A New Normal?


Duke Alexander Hamilton Society Senior Officers

“This is not normal”

On October 24th, the Duke Alexander Hamilton Society (AHS) hosted a special event on campus: “America’s Choice: Foreign Policy and the U.S. Presidential Election.” Two distinguished speakers, one a former National Security Council director in the George W. Bush administration, the other a foreign policy adviser under Bill Clinton, sat together at a table to talk with students about the issues of international affairs at the heart of the U.S. presidential election.

Michael Singh and Dr. Bruce Jentleson have much that divides them. Singh is a conservative Republican who analyzes Middle Eastern policy issues at the center-right Washington Institute for Near Eastern Affairs; Jentleson is a liberal academic who served as foreign policy adviser to four democratic candidates for President.

Over the course of an hour, the two expert speakers clashed on a number of important foreign policy questions, ranging from President Obama’s approach to U.S.-NATO relations to the geopolitical impacts of the Iran Deal. Mike Singh advocated for a proactive U.S. role in world affairs throughout, emphasizing the importance of military strength and geopolitical engagement. In contrast, Dr. Jentleson focused on strengthening and maintaining international institutions, developing firm alliances, and prioritizing multilateral action. At many points during the night, the speakers suggested different policy recommendations and approached issues from opposite analytical perspectives.

On the Iran Deal, for example, Mr. Singh took a notably more skeptical approach. Warning about an “asymmetry of incentives,” Singh emphasized that, while the United States has a vested interest in the continued success of the deal, Iran does not. With more international sanctions being lifted each year, the Iranian economy is significantly more robust now than when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) was signed, according to Mr. Singh. Lacking financial incentives to abide by the terms of the deal, Iranian officials may be tempted to revitalize their nuclear program. To counter this possibility, the Mr. Singh recommended that the administration take a hardline stance toward Iran, making it clear to President Rouhani that the U.S. will not tolerate any violation of the terms of the deal.

While Dr. Jentleson shared some of his counterpart’s hesitation about the continued success of the JCPA, the professor insisted that the deal had, by and large, been a tremendous success. Citing figures on decreased Iranian Uranium production and centrifuge activity, Jentleson contended that, as a result of the deal, Iran is farther from making a nuclear bomb and the U.S. is closer to a long-term diplomatic resolution. Contrasting directly with Singh, Jentleson argued that the U.S. and its allies should be more –not less– economically and diplomatically supportive of Rouhani’s administration. When he signed the JCPA with the United States, President Rouhani put his entire political future at risk. In order for Rouhani’s centrist “Moderation and Development Party” to remain influential, Jentleson submitted that the Iranian people must feel the economic benefits of the deal in a tangible way. If the deal does not produce tangible economic benefits, they will blame Rouhani’s party for signing a fruitless “pact with the devil” and replace his movement with ideological hardliners.

The Iran Deal is only one example of the number of issues on which Mr. Singh and Dr. Jentleson disagreed. Over the course of the evening, the two trades opposite perspectives on the ideological legacy of Obama’s foreign policy, the proper U.S. response to the Syrian conflict, and the extent to which Russia should be viewed as a geopolitical threat. There was one issue on which both speakers decidedly agreed: their criticism of the presidential election campaign.

“This is not normal,” Dr. Jentleson responded to a question about angry rhetoric on the campaign trail, “Across the world, major elections are being defined by fear, nativism, and nationalist unilateralism.” Due to a combination of xenophobia, ethnic tension, and economic protectionism—what Dr. Jentleson calls a “witch’s brew” of societal forces—the U.S. presidential election has been one of the most personally divisive and least substantive in modern history.

“I think what we’re seeing is the first ‘post-factual’ election,” Michael Singh agreed. Arguing that the information age has had a polarizing impact on American politics, Mr. Singh notes that American voters now enjoy the greatest access in history to the worst news ever. Tabloids, biased media sources, and deliberately misleading news outlets have, according to Singh, created a media culture conducive to misinformation, conspiracy theories, and unfiltered reactionism. This media culture has been reinforced by social media applications, which contribute to entrenched polarization by customizing news feeds to echo an individual’s expressed preferences. The result, according to Mr. Singh, is clear: in a “post-factual” information age where news absorption is unrelated to objective source credibility, the election cycle is dominated by scandal, character assassination, and bitter partisan divisiveness. In the process, substantive questions of policy are pushed to the sidelines, replaced instead by reactionary headlines and personal attacks.

Is this the “New Normal” for American politics? There is reason to think not. Ironically, the gloomy picture of partisan divisiveness which Mr. Singh and Dr. Jentleson described contrasted sharply with the very event they were participating in. Through “America’s Choice,” the Alexander Hamilton Society accomplished something that both speakers lamented as missing from American politics: a rational, nuanced, bipartisan discussion on foreign policy issues crucial to the future of the country. This goal reflects the mission statement of AHS to “promote constructive debate on basic principles and contemporary issues in foreign, economic, and national security policy on college campuses across the county. Last Monday, Duke AHS organized an event that provided undergraduates a rare opportunity to impartially evaluate arguments from two distinct ideological camps, choosing for themselves which positions to adopt. The organization also sought to inspire attendees to organize similar events on their own.

All across campus, department and student-led organizations like the Alexander Hamilton Society are trying to combat media bias by proactively and academically engaging with political issues. The American Program in Grand Strategy, Duke Political Union, and YOUnite are but a few of the many political organizations at Duke seeking to organize quality events on election issues. These efforts are only successful, however, if students actively engage and participate. As election day approaches, it is up to us take action to protect rational bipartisan engagement –to make sure that this election does not become America’s “the new normal.” Through attending and supporting bipartisan discussion events, engaging with expert speakers who come to campus, and organizing events of our own on issues that matter, we can reverse the cycle of misinformation, hostility, and partisanship that has taken ahold of our country. As future leaders in a wide range of fields, we have a responsibility to do so.

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