Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2007 | Features

Pay Attention, People!

By Shelbi Thomas
A UI class goes public to explain how U.S. foregin policy works — and why it matters.

Jim Leach, director of the Harvard Institute of Politics and former Iowa Congressman, was one of 17 guest speakers to address "The U.S. in World Affairs" course this past fall at the Englert Theater in Iowa City. Leach spoke and took questions from audience members on U.S.-China relations.

The person elected as the next American president may have exuded confidence during campaign season, but at 9 a.m. on January 21, 2009, he or she will experience a drastic wake-up call. "The scariest moment in the life of a new president," Robert Hunter warned an Iowa City audience recently, "is when he or she receives the president's daily brief and sees for the first time what the world is really like."

A former U.S. Ambassador to NATO whose personal experience of the policy process goes back to the Johnson administration, Hunter knows all too well that international politics are far more complex and relevant than most Americans — even presidents — can comprehend.

Developing nations challenge America's place in an increasingly global economy, while extremist groups abroad become bolder in their stance against U.S. interests and the American way of life. Pollution and consequent global warming aren't restricted by national boundaries — and their effect on public health could impact many Americans. China, Europe, the Koreas, and Iraq are no longer merely far-flung places on a map — they're America's economic partners or rivals, military allies or adversaries.

With the media reluctant to explore such issues or their far-reaching and long-term consequences, it's no wonder that many Americans remain clueless or seriously mistaken about their place in the world. Local television news directors serve up "The World in 60 Seconds" alongside the weather and sports, foreign bureaus and correspondents have become a luxury for most media outlets, and the latest gossip about Paris Hilton is almost certain to trump the latest news from Paris, France. Fortunately, one UI class goes where many reporters fear to tread.

In "The U.S. in World Affairs" course, students and members of the public study what history professor David Schoenbaum calls the "good, bad, and ugly" of America's interactions with the world. Every Monday this past fall, participants gathered at the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City to meet and learn from professional foreign policy makers, actors, and watchers. Former ambassadors, former National Security Council staffers, foreign correspondents, and U.S. Representatives were among the guest speakers who shared their practical experience and expertise during the 12-week course.

Audience members during a speech in "The U.S. in World Affairs."

Though Schoenbaum has opened the class to the public since 2002, never before has it generated so much community interest. Iowa Public Radio featured the speakers on a call-in show, a local newspaper ran weekly columns about the course, and lecturers repeated their sessions at Grinnell College and Drake University. Each Monday, some 140 UI students from 26 majors and programs — alongside about 350 members of the public, some driving in from as far away as Waterloo, Marion, and Newton — packed into the plush seats of the Englert.

Schoenbaum likens the course to a Chautauqua, referring to the late 19th and early 20th century movement that dispatched speakers and performers to set up a tent in communities around the country to entertain and educate the masses. Free and open to the public, thanks to a unique mix of public and private sector sponsors, the UI course aims to fulfill the outreach role that Schoenbaum believes a public university owes to its community and state.

This foreign policy primer couldn't have come at a better time. Recalling the 2000 presidential campaign that passed with barely any mention of foreign policy, Schoenbaum hopes his course helps interested voters sort out the presidential candidates currently touring the state en route to Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses. More than that, he hopes to introduce students, especially, to what he calls the "foreign policy facts of life."

"What we don't know can hurt us," he says. "Students have an unspoiled innocence with a touch of paranoia. They think things happen to other countries, but not here — yet they all remember 9/11. We claim to prepare young people for the world, but without [classes on foreign affairs], it's like not telling them where babies come from."

For the historical background he considers indispensable, Schoenbaum referred the class to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter McDougall's Promised Land and Crusader State. McDougall argues that earlier generations of Americans saw foreign policy primarily as a way of safeguarding liberty at home — and did a creditable job of achieving these aims. More recent generations of Americans, who've tended to view foreign policy primarily as a way of changing the world, have had mixed success.

Jim Leach

Schoenbaum also invited his students to note the post-Cold War period, when the U.S. turned inward, effectively allowing itself a "holiday from history." Then came September 11, which awakened many people to the consequences of mishandling foreign policy.

Schoenbaum listed several other reasons to pay attention to such issues. "If the dollar sinks like a stone, if we're in a hopeless war, if other countries fear and distrust the U.S., if we're a leading exporter of corn," he says, "[foreign policy] affects all of us."

That's why the professor told his class that former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's famous admonition that "all politics is local" should now read "all local politics is global."

The goal, says Schoenbaum, is to connect the dots — to see how energy needs, public health, and climate change tie in with foreign policy, how economic competitiveness links to national security. Of course, this is far from easy. While still a professor at Cornell College, Iowa Congressman Dave Loebsack used to make fun of politicians who read executive summaries rather than full reports. Now that he's in Washington, he admitted during the course's opening session, he's learned to appreciate those summaries. As Hunter reminded the class a few weeks later, even presidents — with a National Security Council to help sort out their options — have their work cut out for them.

Students in the UI course found themselves in a similar situation. To prepare effectively for each session, they had to read many newspaper and journal articles, government documents, reports, and survey data. A set of practice questions served as a guide to the readings, asking students to offer ideas for tackling real-world issues such as how to deal with al Qaeda or allocate military spending.

Recognizing the overwhelming nature of such issues, Schoenbaum recommended the words of wisdom that former Secretary of State George Marshall gave in 1947 to diplo-mat George Kennan. Assigning Kennan to design what would later be called the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of postwar Europe, Marshall said, "Avoid trivia." Schoenbaum thinks of that advice as a motto for his course.

Roger Bradley, a UI graduate student enrolled in "The U.S. in World Affairs," appreciated the broader perspective that such an approach offers. "The beauty of this course is that not only do you have a gifted professor guiding you with the readings, but he's challenging you to find your own [ideas]," he says. "[The class] inspires [students] to pick up a newspaper, read it, and take a minute to think critically about what may or may not be happening with the U.S. in world affairs."

Equipped with knowledge of the world, class alumni have gone on to positions in the Peace Corps, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Calvin Hennick, 04BA, participated in the Teach for America program after taking the course.

"Foreign policy is overlooked by the Average Joe voter and that's understandable, because people are more concerned about wages, health care, and other things that affect them on a day-to-day basis," says Hennick, who now writes for the Boston Globe. "Afghanistan wasn't on our radar in the 2000 election; it seemed to come out of nowhere. The more we know, the better."