International Affairs Symposium held in person, hosts global experts, discusses assigning blame

Photograph courtesy of Nina Johnson

Madeline Gallagher ’22 and Madison Thomas ’22 co-chaired this year’s International Affairs Symposium (IAS), “The Blame Game: Reimagining Fault and Responsibility on the Global Stage.” The student-run symposium, which was celebrating its 60th anniversary, ran from April 4 to 6.

This is the first in-person IA symposium since 2019 due to the coronavirus. According to the co-chairs and faculty organizer Bob Mandel, Marc Messina chair and professor of IA, the pandemic was still a challenge, but they were excited to return in person. Because of the format of the event, which features a series of five debates between two speakers each, organizers did not offer a virtual option for attendance.

“It’s been very sad because two years ago, the students had hoped … that it would be an in-person symposium and then a week before, the whole thing was canceled,” Mandel said. “They had worked for a whole academic year and gotten nothing. Last year we put on a zoom version, but unlike with other symposia, Zoom is absolutely terrible for our event. We focus on head-to-head confrontation in each session between two people with diametrically opposed views and we have a moderator who tries to expand that even further.”

The absence of an in-person IA symposium for the past few years has had multiple ramifications for the group. According to Thomas, of the 13 students on the steering committee, only five had attended any in-person symposium before. Though both co-chairs have been involved in IA symposiums before, they too felt an absence of experience.

“We both had been part of steering committees, but we’ve never seen a full (in-person) symposium through,” Thomas said. “So I know for me, that was a big motivating factor. I knew that this year there was a good chance that that would be possible and so I wanted to be a part of that again.”

Additionally, the co-chairs said the lack of awareness of the symposium was even more prevalent among the student body at large.

“Then I think our biggest challenge, at least in my opinion, was just how do you conduct a PR campaign for your event when over half of the students on campus have never seen your event?” Thomas said. “I think awareness was really low, so we just had to work extra hard to combat that.” 

Because of this, they felt that the theme and branding for this year’s IA symposium was especially important. The co-chairs criticized some of the previous themes for being too broad, or not framing the event, which was something they wanted to avoid.

“The blame game, it’s fun and pizzazz-y, but it also definitely means something in international affairs,” Gallagher said. “… We want to bring in controversy, and that’s not just through the opposing sides, but in our topics as well.”

Mandel agreed that many of the previous themes were lackluster because they had attempted to bridge too many concepts together. “The Blame Game,” however, was much more compelling for Mandel.

“I loved the emotional component to it,” Mandel said. “I love the fact that it relates so much to what’s going on in the world today, that people are pointing their fingers at someone else to blame for their problems. I think the proof that it worked out really well is that most of the speakers on their own, with no prompting from us, mentioned the blame issue in their talks.”

The first debate focused on the question, “Is the destruction of property and infrastructure in the name of environmental protection effective?” Environmental activists Rod Coronado and Paul Watson debated this question. According to Thomas, the first idea that came to mind with blame and the environment was climate change. However, organizers felt the topic was often discussed, and they wanted to focus on an issue with less attention.

Afterwards, the second debate “The Sins of the Ancestors” asked about reckoning with colonialism, as well as if reparations are a necessary step in moving forward. University of San Diego Professor Roy Brooks, who was in favor of reparations, and political commentator Armstrong Williams, who was against, debated this topic.

Given Lewis & Clark’s name and its status as a predominantly white institution, co-organizers felt it was significant to bring this debate to campus.

“I think that it was really important for us to have that on this campus,” Gallagher said. “We certainly were not going to have this debate happen between people who weren’t two Black people. That’s what made it important, was actually seeing people who would be affected by these reparations and what they actually have to say about it, because it was personal.”

The third debate “Neutrality: Needless or Necessary?” questioned, “Is a commitment to neutrality necessary in order for humanitarian aid organizations to be effective?” This debate featured two international experts Hichem Khadhraoui and Corinne Momal-Vanian. Later that evening, the fourth debate “No Pain No Gain?” with international economics expert Gary Hufbauer and research fellow and commentator Assal Rad took place. This debate, which was Gallagher’s favorite, asked “Should sanctioning countries be blamed for the suffering inflicted upon civilians by economic sanctions?” According to Gallagher, this debate felt especially relevant given the recent sanctions imposed against Russia.

Lastly, the fifth debate “Globalized (In)tolerance” asked attendees to consider “Does globalization increase tolerance or exacerbate xenophobia?” This debate, which pitted navy veteran Tina Covey and Professor at the Goldsmiths, University of London Cris Shore against each other, has resonated the most with Mandel in the following days.

For Mandel, he is thankful for the return to an in-person IAS and believes it is emblematic of what is important about LC.

“I just feel blessed to be at a place that’s so supportive of not only symposia that focus on controversy and disagreement, but symposia that focus on global issues and take a global perspective,” Mandel said. “Our current president is so internationally oriented, and the catchphrase at Lewis & Clark, the mission statement involves promoting the global good and it’s just wonderful to see that.”

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