GEORGETOWN, September 2004
While George W Bush and John Kerry fight out their campaigns in the US, hundreds of millions of people throughout the world – who have no vote – wait on tenterhooks for the result. American foreign policy has a global reach such as never before – although much of it is made within a few city blocks in Washington where advisers and policy makers live and work – and might well have been educated.
We walked down the stairs of Ryan Hall, its vast entrance lobby lit up by speckled light from stained glass windows, and out into a warm late summer’s day on the campus of Georgetown University, Washington.
I had sought out students from the School of Foreign Service, the biggest institution in the world which trains people up in anything to do with international affairs be it commerce, diplomacy or spying.
These were students at ease with their environment – living in an exclusive suburb of the world’s most political city
Not far away, on the high ground above the antique and art shops of Wisconsin Avenue, are big houses, with sweeping driveways and lawns, which have a presence like no exclusive neighbourhood anywhere else. The wealth isn’t flaunted, but elegantly stated, a natural extension of a privileged class which not only has money and brains, but also enormous power.
Twenty or thirty years from now, some of the students I was with will, in effect, be running the world.
It was a good day to come because Colin Powell was due to give a lecture at the University, and after we’d sat down on the grass, I asked: ‘Is he a good secretary of State?’
For a couple of beats, complete silence.
Then a young woman’s voice. ‘No.’ Nervous laughter all round. And from the other side, more assertively, Mark, a bespectacled young man, in T-shirt, baggy shorts and sandals, said. ‘I believe he will look back at the past four years as a failure.’
Tracy, sitting next to me, in a bright red dress, blonde hair tied back in a bun, adds. ‘I sincerely hope he won’t look back on it as a personal failure I hope that he sees it as a political failure but not a personal one.’
A voice of defence on my right, ‘He was the one who reached out to Europe. He was the one who wanted to talk to the UN.
And straight across, Ingrid Bruns, pushing her hair out her face because of the wind, says softly. ‘Perhaps he should have resigned over Iraq, and that would have been a message to the American people.’
To which everyone solemnly nodded.
It led onto talking about how America is viewed by the rest of the world, to which Laura, who has just returned from being lambasted in France for being an American, gesticulated wildly with frustration. ‘Even if you don’t support the president you almost feel obligated to defend what we’ve done.’
Tracy came in again, ‘We’re abusing the power that we have in the world,’ to which Emmanuel Evita, a first generation immigrant who’s father fled an African war, said. ‘US policy is somewhat opaque, yet our decisions affect most of the people in the world.’
‘How many of you are voting for Bush in this election,’ I asked.
Not one hand went up.
‘How many for Kerry?’
All hands went up.
I’d arranged to meet Thomas Wheston in the campus coffee shop, who a few weeks ago retired from being the special envoy to Cyrus and had become Georgetown teacher.
‘Are they naïve,’ I asked.
‘Well it’s not an unusual view,’ he said. ‘But when this class leaves Georgetown, they will be much more geared up to looking to multi-lateral solutions to foreign policy and security questions. That’s the basic difference between their view and that of the current administration.’
The first question to Colin Powell after his lecture was how he could have kept doing his job when he disagreed so much with the policy. Powell hesitated, answered carefully and concluded by saying, ‘The president has never asked me to execute a decision that I found difficult.’
To which, the very people who had roundly condemned him on the campus lawn, stood up and gave the Secretary of State a rousing applause.
‘I guess he has been a moderating influence on what many of us believe to be an excessive regime,’ said Emmanuel Evita on the way out.
So, did Emmanuel want to end up as Secretary of State, I asked.
‘You know,’ he said pensively. ‘To tell you the truth, that’s not a job I would turn down. I would be proud. My dad’s a refugee from Equatorial Guinea, the fact you can ask his son that question is what makes this country so great.’