by Madison Creery and Alexa Den Herder
An attempted military coup in Turkey, the Brexit vote, and Rouseff’s impeachment are all events this year alone that have tested the limits of what it means to be a democracy. Today, the U.S. is facing a world far different from the one that emerged after the end of the Cold War, one that requires a new approach to democracy promotion. This is why the theme at the 68th annual SCUSA event, “Democracy and Democratization,” was so fitting. Delegates from universities across the nation were challenged to develop policy recommendations for the new Trump administration. Ranging from policies towards specific regions of the world to policies on more abstract concepts (democracy promotion, economics, security), each round table had three-days to analyze the issue, develop a policy recommendation, and then design a final presentation. To say the least, this was far from an easy task.
(Richard Haas, Keynote speaker)
The theme, “Democracy and Democratization,” called on the delegates to reevaluate the U.S.’s current approach to democracy promotion given the current political environment of the world today. In order to properly address each aspect of this theme, there were eight topical issues (ranging from technology to political radicalism) and eight regional issues (ranging from Sub-Saharan Africa to Iran). Within each group, the delegates had to apply the simple idea of democracy to extremely complex situations and realities. The first roadblock was to define what democracy actually meant. Democracy to one nation meant an entirely different concept to another. During the first roundtable session, the delegates soon discovered that the issues faced by the U.S. are issues for a reason. Even with teams of 10 to 20 students, developing an appropriate policy recommendation was difficult, with many students starting his or her sessions with idealistic views of the world. However, during the second roundtable session, delegates began to understand the difference between formulating an ideal version of policy, and then understanding the actual difficulties of implementing the policy.
(Russia Roundtable Delegation)
For example, consider Russia. The first action the delegates in this group took was to list all of the problems Russia faces with democracy and democratization. This part was easy. There was an endless list, including problems with civil society, government control of the media, the kleptocracy of Russia’s elite, and the list goes on. Next, the delegates determined some policy approaches the U.S. could undertake. This is part was not so easy. Suggestions such as trying to support civil society organizations already existent were made, as well as addressing Russia’s current economic woes. These and many more suggestions were made, but it seemed that the delegates forget a very important roadblock: answering “how” the U.S. was expected to do this in a Russia that holds strong anti-Western sentiments. This question, “How?” was an issue faced by every roundtable group. It was quickly realized that suggesting solutions is not the problem. This is what the elites of the U.S. government have already been doing. The problem is suggesting solutions that face the reality of the situation, that stay within the means of the U.S.’s resources and political power, and that can be not only implemented, but maintained for years to come.
(Preparing for the final presentations)
After many frustrating hours, breaks to watch weapon demonstrations and obstacle course challenges, and time to eat and go to delegate mixers, each roundtable was able to reconvene and develop feasible policy recommendations for the Trump administration. Sometimes the hardest part was knowing that there existed regions in the world where the only action that could be recommended was maintaining the current policy stance. As roundtable groups presented their findings and recommendations, the most interesting group may have been the U.S. Despite each groups’ efforts to discover the best policy for the U.S. to promote in each topic and region, the U.S. regional presentation served as a reminder to all. Before the U.S. can promote the ideas of democracy and democratization, it must first address its own issues with democratic values and institutions. Although the U.S. is the world’s leading example of democracy, no state is perfect, and the SCUSA event served to inform the delegates of this very notion. Even though some roundtables left feeling disheartened by the complex issues faced by the U.S., at the end of the day, SCUSA served as a platform to bridge the gap between civilian and military lives. A greater understanding of the policy perspectives from both groups helped in the formulation of even greater policy recommendations, and each delegate left with more appreciation for the people who serve to protect our nation. In order to tackle the daunting issues currently faced by the U.S. and the world, events such as SCUSA are needed.
(Each year the Political Science Department nominates 1-2 students to attend this conference. The Department and SCUSA cover the cost of attending the conference)