24 September 2013

Dale from Baton Rouge, LA  

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Never underestimate the power of a firm handshake.

That's a lesson I learned a while ago from Dale, who was originally from Baton Rouge but moved around for his job quite frequently. Dale and I were on an academic roundtable quite a few years ago, and we were discussing foreign policy. Many of the confounding problems we talked about then still confound us now:  Israel and Palestine, Iran and the Bomb, non-state actors and regional identity in the Middle East.

Dale and I debated during my "younger days," when you might say I was more idealistic about the applications of US military power. What he told me is something I'll never forget, and though it is mostly paraphrased here, I'll leave it for your consideration:

"You look at the world through the lens of a citizen whose government has the power to directly alter the course of global events. In this way, you are looking through a very strategic lens, asking yourself which arms to sell to what country and how much aid as a percentage of GDP should go to Mozambique or Tunisia. You can place an aircraft carrier off the coast of Somalia and completely change the dynamic of the region.

The majority of the world's people can't do that, and up until now, that has been a great advantage for the United States. Up until now, people have been largely isolated from one another. Up until now, folks have relied upon the United States to be more benevolent than not in the hopes that they will continue to live a little longer.

The majority of the world's people are looking through what you might call a very tactical lens. It's the day-to-day issues that matter most to these people. It's the building of a single fence along disputed Israeli territory, or the refusal of one common courtesy by a particular tribal leader, or the theft of one single cow in Sudan. These are the things that drive billions and billions of people, and as days make weeks make months make years, they are truly what is driving international politics.

With the advent of cheap cellular phones, satellite television and an Internet mechanism that knows no boundaries, scholars and pundits alike have lauded the free-sharing of information that these advancements have brought. Many see this ability--the ability to share information quickly--as the main threat to US power by what you might call "third-world" or non-state actors. But really what is happening here is simple: it's the spreading of hope.

That's not quantifiable, of course. But if you can see even one person, or one group, or one community standing up to the big United States, that emboldens you. That gives you reason to keep the fight going. When you see the opposition as mortal and vulnerable, suddenly the equation has changed in your favor.

If the United States is serious about having a positive impact on people, she must change, too. It is about the little things now--not the size of the military budget or the range of our bombers--but the simple act of helping to build a bridge or negotiate the land so a fence doesn't need to be made. It is the simple yet firm handshake between two world leaders. This is what will drive progress in the twenty-first century."

As President Obama of the United States and President Rouhani of Iran play a game of "cat-and-mouse" on the world stage, I can't help but remember Dale's words and think that the humility it takes to reach out and shake someone's hand is the simplest, most profound way to change foreign policy and the course of global events.

We must develop the courage to take small acts instead of hiding in the shadows of giant policy proposals.

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