done great things in the past with all our resources--political, military, economic, and cultural. Why not now? That's what they want to see, too. No one wants terror at their doorstep, but only where the US has found cooperative methods (as in reducing money-laundering) do we seem to reduce the terror for all. What came through in the essays--just like after 9/11--are millions of hands and minds around the world that want to work on eliminating terrorism and many other global problems. All that's lacking is leadership. Some of them think that we can't lead because we are too caught up in the politics and rhetoric of fear. Fear excludes and closes; hope and engagement do not. As FDR said in a dark hour, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

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