Monday, April 13, 2015

In the spirit of FDR, a Harvard think tank faces the challenges of the day

A few months ago I happened to meet Jed Willard, Director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation for Global Engagement at Harvard College, at a program on social media organized by the Canadian consulate in Boston. When we spoke briefly at the consulate I was intrigued by his description of the work of the Foundation, which includes research, programming for students and more, all carried out with the legacy of President Roosevelt in mind.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with him again to talk about the Foundation in his office in Adams House, located in rooms that were home to FDR during his time as an undergraduate at the college. With a light drizzle falling and cloudy skies outside, we sat in front of a fire as it crackled away in the fireplace, discussing the unique role that his think tank plays at Harvard College and the state of the world in general. Over the course of an hour we touched on his work with eastern European nations, discussed American-Canadian competition in the Arctic, and speculated about the likely consequences of climate change. I also got the sense from our talk that one of the central strengths of this think tank is its approach to global challenges, at once focused on individual emerging trends, while at the same time embracing a broad view of the various political, cultural and strategic elements that may be at play in any particular situation.

It will likely come as no surprise to readers of this blog that looking at world issues this way resonates deeply with me – as I have written before, on topics ranging from the Arab Spring to Russian aggression in the Ukraine, to bipartisan politics, that attempting to comprehend (let alone solve) the problems of the world requires the ability to move between the micro and macro, always mindful of nuance, without getting tripped up or waylaid by minutiae. In addressing contemporary points of crisis as well as those that are more foundational, my sense is that Mr. Willard and his colleagues are seeking to foster an environment in which undergraduates, faculty and practitioners can engage with subjects that have both shaped the world as we know it today and likely determine how societies will change going forward. This can only be a good thing.

If you visit the organization’s website I think you’re likely to notice, as I did, that there a number of questions posed, such as, “As national borders fray, are we seeing the ‘reintroduction of geopolitics?" and “How can we understand and defuse the impact of international politics on regional cooperation in the Arctic?” Good questions are at the heart of any intellectual debate worth having, and when the subject is international relations, solid questions are vital not only to the quality of discussion, but in helping guide policy experts and decision-makers faced with choices which will have serious consequences in the real world.

In exposing students to the complexities of decision-making at the global level I think the FDR Foundation for Global Engagement is not only potentially influencing the career paths of future graduates, but perhaps more importantly, helping to prepare them to be better citizens of the world. Given all of the challenges we are facing, from terrorism to climate change to breakdowns to entire regions in turmoil, right now the world could use a few more good global citizens.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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