SCUSA 68: Democracy and Democratization
Summary submitted to the IR Program
My time at SCUSA 68 was not only incredibly informative, but also quite fun. From the outset, I was extremely pleased to have been placed at the table titled “Iran, its Neighbors, and the United States” because I am currently taking a class on Iran, as well as writing a couple of papers on the subject. I came to the conference very eager not only to meet the fellow students and cadets who would be accompanying me at the table, but also the two policy experts who would be guiding the discussions and our work towards creating a policy paper to be presented at the end of the conference.
The first day at West Point was intended to introduce the theme of the conference and set the tone for the remainder of the week. The afternoon consisted of a presentation by the cadets about the motivation behind the choice of ‘Democratization’ as the theme for the conference, while the evening brought an incredible panel that included Foreign Service officers, as well as the Director of Amnesty International, to talk about the current state of democratization in our world. Considering the conference began the day after Election Day, both the presentation by the cadets and the panel of experts concluded that the conference was increasingly relevant in light of the results of the election. However, as a result the beginning of the conference was marked by sadness and skepticism as the experts could not provide the audience with much to be elated about in light of the election of Donald Trump. They concluded that our work that week would prove incredibly important because the students and cadets in the room represented the future of American foreign policy, and more specifically American democracy.
The second day of the conference consisted of two lengthy meetings of our tables for the purpose of beginning discussions about our topic. I was quick to learn that most of the fellow students at the table had not previously studied Iran, and thus I had an incredible advantage because I had with me my class notes and resources that allowed me to add many meaningful ideas to the discussion. Specifically, our table was tasked with concluding how the next administration would handle Iran in light of the JCPOA. Would Trump continue with his campaign trail rhetoric and work to eliminate the nuclear deal, or would he simply work to enforce the agreement in the strictest manner possible? As I am embarking on a paper that seeks to answer this question from the Iranian perspective, I was immediately not only intrigued by the ideas presented by my fellow students in the discussions, but I was also eager to hear the opinions of the policy experts at the table. SCUSA did a wonderful job choosing two incredible experts to join in on the discussion. One of the experts, Matthew McInnis of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), has written hundreds of articles on Iran since he left the State Department to join AEI. His commentary and reactions to our suggestions was invaluable. I came away with multiple pages of notes, as well as suggestions of resources, that I plan to reflect on while embarking on my upcoming paper. Most importantly, by the end of the second day I had become good friends with my table, and the group of us had wonderful discussions that continued at meals and at the social events in the evening.
The third day brought not only two more lengthy discussions at our designated tables, but also opportunities to experience life at West Point. The day began promptly at 5:30am and we watched the cadets prepare themselves in their uniforms for morning inspection. We then proceeded to the gymnasium to watch cadets run through the West Point obstacle course, one of the mandatory fitness tests every cadet must pass. After a few failed attempts at the course ourselves, we proceeded to a weapons demonstration, whereby we had the opportunity to meet the three-star general who is one of the main chairs of the school. Although I had already engaged with the cadets in meaningful conversations in order to compare their lives at the university with my own here at Brown, the conversation with the general was particularly enlightening. His warm smile and hearty laugh was a reminder that uniform aside, he is very much like the professors at Brown that I have the pleasure of studying under. He likewise has pursued a degree in International Relations, and has taught numerous classes over the years at West Point before assuming his leadership position. Afterwards, because one of the experts at our policy table was a West Point graduate, he brought us to meet the Dean of West Point, a wonderful woman who was equally as happy as the general to talk with us about life at the academy. I was first off pleasantly surprised that a woman was the highest ranking official at West Point. She dominated the room with her poise, elegance, and wit. I also came away from our conversation much more enlightened about the reality of the military’s role to play in the future of democratization both here at home and abroad. Without our policy expert’s connections on campus, I would not have had these incredible conversations with the leadership of West Point. Finally, in the evening all of the delegates proceeded to a banquet where we heard from the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas. Although he provided a lot of great insights related to the issue of democratization in 2016, he unfortunately didn’t leak too much as to whether he would accept the position of Secretary of State if he received the offer from President-elect Trump. However, having time to discuss topics with him personally after his speech, I anticipate he would be an excellent choice for the position.
The last day of the conference not only brought a lot of hugs and some tears, but also quite a few laughs. Rather than present our papers in a standard fashion, most of the groups opted for a skit. Our group decided to take our policy recommendations and use lyrics to create a dialogue between President-elect Trump and President Rouhani. I took on the task of writing the skit. I decided to use “Help” by the Beatles and “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift as the basis of the lyrics and tune. The presentation was extremely well received. Not only did our group receive a standing ovation, but the Dean also congratulated us on our job well done. I headed back to Brown not only elated over the success of our skit, but also sad because over the course of the four days I had made some fantastic friends and incredible contacts.
Overall, I am extremely thankful that the IR Department selected me to attend SCUSA 68 because I not only came away from the conference more educated on the role the US has to play in relation to Iran, but I also gained a whole new set of friends. Specifically, the conference taught me that no matter the level of knowledge a group has on a topic, if they are all willing to come to the table eager to learn, a meaningful and productive conversation can be had. On that point, I became so close after only four days with the group of students and cadets at my table because they came with open minds and a lack of prejudice against anyone’s political views or previous political involvement. In light of the election results, this was particularly meaningful, and really allowed each of use to open up to one and other, and for some provide needed support in a time of need. In addition, the table discussions also provided a platform to create meaningful relationships with the policy experts, who also ate every meal and partook in all of the evening events alongside our group. As a result of my commentary during discussions and commitment to the group, one of the experts offered to write letters of recommendation on my behalf going forward. Looking towards next year’s conference, I would highly recommend SCUSA to any student who is seeking an opportunity not only to gain a crash course on many of the issues plaguing international relations, but also to make a set of sincere friends who are equally as eager as yourself to enter the realm of public, domestic, or foreign policy after graduation. I am confident that the group of friends I made will one day be working alongside myself to help change the world for the better at the behest of the United States.