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Providing Perpetual Peace: A Defense of American Hegemony

December 7, 2007 · Leave a Comment

The following paper was written for my Conceptual Foundations of International Politics class.  I am in the midst of finals, and am too lazy to post anything original.  Note to anyone doing “Google Research”… don’t copy this.

In his sixth thesis on the “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” Immanuel Kant (14) states:

Man is an animal which, if it lives among others of its kind, requires a master. For he certainly abuses his freedom with respect to other men, and although as, a reasonable being he wishes to have a law which limits the freedom of all, his selfish animal impulses tempt him, where possible, to exempt himself from them. He thus requires a master, who will break his will and force him to obey a will that is universally valid, under which each can be free. But whence does he get this master? Only from the human race. But then the master is himself an animal, and needs a master.

 

Robert Kagan (348) calls this reality of the human condition a “Kantian paradox.”  As it is applied to international theory, “the only solution to the immoral horrors of the Hobbesian world [is] the creation of a world government,” but “that the ‘state of universal peace’ made possible by world government [is] an even greater threat to human freedom than the Hobbesian international order, inasmuch as such a government, with its monopoly of power, would become ‘the most horrible despotism.’”  Kagan’s solution to the Kantian paradox, at least in the case of Europe (which he classifies as living in a “post-historical paradise” (333)), is the provision of security by the part of the United States on Europe’s (and presumably, the world’s) behalf.  This assumption is based on the logic that the “less profound the security competition, the less likely is war” (Mearsheimer 42).  In this paper I will argue a liberal perspective that the preferred organization of the international system, in the pursuit of securing a Kantian “perpetual peace” for the world order, is a unipolar one lead by the United States, provided that the US also practices self-restraint in its exercise of power, in order to maintain its legitimacy as a unipolar hegemon. 

The foundation of legitimacy behind what is today described as Pax Americana (Khalidi) stems historically from the outcomes of the Second World War, in which the United States established an enduring compromise with the shattered European nations to exercise and sustain its advantageous position of military and economic power based on a pledge of restraint in kind, for permission to protect (Sestanovich).  John Ickenberry (202) calls this compromise a “constitutional settlement”, one which the United States agreed to reluctantly, given its traditional preference for isolationism in international relations (with the notable exceptions of Latin America and the South Pacific (Khalidi)).  America’s reluctance to assume the “dual orders” of containment of a rising Soviet superpower and establishment of a liberal political order built around “economic openness, political reciprocity, and multilateral management” was ironic in that it established a recognizable legitimacy to lead the international system as a “benign hegemon” (Ickenberry 160, 198).  The United States thus engaged in the construction of multilateral, globally integrated liberal institutions such as the United Nations, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with the dual intention of sustaining its own position of prominence, while at once limiting the returns to power (including in many ways, its own).  These steps were vital in preventing future major power wars, and to promoting the relative global peace, stability and prosperity that much of the developed world has enjoyed in the post-war period (Sestanovich).  The post-war power arrangements made by the United States are therefore relatively easily justifiable within their historical context, given the mutually beneficial nature of the “constitutional settlement,” and the natural emergence of a bi-polar international system.  However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States found itself in a uniquely unipolar moment:  “In the 1990s, like a victor in a great war, the United States faced choices about how to use its newly acquired power” (Ickenberry 233). 

Indeed, the political vacuum left behind in the international balance of power by the dissolution of the Soviet state certainly presented the United States with an opportunity to either push forward as a global empire, withdraw into a “whole-hearted embrace of liberal multiculturalism,” (Hurrell 12), or broaden its sphere of influence in a limited fashion by “pursuing an institution-building agenda” (Ickenberry 234).  It is important to note that the US under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush chose the latter path by expanding NATO; creating the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, and World Trade Organization (Ickenberry 234); and pushing the European establishment for a full reunification of Germany (Sestanovich).  Such actions of self-restraint and institutional self-binding were consistent with the expectations of a rational hegemon seeking to undercut others’ perceptions of threat (Ickenberry 20), while simultaneously shaping those institutions in ways that closely reflected US interests (Hurrell 12).  The result, in neorealist terms, was both a reorganization of the international structure (bipolar to unipolar) and the international system (redistribution of capabilities from competing blocs to a sole superpower) (Waltz 140).  As was the case following WWII, American hegemonic primacy was and continued to be considered legitimate by the rest of the world, for several reasons.  First, the United States had garnered tremendous legitimacy as the victor of the Cold War, as embodied by Francis Fukuyama’s triumphant declaration of “The End of History.”  Second, the withdrawal of sovereigns in the areas of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia “left in their wake a host of groups – ethnic, religious, cultural – of greater or lesser cohesion,” that, in the absence of an American security guarantee, would otherwise pursue “salient windows of opportunity” via aggressive-offensive internal and external power struggles in an environment of instability and insecurity (Posen 28).  Third, as Robert Jervis notes, “The US usually [gave] considerable weight to its partners views, and indeed its own preferences [were] often influenced by theirs, as was true in Kosovo” (Jervis 7).   Fourth, “US power not only preclude[d] effective opposition, but also increase[d] the incentives to bandwagoning” by weaker states looking to benefit within a system characterized by hegemonic capabilities to control and distribute global commodities, including gas and oil  (Hurrell 12).  Fifth, as mentioned earlier by Kagan, and expounded upon (less condescendingly) by Jervis, the American security provision permitted “America’s allies [to] not have to fear attacks from each other:  their militaries—especially Germany’s – were so truncated that they could not fight a major war without American assistance or attack each other without undertaking a military build-up that would have a great deal of warning” (Jervis, 7).  Put simply, a benign US hegemony effectively eliminated the security dilemma for much of the developed world, and resulted in a relative stability that most closely resembled the Kantian “perpetual peace” introduced at the beginning of this paper.

            It certainly can – and has – been argued that while the United States may have emerged after the Second World War “reluctantly,” the expectation of it remaining a “benign” and self-restrained hegemon has always been untenable.  States rationally look to maximize their power.  (Mearsheimer 31).  Indeed, Kagan’s neo-conservative “solution” to the Kantian paradox – unipolar provision of global security at the least expense to human freedom, which I will call “The American Leviathan” – seems incongruous prima facie with the neorealist (as tempered by liberal institutional) benefits argued previously of such a system, at least in the long-term.  Whether by convention of the unipolar structure, or by intention of the superpower itself, the United States is today a de facto empire (Ferguson 4). This certainly does not imply that the US projects its power in the same way toward all nations, only that it dominates certain regions in order to sustain a power position of leverage in the distribution of collective goods (Mearsheimer 41).  Thus, while the status quo distribution of capabilities may be satisfactory today (insofar as it results in relative peace, prosperity and security), it is unwise to assume that major power rivals will accept such an arrangement in perpetuity, especially given the realist power maximizing considerations.  We have already witnessed in the twenty-first century that the “present trajectory in which the United States maintains hegemony rejects significant limitations on its freedom of action” (Jervis, 11).  The refusal to participate in or abide by global initiatives such as the Geneva Conventions, the Kyoto Protocols and the International Criminal Court, and the unilateral decision to engage in preventive war and regime change in Iraq, all reflect efforts by the United States to resist being the “tied down Gulliver” (Hurrell 8) of international institutions.  But, it is argued: “hard unilateralism and the emphasis on the threat and use of military force can make sense only on the assumption that the dominant response of weaker states will be straightforward submission […] or the desire to negotiate.” (Hurrell 12), which is in itself an arrogant and dangerous assumption and overestimation of capabilities.  Over time, the “constitutional settlement” ceases to be agreeable to all parties, and the relationship becomes one of coercion instead of mutual cooperation.  If then, as is argued, the current system of hard hegemonic unilateralism is unsustainable; we must consider alternative arrangements of power to arrive at a theoretically preferred structure.  The neo-realist perspective as embodied by Waltz states that there exist only two alternatives:  bipolar or multipolar (Waltz 6).  Multipolar systems are inferior because “uncertainties about the comparative capabilities of states multiply as numbers grow, and because estimates of the cohesiveness and strength of coalitions are hard to make” (Waltz 6).  Indeed there exists no historical or empirical evidence to argue that a multipolar structure would be any more peaceful or prosperous than the current arrangement.  Neorealism also obviously rejects other liberal multipolar theoretical alternatives that are based on democratic peace theory and which assert the sublimation of national autonomy to supranational interests, be they economic or political (as proposed by Jervis (14)).

We are left then, with Waltz’ assertion that a bipolar structure is the most pacifying arrangement in world order (Waltz 6).  In the current context, such a structure might predictably arise from the rise of China or China and Russia as regional hegemons (Jervis 12).  Waltz’ reasoning for assigning eminence to bipolarity over hegemony is its possibility for external balancing.  He states:  “The vice to which great powers easily succumb in a multipolar world is inattention; in a bipolar world, overreaction; in a unipolar world, overextension” (13).  Of these vices, overreaction is the most manageable because it is balanced both internally and externally, whereas a unipolar hegemon, without other great powers to check its expansion, is balanced only internally.  The argument logically concludes that “moments” of unipolarity are not durable, because other states will predictably balance against the strongest.  What Waltz’ theory fails to explain in the present context is why, “for their parts, the other members of the security community seek to harness and constrain American power, not displace it” (Jervis 7).  That is to say, why has there not yet arisen a legitimate challenge to the artificial imposition of hierarchy implied by American empire?  One might explain this phenomenon as a reflection of American power itself:  that the significant entry barriers that checking American military power might entail would be too great, and that “others accept the [status quo] to keep their own defense spending very low, especially because the alternative to American dominated stability might be worse.”  (Hurrell 8).  However true it may be, this explanation seems insufficient.  Why then do these states continue to participate in liberal institutions?  Why do they then ally themselves in America’s global war on terror?  To some degree, the participation of other powers in American established and internationally integrated liberal arrangements demonstrates that American hegemony must be accepted as legitimate through liberal and constructivist lenses.  The participation by other powers may be reluctant, but so then, as Ickenberry argues, was the systemic creation by the world’s leader.  It is thus interesting to note that while Waltz’ theory of stability crumbled with the Berlin Wall, it stands stronger today in a unipolar world: “Stable systems are self-reinforcing, because understanding others’ behavior, making agreements with them, and policing the agreements becomes easier through continued experience” (136).  Because America has in many ways acted as a responsible steward, as a “benign hegemon” overseeing Pax Americana for the duration of its “unipolar moment,” its legitimacy to lead remains relatively unchallenged, the world more prosperous, and the risks to major power war less than they were previously under the Cold War bipolar system.  Certainly there are increased risks of asymmetric warfare and terrorism in such a structure, but as long as non-proliferation remains a cardinal priority, the threats of terrorism, while unpredictably dangerous, are not existential (as they were during the Cold War (Khalidi)).

Of course, as Khalidi observes, the United States did not entirely decide how it should behave as a unipolar hegemon until 2001, when it radically changed its National Security doctrine (Khalidi).  That is to say, it is too early to dismiss neorealist predictions of unipolar excess giving rise to external balances and inevitable major power conflicts.  The idea of “legitimacy” is in many ways a constructivist concept that cannot be properly addressed using realist tools.  However, the fact remains that the American hegemony continues to be legitimate, and should continue to remain so as long as it “recognizes the extent and potential of its soft power and acts judiciously on that recognition” (Hurrell 5).  Moreover, as Jervis argues, “The American hegemony will surely eventually decay but increased European and Japanese strength need not lead to war, contrary to the expectations of standard theories of hegemony and great power rivalry” (Jervis 7).  It is important not to undervalue the constraining nature of the American domestic makeup, which complicates “natural” imperial tendencies based on a “self-image that precludes it for seeing itself for what it is, in part because of the popularity of values of equality and supra-nationalism” (Jervis 11).  While these values can certainly be manipulated in the Wilsonian and Jacksonian traditions (Mead 23), as they have been by the current neo-conservative administration, they remain a pacifying force for “good” (as perceived by other states), consistent with democratic peace theory.  While the Kantian paradox remains, the Pax Americana version of perpetual peace, provided by an American Leviathan serving in the role of “surrogate government” (Waltz, 196) at the international level, continues to be the preferred system of the international order.   

  


Works CitedFerguson, Niall.  Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.Hurrell, Andrew. “Hegemony, Liberalism and World Order: What space for would-be great powers?” International Affairs 82, I (2006): 1-19.

Ickenberry, John G. After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

—“American grand strategy in the age of terror.” Survival 43:4 (Winter 2001/2). 19-34.

Jervis, Robert.  “Theories of War in an Era of Great Power Peace:  Presidential Address, American Political Association 2001.”  American Political Science Review 96, No. 1. March 2002. 1-14.

Kagan, Robert.  “Power and Weakness.” Policy Review No. 113 (June 2002): 333-350.

Kant, Immanuel. “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.” On History, Trans. Lewis White Beck. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1963.  1-24.

Khalidi, Rashid. “Alternative Views of American Primacy.” Conceptual Foundations of International Politics course lecture. Columbia University School for International and Public Affairs. Altschul Hall, New York. October 8, 2007.

Mead, Walter Russell. “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy.” The National Interest Issue 58 (Winter 1999/2000). 5-27.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Posen, Barry.  “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict.”  Survival 35:1 Spring 2003. 27-47.

Sestanovich, Stephen. “American Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective.” Conceptual Foundations of International Politics course lecture. Columbia University School for International and Public Affairs. Altschul Hall, New York. October 1, 2007.

Waltz, Kenneth.  “Structural realism following the Cold War.” International Security Vol. 25, No. 1 (Summer 2000). 1-28.

Theory of International Politics. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1979. 

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How Can We Raise Awareness in Darfur on How Much We’re Doing for Them?

December 5, 2007 · Leave a Comment

This video from The Onion is tongue and cheek, obviously, but like any good satire, it exposes an important truth.

As William Easterly argues:

The obsessive and almost exclusive Western focus on them is less relevant to the vast majority of Africans — the hundreds of millions not fleeing from homicidal minors, not HIV-positive, not starving to death, and not helpless wards waiting for actors and rock stars to rescue them… Economic development in Africa will depend — as it has elsewhere and throughout the history of the modern world — on the success of private-sector entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs and African political reformers. It will not depend on the activities of patronizing, bureaucratic, unaccountable and poorly informed outsiders.

Conservatives tend to get a bum rap for being heartless, utilitarian, and unsympathetic to the plights of others. But Easterly has a point: as long as the West focuses on Africa’s deficiencies instead of its possibilities, the continent will never be an attractive destination for investment capital. Blanket aid causes massive distortions in economies, shifts disproportional attention to unrepresentative issues, constrains the growth of indigenous markets, and trends to unhealthy relationships of dependency.

This is not to say that the Darfur conflict is not an issue worth paying attention to, be it finacially, militarily, or simply via lip-service. Only that the celebrity bandwagoning in the Sudan, Somalia or Malawi casts a long, pessimistic shadow on the entire region.

Of course, there is a counter-argument that without guilty liberal issue-domination stemming from legacies of colonialism and slavery, the West wouldn’t pay much attention to Africa at all.

Given China’s recent interest in the region, I don’t buy that argument. Africa’s important, now and in the future.

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Save a Grad Student

November 30, 2007 · Leave a Comment

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A Day Out Against Hate?

November 28, 2007 · Leave a Comment

So I received this email from our dean:

On Thursday, November 29th, Columbia students will have the opportunity to participate in various activities to mark NYC’s “Day out against Hate.”  In addition to these activities, SIPA students who are concerned about recent bias incidents on campus and want to support diversity at SIPA are invited to a forum from 4:00 – 5:00pm this Thursday, November 29th in Room 1501.  Please join SIPASA MPA Co-president Pat Contreras, Associate Dean Sara Mason and Assistant Dean Alleyne Waysome to discuss possible initiatives to support diversity and students from underrepresented groups (for example, African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, and other constituencies who feel they need representation) to contribute your ideas and experiences.

I’m somewhat concerned that the response to “recent bias incidents” is an open forum that categorically lists underrepresented groups to “contribute their ideas and experiences” in the discussion of possible initiatives to support diversity.

My concern is that this isn’t an open forum to all students.  I fail to see how a dialog about diversity is a logical response to a hate incident, and how this activity represents the intention of “A Day Out Against Hate,” which implies solidarity in support of tolerance, and against bigotry.  That is to say, it seems more of a reactionary response than a progressive one.
I would be much more comfortable if the school choose to approach the forum as an alliance of students against hate instead of atomizing us based on the principle of “representation.”  First of all, proportionally, Asian Americans are not underrepresented in higher education, and their inclusion in this invitation (and the notable exclusion of white students) makes the whole exercise suspect.  Secondly, as an international school, diversity is our calling card, and I wouldn’t even be able to tell you what the plural majority might be in terms of ethnic representation.

I have no doubt that as a white male I am implicitly invited to this event, but it makes me somewhat uncomfortable that I would be explicitly neglected in the invitation.  Diversity, tolerance and respect are universal ideals, and should be discussed universally.  Although I may not feel threatened by the bias incidents performed on campus, I am equally ashamed as any other student that they took place at my University.

My point is: there are male feminists, there are gay-straight alliances, there are inclusive progressive groups everywhere promoting diversity in solidarity.  “A Day Out Against Hate” should similarly be a united front.

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Unregistered Student or Illegal Alien?

November 19, 2007 · Leave a Comment

[Blitzer]:  Senator Obama, it seems the nature of the question lends itself to a yes or no answer:  “Would you extend student identification privileges to an undocumented student?”

[Obama]:  Now, this is a red herring argument.  These people aren’t coming to this University to get discounted movie tickets.  They’re coming here to enroll in classes.  What we need is comprehensive reform of our registration policies, so that we don’t have instances where we have these undocumented students.  We need to have a registration system that works, that doesn’t lock out people who are on the path to becoming legal students.  One that perhaps has the course listings, degree requirements, course descriptions, prerequisites, course approval requirements, and availability all in the same place, so we don’t have instances where students are falling through the cracks.

[Blitzer]:  An evasive answer to a simple question.  Let me pose this to the floor.  Congressman Kucinich:  where do you stand on this issue of illegal students?

[Kucinich]:  I take offense to the term “illegal.”  These are human beings, they’re just living their lives.  They’re undocumented, yes, but that’s because we make the path to documentation so utterly convoluted that we end up with situation at hand.

[Blitzer]:  Let’s hear from someone who’s not a hippie Keebler elf.  Senator Clinton, what is your take on this issue?

[Clinton]:  Well, as a carpetbagging New Yorker, this is an issue that’s very dear to my heart.  A lot of my constituents are dealing with these illegal students.  What if they have a seizure on campus?  How would we know where to send the medical bills?  Look: the fact is, in today’s global economy, our students are going to need to have the skills to navigate through a poorly constructed bureaucratic online system.  I say: give them their identification cards, and let them figure out the rest.

[Edwards]:  If I’m not mistaken, Senator Clinton just gave two different answers [confused eyebrow look].  That was a lot of words!

[Clinton]:  I don’t appreciate the mud-slinging from Senator Edwards.

[Edwards]:  With all due respect Senator Clinton, I’m from North Carolina… I sling tar.

[Clinton]:  [abruptly spastic laughter]

[Blitzer]:  Let’s get a Republican take on this issue.  Mr. Giuliani, as a New Yorker yourself, how do you feel about Columbia’s registration policies?

[Giuliani]:  Well first of all, this is an international school we’re talking about.  60% of the students are foreign born.  In a post 9/11 environment, we cannot afford to have undocumented students running around our universities, thinking that they’re registered for the following semester, when in reality they’ve neglected to enroll in the accompanying discussion sections, which have since been blocked out, or get departmental approval.  This is a security issue.  What if someone from India or Pakistan, with proficient IT skills, hacks our system and replaces it with one that’s fully functional and meets the needs of the students enrolling?  I think we can agree, this is an unacceptable risk we can’t afford to take.

[Blitzer]:  So what is your proposed solution?

[Giuliani]:  Well, first of all, we need to firewall the system.  Lock the students out if they’ve been inactive for longer than 3 minutes.

[Blitzer]:  I believe that’s already the case…

[Giuliani]:  Well, on a related issue, the Democrats seem to be flirting with this idea of amnesty: of letting students into impacted classes after they’ve missed their registration appointments, or because they improperly registered, or because they’ve failed to get instructor approval.  This is preposterous.  We need to identify those students who have improperly registered and give them “guest student” status, whereupon they can still pay full tuition to take classes they have no interest in, or otherwise don’t help their degree requirements or field of concentration, until the following semester.

I could keep going with this for hours on end.  Hey Columbia, your enrollment procedures suck.  See: UCLA Registrar for guidance.

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Living in America!

November 8, 2007 · 1 Comment

After receiving the results from my Econ midterm (by far the hardest exam I’ve ever taken), I gotta say… thank the good Lord for grade inflation!

America!  Where a 66% is a B+!

I feel GOOD!  It’s a MAN’s world!

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For Anyone Considering Grad School…

October 25, 2007 · 3 Comments

Here’s the schedule you get to look forward to!

7:30 am:  Wake up.  Turn on coffee-maker to warm two-day old pot.  Snooze alarm.

7:50 am:  Shower, dress in whatever the fuck you want.  Upload New York Times Front Page Daily Podcast onto Ipod (no time or money for real paper).  Walk to class.

8:30 – 10:00 am:  Accounting.  Taught in the dark because nobody can figure out the A/V in the room.  Learn important financial skills, like how to manipulate corporate earnings.

10:00 – 3:00:  Begin writing paper in defense of American hegemony.  Actively hate life.  Be sure to wear ear-plugs to prevent soul-leakage… you’re going to need to leverage that sucker later.

3:00 – 4:00 :  Wait to speak with TA about paper.

4:00 – 4:15 :  Propose thoughts on topic, be advised such a thesis is either “completely unsustainable or utter genius,” leave more confused and directionless than you were coming in.

4:15 – 7:30 :  Read through 800 pages of course materials to find quotes that support your “utter genius.”  Fail miserably.  Concede intellectual mediocrity, lower expectations to B+.

7:30:  Blog about active hatred of life.

7:45:  Realize you haven’t eaten anything.  Too late…

8:00 – 10:00 :  Statistics Midterm Review

10:00 – 10:30:  Walk home. Stop by “USA #1!” deli, order egg and cheese sandwich for $2.00 (it’s all you can afford because you didn’t do any work for your job today).

10:30 – 3:00am:  Work on paper.  Begin hateful process of citations.

Rinse, Wash, Repeat.

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Dropping Knowledge: Rashid Khalidi

October 14, 2007 · 2 Comments

Yes, I know I promised a hiatus.  But this will be short.

All of my Conceptual Foundations of International Politics lectures are being hosted on YouTube.  Please enjoy for free the education that costs me a fortune.

It’s no Charlie Rose, and it can get a bit bland.  But Khalidi is provocative.   And he spit hot fire at the neo-cons when everyone else was buying what they were selling in 2003.  The lecture is framed through “Alternative Views of American Primacy” and was accompanied by the reading of Khalidi’s book, “Resurrecting Empire,” which I highly recommend.

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Snarky Hiatus

October 11, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I will be taking an extended break over the next 8 days to focus on midterms.  Until that time, this post still applies.

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Morningside Post Article: Donor Disparity

October 10, 2007 · 1 Comment

graphendowmentstudent.gif

Reader’s Note:  This article originally appeared in the Morningside Post.

Jonathan Host, MIA 2009

In a comparison of the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton, and SIPA, the Columbia Spectator reports:

While SIPA has a $30 million endowment to support about 1200 students, the Woodrow Wilson School boasts a $558 million (endowment) for 200 students. This not only allows Princeton to be more flexible and swift in making changes, but makes opportunities possible that Columbia cannot offer its students.

This disparity is made even more explicit when visiting Columbia’s fund-raising campaign website. The endowment per student figures (included at the beginning of this post, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education for all degree granting programs, including the International Schools),is nearly four times greater at Princeton than it is at Columbia.

How does Columbia in general, and SIPA specifically, remain competitive?

Quite simply, it’s a matter of more students paying higher tuitions. Columbia’s revenue share from tuition is significantly higher than that of Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Princeton.

The substantial burden of financing an education intended to lead to a career in policy or public service is very distressing. At this year’s orientation session on Financial Aid, when Assistant Director of Financial Aid Claudio Vargas was asked the typical length of time expected to fully pay off student loans after SIPA, he responded: “For some people it’s six months… for others, 60 years.” (I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but either way, I assure you… I did not laugh).

Princeton too, despite its impressive endowment, is not without its fair share of financial problems. Last month the Washington Post ran a front page article entitled “Exacting Donors Reshape College Giving.” The article detailed the ongoing lawsuit of Robertson v. Princeton, a case with enormous implications on the interpretation of the flexible use of “restricted” and “unrestricted” donations to educational institutions.

The Robertson endowment– originally a $35 million stock donation underwritten to to “establish . . . a Graduate School, where men and women dedicated to public service may prepare themselves for careers in government service”– today represents a fund that has grown to over $840 million.

Robertson claims that Princeton has “improperly spent more than $207 million (…) and that between 1990 and 2003, only about 10 percent of the graduates funded by the foundation went into international affairs jobs with the federal government.” (Interesting to note that Princeton told the Spectator that “85 percent of WWS graduates have taken employment in public service over the past three years,” although that statistic doesn’t describe “government service in isolation,” whatever that means).

The lesson learned from the Robertson case is that large, restricted donations– especially those earmarked for students– can handcuff the flexibility of a University’s administration.

On the bright side: I suppose you could assume that Columbia’s reliance on student tuition for revenue provides it with more flexibility, right? That a lower share of “restricted” alumni donations allows for greater administrative freedom?

If President Lee Bollinger’s recent opening address to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is any indication, I would speculate that’s not the case. As I’ve previously suggested, donors’ contributions (and more specifically, their threat of withholding future contributions) shaped the embarrassingly political nature of that speech.

Indeed, it seems to be the case in any budget that administrator’s are most attentive to the most volatile component. This is the case with stocks in mutual funds or taxes in national budgets. And it is clearly the case with alumni donations in University income statements.

Meanwhile, not only are students left without any recourse to protest (financially) the actions and decisions of their institutional leaders, but they must also bear the brunt of our predecessors’ capriciousness, or administration’s ineptitude. That is to say, to balance the books, more students are admitted at higher cost of attendance. And that in turn means greater competition for jobs, and rising indebtedness. Rising indebtedness means (even more) constraint in career choice.

And even if the constrained career choice directs alumni into careers and positions of higher lifetime earnings, I suspect that students’ long memories of Columbia’s stinginess will not translate well to future endowments.

But maybe I’m just bitter.

Jonathan Host is a first-year MIA studying Advanced Policy and Economic Analysis. He writes for fun on his blog http://www.snarkybehavior.com .

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