Jeremi Suri

Photo Credit: Megan Canik | Daily Texan Staff

Two LBJ School of Public Affairs professors debated about one of the 21st century’s most disputed foreign policy predicaments: relations between the United States and Russia. 

The Texas Political Union hosted a debate Tuesday where the professors focused on the allegations against the Kremlin of meddling in the 2016 presidential election as well as President Donald Trump’s current relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Government professor James Galbraith was assigned to support the stance that Trump is right in his dealings with Russia. 

Despite Russia’s formidable military power and influence in Syria and Crimea, fear of Russia due to its hacking abilities isn’t warranted, Galbraith said.

“State governments in the United States were spooked by Russian hacking of our electoral system, though no such hacking has occurred,” Galbraith said. “For more than six months now, Russia has served as a crutch for the American imagination.”

Galbraith said Trump would be correct if he believes that America can cooperate with Russia.

“Democracy works properly only when linked to reasonable standards of evidence and common sense,” Galbraith said in an email. “The United States as a democracy has many flaws, but fragile vulnerability to the siren songs of Russian internet trolls isn’t one of the more serious dangers.”

History professor Jeremi Suri said the debate was about the shift in policy toward Russia from former President Barack Obama to Trump, and he doesn’t foresee the U.S. being an ally with Russia, since it is a threat to democracy and capitalism. 

“Trump … overwhelmingly went out of his way to embrace Vladimir Putin,” Suri said. “Putin has built his regime … on making us an enemy. This regime is explicitly built on the repression of democracy.”

Suri came to a conclusion in opposition to Galbraith’s — Suri said Trump’s position on Russia is wrong because of hatred in the world.

“Our world today is filled with too much hate,” Suri said. “Russia is a propagator of that hate. Trump is actively not only staying silent, but encouraging this behavior … He is deathly wrong on Russia.”

Government freshman Erick Razo said this is an issue both politicians and students alike should be informed about.

“Everyone should be well-informed,” Razo said. “This is something that could potentially lead to warfare (and) could affect taxes by increasing military power. These are all issues that affect the everyday American, specifically students who are rising into a new voter population.” 

Photo Credit: Hannah Simon | Daily Texan Staff

In front of dozens of American flags last year, Donald Trump told the Republican National Committee he planned to make America rich again, then boasted about the billions of dollars he had made in business deals.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump sold his business experience as a sign of a successful presidency. But in a new book, “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office,” public affairs professor Jeremi Suri writes that the Oval Office not only demands greater expertise but also possesses a burden too great for any individual to bear alone.

“The leader of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world is much more than a CEO, a general or a party leader,” Suri wrote in his book. “The American president is closer to a mythological figure, expected to rise above normal human limitations and manage a constant barrage of local and international problems.”

Suri said Trump is not the only president whose knees buckle under the overwhelming pressure of the office. Weaving a thread from George Washington’s humble tenure to Barack Obama’s global impact, Suri said understanding the presidency’s evolution provides insight into its overlooked flaws.

“Beginning as a small and uncertain position within a large and sprawling democracy, the presidency has grown over two centuries into a towering central command for global decisions about war, economy and justice,” Suri wrote. “Despite their dominance, modern presidents have rarely achieved what they wanted because they have consistently overcommitted, overpromised and overreached.”

After World War II, Suri said demands on the presidency grew as the U.S. emerged as a global power and as its citizens sought more domestically — regardless of whether a president desired more influence. 

“It’s sort of like, once you become rich enough, I guess, everyone comes to you for money,” Suri said in an interview. “When you reach a certain degree of power, many different groups at home and abroad start asking more and more of you.”

Plan II senior Abigail Griffin, who helped Suri with his book as an undergraduate research assistant, said Trump’s ascension to the presidency is best understood by examining how past presidents handle public disappointment. 

“You can never fully understand where you are until you understand how you got there,” Griffin said.

A president can make the mistake of doing too much, Suri said. He cited former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who helped pass momentous civil rights legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act but failed to alleviate the war in Vietnam.

“(LBJ) was so well-intentioned, but fell into the deepest trap of power, which is trying to do too much,” Suri said.

Trump is an exception to this, Suri said, but an acute withdrawal from presidential duties is also not the answer.

“What I’m arguing in the book is that presidents, until (Trump), tried doing too many things,” Suri said. “But the solution isn’t to do nothing and play golf, the solution is to pick your issues more carefully.”

Suri describes the presidency as a paradox, in which the occupant experiences an ever-expanding role and responds by overcompensating with improbable promises.

Suri offers a remedy, however: The public should ask the president to spend less time doing everything and more time acting effectively.

Most modern democracies split the executive branch into two positions — such as Germany does — Suri said, but because it is unlikely Americans will add a prime minister to the White House, citizens need to actively reconsider their demands of the presidency and exclude the office from time-consuming issues such as divisive cultural debates.

“The people still make the presidency,” Suri wrote. “And they can make it less impossible.”

To demand accountability, voters must show up at polls

In his most recent column, Jeremi Suri spoke about the importance of public transparency and accountability. He stressed the right of citizens to be informed. This echoes the fundamental democratic ideal – an informed citizenry.

In the past few years, public and private institutions alike have been scrutinized for neglecting individual rights to privacy. The National Security Agency collected volumes of metadata on web users. Samsung Smart TVs listened to customers’ private conversations. Facebook shared questionably descriptive user browsing data. Despite this exposure and opposition, political participation is still insufficient. Voter turnout is low. Constituencies are not equally represented. The demand for greater public accountability is coupled with dwindling political participation. If there is a need to change this, why don’t people participate?

One idea is that citizens don’t feel like they have an active role in their leaders’ decision-making processes.

Take the American youth, for example. Compared with previous generations, young people today volunteer more, are much better educated and are “less likely to drink excessively or use drugs than previous generations." They're civically active — they’re just not politically active. Twenty-one percent of 18-24 year olds voted in the 2010 midterm elections. The ethos of democracy and equal representation gets lost among the voter registration papers, IDs and boxes on the ballot. To citizens, our government is monolithic. And they don’t think that their vote will count.

Politically active citizens also tend to be well integrated — they are local property owners and residents. Students, and many other groups of people, are constantly confused and disadvantaged by restrictive voter ID requirements. They move often, from apartment to apartment, and don't necessarily have driver’s licenses or passports readily available. These inconveniences deter already low political participation.

The most effective way of demanding accountability and transparency from the bureaucracy is political participation, in which there is a clear disparity. In order to encourage greater transparency among our policy makers and public institutions, people must show up at the polls and demand it.

​Shah is a business and government sophomore from Temple.

When studying abroad, immerse yourself

The way we have approached international education since the advent of online resources has been quite formulaic, an issue tackled by Jeremi Suri in his most recent column. Our “distant classrooms,” Suri says, have fostered a culture of easy access and entertainment. When we study abroad, we do exactly that — we study abroad and we party abroad. This is the disadvantage of the comforts of our access. It is also one of being American. When we travel abroad, it is very likely that we will encounter the same clothing, music and language as we do at home. We come home with a maturity developed from keeping track of our own passports and navigating a new city, an underwhelming feat.

When I interned abroad in Peru, it amazed me that both Chan Chan, ancient ruins that are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a McDonald’s were equidistant from my host home. It was easy to avoid speaking Spanish as long as I stayed with the other interns, but that got boring after a while. Eventually, I started talking to the people sitting next to me on the bus to work every day. I met souvenir vendors, lawyers, journalists, teachers and traveling artists who performed to pay their way across the country. Each person taught me something different; each gave me a piece of the city I was living in. I stayed on my bus a little longer than I was supposed to. I explored the city – even the places that weren’t listed on TripAdvisor.   

One of the best ways to feel closer to the city is to learn the language. Had I not spoken Spanish, it would have been much more difficult to learn about the people and things around me. Speaking to someone in their own language is also a bonding experience. The more Spanish I learned, the more included I felt in conversations with my Peruvian friends.

The best advice I got before I left for Peru was this: Don’t let your experience be a passive one. Engage in a new mindset. The most important asset to your experience will be the people you connect with. The more you understand the people around you, the more you’ll understand a life outside of your own. Ask questions, be engaged, stay off your phone and just don’t buy a data plan for your semester abroad.

Shah is a business and government sophomore from Temple.

Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio applaud President Barack Obama, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, during his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

In his sixth State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama called for wider access to higher education and implored Congress to fully subsidize the cost of community college for qualified students.

“Forty percent of our college students choose community college,” Obama said. “Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt. … I want to work with this Congress to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.”

History professor Jeremi Suri said he appreciated Obama’s emphasis on training people for higher-paying job fields, such as coding, nursing and robotics.

“More and more, anyone who wants to succeed in society needs a college education, needs to be a knowledgeable worker,” Suri said. “It’s also true many people are priced out of the market, so providing them with better aid makes better sense.”

University Democrats President Michelle Willoughby said she does not think financial burdens should keep people from going to college.

“I think that public education is the most important thing that the state and country funds, because it educates future leaders,” Willoughby said. “But public education is taxpayer dollars, so, if we stop after 12th grade, we’re not maximizing on our investment. I think it’s important that everyone who wants access to higher education can have it. Just from a financial standpoint, it doesn’t make sense.”

Suri said while access to higher education is important, he had hoped the president would address issues of quality of education as well.

“Getting [people] to school is the most important thing, but equally important is providing them with the best college education,” Suri said. “I think they could also do more by investing in research, teaching, in infrastructure of community colleges and less well-endowed institutions.”

Obama urged Congress to set aside politics to work with his “practical, not partisan” ideas. 

“We believed we could prepare our kids for a more competitive world,” Obama said. “And today, our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. And more Americans finish college than ever before.”

Suri said Obama’s speech would not affect how well Republicans and Democrats work together in Congress.

“His saying won’t [change anything]; the question is whether voters and public interest groups start saying that,” Suri said. “What’s going to change is if those watching say we don’t want anymore government shutdowns, partisanship.”

Now is the time to recognize Kurdistan

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of weekly blog posts designed to build on Professor Jeremi Suri's foreign policy column, which runs every Tuesday.

Professor Jeremi Suri wrote last week that the U.S. needs to adopt a new approach towards fighting terrorism. Instead of applying punitive sanctions or military force, he argues, the U.S. should promote economic development and education.

Indeed, as Suri wrote, American interventions in the Middle East have been absurdly ineffective. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein led to eight years of Nouri al-Maliki and a sectarian conflict that enabled the rise of ISIS, neither of which benefits human rights, democracy, or America’s commercial interests. And despite having spent over a decade fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the U.S. hasn’t come any closer to eradicating the spread of Islamist extremism. Clearly, Suri is right that there is a better way to promote democracy, cultivate free markets, and defeat the hydra of fascistic terrorism.

That being said, there’s no need to plunk billions of dollars in aid and investments into unstable countries with untrustworthy leaders. The European Investment Bank has been doing exactly that for years with zero success, and America’s financial support for Iraq and Afghanistan has only managed to prop up kleptocrats like al-Maliki and Hamid Karzai. Instead of trying to build up failed states, the U.S. should empower those that have already laid the foundations for a free and prosperous society. To that end, creating an independent state in Iraqi Kurdistan should be America’s top priority in the Middle East.

Iraq’s Kurdish region is situated in a tinderbox of insurgency, nestled between the country’s border with Syria and its ISIS-controlled western provinces. Yet in spite of its tenuous location, it has become a safe haven for ethnic minorities like the Yazidis and the Circassians, many of whom have been displaced by Iraq’s inner turmoil. It has a strong and American-armed security force that has played a critical role in the war against ISIS. Its capital, Erbil, is a thriving and rapidly developing metropolis. It supports other crucial U.S. allies in the region, including Armenia and Israel. And, most importantly, its democratically elected government fiercely rejects any form of religious fundamentalism or ethnocentric extremism.

In light of these virtues, an independent Kurdistan would become a beacon of hope for the region. It would provide military and diplomatic support to counterterrorism efforts, and its success could even motivate movements in favor of secularism and democracy across the entire Middle East—a true Arab Spring. But in order to do so, it must first achieve full sovereignty over its internal affairs and full representation in international agencies like the U.N. and the WTO.

Fortunately, granting Iraqi Kurdistan that sort of legitimacy is a far simpler proposition than it was in the past. The Turkish government was once resolutely opposed to Kurdish independence, as Kurds claim sovereignty over a large part of eastern Turkey. However, in recent years, Turkey has come to view Iraqi Kurdistan as a potential homeland for its own Kurdish minority, and it recently established a consular office in Erbil to promote deeper diplomatic ties between the two nations. Similarly, the U.S. resists recognizing Iraqi Kurdistan on the grounds that Kurdish secession would kill its dream of forming a multiethnic democracy in Iraq. That goal has clearly failed, as Iraq has only become more fragmented and lawless since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

For Kurdistan to languish in stateless purgatory while Syria and Iraq have collapsed and ISIS runs amok is an affront to human decency and an indefensible failure of American foreign policy. But Iraq’s current circumstances and Turkey’s declining recalcitrance have given President Obama the perfect opportunity to rectify this injustice. Whether or not he takes it will have major consequences for the future of the Middle East.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut. He is a research assistant to Suri.

A Ukrainian armored personnel carrier leaves its position behind the gate at the military base in the village of Perevalne, outside of Simferopol, Ukraine, on March 2.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a weekly column on foreign policy from Suri.

College is a time when students focus most of their attention on campus activities. That is perfectly appropriate. College should be an intensive period of discovery that extends far beyond the classroom. Morning trips to the gym, afternoon visits to the library and late-night conversations over pizza are integral to the undergraduate experience. So are parties and football games.

While enjoying our time on campus, the foreign policy crises that dominate news headlines seem distant. Despite the attacks on American citizens and allies around the world, life goes on without much interruption on campus. Students often feel powerless to influence big issues, such as human rights and global inequality, or specific crises in Iraq, Ukraine and other regions.

Even if we make the effort to develop expertise, as many students do for specific issues, how can we influence policy and public debate? The special circumstances that make the 40 Acres so unique also separate the campus from the “real world.” Who wants to listen to the opinions of students? How can students get their voices heard by powerful people in Texas, in Washington, D.C., and abroad?

Too often, our state and national leaders ignore students. Especially on foreign policy, politicians speak of the needs of “future generations,” but their key advisers and funders are middle-aged, frequently even older. Students are poorly organized as an interest group, they vote in small numbers, and they spend little time following international issues. Of course, these dynamics shift when military recruiters come to Austin, but even then young men and women are usually recruited for their patriotism and the promise of employment, not out of respect for their opinions about policy. Although students are a crucial demographic for the economy and the military, they are invisible in much of politics and policy-making.

The multiplying foreign policy crises today offer an opportunity for smart and energetic students – like you! – to change this dynamic. The same is true for transnational issues like global warming and growing inequality. The dirty secret is that the old guys who make policy and dominate politics today do not know what to do about these challenges.

The men and women in power are, quite frankly, overwhelmed and out of their depth. Most of them came of age as college students, policy analysts, diplomats and government officials in an era dominated by the Cold War and then the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Democrats and Republicans – including both President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain – learned policy-making when American military power really dominated the globe, when we could count on the broad appeal of American democracy and consumer culture, and when our enemies were states or groups we could clearly identify, contain and, if necessary, destroy.

The world is different today – and many people above 25 can barely understand it. The most powerful military forces seem incapable of defeating rebels and insurgents armed with small weapons, hateful ideas and iPhones. American democracy and consumer culture seem to repel more people than they attract, and that includes many American citizens who are fed up with the partisanship, gridlock and venality in our political system. Most troubling, it is unclear who our real enemies are. Islamic extremists in the Middle East? Iran? Russia? North Korea? China? How can we prioritize and differentiate among these potential adversaries?

No one above 25 has good answers to these questions. This is a huge problem for the Obama administration and its critics, but it is a promising opportunity for students. Foreign policy is a field of growing importance to Americans and it is a field without established experts who can address all the pressing questions of the day. There is a real conceptual and generational shift occurring, which is like a rebuilding season for an NFL team. Rookies will get drafted in large numbers and they will have a chance to play early and often as the veterans retire. The rookies will make mistakes, but they will get attention and opportunities to dominate the game.

So here is my advice to ambitious undergraduates: Study hard and have fun on campus, but make some time to think about foreign policy. Spend time talking about foreign policy with students and professors. Attend visiting lectures from policy-makers on campus and read a little about the topic each day from newspapers, social media and other sources. Read this column each week! Keep your eyes out for opportunities to study abroad and intern with a foreign policy organization or a business doing international work. Start your own foreign policy blog.

Serious and creative thinking about foreign policy is desperately needed in our country today. It will come from young people like you. If you look to become part of the conversation, many opportunities will open for you. Use the 40 Acres as a launching point to get involved and make a difference as a free and informed thinker. This is your time.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.

President Barack Obama promised to work to increase equality with or without congressional help in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Obama said he plans to increase students’ access to higher education and said Congress should restore education funding to keep the U.S. economy competitive.

“Federally funded research helped lead to the ideas and inventions behind Google and smartphones,” Obama said. “That’s why Congress should undo the damage done by last year’s cuts to basic research.”

History professor Jeremi Suri said he thinks Obama’s main goal is to increase equality.

“He wanted to make the case that he is working to increase equality and help those who have been left out in the gains made in the last few years,” Suri said. “That includes women, that includes immigrants.”

The speech follows Obama’s announcement of an executive order raising the federal minimum wage for government contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10.

Government professor Bruce Buchanan said Obama may use his power of executive order if he is unable to successfully pass bills through Congress.

“I think that he’s making [the executive order] because it’s part of his general sense that there needs to be opportunity for those on the low end of the spectrum and also because it’s going to be kind of a centerpiece of his new strategy of using executive orders since Congress is unresponsive to his request for legislation,” Buchanan said.

Sam Richardson, public affairs assistant professor, said he thinks Obama’s speech was unlike many of his other speeches.

“My sense of the speech was that it was [a] less providing sort of a grand vision like Obama sometimes does with his speeches,” Richardson said. “It was fairly short on specifics on what he was hoping Congress would do, and I think that was because he realizes that he does not have the support of Congress to push through that agenda.”

Richardson said he thought Obama would discuss the Affordable Care Act in greater depth.

“I was expecting that [the Affordable Care Act] would be a little more prominent than it was,” Richardson said. “I was surprised that he didn’t acknowledge or apologize for the botched rollout of the website.”

Richardson said users of the website still encounter issues and people who tried to sign up for coverage may not be insured.

“It’s clear that the website is not fully working and there are still challenges,” Richardson said. “There are going to be questions that come up about people who thought they were covered,” Richardson said. “Maybe their information didn’t go through the website.”

Suri said Obama avoided discussing issues such as the Affordable Care Act in more depth because it’s more difficult for him to claim control over those issues. Suri said Obama may have been intentionally vague when discussing individual privacy and the role of agencies such as the National Security Agency.

“I think he’s walking a fine line — he wants Americans to believe that he will protect their privacy,” Suri said. “At the same time, he wants to preserve the ability of these agencies to do their job.”

Suri said Obama implied he will go around Congress if he has to in order to increase equality for groups.

“He’s implying to his opponents that those at the top have done really well,” Suri said. “I do think that his clear and direct appeal to women is very important, and he did it on the basis of economic equality and on the argument that women need more voice in politics.”

Despite a national unemployment rate of 7.6 percent, the University of Texas is hiring.

In the last two years, several administrators have stepped down or left for various reasons, including deans of law, natural sciences, social work, undergraduate studies and graduate schools.

Last week, Gretchen Ritter, vice provost for undergraduate education and faculty governance, announced she will be leaving the University for a deanship at Cornell University, while Steven Leslie, executive vice president and provost, announced he will be returning to teaching and research in the College of Pharmacy in February. 

At a Faculty Council meeting last month, UT President William Powers Jr. said filling at least one of those seats, the provost position, will be more complicated than usual, largely as a result of tensions between the University and the UT System Board of Regents

“We’re in a tricky situation,” Powers said.

Jeremi Suri, history and public affairs professor, said these departures and recruitment complications reflect a larger trend, as tensions surrounding the regents could make other options for faculty members and administrators more attractive. 

Suri, who joined the UT faculty in 2011, said he left his previous position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in part because of political controversy. He said the situation here is playing out in a similar, if not identical, fashion, and might have serious implications for the University’s recruitment efforts in the future.

“One difference — and it is a big difference — is that UT is far better run and has much more of an emphasis on maintaining excellence,” Suri said. “There is also stronger support from alumni across the state. But there are people who see the University as a sitting duck, as something they can attack to earn political points because they look tough ... and that makes it harder to retain people and harder to bring in the best minds.” 

Alan Friedman, English professor and a former Faculty Council chairman who has worked at the University since 1964, said he also feels the board’s actions have an impact on faculty and administrative decision-making.

“There is a good deal of talk about what is happening on campus as a result of the regents’ actions, and some if it does factor into faculty members who are not staying or who are not coming,” Friedman said. “I think a lot of faculty members feel the campus is under siege from the very people who are appointed to protect and support the quality of the educational experience on this campus.” 

Friedman cited the regents’ recent decision to tighten conflict of interest policies as an example of a point of tension.

“A lot of time is being wasted on these new requirements,” Friedman said. “Absolutely no justification was offered with regard to why the policies are being imposed on us, and there have been no studies done suggesting this will improve the situation on campus. We’re wasting time.”

Though some think the rate of administrative departure is a trend, others attribute it to natural turnover. Leslie, who will step down Aug. 31, said turnover in faculty and administrative roles is something he dealt with every year as provost and is not unnatural.

“I’ll admit these are difficult times right now, but we’ve recruited some of the top talent in the nation as leaders and deans and in other important posts,” Leslie said. “Under any circumstances, people who love higher education and want to lead will come here.” 

Public affairs professor Jeremi Suri has ambitions to make UT a center for leadership development by emphasizing history as the key to strategic leadership.

Mid and senior-level managers gathered in the Bass Lecture Hall to hear Suri.

Suri was introduced by Barry Bales, assistant dean for professional development at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, who said implementing a historical perspective helps a leader understand strategic decision making.

According to Suri’s presentation, there are three important criteria for this strategic leadership: situating your organization, assessing opportunities and avoiding distractions.

He then said the way to meet these criteria is to understand the link between leadership and history. 

“Leadership is about historical sensibility,” Suri said. “Dealing with these issues is all about thinking about yourself historically.”

Suri examined aspects of leadership through art, photography and world history. He said several historical leaders, including David Rockefeller and Barack Obama, benefitted from thinking historically.

“If you want to understand what has allowed them to become leaders, it is their ability to put themselves in this context,” Suri said. “It is their abilities to think about the opportunities before them. It is the ability they had to avoid distraction. It is a mode of thinking.”

Suri warned that even gifted leaders can fail by continuing in a comfortable method of leadership, rather than acknowledging that a changing world necessitates innovation.

Aanand Shukla, CEO and founder of a local Austin company called Brick Canvas, attended the lecture and said he learned from Suri’s leadership seminar.

“What resonated a lot with me was that often leaders implement strategies or continue implementing strategies that haven’t necessarily worked in the past,” Shukla said. 

In an interview after the lecture, Suri said his work in professional development is part of a larger effort to spearhead the nation’s strategic leadership programs.

“I have very big ambitions,” Suri said. “I want people to look back and say ‘UT and the LBJ School at this moment played a key contributing role in creating the new leaders of our society and the new leaders of the state.‘”

Published on March 6, 2013 as "History key to strategic leadership".