A Learning Experience III

Our professor last week was Amelia Hadfield, a brilliant young scholar and teacher extraordinaire from the University of Kent. She began each of her 12 sessions with a scene-setting lecture, and then put us into teams to discuss, argue and debate. For instance, on the day we examined the Israel-Palestine issue we role-played a summit meeting, with three-person delegations representing Palestine, Israel, the United States, the European Union and Jordan.  I served as moderator for the summit, and another geriatric American was the arbitration judge.

I also represented the US in a discussion about how foreign policy affects business. By the time she left us on Thursday we had role-played such issues as hard vs. soft power, seeking international partnerships vs. unilateralism, and the international politics of energy and the political economy. This has been an invigorating week of learning and challenge. It helped me understand that the process and the results of domestic US politics is intertwined with our interests internationally, both in terms of how we are perceived by others and the credibility we have to shape the conversation on crucial interests.

All of this was juxtaposed in my mind with the debates in Congress about health care and energy, which I follow each morning on the Internet. Both issues involve powerful forces with vested interests, including politicians, providers and consumers. What has become clear to me during my time at Cambridge is the extent to which we in the United States view solutions to crucial socioeconomic issues through lenses of vested interest rather than considering a perspective that includes all stakeholders.

For instance, think about the US utility business and the energy bill before Congress. The industry’s primary stakeholders are shareholders who expect a return on investment; and, the commercial and residential customers who need reliable electricity, and whose monthly bill payments provide revenue. But there are many others who have a stake in how the business is managed, ranging from environmentalists to economic developers.  And, the issue is not limited to the utility industry, but includes all businesses that use energy-producing fuels.  This raises an overriding national security concern about the extent of our reliance on fossil fuels, much of which comes from countries that are not fond of our values or our way of life.

 In looking at federal energy legislation, how do we balance the immediate business priorities of shareholder return and customer price, with the long-term issues of national security, economic development and environmental sustainability?

At present, we don’t. We can’t seem to think beyond the immediate interest of our various constituencies. Politicians in power want to stay there and those out of power want to return, common good be damned; the primary concern of business is shareholder return and customer price; consumers seek to maintain and improve their existing standard of living. The first is subjected to powerful lobbying from the second, and the third targeted with partisan campaigns of fear, obfuscation and manipulation by the other two.

The long-term interest in energy policy should include but go beyond all of the above. This interest also includes national security, economic issues that stretch across national boundaries, balancing energy resources between developing and developed nations, and the world-threatening issue of environmental sustainability.

It seems clear to me that the United States is becoming more and more vulnerable as we increase our dependency on energy imports, thus becoming less able to deal effectively with threats from the Middle East. We are in danger of falling into energy insecurity, and of being mired in constant conflict with unstable and badly governed states.  

This is where my current studies in international relations and my passion for domestic politics come together. We have an urgent need to begin a conversation about new political and economic strategies, conversations that must recognize the true cost of our energy consumption. This true cost (according to Energy Security: Toward a New Foreign Policy Status by Jan Kalicki and David Goldwyn) includes the cost of maintaining a military presence in the Gulf states, the healthcare costs caused by carbon emissions and other pollutants, the cost of maintaining our transportation infrastructure, and the economic costs “that volatile energy prices impose on the competitiveness of US manufacturing.”

Kalicki and Goldwyn argue that “the disconnect between what Americans pay for energy and what it really costs them has lead to political deadlock… The failure to achieve basic changes has plagued Democratic and Republicans alike, both of which have feared antagonizing domestic producers and manufacturers or risking consumer retaliation at even the mention of” increasing taxes. They argue, therefore, that the legislative consequence is weak, and is limited to “shortsighted discussions of industry subsidies, or continuation of the war between producers and environmentalists.”

Even though their book was written in 2005, this is a very accurate description of the current legislative process in Washington. At least the Democrats in the House had the courage to pass out a bill, but Democratic Senators are so mired in self-interest that they can’t see beyond the next election.

Somewhere, somehow there must be a coming together of leaders who will engage the conversation as statespersons rather than partisans, seeking a balance that preserves the interest of the nation, ensures long-term environmental sustainability, national security and economic prosperity… and earns the US a mantle of world leadership on an issue that affects every corner of the globe.

It can be said that this is just a pipe dream that it can never happen. But if we don’t seriously engage our energy policy we are endangering the freedom and security of our grandchildren’s children. A similar argument can be made about the health proposals currently before Congress, but I shan’t burden you with more words. Suffice it to say that I am disgusted with my party’s lack of leadership and courage in Congress, and it all makes me wonder why we fought so hard to get a huge Democratic majority. They seem to be more concerned about appeasing their colleagues on the right than serving the needs of the American people.

This next week we move on to the re-emergence of Russia as a power in international relations, the nature and significance of terrorism in global politics, and the function and purposes of diplomacy in international relations. Our closing seminar is “The United States and International Organizations: An Obstruction or a Facilitator.” I’ll see you all soon, Bill

A Learning Experience II

Class Highlights from the Week of July 13

We started the week with a day-long focus on climate change, looking at risks, scenarios for the future, and the roles and responsibilities (personal, government, business) for engaging those scenarios.

 The rest of the week was spent in the Middle East, beginning with a seminar on “An Islamic Challenge to the West”. We then got more specific with seminars on “The Gulf: Oil and Islam”, “Iraq An Unnatural State?” and “Iran: A Rogue State?”  The week concluded with three seminars on China’s emergence as a world power: “The Political Economy of China’s Economic Development”, “China’s Role in Globalization and Multilateral Trade”, and “China’s Geopolitical trajectory: Conflict or Cooperation?” Continue reading “A Learning Experience II”

A Postcard from Cambridge

Cambridge is a delightful city, spiced by the international flavor of students from across the globe. This summer there are students from 35 nations enrolled in several different graduate-level disciplines in the International Summer School, and high-school age students studying language in the various schools and colleges.

The University of Cambridge is made up of 31 colleges and more than 150 departments. Each college is independent, recruiting its own students and faculty, but college faculty members teach in the various departments (physics, languages, etc.) and students take courses from any of the departments.

The River Cam runs through the city and there are great walks (as well as punting trips— using long poles to propel a boat) along the river. I am staying at Westcott House, the seminary, in a one-bedroom flat. My class day starts at 9a.m. and ends at 3:30, and most evenings I have been going back to the flat, fixing dinner and preparing for the next day’s lesson. The faculty is terrific, and the 23 students from 13 countries in this international relations course are energizing. It is fascinating to get the many different perspectives on international events, ranging from the Middle East to China. Perhaps the most spirited discussion centered on the controversial cartoons printed in Danish newspapers that were considered anti-Islam by Muslims across the world. The students from Denmark and the Netherlands were passionate in challenging the professor on the issue of freedom of speech. Kennon arrives on Monday and I will do a little more exploring of the area with her.