I recently had the honor of attending the 66th annual Student Conference on United States Affairs (SCUSA) at West Point, joining military academy cadets and nearly 250 delegates from across the country and around the globe. The theme of the conference, “What’s the Worst That Could Happen? The Politics & Policy of Crisis Management,” made for fascinating round-table discussions as delegates, cadets, and expert mentors puzzled over worst-case scenarios ranging from cataclysmic cyber warfare or global pandemic to a nuclear Iran or unchecked Russian aggression.
I, myself, was fortunate to call myself a member of the group charged with drafting U.S. policy responses to the potential use of nuclear weapons by state or non-state actors. Unsurprisingly, the topic yielded vigorous debate about the likelihood of various overseas conflicts escalating into nuclear war and the appropriate strategic and moral U.S. response to the use of such destructive force. We did a bit of rudimentary war-gaming, considering the likelihood that regional conflicts between India and Pakistan or Israel and Iran might escalate beyond conventional means of warfare, as well as grappled with the prospective use of nuclear weapons by the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang or by terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.
To some, spending several days thus immersed in doomsday scenarios might seem grim, but to conference participants with professed interest in international affairs and a curiosity about crisis management, it was time extremely well spent. Hearing the diversity of opinions voiced by my fellow delegates and, in particular, the unique perspectives held by the West Point cadets, was truly a highlight of the experience, shedding light on how my peers conceive of a threat that did not pervade our childhoods as it did for those alive during the Cold War but is no less real in what today may be a second nuclear age. One of our table’s mentors, Dr. Austin Long, prompted arguably the most rewarding conversation held over the course of the conference by expressing a similar interest in how my generation views the terrorist threat, international stability, and American national security in the 21st century. Like any generation, we differed wildly in our conceptions of such political realities, revealing profoundly different worldviews.
And while SCUSA challenges students to think critically about the issues of the day and facilitates discussion of preventive, as well as contingency, policy planning, it also promotes understanding and friendship between the civilian and military communities that have grown so distant since the discontinuation of the draft. The almost alien nature of each other’s lifestyles leaves room for misconception and indifference, threatening national unity and the American cause. SCUSA offers delegates like myself a much-needed window into the disciplined—and grueling—lives of cadets, whose demanding schedules put to shame any college student who laments the cruelty of 8 a.m. classes, while concomitantly lending cadets insight into the lives of students from universities at home and abroad. Indeed, I was exposed to the stoic beauty of West Point and to the daily activities of cadets in each year of training, gobbling down lunch alongside cadets in the mess hall, touring the grounds and cemetery, and peppering my two roommates (second-year cadets filled with verve and an admirable yearning for self-improvement rarely as pronounced among people my age) in the barracks with endless questions about life at West Point.
Thus, SCUSA lends invaluable perspective, both about the world beyond U.S. shores and about the diversity of the American experience. The conference was an absolute blast, leaving me not only with fond memories of laughter and fast-friendship, but also with fresh ideas about global affairs and the United States armed services on which to reflect in the days and years to come.