This year's fiftieth reunion class sponsored a lively discussion on the state of the world in 1962 and 2012 centered on presentations by three Davidson political scientists: former US senator and ambassador to Saudi Arabia Wyche Fowler '62, Harvard political science professor Graham Allison '62, and Brown Professor of East Asian Politics Shelley Rigger.
The three speakers compared the state of the world into which the class of '62 graduated with the global situation today. Rigger kicked off the session with the question, "Is China the Soviet Union of today?" She concluded that, while China does pose significant challenges to the US, it is a far different - and less dangerous - adversary than the USSR. To begin with, she said, unlike the USSR, China does not seek to impose its ideological approach and political-economic system on the rest of the world. Compared to the Soviet Union in 1962, China is a less potent military competitor to the US, and a much more valuable economic partner. So while the US and China are competitors in many ways, Rigger concluded, their relationship is more balanced and less dangerous than US-Soviet relationship during the Cold War.
Graham Allison is a leading analyst of foreign policy, and the author of Essence of Decision, a classic study of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. According to Allison, the Cuban Missile Crisis held a very real risk of a strategic nuclear exchange between the two superpowers - an event that would have killed a hundred million Americans and an even larger number of Soviet citizens. Compared to that catastrophic possibility, today's nuclear danger is far less. That said, though, Allison called nuclear terrorism the single most significant threat to US national security, and he observed that this judgment is a rare point of consensus between Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Allison then asked the audience which was most likely to be the source of a nuclear device used against the US: Iran, North Korea, or Pakistan. In his view, Pakistan poses the biggest threat. He pointed out that while US intelligence analysts found much useful information about Al Qaeda's plans and personnel in Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad hideaway, nothing was found to suggest that Pakistani leaders were complicit in hiding bin Laden and his family. Allison's next question drew grim laughter from the audience: which is worse - Pakistani leaders helping bin Laden, or Pakistani leaders - who are responsible for around 100 nuclear weapons - not knowing bin Laden was hiding right under their noses?
Wyche Fowler focused his remarks on an area of the world he came to know well as ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1996 to 2001. According to Fowler, the eve of the Arab Spring resembled the early 1960s in the US: with massive cultural, economic and political changes just around the corner, few people anticipated what was in store. Drawing on the previous two speakers' remarks, Fowler observed that the most momentous developments in human history are rarely predicted or predictable. While the outcome of the Arab Spring is unknowable, it is already an enormously important event in human history, and he underscored the importance to the US of crafting a wise and prudent policy toward the Middle East - including the changing Arab regimes and the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A string of thoughtful and challenging questions from the audience rounded out the event, which left little doubt that political analysis is an engaging pursuit for Davidsonians across generations.
(Special thanks to Shelley Rigger for submitting this summary of the discussion, and to our alumni for such a wonderful weekend!)