Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Insights from My Undergrad Students

The current semester at Saint Xavier University, where I'm teaching as an adjunct professor, is wrapping up. Final exam week, which is next week, is all that's left. This spring semester I taught a course called "World Politics," basically, an introductory level course on international relations. It's been a fun experience. It's been particularly rewarding, as a former SXU grad myself, to come back to campus to teach the current crop of SXU students.

One of the fascinating parts of teaching--at least for me--is learning about the beliefs and views and interests of students. And that has been true this semester. For the most part, I found out my students held fairly conventional American views on hot topics like al-Qaeda, the Arab Spring, Japanese foreign policy, and so on. And as expected, given the considerable news coverage here in the States, they were very interested in Russia's adventures in Ukraine. I'd estimate that at least a quarter of my class wrote term papers on contemporary Russian foreign policy, and all of these papers addressed various aspects of Russia's actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, much in line polling data, my students didn't see the point of the U.S. getting heavily involved in the hostilities between Kiev and Moscow.

What stood out to me was my students confidence in America's ability to rebound from its apparent international political malaise. Such confidence is surprising, on a number of levels. First, they really didn't voice much faith in Obama, Congress or Washington more generally. (Maybe they do espouse such confidence in them, but it wasn't expressed in class.) Second, most Americans in general lack confidence in the American politics and have doubts about the direction that the U.S. is headed. And there's the elephant in the room: For the past decade, the U.S. hasn't given Americans, or foreigners for that matter, many reasons to be confident in its policies. Two failed wars, a weakened U.S. internationally, economic collapse, political gridlock and dysfunction, a divided body politic, among other things, have eroded trust in and approval of Congress, the American president, U.S. political parties, the American democratic system, and U.S. policymaking.

I suspect their thoughts on this issue are rooted in a few different things. First, for my students, the so-called Millennials, U.S. world dominance is a natural fact of life, something they have been born into, grown up with and are now fully accustomed to. It's probably difficult for them to conceive of a world in which the U.S. is not the clear top dog. After all, their coming-to-age political moment was likely the dual invasion and occupation of two distant foreign countries--overseas adventures only an overwhelming military power could even attempt to carry out.

Additionally, I think that their views about China play a role here. My students understood that China is on the rise, narrowing the power gap between itself and the U.S. But they didn't see China as a looming danger or threat to American national security. Why? On the one hand, they viewed China as a regional power and a commercial giant, one that is unable to match America's military dominance in the world, and is unlikely to do so anytime soon. On the other hand, my students didn't see China's rise to peer competitor status with the U.S. status as something guaranteed to happen in the future. I got the sense that they viewed China's prospects much like we now view Japan's so-called rise in the late 1980s: a product of exaggerated fears, worst-case assessments and bad analysis.

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