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Why study cultural engagement? A discussion with Prof. Al Santoli

Al Santoli

In this interview, we talk to Professor Al Santoli, whose course on Cultural Engagement through Development and Counterterrorism (IWP 670) will be offered this spring. 

What trends in the world today make this class immediately relevant to current and aspiring national security professionals?

During the past year, the international security situation has deteriorated, with the rise of ISIS and new Taliban in the Middle East and Central Asia, dangerous aggression by Russia and China, and potential disruption of vital human needs for maintaining functional civil society.  There is no single solution to address these issues, which include conventional and unconventional armed aggression; extremist movements becoming more sophisticated; mega-storms and environmental-related calamities; refugee and migration chaos; and a growing socio-economic gap between the super-wealthy and everyone else.

The class I teach on Cultural Engagement looks at the role of private organizations in addressing some of these issues using cost-effective methods that the US Military and other governmental agencies have not achieved.  As a member of the Reagan Doctrine privateer team in the “killing fields” of Asia, and a former senior advisor in Congress and a battle-experienced military combatant, I have a unique combination of professional experiences that shaped my humanitarian commitments and that have contributed to the development of this course.

This class has very practical applications. Could you describe how it differs from a more theoretical academic course?

The class is based in part on the practical experience of my own organization Asia America Initiative in areas of armed conflict, dysfunctional governance, and dire poverty, along with the valuable experiences of other experts in the civil society and non-governmental community.  Although our partnerships are global, my field work is rooted in the American experience of equal opportunity, liberty and justice. We will have guest lecturers in the class who are also experts in these fields.  In addition, we will structure the class around a core of very of inspiring books that emphasize the importance of cultural engagement, historical awareness, the role of economics in understanding the “Development Traps” which create armed conflict, gender roles, and the unique American tradition of relationships with peoples outside of our own culture dating back to the pre-colonial period; and the important role of women in community leadership.

What historical case studies are you using in the class?

The historical case studies we will use in the class are based on the pre-Revolutionary French and Indian Wars in New England; the Chinese adaptation of ancient rivalries between kingdoms to modern “unrestricted warfare” conflict with the United States; what  “New Americans” coming from countries around the world see in the US in comparison to conditions in the countries they departed during the Cold War period; the role of economics in the post-Cold War “conflict of civilizations” at the time of 9/11 and invasion of Iraq via a study funded by the World Bank; and others. 

What current case studies are you using?

We will look at Iraq and Afghanistan; the Philippines; and the Lake Chad area of Africa, as well as the global situation incorporating the “conflict traps” of injustice, food, water, migration and population movement. 

How are you incorporating the American experience into your class?

Ronald Reagan stated that in order to overcome our adversaries and hold on to our allies, we must show people who we are and not simply what we are against.  In the Cultural Engagement class, we will look at America’s founding values and how they were shaped in the colonial era, as well as how foreign people see America and what they believe we represent.  We will also compare U.S. foreign policy trends and role of the private sector from World War II to present.

What lessons do you bring from your work at Asia America Initiative to this class?

The unique position I have as a field practitioner is that I am constantly learning and adapting to the ongoing international situation, as well as becoming more astute as a cultural engagement specialist.  Also, because AAI does not receive U.S. government funds, and, as a former soldier, I have been at the “bottom of the policy pyramid” where your life hangs in the balance, the class is very objective in discussing strengths and weaknesses of U.S. policy and performance.

What type of student should take this class? 

Students interested in counterterrorism, international relations, conflict mediation, the role of women in international development, and the impact of nature, economics and public health and education on international security.  

If you are mainly focused on NGO work in the class, why should a student interested working for the government find this beneficial?

The U.S. government is increasingly short of funds to continue be a world military or socio-economic superpower. The private sector is needed to act in a cost-effective and innovative manner to supplement the nation’s needs in security and development internationally. Cultural Engagement is essential to conduct a “Full Spectrum” for diplomacy and security.

Seminar with Al Santoli, September 2014