Since 1948, the Student Conference on United States Affairs has been hosted annually at the United States Military Academy at West Point. During the four day Conference, West Point cadets meet with international and American students from across the nation in order to discuss U.S. foreign policy and international developments. Last November, I have had the privilege to participate in this extraordinary Conference together with 23 fellow Fulbrighters, as part of the One To World delegation. Since I am currently enrolled in the Master of Laws (LL.M.) in International Legal Studies at New York University School of Law, I was very thrilled about this opportunity and had high expectations when boarding the train in Grand Central.
This year’s conference had as a general theme ‘The Politics and Policy of Crisis Management’. The purpose was to contemplate a number of worst-case scenarios in global affairs and to reflect on the challenges these would pose to the U.S. and its position in the world. For this purpose, all students and cadets were assigned to specific discussion round tables, covering a broad range of issues such as the political influence of drug cartels in Latin America, nuclear warfare and cyber security. My round table was concerned with envisaging the consequences of a possible disintegration of the European Union and making recommendations for a preferable U.S. approach to such a situation.
During the discussion sessions, I was pleasantly suprised to see how the American students and cadets were much stronger advocates of the European Union than I had anticipated beforehand. The point of our round table however was to think about the consequences that a possible dissolution of the Union might entail and I found this to be an intellectually very challenging exercise. Being one of the two Europeans in the room and having a background in European Law, I could weigh in on the debate by sharing my perspective on the matters discussed and I felt that my input was appreciated. The discussions were held in a respectful manner, whereby everyone was willing to listen and learn from each other. Our findings and proposals eventually have resulted into the collective drafting of a policy paper. Apart from the round table sessions, reflecting on the American role in international crisis management was also done by way of panel discussions and other formal gatherings. At a banquet, all participants were addressed by Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., Superintendent of the Military Academy and former Ambassador Thomas Pickering delivered a thought-provoking speech on the future of U.S. foreign policy.
Furthermore, participating in the conference has allowed me to gain a unique insight into the daily routine of the West Point cadets. By staying at the barracks and sharing meals together, I got to experience first-hand what it means to be enrolled in the top American military academy. I appreciated how the cadets put everything in place to make the visiting students acquainted with a world that often feels very unfamiliar from a civilian perspective. For this purpose, they organized a tour of the Military Academy, which is beautifully located in a bend of the Hudson river, held a weapons display and explained the long list of acronyms and traditions that are used and respected at West Point. Having studied Humanitarian Law in Belgium and New York, I found it very enriching to exchange views on current world affairs and security issues with the cadets, some of which had actual combat experience. The Conference has also allowed me to get to know some of my fellow Fulbrighters from the New York City area and the American students, who all had a very different geographical and educational background. In doing so, I have been able to promote Belgium and make invaluable contacts.
Discussing U.S. foreign policy with talented cadets and fellow students has given me a taste of the career in international relations to which I aspire. Furthermore, witnessing life at West Point has allowed me to look outside the theoretical framework that I am familiar with and to learn about how the U.S. armed forces are organized in practice. As a result, I can definitely say that my participation in the Conference has been a very rewarding experience both on the academic and social level. The days were long and packed, but this made it possible to engage in a broad range of activities and make my stay at the Academy all the more enriching. Moreover, I think the Conference makes a valuable contribution every year to bridging the perceived gaps between not only civilians and the military but also between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Therefore, I believe that the Student Conference on United States Affairs, which brings together future leaders and creates lasting relationships between them, is a laudable initiative that fits perfectly into the philosophy behind the Fulbright program.
— Hendrik Denys
All views expressed in this blog are my own and do not in any way reflect the position of the Fulbright Commission, the U.S. Department of State, the Institute for International Education or One to World.