“STOP” said the imperious red sign (actually two red signs) as I ventured to the frostily frigid February frontline of the Atlantic coast, an injunction reminiscent of an earlier time when the United States chose to inhibit its interests within isolated domain, a time that the Second World War brought to definitive end when, in 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill concluded the Charter named for that ocean, one of whose clauses spoke of a peace that “should enable all men to transverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance, “voyages as metaphorical as literal, the nascent nautical navigations that we speak of today as “global engagement”, in the phase of the title of the annual summit convened by the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) and the United Nations Foundation (UNF).
We have been fortunate to have had the summit at the United Nations Headquarters over the years, its details choreographed by the gentle and kind Lilli Schindler and the Group Programmes Unit she leads in our Visitors’ Service. The 2021 summit was virtual for the first time; it began last Friday with Secretary-General António Guterres describing the UNA-USA/UNF alliance as “a force multiplier: educating, advocating and mobilizing for global cooperation, and advancing shared values to take on our many challenges”, central to which were those related to climate, which the 2015 Paris agreement sought to address, and which the United States deservedly used the occasion of the summit to officially re-join on what Antonio Guterres called “a day of hope good news for the United States - and for the world.” Watching the event on live webcast , I reached out to the ever resourceful United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Library to see if it could retrieve an article I recalled reading by Louis Wright on “Splendid Isolation”; sure enough, Maricela Martinez was good enough to trace it to the February 1943 edition of the “Huntington Library Quarterly” and I read again the opening lines I remembered of how “ of all political dogmas, the one that Americans have clung to with the greatest tenacity and the least success is the doctrine of isolation from international entanglements and responsibility. For more than a century and a half, we have encouraged the expansion of foreign trade and simultaneously proclaimed our resolute determination to stay clear of political and military involvement overseas—an understandable but naive desire to have our cake and eat it too. We have demanded law and order and peace, that men might pursue the ends of commerce, but as a nation we have been averse to assuming our share of responsibility in maintaining the rights of peaceful pursuits.”
That was February 1943. In his own fascinating chronicle in the book he edited, UN Association–USA: “A Little Known History of Advocacy and Action”, James Wurst writes how Franklin Roosevelt established an Advisory Committee on Postwar Foreign Policy in 1942; its subcommittee on political problems put a world organization in its portfolio. By March 1943, even as Louis Wright’s article was reaching its readership, “the subcommittee had a rough draft ready, presenting a major world organization…the fundamentals of what would become the UN Charter were apparent: a General Assembly, a Security Council, an International Court of Justice, an Economic and Social Council, and a Trusteeship Council. The exact membership and voting rights of the Security Council were still unsettled, but FDR’s one non-negotiable point - that the four major powers (the United States, Britain, Russia, and China) would have special policing powers and responsibilities - was in place. The president signed off on the plan, and on June 15, 1943, he mentioned for the first time, publicly, that the government was working on a blueprint for an international organization. The first draft of the UN Charter was complete.”
And then, within a month , “the first UNA came into being in July 1943…established “for the declared purpose of carrying on an educational campaign throughout the country in support of the principles of the Atlantic Charter and of the formation and participation therein by the United States of an international organization for the maintenance of security and justice throughout the world.” Through that grassroots movement, the UNA affirmed what Louis Wright had argued, that “even the man in the street, whose business is far removed from statecraft, knows that some sort of union of democratic states to insure peace and stability is inevitable, and that we must bear our full share of responsibility.” And the Association grew over the years, soon in parallel with the United Nations itself ( in 1945, when the United Nations came into being, the UNA renamed itself as AAUN, the American Association for the United Nations, and so remained until 1964 when the UNA name returned.)
Writing in the volume edited by James Wurst cited above, Dulcie Leimbach narrates how President Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor, resigned from the US delegation to the United Nations in 1952 “offering to leave when Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president, aware that a Republican appointee would replace her. Her departure benefited the AAUN, as she knocked on the organization’s door in New York in 1952. Approaching Clark Eichelberger, the executive director, she declared she was ready to volunteer.” Which she did the following year, her focus on the many chapters the association now had within the United States and, even in those times of less than immediate communications, ensuring the national headquarters listened to their energetic constituencies “in the field” with the same enthusiasm it hoped it itself would be heard. There is a lovely allegorical story to this that Eleanor Roosevelt narrates later that year; on September 3, 1953 she and her family went “to the opening of the Dutchess County Fair. Only, two of the small boys were lost when it was time to go home. We had their names called over the loudspeaker, but when they finally appeared, they blandly said they hadn't heard a thing, which shows how easy it is not to hear when you do not want to.”
That story also brought to mind the counsel Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who has served in a leadership role at UNA-USA for a number of years (and who UNAI was privileged to hear speak at its 2015 J. Michael Adams Lecture and Conversation) shared at a UNA meeting in 2018, that “there are several allies of good diplomacy: listening and understanding, respect for the truth and keeping your word,” attributes that could well relate to the field of teaching and learning too , as I learned participating in a panel at the summit on the link between education and peace, a panel humbled by the participation of students and teachers from Texas , frost frozen and snow snared: as high school educator Kimberly Church tweeted “my scholars amaze me! They took an opportunity outside of school to participate in the @UN @UNAUSA Global Engagement Summit, usually held at UN Headquarters-NY, but virtual bc of the pandemic & engaged w/ global leaders to find solutions for the #SDGs. ”
The panel was curated by the summit chair, Akash Patel, a remarkable young man who has worked as an educator in Oklahoma and Texas and, most recently and poignantly, founded the “Happy World Foundation” in memory of his late twin, Happy Patel, and the vision they shared of “a happy world free of prejudice and bigotry (promoting) global citizenship education, citizen-to-citizen diplomacy and cross-cultural understanding in schools and communities in the United States and abroad." The universality of those last six words, and the globality of true engagement, underlined the thought by Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe from Uganda in the simplicity of her affirmation "I believe in who I am", a belief that extends to one's faith in oneself to challenge and to change, to be what of our panel, Zoe Weil, calls being "solutionaries."
Does the “I” in “who I am” stand for both itinerant and identity, generated by joy and not geography, routes not roots? Can we conquer the limitations of language , “an essential part of human identity and connection,” as participant Amanda Seewald put it; “by making multilingualism a central part of education for all learners, our classrooms become an investment in global problem solving,” an investment memorialized in the marvelous metaphor of another participant, Michael Cylkowski, Communications Coordinator at Michigan State University , who separately tweeted “ I choose to live out of a suitcase even though I have a closet and a dresser.”
The two students who joined our discussion, Andrew Brennen and Dustin Liu each affirmed his own identity; Dustin, the US Youth Observer to the UN, sees himself , and others like him, as global changemakers; when Andrew spoke of leading the student “voice” which works with the management of his university in Kentucky, I was reminded of what Anna Mahalak, Manager of Youth Engagement at UNA-USA has written that “students often complain that the “administration” is not listening to them, but the administration is comprised of people, and it’s about finding individuals who will listen. With a little perseverance and dedication to communication and understanding, young people can find allies in Generation X, Baby Boomers, and beyond. Sustainable initiatives run by youth can be so much more effective when they are supported by and informed by the generations who laid the groundwork for us.”
“Generations who laid the groundwork.” The theme of this year’s Global Engagement Summit was “Moments to Movements”; the letters that enhance the first to the second could well stand for “vision” and “education”, a thought that came to my mind this week as I watched the confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland as Attorney General of the United States, where he said: “I come from a family where my grandparents fled anti-Semitism and persecution. This country took us in and protected us. And I feel an obligation to the country to pay back, and this is the highest, best use of my own set of skills to pay back;” the vision the United States demonstrated in moving from the icicles of isolation to the embrace of engagement , the education that schooled the skills that allowed the vindication of that vision.
For all of the isolation which Louis Wright cited, there were minds in the United States even before its independence or union, who spoke of what was to comprehend moments and movements of global engagement. The journal in which Wright wrote was published by the University of Pennsylvania (a founding member of UNAI) , whose first President, Benjamin Franklin , published in 1749 “ proposals relating to the education of youth”, one of which intrepidly insinuates internationalism. “Students,” , he wrote , “as in some Sort their Children, treat them with Familiarity and Affection, and when they have behav’d well, and gone through their Studies, and are to enter the World, zealously unite, and make all the Interest that can be made to establish them, whether in Business, Offices, Marriages, or any other Thing for their Advantage, preferably to all other Persons whatsoever even of equal Merit.”
To enter the world and deal with all other persons. A thought echoed by the current President of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr Amy Gutmann, who has written that “ the idea that we can sit down at a table and have a true dialogue which is open and aimed at mutual understanding across differences is terrific. We're under no illusion that we'll agree on everything, but we do agree on the importance of reaching some common understanding.”
A vision which education has helped transform from moment to movement, from a Charter authored by two transatlantic powers in 1941 to a global charter uniting 193 nations and peoples, eighty years later.
Chief, United Nations Academic Impact