Why student groups matter: the Harvard Committee on American Foreign Policy claims victory, 36 years later

The Harvard Committee on American Foreign Policy was an undergraduate organization founded in 1975 with the ambitious goal to replace the Kissinger “realism” approach with a very different approach of “democratic realism”: empowering nations of the world through democracy.  The Committee’s manifesto declared:

The Committee believes in the conjunction of interests between the support of democratic movements around the world and the long-term interests of the United States.  In the past, support of dictatorships has led to the erosion of America’s prestige and leadership in Asia (by the support of the Thieu regime in South Vietnam), in Africa (by relations with South Africa), in Latin America (by the intervention in the Dominican Republic), and in Europe (by the support of the Greek junta).  By a radically distinct commitment to democratic governments and democratic movements, the United States can assume the leadership of the struggle against totalitarianism and the suppression of human rights.

The support of democratic movements is intimately linked to the Committee’s advocacy of the right to national and cultural self-determination for all peoples – with due respect for the rights of national minorities.

The Committee focused on applying these principles to the Middle East conflict.  Thirty-six years later, in the “Arab Spring” of 2011, we’ve seen the first wide-scale application of democratic realism to the Middle East, a region long-dismissed as not yearning for democracy.

The full manifesto of the Committee is reproduced here.   The handwritten comments in the margin give a sense of the prevailing views of the time.  The comments were written by Gerald Segal, then a graduate student in International Relations at the London School of Economics, and later one of the leading experts in the United Kingdom on International Relations.  Although Gerald Segal’s comments reflected the prevailing views, he didn’t dismiss the Committee’s ideas, but instead challenged it to resolve some of the difficult issues.

The manifesto was largely written by Martin Kernberg ‘76.  He and committee chairman Michael Segal ’76 both spent their teenage years as Americans outside of the USA, growing up with a sense of how Americans are seen by others, a theme now familiar from the presidency of Barack Obama JD’91. Faculty advisors included Harvard Prof. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who despite jumping from UN Ambassador in 1975 to US Senator in 1976, was a major inspiration to the group.

The students grappled with issues very much like those raised in the handwritten notes on the manifesto.  Dealing with a controversy of that year, the United Nations’ “Zionism is Racism” resolution, they declared that Zionism was not racism; it was self-determination.  They wrote a petition opposing the UN resolution and got it signed by 76 Harvard professors and over 700 students, publishing it as an ad in the Harvard Crimson on 12 November 1975.  The petition declared:

Zionism is the historic struggle of the Jewish people for national self-determination and national liberation in the face of two thousand years of pogroms, genocide, and wars of annihilation.

All national liberation movements ask for self-determination for their people in their homeland.  By singling out for condemnation the national liberation movement of Jewish people, this resolution represents a virulent form of racism and anti-Semitism.

Israeli officials, wary of the implicit message that Palestinian Arabs would also have a right to self-determination, sent diplomats to try to convince the Committee to abandon the petition, an overture the Committee rejected.  The ad was paid for by members of the Committee with the hope that alumni would eventually cover the cost, as occurred months later.

The Committee’s role was one of being visionary in sketching the future of the US role in the world, rather than a powerful force to bring it about.  But much is learned when undergraduates run an organization dedicated to grappling with important problems.

One direct result was that some members of the committee remained involved with the theme of democratic realism, most notably, Eliot Cohen ’77, who went on to deal with these issues as a faculty member of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and as an influential voice in the administration of President George W. Bush MBA’75.  Michael Segal kept stressing the democratic realism approach, for example challenging Rashid Khalidi, now a professor at Columbia University, to agree that the PLO should move beyond terrorism, writing in the New York Times on 20 February 1978:

Rashid Khalidy of the P.L.O. says: “If the Israelis had any brains they could neutralize Palestinian irredentism just by giving back the West Bank.”  Well, if the Palestinians had any brains they could neutralize Israeli opposition to the P.L.O. by adhering to principles of democracy and peaceful coexistence.  Perhaps a deal can be worked out.

Looking back on the activities of the Committee provides concrete examples of why student groups matter, both in learning how to grapple with important issues and in having the experiences that make it second-nature to encourage the next generation to do the same.  Looking back 36 years also gives a sense of just how long it can take for change to be achieved.

Posted on 16 May 2011

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One thought on “Why student groups matter: the Harvard Committee on American Foreign Policy claims victory, 36 years later

  1. Michael Segal says:

    For additional historical context, see the video from the same period of Binyamin Netanyahu discussing the issue of self determination: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…  Netanyahu was using a different last name at the time for security reasons following the Entebbe raid, led by his late brother.

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