In Search of Solid Ground: A Student’s Thoughts on the Current Geopolitical Quagmire

11 Oct

Editors Note:  Carly Millenson is extraordinary young woman in high school who is working with Christina Madden on matters related to Women in International Security.  At her request, she prepared this essay describing some of the anxieties of her generation as she and her peers prepare to take up adult responsibilities. 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way” – so begins Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, a truly timeless classic that describes the present as well as it did the era it depicted. To a student who hopes to one day pursue a career in international security this seems as accurate and concise a description of the pathos of our day as any. Times have certainly changed since Dickens penned this famous phrase, but human nature has not. As international tensions rise in an age when technological advances make the stakes of conflict higher than ever before, my generation is greeted with a bewildering and concerning mix as we begin to leave the stability of the classroom for the uncertainty of the real world.

A 2011 article published in Foreign Affairs warned that a nuclear Iran would “upend the middle east”, and crafted a disturbing narrative of rapid nuclear proliferation across the region resulting in an exponential increase in the risk of the outbreak of nuclear conflict. Meanwhile, pictures of Netanyahu drawing his famous “red line” interspersed with belligerent messages from North Korea and increasingly horrific reports on the violence scorching Syria have made for a grim new cycle, even by the standards of someone whose political consciousness begins with a post-9/11 world.

More recently, there have been some feeble glimmers of hope, yet these have been tempered by murky facts and unclear intentions. Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, has taken a surprisingly conciliatory line, ending a three decade freeze on direct interaction with the US through his September phone call with President Obama. In his speech at the UN, he stressed Iran’s desire for peace with the international community and offered increased transparency in order to eliminate “reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program” and said that his country “is prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and the removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency.” If taken at face value, such statements mark a critical turning point for the better in regional politics and seem to signal a crucial step towards reducing tensions. However, in the world of politics, little is as simple as it seems and not everyone has a rosy take on Iran’s overtures. According to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, “the facts are that Iran’s savage record flatly contradicts Rouhani’s soothing rhetoric.” He added that “[i]f Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.” In a similar vein, a recent Foreign Affairs article warned that “Rouhani is no reformer. He is a man of the system, which is why he was allowed to run in the first place.”  The confusing mire of claims and counterclaims surrounding the Iranian nuclear question has become the norm for most major international issues. Understanding the news and drawing conclusions from it has become less about cutting to the quick and more about wading towards the least unstable ground.

It is in this foggy atmosphere of uncertainty and looming threats that my generation must find its feet. I hope to one day pursue a career as a policymaker in international security and promote peace by working to contain nuclear proliferation and to reduce international tensions. At the moment though, I am mostly limited to excelling in my studies and dreaming about the future. But what kind of future will it be? With the advances of technology the stakes have gotten progressively higher. Weapons have gotten more deadly and our growing dependence on complex equipment has brought with it new vulnerabilities – my world is one where enemies armed with hacking skills are quickly becoming just as dangerous, if not more so, than those armed with bombs. I hope that tomorrow will bring with it a new era of peace and worry that I am experiencing the prologue to an age of widening conflict and increasing bloodshed. In these delicate times, miscalculations by international policymakers will have major repercussions for decades to come. What they decide now will determine how I will spend my adult life. In the next thirty years, will international security be defined by closing rifts, preventing backslides, and blocking radicalism, or will it instead be characterized by putting out fires, minimizing damage, and trying to restart the peace process? Most likely it will fall somewhere in between those two extremes, but it is up to policymakers today to decide which way it leans.

My generation is slowly evolving from being today’s passive newsreaders to tomorrow’s active newsmakers, but most of us aren’t quite there yet. However, as with any group of people, there are always leaders who race out far ahead of the curve. At sixteen, Malala Yousafzai has gained international fame as a courageous champion of girls’ education rights whose close brush with death at the hands of the Taliban has done nothing to silence her voice. Her impact today could be the impact of my generation tomorrow. I want the chance to build a better, safer world. However, a world in conflict is not a ripe place for peacebuilding. Strife must be contained before we can take the next steps towards building trust. It is up to today’s leaders to lay the foundations for improved relations by preventing tensions from spiraling out of control. My generation is ready to step into the turbulent times and contribute to the search for clarity, however most of us won’t have a significant impact for a few more years. In the meantime, my hope is that policymakers understand our concerns and have a vision not only for short-term political expedience but also for long-term solutions that will last into our adulthoods. International politics has become a fog of paradox and contradiction, but I hope, perhaps with the idealism of youth, that the winds of change will eventually sweep away some of the uncertainty and reveal a trail – whether the road to war or the path to peace, only time can tell. In baseball terms, I am waiting for my turn to step up to the plate. Until my time arrives, I can only hope that the players who have gone before me will have already ‘loaded the bases.’

Carly Millenson 

One Response to “In Search of Solid Ground: A Student’s Thoughts on the Current Geopolitical Quagmire”

  1. Angie Kim October 13, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

    What a thoughtful, insightful essay! Great job, Carly.

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