Sixth Course, Session 8: Ishmael Beah, Samantha Power, Dominique Villepin

This semester – which, thankfully, ended last week – was rather more manic than the last one, which is why my blogging became even more infrequent than usual. But that’s not to say the usual line-up of great speakers didn’t come through our gates. Mostly because I’m too lazy to write full pieces, here are some soundbytes from some of the best talks in the last four months:

Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah’s talk was expectedly filled with pathos, given his experiences and the astonishing journey he made from being a child soldier to a best-selling author. Much of what he said was remarkable, especially his bewilderment at how the question he is most asked on his book tour is “how many people did you kill?”. However the line that most struck me was when he was discussing another child soldier’s testimony before the UN General Assembly. Here is what he said:

“One of the UN delegates asked this child ‘At what age are you old enough to be a soldier?’ And the kid said ‘100 years’. And everyone laughed. But the kid then said ‘Because by that age you are either dead or too old to fight.’ And I realized the kid knew what he was talking about. Because, you see, in a war, it ultimately comes down to your life against someone else’s life. And all the reasons and politics and ideologies disappear in that moment, and it’s you against him. But when it comes to taking a life, no matter if you are 10 or 15 or 20 or 40 years old, the effect it has on you, either as victim or perpetrator, is the same. So the kid was right. There is no right age to be a soldier.”

Samantha Power

Miscellaneous quotes from our resident Pulitzer-Prize winning expert on genocide:

“A very discernable trend today is how US power is on the decline. I don’t mean our hard power as much as our political influence. Increasingly, people around the world are saying ‘we like your values but we hate your foreign policy’. But this gets twisted domestically and presented to the American public as ‘they hate our freedom, our children, our laughter’.”

“Other countries are asserting themselves more today – China, Russia, India – but largely in mercantilist terms. There is still a major space for moral and strategic leadership, which someone like Barack Obama can nicely fill in. We need to do better at telling and living the ‘values story’, to really be the ‘city on the hill’ again.”

“The problem with our foreign policy is that we base it entirely upon our security. Naturally, this doesn’t go very far abroad. To really improve our security, we need to invest in the process abroad, in long-term development.”

Dominique Villepin

The former Prime Minister of France was much more spirited and passionate in the Q&A session than in his actual speech, which mostly comprised the usual liberal fare about needing a new global order and the critical time we are in. He also shared a passionate defense of the ban on the death penalty. However, his best moment had nothing to do with direct politics. Instead, it was about what we can do to better prepare ourselves to be changemakers in the world ahead:

“The more you travel, the more you understand other people, other cultures, other ways of being. And thus the better you develop your personality, your creativity, your imagination, your values. And these are the barometers of success in the world today, much more so than a traditional academic education. It is critical to go through different experiences, to try different disciplines. Life is not about written material. If I see an 18-year-old who takes the risk to spend two years in China, I will say he will be more successful in life than the one who goes to a top-ranked university. So meet different people. Take risks. Life is good when you do that and these are things you won’t learn in a university.”

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