“When did the United States become responsible for the world, or when did it become a superpower?” asked Darryl Hart, professor of history. The crowded lecture hall was quiet in response.
About 50 Hillsdale College students gathered in the basement of Lane Hall on Nov. 9 to hear Hart and Professor Gerard Alexander debate the purpose of American interventionism in foreign affairs, hosted by the Hillsdale chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society.
The resulting discussion, however, was less of a debate and more of a conversation.
A professor of politics at the University of Virginia, Alexander admitted there was definitely less disagreement between the two debaters than expected.
“I was fully prepared partway through tonight’s proceeding to scream at Professor Hart, ‘What is wrong with you?’” he said, laughing. “Instead, as sometimes happens, I think there’s going to be quite a bit of common ground.”
Hart opened the debate with a proposition about Canadian foreign policy.
“The reason for comparing the United States to Canada is that we could have turned out like Canada, if we hadn’t sought independence,” Hart said. “When Canada breaks with its original allies, the reason is usually a disagreement about strategy, not goals.”
Hart added that Americans should learn from Canada’s attitude of not feeling responsible for the world, before quoting George Washington’s Farewell Address.
“[Washington’s] vision for American foreign policy is much more like what Canada has turned out to be,” Hart said. “And so, by proposing Canada as an alternative to our current involvements overseas, we could actually go back to the founding.”
Alexander joked that the debate topic was no longer interventionism.
“I’m obviously here to take up the anti-Canadian position,” Alexander said. “I say that jokingly, but not really. We can’t be Canada, and we wouldn’t want to if we could.”
Alexander also explained why he thinks the United States should not be like Canada in its foreign policy.
“A lot of people who advocate for a diminished U.S. foreign military and political presence or intervention around the world often assume that free trade and more peaceful forms of intercourse with other countries could be achieved separately from the kind of global role that America has played, in political and military terms. I think that’s probably not true,” Alexander said. “There need to be agenda setters.”
Despite disagreements on the level of intervention America should employ in foreign affairs, both professors agreed the issue has no easy, straightforward solution.
“I think the Founders were worried about that kind of bigness in American government and what that might do to our institutions,” Hart said. “Is anyone up to the task of overseeing American foreign policy the way it has become?”
President of the Alexander Hamilton Society Hillsdale chapter junior Pearce Pomerleau said he was pleased with the outcome of the event.
“That was the sort of broad discussion that we were looking for,” Pomerleau said. “There are so many specifics that you can delve into with a topic like this, but we really wanted to get into the broad strokes, the more idealistic aspect of this, and debate the bones of the issue, as it were.”
Alexander emphasized to The Collegian that one of his biggest concerns on college campuses is the growing intolerance for dissenting opinions.
“Airing disagreements seems to me among the most important things that can happen on any college campus,” he said. “If students aren’t on campus to do that, I’m really not sure what they’re here to do. If you can walk away doing that, you’re going to continue to learn for the rest of your life.”