This article originally appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of the Harvard International Review.
Fifty years after George Marshall’s address to the Harvard community—his initial sketch of the Marshall Plan—we look out upon a very different world. In the past several years alone, an extraordinary combination of developments has are strong global dimensions to more and more matters of importance—whether we are concerned with the economy and business, the environment, law and politics, medicine and public health, communications and new information technologies, forces. Given all this, what are some of the implications for Harvard and higher education as we look ahead?
Harvard is an American university, with traditions and values rooted in those of this country. Indeed, one reason that transformed the landscape—from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to East Asia, from South Africa to Latin America to the Middle East. Beyond developments within particular nations or regions, we face a world in which there or any number of other spheres.
Our world is more open, more fluid, more interconnected in certain ways—yet also very fragmented, unpredictable, and more vulnerable to strong, sometimes violent, assertions of nationalism and similar people go to Harvard from abroad is precisely because it is an American university—an institution within a society that has a distinctive national identity and a deep commitment to openness and freedom. There is no question that, in the future, it will become an institution whose activities and reach are more international. However, the university will do so within the context of its own powerfully established values and traditions. With that in mind, let me outline several interrelated priorities for consideration.
First, in many parts of the world, we have an unprecedented opportunity to consult archives and other materials that have recently become far more accessible. These materials are already helping us to understand major episodes in the history of societies that have long been closed. Students and scholars also have a much greater opportunity to interview people within these societies, in the search to comprehend the past more fully and to think more clearly about the future.
We now know, for instance, that for some considerable time before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States continued to operate on the assumption that the USSR remained a powerful, essentially monolithic rival empire—when in fact, at least toward the end of that period, it was on a path toward spectacular disintegration. We may not be able to say precisely what would have been done if the reality of that situation in 1970, 1980, or later had been known; but at the very least, we would have begun planning in a more informed way for the dramatically different situation in which we now find ourselves.
So, we must do all we can to understand the realities of the current world by investing even more substantially in research abroad and curricular change at home. The United States has not made such a concentrated investment for many years, and there is no sign that it will do so in the immediate future. In that case, the academic community must do so, because we simply cannot risk the heavy costs of moving ahead in ignorance.
Next, we must create stronger connections among our fields of international study, across disciplines and different parts of the university. We need to create more opportunities to bring together faculty and students from a range of academic fields to address problems that demand different perspectives in order to understand them as a whole.
For instance, we know a modest amount about the causes of ethnic and racial strife in parts of the world. But there is a great need for studies that reach beyond individual situations to compare the structural elements and historical circumstances that emerge when we look carefully across a range of examples. Why do some ethnic and racial groups manage to live together with a greater degree of harmony than others? Are there patterns we can discover—patterns that might guide us toward a broader understanding of ethnic and racial strife, so that we can build a more promising basis for address-ing new, as well as age-old, situations of this kind?
To undertake such studies, we need people who know the relevant languages and cultures; we need historians, ethnographers, and anthropologists; we need students of sociology, politics, and other fields. In so many different areas— whether the subject is environmental protection, the spread of infectious diseases, the unfolding of the global economy, or the effects on society of the media and of modern information networks—real progress requires approaches that can integrate knowledge and ideas across disciplines and regions.
Third, opportunities for international exchange must be expanded, bringing together people from different nations on a university campus, as well as affording more opportunity for travel, study, or work abroad. Nothing can replace the learning that happens through direct, sustained contact among people from different cultures and backgrounds.
That is how genuine discussion and debate about international issues often start—how friendships, professional relationships, and forms of mutual understanding among people from different nations can be created. And when this process continues year after year, we increase immeasurably the prospects for building on those relationships and bridging the gaps that so often arises in international affairs.
My last point relates to the state of higher education around the globe and the unusual capacity of the US system. Dozens of nations are in an uncertain state of rapid transition—politically, economically, and in other ways. Many of them simply lack the resources to create and sustain major systems of higher education. Too many countries have too small a supply of well- trained individuals to help develop stable institutions in health care or government, business or law, education or environmental planning.
Harvard and other US universities have the capacity to offer very meaningful assistance, especially through midcareer and executive education programs that al- ready exist, or others waiting to be created. Even now, thousands of individuals from more than one hundred countries flow through academic programs from year to year. We learn an extraordinary amount from these visitors, and in turn we are able to make a substantial contribution not only to the individuals, but—through them—to the societies to which they return.
Today, the long-term needs of many nations and their people lie not only in the realm of tangible goods—food, supplies, and similar kinds of help—but also in the realm of knowledge. Over time, only those societies that can count on having a flow of significant new ideas and of humane and skilled leaders—in all walks of life—are likely to sustain themselves in this increasingly internationalized, competitive, and demanding new world.
So, if there is a Marshall Plan for today or tomorrow, it must be one that embraces the effort to create greater human capital and deeper forms of understanding through education, research, and the train- ing of advanced practitioners.
Winston Churchill made a secret visit to Harvard in 1944, while the war was still raging. He was awarded an honorary degree in an extraordinary, historic ceremony. He also gave an address in Harvard’s Sanders Theater, and at one point said: “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.”
Now, that future has arrived. Empires of the mind are precisely what we are now creating. As we do so, let us do our utmost to ensure that they are humane empires, characterized by openness, inquiry, learn- ing, and real-world effectiveness: empires dedicated to the freedom and prosperity of all people, everywhere.
In the winter of 1997, the Harvard International Review invited eight distinguished guest writers to reflect on the role that the United States was meant to play in the global arena, as the world edged away from the Cold War and towards the new millennium. Eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the initial euphoria from the fall of the Soviet Union had paved the way for a more pragmatic consideration of what the United States could and should do with its extraordinary power. The topics of these essays run the gamut from US-Europe relations to arms transfer policy to the narcotics trade. Together, they craft a vision of US foreign policy that is bold, ambitious, and thoughtful. In short, they are portraits of engagement and leadership in a new era.