In what has become an annual tradition, the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) and the Department of Political Science, Baylor University, held their eighth annual summer conference on June 20 and 21 at AHI headquarters in Clinton, New York. This year’s theme, “The Cold War and American Statesmanship,” focused on writings by Ambassador George Kennan, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and President Ronald Reagan.   Dr. David Clinton, an expert on international relations, especially American foreign policy and diplomacy, and chairman of Baylor’s Department of Political Science, directed the discussion.  In five sessions over two days, participants explored the origin and evolution of the Cold War and the role of statesmanship in the course of its history.

AHI Undergraduate Fellow Alex Klosner at Summer Conference

AHI Undergraduate Fellow Alex Klosner at Summer Conference

Lively discussions during the day were followed by evening get-togethers on nearby Hatch Lake at the cottage of Baylor professors and AHI senior fellows David and Mary Nichols.  Attendees, including students, members of AHI, area and affiliated faculty, family members, and members of the Clinton-area community, continued the conversations over a barbeque dinner.  The Nicholses have handled the organization of the summer conference since 2008, the first full year of AHI’s operation.

AHI co-founder Robert Paquette welcomed the attendants by recalling the words of a previous attendee, who called the AHI “a serious place where serious people gather to discuss issues seriously.”  Paquette stated that such conferences are especially needed during “an age of intensification of specialization.”  We need to get “out of our sandbox,” he said as he introduced sixteen panelists who came from a range of disciplines and research areas.   “By focusing on the writings produced by great minds, he noted, the summer conference offers opportunities for persons of all walks of life to enrich their lives in a world of infinite complexity.”

This year’s topic, the Cold War, continues to inspire debates among historians, political scientists, diplomats, and political leaders, while its impact on American society continues to be felt.  Accordingly, readings under discussion ranged from the Cold War’s beginnings immediately following World War II, when George Kennan occupied a high-ranking diplomatic post in the Soviet Union, to President Reagan’s farewell speech in 1989, after the long-hated Berlin Wall had come down.  As Dr. Clinton noted, the Cold War was a time when the achievements of Western civilization were at risk.  The three authors under discussion, while not “carbon copies,” all called themselves conservatives at some point as they sought to protect Western civilization from the multi-level threat of Communism generally and of the Soviet Union specifically.

George Kennan, striving to assess the Soviet threat while living under the regime’s restrictions, provided insights into the Russian character and reigning ideology.  Readings included the famous 1946 “Long Telegram,” his 1947 lecture to the National War College, and passages from his Memoirs.  They were wrapped up by Kennan’s later assessments in American Diplomacy (1951) and Realities of American Foreign Policy (1954). The readings began with Kennan’s attempt to educate Washington about the Soviet threat in a 5,500-word telegram, while, as Professor Clinton put it, “having a very bad day.”  Kennan described how ideology disrupted natural loyalties and relations and inspired defensiveness and anxiety, while he warned against Americans similarly adopting an attitude of belligerence and hysteria. Likening Communism to a disease that attacks a society weakened by “disunity,” Kennan advised Americans to strengthen its own values as a bulwark of defense.

Henry Kissinger, a “realist,” saw diplomacy in the nuclear age stymied by bureaucrats and technicians and by a build-up of nuclear weapons that could not be used to counter the range of challenges.  As Britain and France acquired nuclear weapons and the U.S. became more dependent on foreign oil, Kissinger attached increasing importance to the structuring of an American-led international order.  He faced the challenge of getting consensus from the American people still divided over the Vietnam War as he participated in the Paris peace talks.  Excerpts from a number of Kissinger’s works were discussed, including A World Restored (1954), The White House Years (1970), Years of Upheaval (1982), as well as two of President Richard Nixon’s annual reports to Congress, which outlined “The Nixon Doctrine.”

President Ronald Reagan criticized the Nixon/Kissinger policy of détente (continued under President Gerald Ford) as inadequate.  He began his strategy of strength with his presidential campaign. It focused on the inadequacy of U.S. response to human rights violations by the Soviet Union as well as the weakness and irresolution displayed during the Iranian hostage crisis.  Tuesday afternoon’s final session examined Reagan’s foreign policy as expressed in his inaugural and farewell addresses and the “Evil Empire Speech” (1983), delivered before the National Association of Evangelicals, as well as in his autobiography An American Life (1990).  A passage near the end of Reagan’s Farewell Address sparked one of the conference’s most intense discussions:  “But now, we’re about to enter the nineties and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom-freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.”

In thinking about President Reagan’s line about the need to “reinstitutionalize” the American spirit, Paquette closed out the conference by referring to Who Are We? (2004), a book by Kissinger’s contemporary and sometime rival, Samuel Huntington.  Nearing the end of his life, Huntington, one of the most distinguished political scientists of his generation, saw the United States in crisis, besieged by internal and external threats to a distinctive civilization.  Who Are We? issued a cri de coeur about the need to define the United States’ core values, its public orthodoxy, as an indispensable prerequisite to the development of an effective international strategic vision in defense of the national interest.  The hope for a renewal in the idea of a confident and coherent American identity, he observed, lay in the young people, future leaders, attending the conference.

The annual summer conference provided opportunities for students to interact with professors. Debbie O’Malley, who recently defended her dissertation prospectus at Baylor, returned this year for the fourth time (serving as a panelist in 2013 and 2014) and said that the AHI conference on Alexis de Tocqueville two years ago made her rethink her thesis and inspired a new direction for her dissertation, now titled, “Religious Institutions and Associational Freedom in U.S. Supreme Court Jurisprudence.”  She has had a general interest in religious freedom, but prior to the 2014 conference had been thinking in terms of individual rights.  Of concern to her is the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2011), in which the Supreme Court upheld the policy of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, that required student groups to accept all students regardless of their status or beliefs in order to obtain recognition.  A campus gay rights group had challenged the Christian Legal Society’s requirement that members subscribe to a “Statement of

[Christian] Beliefs.”  She called the decision and the policy a “stealthy way of undermining speech” and in conflict with freedom of association, or the “ability to structure groups by beliefs”—the concept of voluntary association described by Tocqueville as a bulwark against the tyranny of the majority.  “Tocqueville showed me what’s at stake,” she said.  “Freedom of association is essential for the whole of society, not just the individual.”  O’Malley was so excited by the idea that occurred to her during the conference that she told Professor David Nichols about it as he was driving her to the airport.  He liked the idea right away and is directing her dissertation.  Drawing on her earlier experience, O’Malley added that the conferences are helpful in preparing for the comprehensive exams given at the end of the summer.

Jeremy Schmuck, a first-time attendee and first-year graduate student in International Relations at Baylor, said he enjoyed the hospitality and appreciated the opportunity to meet several good scholars from Baylor and elsewhere.  Alex Klosner, an AHI undergraduate leader and rising Hamilton College senior, sees the AHI’s activities as fostering intellectual and academic nurturing.  He attended as a member of the audience, something he has been doing since coming to Hamilton.  The AHI, he said during a break, “exposed me to several viewpoints I would not have been exposed to in regular classes.”  Klosner also was inspired by the 2014 conference on de Tocqueville.  He enrolled in Professor Paquette’s course, “Tocqueville’s America,” in which the students read both volumes of Democracy in America, cover to cover.  An economics major, Klosner says that Tocqueville has “profound relevance today.”  One point that has remained with him is Tocqueville’s statement, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

In addition to local and out-of-state students and academics, the summer conference attracted several community members to its audience.  Dawn Laguerre, a public relations professional who lives in nearby Utica, is a frequent participant in AHI activities, such as community classes, lectures, and summer conferences.  After a lunchtime conversation with Professor Clinton, she told me that she enjoys the “academic smorgasbord of ideas.”  “It’s exciting and stimulating to hear such a diverse number of ideas from students,” she said.  She particularly liked the discussion around the Kissinger readings and the distinction between a “philosopher-king” and “a policy maker.”

Keith (“Kit”) Blackmore, a local veterinarian, has attended all eight summer conferences and says he always finds the interplay among panelists and with audience members enjoyable to watch.  He described the conference as “a comfortable group of friends talking intelligently.” Blackmore has participated in all the community classes.  “AHI is a comfortable place for me,” he commented.  Recalling this spring’s class on the “Red/Blue Divide,” he said that AHI is a place where “people of different political positions can talk to each other.”

This year’s conference took place during two days of perfect summer weather.  Some students departed on their way to comprehensive exams or to write dissertations.   The influence of the AHI’s annual summer conference will show, as it did for Debbie O’Malley, in this work.

By Resident Fellow Mary Grabar