Advice to High School Students–and Everyone Else: Georgetown’s International Relations ProgramJuly 14, 2013 # 11:30 am # Human Rights # No Comment
Since 1988, it has been my honor to direct Georgetown University’s International Relations Program for High School Students. Georgetown brings about 220 high school students from all over the world to Washington for an eight-day, intensive program in international relations. Over the course of the week, the students attend presentations by Georgetown faculty, international relations practitioners and others on a variety of topics of global politics. They also attend discussion sections, visit embassies, and, at the end of the week, participate in a crisis simulation.
This year’s Program began last Sunday, July 7, and ends today, July 14, when the students depart. Yesterday, the students engaged in a fascinating crisis simulation on the conflict in Syria. After the simulation debrief, I said a few words to conclude the Program. Drawing upon a few points raised during the week, I offered three recommendations:
- Embrace the Complexities
- Be Creative
- Follow Your Head and Your Heart
Dane Shikman, our Simulation Director, began his briefing on the simulation by quoting my colleague, Marc Busch, who urged Dane to “embrace the complexities.” This seems to me to be very good advice to anyone who seeks to understand international relations. The international system is extraordinarily complex. And with new non-state actors playing increasingly important roles in the system and changes in information technology, the world is becoming even more complex each day. Unfortunately, there is often a desire to find easy answers or apply simplistic models to understand the global system. We could all do well to avoid that tempting path.
The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that a “failure of imagination” was one of the main reasons the United States was not able to connect the dots to prevent the attacks of September 11, 2001. This conclusion points to one of the critical needs for international relations professionals– creativity. Far too often, policy makers and academics get trapped by old paradigms and traditional ways of doing things and miss opportunities to try something different. The global system desperately needs innovative, imaginative thinking. And this is where youth can help. Much as Thomas Kuhn noted that young scientists can often be the ones that innovate because the are not so invested in the conventional paradigm, so too can young persons bring to international relations the fresh thinking that it needs to deal with the increasing complexities.
Professor Busch in his discussion of the future of the international system explored the development of international relations theory by examining the thoughts of a variety of international relations thinkers. Throughout his talk, he noted how people can be torn between the desire to follow one’s head– to be logical and realistic– and the desire to follow one’s heart– to be aspirational and hopeful. For those who would be practitioners of international relations, I would urge them to follow both their heads and their hearts. On the one hand, it is vital that all who seek to engage the world of international relations do so with an understanding of the world as it really is. The international system is messy, there is confusion, there is injustice, and indeed, there is evil. Irrespective of whether one has a position in the public sector, or the private sector, or the non-profit sector, he or she cannot engage in an imaged, fantasy world. We must all deal with what we have.
But, on the other hand, things do change. Diseases can be eradicated. Poverty can be reduced. Discrimination can be reduced. The rule of law can take hold in new societies. International Institutes can make societies more peaceful and more justice.
Does this mean that human actions can usher in the Millenium? Or that humans can somehow eliminate sin and its consequences? No. But things can change. No too many years ago, there was slavery in the United States and women were not allowed to vote. When I was a child, Jim Crow Laws were still in place in many parts of this country. We have made many, many changes in this country. Of course, there is still a long way to go. But things have changed. So, too, as we survey the international system, we can see so many positive developments. Things can change.
But things change because of what individuals do. And here is my last bit of advice. As all of us explores the gifts we have, we must ask ourselves, as my dear friend Doug Shaw did in his talk, what our contribution to the world will be. How we we make things better?