When the Council on Foreign Relations Goes Back to School

(Photo Credit: Council on Foreign Relations)

When the Council on Foreign Relations invites you for a talk — especially if you’re a young, wide-eyed, and not-quite-jaded international relations student — you answer the summons. You ditch your lunch date, you skip class, you forget midterm cram sessions, just for an afternoon, just for this. 

I got the e-mail about a month ago, along with what seems like every globally minded, upwardly mobile, prep school, tony, or Ivy League student in the tristate area. The Council — that well-endowed, corporate-backed, nearly mythic in a back-room cabal kind-of-way organization — wanted the future leaders of the world to stop by for a discussion on globalization, and then stay for tiny donuts and power mingling after.

So when I approached the Upper East Side edifice of the Council hall Friday afternoon, I had to pause. Not for the architecture (staid, vaguely Masonic), but for the New York University undergrads thronged outside, taking selfies by the front door, practically basking in — as a Council vice president put it — this terrific opportunity. 

Once through the mob, I slapped on my sticky-backed name tag and took a seat in the downstairs event hall. Behind me were five high school kids who had bussed down from Connecticut, presumably with parental waivers. These really were the future leaders of America. One of them, a 17-year-old, was even auditing a graduate course at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs called “China’s Rise and the World Economy.” 

That enthusiasm for this sort of thing was not singular. Not in this building, anyway.

Unlike the audiences of other of lectures on world trade sometimes broadcast on C-SPAN3, the 200 or so young, intelligentsia-inclined attendees in the hall were practically chirping, their voices twittering in the way you talk to your seatmate on a roller coaster on the way up to the first drop. 

Like on some Disney rides, this one began with a slick A/V presentation. 

Set to the sort of contemporary string soundtrack and fun, friendly, graphics you find in a Buzzfeed video, a 5-minute clip deftly explained why a Brooklynite’s Sunday brunch of avocado toast is invariably threatened by the interplay of the North American Free Trade Agreement, China’s burgeoning and competing love for brunch, and Mexican drug cartels discovering that avocados, those omega-3 goldmines, can be more lucrative than weed. 

If the clip was propaganda for a one-world government, then I was hooked. Those high schoolers a row back were too. Avocado economics to them might as well have been an early release of the next Star Wars. 

And that was just the opening act. As the credits rolled, out came the panelists — to rockstar applause. 

There was Edward Alden, journalist, finance commentator, award-winning author. Next was Dr. Shannon K. O’Neil, a global economic wunderkind who holds advanced degrees from Harvard, Yale, has testified before congress, and taught at Columbia. Finally, there was Miles Kahler, a genial 67-year-old Harvard man to whom Chinese students come to learn more about China.   

The three of them were a nuclear triad of intellectual capital, veritable weapons of mass erudition. 

When Carla Anne Robbins, the equally formidable, Pulitzer winning, Ph.D-bearing moderator set them loose on the topic of globalization, an ivory tower somewhere in Metaphorland surely gleamed a little brighter.

From Brexit to MAGA, NAFTA to DACA, the trio elucidated with nuance and knowledge. I heard the phrase “lotus eaters” for the first time aloud, and even better, it was in the context of what to do after robots have taken over, and in a room where universal minimum income is part of a serious discussion. 

There was, of course, jibing between a young Yale man in the crowd with the panel’s Harvard man, seemingly sparked by the Yalie’s inability to refer to the 45th President of the United States by name during the open-floor question and answer session. 

There was also the discussion of pain. 

Every panel member mentioned it in some way, approximately every 5 minutes, during the hour-long talk. 

Alden said it most succinctly, but unintentionally with the most platitude: “There is a lot of pain now in this country.”

Of course, none of the Americans feeling this kind of globalization-induced pain — the ones whose jobs really have been taken by robots, or Chinese people — were present in the room.

Those Americans, the ones most grievously afflicted by addiction to painkillers and liquid depressants, foreclosures and 21st-Century Death of a Salesman daydreams, are the rural types who didn’t get a Kia plant in their town, the coal miners now outnumbered by Arby’s employees, and assembly line widget makers who don’t own an iPhone, and thus can’t become Uber drivers.

For all the muscle of this M1 Abrams of a think tank, answers were sparse on the topic.

O’Neil, a product of the Rust Belt, did offer one solution:

“I grew up in a place with pain,” she said. “I left. I live in New York now.”

As quickly as the talk began, though, the pall of abstract troubles that gave rise to Donald Trump, and maybe World War III according to at least one sitting U.S. Senator, was lifted. 

It was time to mingle.

Shunted up a spiraling staircase to the Council’s second floor, a layer deeper inside the sanctum of influence, the multitudes streamed into wood-paneled, portrait-lined rooms. The very rooms, that before tobacco was passé, were literally the smoke-filled places that gave rise to the allure and mystique of the CFR. 

Packed shoulder-to-shoulder, with David Rockefeller in oil paint presiding, the visiting students balanced pastry plates and coffee cups, extra careful not to spill, jockeying for a spot within the chat circles that quickly formed around the day’s speakers.  

The word soup of it all was peak policy wonk. Internationalism incarnate.

“...they need to open their borders more...” 

“...they want to do a double think...”

“...this thing on Al-Jazeera…”

“...Rohingya kids…”


And, albeit tinged with a touch of corporate outreach: “I love how diverse this group is.”

Indeed, the number of hyphenated-Americans and foreign nationals present was astounding for such a room, though pretty par for the city that surrounds it: A Palestinian-American from Hunter. An Egyptian at NYU. A black Londoner going to Lehman. A Cambodian-American from Columbia. Present was virtually every human ingredient necessary to form an ad hoc model United Nations — or a who’s who of the future leaders of the world. 

Though, as one visiting student confided: “I feel like it’s an effort to recruit us.”

If only for a day.

The Council on Foreign Relations hosted its 8th annual “Back-to-School” event in New York. The free event aimed to introduce students to CFR resources and to provide an opportunity for them to interact with foreign policy experts, according to a press release.