Intellectual bridge over troubled political water

July 28, 2000

'Academic diplomacy' can succeed in nurturing trust between nations where politicians fail, says Benjamin Ladner

After a long day of discussions with North Korean government leaders and professors from Kim Il Sung University, dining in the revolving restaurant on top of Pyongyang's finest hotel can be a dreary affair. The large hotel was nearly deserted and the city mostly dark because of the lack of electricity. Nevertheless, we had a friendly, even boisterous, meal.

Then a North Korean philosophy professor asked for our attention. His first and only image of Americans, he said, came from personal tragedy. When he was nine, United States bombs devastated his neighbourhood, killing his best friend and his father.

"All I have known my whole life," he said, near tears, "is that I hate Americans - but I had never met one, until now. I want to express my respect and appreciation for our new friendship." We embraced and toasted this tiny opening in the wall of separation maintained by our governments.

I have had similar episodes in other countries throughout the world, from Cuba and Uzbekistan to China and Zimbabwe. It is a fair question to ask why I, a university president and decidedly not a political official, am doing this.

Sometimes derided as "ivory towers", universities are valued for their capacity to discover and transmit knowledge. Inside the towers, slightly eccentric scholars are thought to revel in individual, esoteric enthusiasms while also educating the citizenry. Their credibility often rests on the extent to which academic research is removed from the rough and tumble of the rest of the world.

Outside the academy, the political crises that dominate news leave most with two frustrating impressions. First, such crises appear to be, if not hopeless, certainly intractable; and, second, there seems little else that can be done to reach hopeful solutions beyond awaiting the results of diplomatic manoeuvrings by skilled politicians.

There is at least one positive option to political stalemates that has great potential for crossing seemingly rigid boundaries. It is the largely untapped capacity of universities to engage directly in what I call "academic diplomacy".

It is, after all, perfectly consistent with their time-honoured mission for universities to assume a more forthright role in promoting understanding in diverse contexts. At American University we have pursued relationships and exchanges that, although politically risky, have had positive consequences for our faculty and students while advancing understanding between nations.

After a productive meeting with Fidel Castro, we were able to send teams to study in Cuba. We have united 25 students from the Turkish and Greek regions of Cyprus to study and work together. We have hosted joint meetings of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and American scholars to address volatile issues. We have developed working relationships with hundreds of universities, trained human rights lawyers in Jerusalem, educated teachers in Oman and sent students to work in refugee camps on the Thai/Burma border. These initiatives are in the best traditions of advancing knowledge and understanding.

To be successful, academic diplomacy must maintain a unique sense of purpose apart from those of social, economic or political institutions. What universities offer is primarily education itself. Over hundreds of years, we have learned a great deal about what ennobles and what debases human beings; about what degrades and what enhances our environment; and about beauty, truth and goodness. The simple act of joining in serious inquiry has a transforming effect. It bridges divisions of mistrust, prejudice and ignorance, which are the classic precursors of antagonism, violence and war. As a result, universities have a reservoir of moral authority, political neutrality and a broad base of expertise in every field that invariably commands respect and bestows influence.

Several things can make academic diplomacy successful. Try to listen and learn more than teach; remember that the purpose is educational, not political or ideological; focus on university contacts with academic peers; meet the highest officials of government to share results and gain their support; be clear about the benefits to your own students and faculty; let the department of state or foreign affairs know what you are doing; spend most of your time in substantive discussions on vital academic issues, rather than visiting facilities; and leave with an agenda for action.

Whatever the result, it would be difficult to overestimate the significance of dialogue and the sharing of ideas between ordinary individuals in countries walled off by political ideology. Such transactions affirm that the common bond of the human community includes our political adversaries; and they remind us, too, that the journey towards peace always passes through the gate of mutual understanding.

Benjamin Ladner is president of the American University, Washington, DC.

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