||As the former Chief Spokesman for the State Department and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, James Rubin is accustomed to fielding difficult questions from a knowing crowd. But after his visit with the BWL Political Union on March 1, he told the assembled Middle School students and parents that he had just been “grilled by a group of very, very, very smart young men the way I used to be in the State Department.” Now a Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a contributor to Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Republic, and the Washington Post, Mr. Rubin was the Union’s inaugural guest.
The BWL Political Union began last spring, when Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci III decided to model a class after the Oxford Political Union, the political and debating society of the renowned British university. Last fall, BWL applied and was accepted as an accredited member of the Union. According to Mr. Carnabuci, “The class functions as a foreign policy think tank focused less on domestic issues than international ones. It is a way for kids whose personal passion is about international relations to have a chance to not only talk about it, but to meet with experts about it.”
“Kids like the unique nature of the course. It’s not like anything else,” he says. Unlike other Middle School activities that meet at the same time, the Union has reading and essays due each week -- and grades, assessed by the Headmaster. “These are kids who do not object to homework,” he says. Each Tuesday morning, they meet in his office, roll our their blue “BWL Union” banner and discuss the latest from their sources like The London Times, the BBC, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Among the issues this year’s class has tackled: the Wikileaks scandal, the proposed Mosque at Ground Zero, tensions through North and South Korea, the response to President Obama’s inaugural address, and, to prepare for Mr. Rubin’s visit, the revolution in Egypt.
To catalyze discussion, students are often assigned positions. They might defend the role of publishers in protecting governments, as they did during the Wikileaks scandal; they might assume the stance of a Brazilian diplomat opposing India’s entrance to the United Nations Security Council. As Union member Drew Spindler ’17, says, “A problem can look very different from the viewpoint of different countries.” Students even interview their parents to learn and compare perspectives. They are not assessed on the nature of their opinions, but on their support of them.
Along with the “Protocol” course he teaches to fifth graders, designed to offer basic information about manners and courtesies, the Union allows Mr. Carnabuci the unique opportunity among New York City headmasters to teach in two school divisions. “It’s really been very reinvigorating,” he says. “It’s a wonderful way to stay anchored in the student body…I have seen [these kids] evolve in a way that is nothing short of dazzling.”
So, when Mr. Rubin came for a 45-minute sit-down with the Union members, they were ready. Stemming from the students’ prepared questions, the conversation evolved into a full-on probe of strategies, benefits, and ramifications for the “freedom fever” sweeping the Middle East, as Mr. Rubin referred to it. According to Mr. Carnabuci, “They were firing at him. He [Mr. Rubin] was quite stunned at the level of sophistication that they brought.”
After this, Mr. Rubin walked through the lobby to address the Middle School assembly. He began by telling the audience, “You are lucky to be growing up in a world that is increasingly moving in a direction that Americans should regard as a ratification of our system and our way of life.” Citing the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe and China as background, he spoke of how democracy and political evolution was now moving into the Arab and Muslim world.
While he admitted, “The last few weeks have been a very, very strange time in the foreign affairs business because if you follow it closely as I do, a lot of people can’t figure out quite what to think,” he did lay the beguiling situation in clear terms for the students. He sees public reaction to the events falling, “in many ways,” along a generational divide. “The older people were much more comfortable with America’s … having diplomatic relations conducted behind closed doors between diplomats, maybe representing dictatorships or a monarchy; the younger people are much more comfortable in the world of social media and the world of 24-hour cable television, who believe that a lot of foreign policy takes place in public, and that the reality is that democratic change is inevitable and we should be leading it rather than following it.”
Mr. Rubin also sees two types of revolutions emerging in the Middle East: those in which the army fires on its people, as happened Tiananmen Square and those in which they do not, as happened with Czechoslovakia’s bloodless Velvet Revolution. “Egypt was closer to the Velvet Revolution than Tiananmen Square,” Mr. Rubin said. “Now, we have a much bigger challenge in Libya … a situation in which his [President Muammar Gaddafi] military and his some of his security services will fire on its own people, and so there have been mass killings of large numbers of people.”
Mr. Rubin closed his address by turning toward a wider, more forward-looking focus. He said the situation in the Middle East is “messy, but it’s a function that people everywhere want to have the freedoms that we have and have always had as Americans since our revolution began…As long as we are careful – as long as we maintain a close eye and a careful watch on our national security interests – I think we can help ensure that the outcome is one that is good for the Middle East and good for the world and good for the United States.”
Out of this discussion, Union member Andrew Orme ’17 had an apt takeaway: “I think as the events in the Middle East continue to unravel, there will always be extremely interesting topics to discuss. Like Mr. Rubin told our class, we are living in a very important time of change in the world, especially now.” The BWL Political Union will, no doubt, have much to learn from as it convenes again next Fall.