Culture, War and Humility around a University of the WorldSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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On March 27, 2003, the International Institute convened a symposium in honor of the inauguration of the 13th president of the University of Michigan, Mary Sue Coleman. We entitled that symposium “For a University of the World” in order to register the ambiguity of the U-M‘s location in place and in time and to provide a proper foil for the symposium‘s substantive contributions reproduced in this issue of the Journal.
In many ways, the University of Michigan is already a university of the world. More than 4,000 students hold passports of other countries. Many of our faculty and students learn abroad, and connect that scholarship to their work back on the home campus. Each one of the schools of this university has an international emphasis and each extends their work in collaboration with institutions abroad. An even greater number of foreign institutions want to develop partnerships with our university. According to these and many other indicators, we are a thoroughly global University of Michigan. But when that assumption rests on hubris, we may be even more distant from the real world.
Consider, after all, the languages in which we speak about our worldliness. On the one hand, the U-M is a terrifically international place, given the opportunities to learn scores of languages, from Indonesian to Polish and from Quechua to Urdu. But how many of our students go well beyond the language of their birth and of their principal education? And how often is it that our internationalism is conducted without translation and beyond English? To be able to work in other languages reminds us of the limits of our own and of how language shapes the way in which we understand and act in the world.
Of course, language is not the only cultural element forming our global sense. By expanding our tonal palette, by extending our visual literacy, by cultivating an appreciation for religious sensibilities beyond our own, we recognize not only the variety of the world about us, but also the dangers involved in simple extensions of our cultural sense. This, perhaps, may be why the ambition to be a university of the world is both utopian and necessary. We are always creatures of our culture, but in order to fulfill our academic callings, we must go beyond common sense. Where better in the world to produce new ways of seeing, hearing, speaking or acting that are appropriate to this twenty-first century than in this precious space afforded by a university committed to freedom and to the pursuit of truth and beauty? That enduring commitment may be even more important in times of violence, for we could hope that in the quest for truth and beauty across borders we might give fresh inspiration to that enduring quest to extend understanding among peoples.
War and Understanding
We are not so naïve to believe that universities can do what savvy diplomats cannot. The research, teaching and public symposia we conducted on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war on terrorism and disarmament in North Korea in 2003  do not solve problems immediately or directly. But we do extend understanding. After nearly every event, I meet students and members of the public who express sincere appreciation not only for the expertise faculty bring, but for the quality of the questions animating exchange.
For example, our March 31 symposium on the international implications of the war in Iraq stimulated a substantial discussion around how the decision to invade Iraq was made in light of the scant evidence of weapons of mass destruction and the anticipated magnitude of the invasion‘s unintended and unwelcome consequences. Nobody disputed the Iraqi dictatorship‘s evil, but most were concerned about the disingenuousness with which the war was legitimated, the strains imposed on the international rule of law and the contest over morality‘s assignment, especially when Pope John Paul II, part of the alliance that ended communism, opposed military intervention. In light of the speed of Baghdad‘s fall, some identify these normative questions as academic, but I find Iraq‘s occupation to make their successor concerns even more critical. A timely symposium organized by the William Davidson Institute (WDI) at the University of Michigan Business School in the Rayburn Building in Washington, DC made that quite clear.
On May 22, 2003, eight weeks after the war began and on the day the United Nations Security Council agreed to cooperate in the reconstruction of Iraq, former US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, a WDI Distinguished Scholar, chaired a four-hour discussion with political, business, NGO and academic leaders about sustainable economic development in post-war Iraq.
American political unity was apparent. Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican and Tom Lantos, the California Democrat, leaders of the House International Relations Committee, were emphatically together about the importance and wisdom of the US-led war in Iraq. The problem lay in how to manage occupation. Representatives of the administration, with undersecretaries from Treasury and from State, identified the administration‘s efforts with earnestness. They did not minimize the enormity of a challenge whose priorities and range were not at all clear. Jan Svejnar, WDI executive director and the author of the session‘s principal position paper, offered a critical first step, however.
With all proper cautions about transferring models from one context to another, Svejnar used his analytical and practical experience in the design of post-communist economic transitions to propose a complete and consistent economic reform package. Recognizing the oil sector‘s short run importance, he emphasized the added significance of macroeconomic stabilization and diversifying economic activities through growth of new private firms and the restructuring and privatization of state-owned enterprises, all in proper sequence. For example, one needs to have a strong functioning legal system right from the start, to which Senator Joe Biden nodded his head in deep agreement. Jordan‘s Ambassador, Karim Kawar, offered his country‘s own commercial code as model. There was much more disagreement than assent, however, about transition‘s similarity to occupation.
Frank Wisner of the American Insurance Group posed the major challenge: to whom are these reforms recommended? The big difference with transition, he noted, is that the postcommunist world had legitimate political authorities. There are no such authorities in post-war Iraq. Some issues, like the privatization of oil, cannot even be raised, for oil‘s ownership ignites national passions. An occupying power cannot privatize oil.
Svejnar‘s paper recognized political constraints, but the workshop participants treated politics as more than a limitation. Author Ken Pollack was most direct: state dependency may be bad for the economy, but for the many young men now out of work, ready to take up arms if no other prospects are available, finding public sector jobs for those disarmed might be the best political and economic policy.
Political and economic interests come together in the need to assure security. In that light, Rand‘s Jim Dobbins suggested that we draw on the six US experiences of post-war engagement undertaken in the last eleven years to grade that mission, with the first step being to assure sufficient security to allow humanitarian workers to carry out their work. The next step should allow foreign businesses to enter the market. Ultimately, however, there should be enough security so that dissent can be encouraged and real political pluralism can thrive. Political reform must therefore precede economic reform.
Which political reform? Security is certainly paramount, but Hernando de Soto of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy argued that assuring the property rights of the poor should be a top priority for rooting the rule of law in local practices and beliefs. WDI associate C.K. Prahalad also emphasized the poor, but put much less stock on formal legal change. Emphasizing rather the importance of building telecommunications infrastructure, to assure the connection of the poor to information and of assuring the broadcast of the right message, the mobilization of the bottom of the pyramid within reconstruction is itself part of the conditions for reconstruction‘s success. By giving the poor the right tools and the right information, the poor can themselves become the agents ensuring corruption‘s decline.
Who else should be empowered? The Detroit area‘s Iraqi-Americans, Sam Yono—a Ramada Inn owner from Southfield, Michigan—noted, have neither been consulted nor brought into the reconstruction effort. They can certainly translate, he argued, American virtues into Iraqi realities. Indeed, with 20 percent of the population beyond the country, Cambridge Energy Associates‘ Dan Yergin suggested that it might be critical to rename this group as something other than exiles to indicate their attachment to, and value in, Iraq‘s reconstruction.
Identity and identification were not explicit through the discussion, but in the end, appeared paramount. Secretary Albright found some analogy in her recollection of the post-conflict Angolan disarmament, when young men received toothbrushes in return for handing in their guns. Those young men could identify with their weapons, and this contribution to personal hygiene was a poor substitute. Cultural ignorance is expensive in postwar settings, but it is not always easy to take distant cultures seriously, especially when they do not go with the design.
How do those designing postwar reconstruction understand the people being reconstructed? As citizens, potential entrepreneurs and consumers, yes, but with what political authorities will they identify and give legitimacy? What will lead citizens to channel their energies in developing economic opportunities? How will the occupiers manage the public‘s expectations? The designers focus on making rules and institutions they assume will lead to the people‘s appropriate identifications, assuming the universality of the designers‘ rationality and common sense. That approach to identity and identification can encourage designers to overlook countervailing or alternative cultural politics that lead the subjects of their design to other strategies of action.
Consider, for example, Islam‘s fit with secular design. Is it sufficient to consider Islam‘s variations only as markers of difference akin to ethnicity? Or might Islam be more usefully conceived as a complex set of practices, identifications and ideas, rather than as a threat to occupation‘s design? Might Islam‘s practices and ideas be part of the vision animating postwar reconstruction? Could the experiences of other Islamic democracies provide useful guidance? For example, the former Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid, argued during his March 4 visit that Islam becomes even more compelling when it is distinct from the state, even as its values guide some state officials. Justice, for example, is an important aspect of Islam and its absence from occupation‘s discussion may reflect the designers‘ distance from powerful currents of Iraqi society itself. Should the occupiers ask whether it is possible to frame their work in justice‘s terms?
The rule of law, the empowerment of the poor, the end to insecurity and violence, and freedom itself should all be associated with the assurance of justice. But it seems dangerous to assume that a sense of justice informed by Western experience and its global institutions is adequate to the terms of justice Iraqis now consider. Even transition‘s postcommunist world still struggles with more particular meanings of justice given conflicts over the abiding influence of former communist leaders; at least that debate can be channeled through democratic contest in most such societies. Where there is no democracy, the question of justice delayed can be as inflammatory as the quest to privatize the oil industry. But to wait, to bottle justice in democracy‘s derivative bottle, may signal the very distance between cultures that must be transcended if postwar Iraq is to be the example of progress its occupiers promised in legitimizing a war of liberation.
Of course such challenges cannot be addressed immediately, either on the basis of past or imported expertise. They demand primary research that takes the challenge of cross-cultural learning seriously, and more broadly. Culture‘s study should not be the exclusive province of experts in literature or anthropology. It is, perhaps, even more important for those who would reconstruct another society in their own image to build cultural expertise into their design. To the extent the addressees of policies, assumptions about the policies‘ subjects and the alternative structures and resources those subjects enjoy in the determination of futures can be made explicit, there also will be fewer surprises. Unrecognized conditions of action make its unintended consequences much more likely.
To elevate cross-cultural studies is not, however, only a recommendation for empire‘s better management. It also suggests rethinking the ties that both bind the world and tear it apart, whether in the exercise of violence or in the violations of ignorance. A university of the world should reflect the world‘s diversity, even as it channels scholarship in ways that ennoble the ties that bind us in truth and beauty‘s pursuit. I appreciate therefore even more what the inauguration symposium‘s participants contributed to that very quest.
I found common inspiration between Gary Olson‘s effort to link global scientific communities in the search for better treatment of AIDS and Amy Stillman‘s query on how the diversity of the American citizenry can be found in globalization‘s vision. I recognized profound connections between C.K. Prahalad‘s concern for how the majority of the world, living in poverty, could set the research agenda for universities and Bill Rosenberg‘s invitation to recognize the cultural accomplishments of St. Petersburg alongside its miseries. I appreciate our students‘ contributions, extending and challenging us to be connected better. I find great hope in the culture of inquiry befitting a university of the world, for that commitment goes beyond common sense, and beyond the smooth extension of any people‘s presumptions into others‘ worlds.
The university operates according to its own rhythm, however. In this, it hardly seems to be of the world, especially when it faces globalization‘s speed or war‘s uncertainties. Its commitments to scholarly rigor can lead it away not only from current affairs, but also from critical issues for which scholarly independence can be invaluable. As we envision a university of the world, not only should we build the scholarly depth that enables confidence in our findings, but we should also cultivate the agility to recognize the pertinence of university expertise and the value of academic positions, in the engagement of current international affairs, as the WDI symposium suggested.
It may be utopian to envision a university simultaneously deep and broad enough to recognize the limits of its assumptions and agile enough to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of its learning. But it may be necessary for a university of the world.
To see the symposium‘s webstream, see http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/iisite/webstream.html.
Jan Svejnar, “A Strategy for the Economic Reconstruction and Development of Iraq.” WDI Policy Paper. May 2003. See http://www.wdi.bus.umich.edu/events/Post-War_Iraq_03.htm.