Leading in Lean Times: America’s Grand Strategy in a Time of Austerity
By: Phillip Downing '13
Having the opportunity to attend the 64th annual SCUSA conference at West Point Military Academy has been by far one of the most memorable experiences of my four years at Wittenberg. It is not often that one gets to sit down with such fascinating and extraordinary students, from schools all over the country and have such intellectual discussions about the role of the United States on the world stage and how we should strategically plan that role.
SCUSA 64 started a few days after the arrival of Hurricane Sandy and the same day as a late fall blizzard swept over most of the East Coast, not sparing New York. Arriving at West Point, my peers and I had to fight our way through the less than favorable weather to find the cadets responsible for us and the barracks where we would be staying. One of the most interesting aspects of this experience was getting to witness the lifestyles of the cadets, as their regular day is much different than the average college student’s.
Beyond experiencing the West Point lifestyle for a week, the conference itself was what made this experience so gratifying. The opening night of the conference was highlighted by an all-star panel of specialists and experts which were brought together to give their perspective on the United States’ Grand Strategy going forward. The panel was made up of a military general, a state department specialist, a former highly decorated military officer, a wall street guru, and a West Point professor. Hearing such respected and established individuals’ perspective on the topic of the conference offered insight into how complex and difficult defining the American Grand Strategy may be. Furthermore, after the panel ended, the students had the opportunity to approach the panelists to ask further questions in a more informal means, which provided great conversation with many of them. It is not often that one gets to speak directly with individuals such as Col. Jack Jacobs, NBC military analyst and decorated war hero, or Brigadier General Guy Cosentino.
Similar to the first night panel was the conference’s keynote speaker, Ms. Susan Eisenhower. As granddaughter of President Eisenhower, she has followed in her grandfather’s line as she is President of the Eisenhower group which is a think tank on international relations. Her discussion during the banquet dinner was very provocative and stimulating as she raised many great questions about how we should think of the American Grand Strategy and those elements that must be a part of such a strategy. Also, Ms. Eisenhower went beyond her keynote speaker duties and took the time to sit in on several of the round table discussions which the students were separated into over the duration of the week. Specifically, Ms. Eisenhower spent a good portion of time with my round table as we took on the umbrella topic of the conference in defining the American Grand Strategy and how we should finance that strategy in times of austerity. What made Ms. Eisenhower’s presence in our round table discussions was not that she was a part of the discussion; rather, she sat with full interest at what we students were discussing. She would often interject with a provocative questions and spent a majority of the time taking notes on what we were discussing, when most often the roles would have been reversed.
The round table discussion groups were the main experience of the conference. The conference split the 250 attending students into 17 different round table topics ranging from discussions on relations in Africa and Asia to questions of the costs of war. Specifically, I was honored with being a member of the round table with the task of answering the essential question of the conference. My round table, titled “The Dollars and Sense of American Grand Strategy,” was a very thought-provoking and enlightening topic. The diverse group of students that made up our round table debated for several days on different strategies and means for the United States to advance its interests in the world in an effective and responsible means. At the end of several days of debating and compromising, our round table developed and wrote up our suggested outline for America’s Grand Strategy. Even though the document that we created will likely do little more than be published in the SCUSA 64 conclusion piece, the members of my round table treated this task as if it were to be adopted as the real grand strategy, which truly added to the experience.
Going beyond the great experiences I’ve already discussed, the most memorable part of the experience are the people which I spent my time with while there, the people in my round table. This group of students I spent my time with was diverse in background and exceptional in character. It was surprising at how comfortable we all became with each other in just a few days, despite us often debating competing arguments most of the day. The relationships that my round table fostered will certainly provide many connections in the future as well as a host of good acquaintances attending schools ranging from Texas to Harvard.
I would like to thank the political science department for this opportunity to represent Wittenberg as well as to grow myself as a person. The lessons I learned while at the conference and the relationships I established will very much so be a part of my life. It was an honor and a pleasure to participate in the 64th annual Student Conference on United States Affairs.