Global Security Panel Gets Heated at BGIA Co-Sponsored Event

Written by Connor Boehme

Over the weekend, the Bard Globalization and International Affairs (BGIA) program co-sponsored Shades of Red and Blue, a series of conversations hosted at the New York Public Library. This event brought together experts from a wide range of the political spectrum to practice the art of “principled disagreement” as well as discuss some of the most difficult challenges facing America today.

The Global Security Panel featured a number of prominent international affairs experts, including Anne-Marie Slaughter (CEO of New America and former director of Policy Planning for the State Department), Elmira Bayrasli (co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted and BGIA Professor), Tom Nichols (Professor at the U.S. Naval War College), and Walter Russell Mead (Bard College and BGIA professor and author). The panel was moderated by the Director of the BGIA program, James Ketterer.

Ketterer started the panel by asking about the prominence of foreign policy issues in the 2016 Presidential Election, noting what he considered to be an exceptional level of attention paid to such issues. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the conversation revolved around free trade and protectionism, key issues in 2016. The debate was heated and, Mead, with by far the most speaking time, asserted his view that the American political elite needs to reconsider protectionist policies popular with voters. This, as he acknowledged, goes against decades of international relations wisdom, but panelists such as Slaughter agreed that there may be a need to rethink the fundamentals (although she did not necessarily support his position). Bayrasli disagreed with Mead and countered his historical examples of protectionist policies benefiting economic development (Germany, China) with examples demonstrating the opposite (Latin America, the Soviet Union). The two seemed by the end of the debate to tentatively agree that protectionist policies may sometimes benefit development, but Mead’s rhetoric led to a lot of interruptions which at times made it difficult to know where the whole panel stood. Fortunately, Bayrasli, the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, is a capable interrupter herself, and her assertiveness produced a nuanced and balanced conversation.

Panelists introduced a number of possibly challenging ideas that the Bard community may consider. Slaughter reflected on the failure of free trade to expand the economic “pie” for all classes in society and pointed out that attempts to “retrain” workers who have lost their jobs have not helped close that gap. She brought up the option of more protectionist policies and/or more redistributive domestic economic policies as a way to reduce inequality and help more people benefit from free trade. Mead criticized elite educational institutions for engendering in their students a desire to help people around the world without inspiring the same enthusiasm for solving domestic problems. Bayrasli proposed that the election’s foreign policy debate centered around  an identity question, “what is America’s place in the world?”, rather than specific policy. Nichols argued that foreign policy experts are hamstrung in developing policy by a need to support a party position, as opposed to coming up with the best idea empirically.

Overall, the panel successfully brought together experts who productively disagreed and had a useful discussion about some serious challenges to U.S. foreign policy. In international affairs, like in all politics, the most effective policy is not necessarily the most popular, and with issues like free trade so polarized, enacting nuanced policy is a daunting task. Discussions like Saturday’s seem like a step forward, but the need remains to engage the wider American electorate with the same level of rigorous conversation.
Watch this panel and others from the day-long event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfPGj4MNJ6E&feature=youtu.be&t=3h5m18s