To the 300 or so students in Political Science 103, Jon Pevehouse chose to be blunt: “Your generation will look back at Syria and be ashamed of my generation and how this was handled.”
Pevehouse, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor, recalled making that comment when he spoke about international affairs recently to an audience at Downtown Rotary.
Billed as “Trump and the International Order,” Pevehouse’s presentation focused primarily on trade issues, but when asked about the Middle East during the question-answer period, he recounted what he had told his students.
The day after his service club appearance, President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian air base in reprisal for a nerve-gas attack that killed more than 80 people in a rebel enclave. The chemical attack was ordered by the regime of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad.
As is typical when a U.S. president uses force, Trump was breathlessly lauded at first. The media told us his action was presidential, muscular, necessary and proportionate. But the next wave of more somber analyses asked “what does this mean?” and “what is the new policy?” None of that is clear.
Anyway, I was reflecting on the professor’s timely answer on Syria and his other comments and wondered how international topics like Syria and North Korea resonate with his students these days. Are they paying close attention? Maybe I could extrapolate something about the public at large.
First, some Pevehouse background: He’s been teaching international relations at UW for 17 years and is co-author of a much-used textbook on the subject. On one of those rate-my-professor websites, he is described as deeply informed and several students found him “hilarious,” most top-rating him as “awesome.”
When I was in college, I told him when we spoke, discussions about foreign affairs were almost all Vietnam all the time, owing to the military draft and Americans fighting and dying there in big numbers.
Today’s hot spots are Syria and North Korea, with Russia and China as indirect players.
Pevehouse noted that in Syria, al-Assad’s religious sect, the Alawites, make up only 14 percent of the population; if he were forcibly removed, more slaughter could occur, aimed at his sect. Partitioning the country has been discussed but would be extremely difficult, Pevehouse said, and a power vacuum might lead to more terrorism. “There is no good option,” he said. “We’ve known this from the beginning.”
And in North Korea, where the United States seeks to curb an aggressive nuclear arms buildup under Kim Jong Un, its scary dictator, options for negotiation seem fraught and the use of force potentially catastrophic. A recent analysis in The Economist referred to North Korea in a headline as “the land of lousy options,” which is also how Pevehouse framed policy choices there.
So, I ask Pevehouse, are his students immersed in these topics beyond the academic requirements you impose?
He paused before answering. Not really, he said, suggesting his students remain preoccupied by the domestic policy fallout from November’s election.
“My sense is they’re a little less interested overall these days than I think they have been in the past, and I think a part of that is actually because of the controversies we’ve got from the last election,” Pevehouse said.
He drew a contrast with a few years ago.
“I would say about three years ago I started working Syria pretty seriously into some of my lectures for the freshmen in this 103 class. Even three years ago, I could tell students were a lot more engaged on particular international issues.
“I think it was two years ago, there was a big student group that did a fundraiser for refugees. They sold T-shirts and you kind of saw them across campus. I just haven’t seen as much of that.
“I think the recent domestic upheavals, both in the state and at the federal level, have just really captured their attention and taken it away from the international side.”
Looking farther back, Pevehouse recalled that 9-11 happened just after he started teaching at UW, “and that felt like just a huge world turned upside down.” Some students wanted to join the military, he said, others wanted to protest war. “That really was where I saw students getting active and being concerned internationally. Then when the global recession hit (2008-2009), I started to see the beginnings of a real drop-off in concern about international issues.”
Pevehouse cited American Political Science Association data showing that interest in political science as a major started to decline at that point. “People became a little more disengaged with politics, but then I think it’s reversed with this last election,” at least on domestic issues.
Syria and North Korea, he noted, have been trouble spots for a long time, and it must seem especially so to his students.
“It’s almost like it operates as this low-level drone in their lives, that there’s this sort of ‘yes, bad things have been happening in Syria,’ frankly, since they were in high school or even before they were in high school. North Korea has been shooting off missiles all their lives. None of this seems particularly like a crisis to them, and so I think they’re kind of getting numb to it.”
Throughout his remarks to Rotary and to me, Pevehouse spoke in ways that seemed nonjudgmental, adhering to a “we’ll see” attitude toward Trump’s presidency and the evolving international order.
So I’d offer this: Perhaps students can be forgiven for not dwelling on international topics when the disorder and day-to-day upheaval of politics at home in the Trump era are so, um, captivating.
Just a thought.