In midst of college experience, students shouldn’t forget about the world beyond our borders

Jeremi Suri

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a weekly column on foreign policy from Suri.

College is a time when students focus most of their attention on campus activities. That is perfectly appropriate. College should be an intensive period of discovery that extends far beyond the classroom. Morning trips to the gym, afternoon visits to the library and late-night conversations over pizza are integral to the undergraduate experience. So are parties and football games.

While enjoying our time on campus, the foreign policy crises that dominate news headlines seem distant. Despite the attacks on American citizens and allies around the world, life goes on without much interruption on campus. Students often feel powerless to influence big issues, such as human rights and global inequality, or specific crises in Iraq, Ukraine and other regions.

Even if we make the effort to develop expertise, as many students do for specific issues, how can we influence policy and public debate? The special circumstances that make the 40 Acres so unique also separate the campus from the “real world.” Who wants to listen to the opinions of students? How can students get their voices heard by powerful people in Texas, in Washington, D.C., and abroad?

Too often, our state and national leaders ignore students. Especially on foreign policy, politicians speak of the needs of “future generations,” but their key advisers and funders are middle-aged, frequently even older. Students are poorly organized as an interest group, they vote in small numbers, and they spend little time following international issues. Of course, these dynamics shift when military recruiters come to Austin, but even then young men and women are usually recruited for their patriotism and the promise of employment, not out of respect for their opinions about policy. Although students are a crucial demographic for the economy and the military, they are invisible in much of politics and policy-making.

The multiplying foreign policy crises today offer an opportunity for smart and energetic students – like you! – to change this dynamic. The same is true for transnational issues like global warming and growing inequality. The dirty secret is that the old guys who make policy and dominate politics today do not know what to do about these challenges.

The men and women in power are, quite frankly, overwhelmed and out of their depth. Most of them came of age as college students, policy analysts, diplomats and government officials in an era dominated by the Cold War and then the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Democrats and Republicans – including both President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain – learned policy-making when American military power really dominated the globe, when we could count on the broad appeal of American democracy and consumer culture, and when our enemies were states or groups we could clearly identify, contain and, if necessary, destroy.

The world is different today – and many people above 25 can barely understand it. The most powerful military forces seem incapable of defeating rebels and insurgents armed with small weapons, hateful ideas and iPhones. American democracy and consumer culture seem to repel more people than they attract, and that includes many American citizens who are fed up with the partisanship, gridlock and venality in our political system. Most troubling, it is unclear who our real enemies are. Islamic extremists in the Middle East? Iran? Russia? North Korea? China? How can we prioritize and differentiate among these potential adversaries?

No one above 25 has good answers to these questions. This is a huge problem for the Obama administration and its critics, but it is a promising opportunity for students. Foreign policy is a field of growing importance to Americans and it is a field without established experts who can address all the pressing questions of the day. There is a real conceptual and generational shift occurring, which is like a rebuilding season for an NFL team. Rookies will get drafted in large numbers and they will have a chance to play early and often as the veterans retire. The rookies will make mistakes, but they will get attention and opportunities to dominate the game.

So here is my advice to ambitious undergraduates: Study hard and have fun on campus, but make some time to think about foreign policy. Spend time talking about foreign policy with students and professors. Attend visiting lectures from policy-makers on campus and read a little about the topic each day from newspapers, social media and other sources. Read this column each week! Keep your eyes out for opportunities to study abroad and intern with a foreign policy organization or a business doing international work. Start your own foreign policy blog.

Serious and creative thinking about foreign policy is desperately needed in our country today. It will come from young people like you. If you look to become part of the conversation, many opportunities will open for you. Use the 40 Acres as a launching point to get involved and make a difference as a free and informed thinker. This is your time.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.