Revolutionary History Meets Modern History

America’s colonial history offers a unique perspective on the modern stage. What inspiration, ideas, and cautions can today’s global revolutionaries draw from the 1776 uprising in the British colonies in America?

The Center for Strategic and International Studies brings together leaders, scholars, and historians to debate some of the questions facing emerging democracies.


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Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. The podcast is going global again this week as we think once more about the challenges facing emerging democracies and unstable unions. They’re the questions America’s founding generation faced, and they’re the questions that people around the world still wrestle with today.

Joining us now are three leaders of the 2014 Williamsburg Center for Strategic and International Studies Forum titled, “A Crisis and a Crossroads: A Disunited or United States of Europe.”

Before we talk about what that means, let me introduce our guests; Stephen Hanson, Director of the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William & Mary.Thank you for being here today.

Stephen Hanson: Thank you so much for having me.

Our other guest, Reggie Dale, Director of the Williamsburg CSIS Forum, Senior Fellow in the CSIS, Europe Program, and Director of the CSIS Transatlantic Media Network. Reggie, thank you for being our guest today.

Reggie Dale: I’m pleased to be here.

Harmony: And of course, Colin Campbell, President of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Thank you for joining us again Mr. Campbell.

Colin Campbell: Good to see you, Harmony.

Harmony: Well where should we begin? I think we should talk about what brings us together today: the nature of this conference. Colin, maybe you’d like to start with a general overview?

Colin: Well, the Williamsburg CSIS Forum is designed to address on a regular basis some of the key issues facing the globe at the moment, and certainly the issue of the future of Europe is a key issue. A great concern of Europeans, Americans and others around the world. Therefore, we thought this was an extraordinary time. And it turned out to be an even more extraordinary time to address that issue and so that’s why we’re here.

 And it’s all part of a broader issue, Harmony. It’s all part of Colonial Williamsburg’s initiative as a Center for History and Citizenship and also part of our view that these kinds of activities in these times require partnership to be effective. And so we have two great partners. The Center for Strategic and International Studies from Washington, D.C. which is one of the leading think tanks in the world and certainly has an extraordinary record on the international agenda.

And also, the Emery Reves Center at the College of William & Mary, which is a really wonderful institution that is doing important things with the undergraduate and graduate students at the college and beyond. So, together the three of us put together a program last year on the future of Egypt, this year the future of Europe, next year the future of Africa. That’s broadly stated in each case and we think this is something that is really important for all three of us to do and to do together. That’s why we’re here.

Harmony: Reggie, Colin mentioned CSIS out of D.C. and the partnership that exists there. Talk to us a little bit about, you know, as the leader of your organization what this partnership allows you to do and what these conversations allow you to bring about.

Reggie: Yes. Well, for some time at CSIS we’ve been looking for, or some of us at CSIS, have been looking for a way of broadening our scope to hold dialogues, conversations outside the regular Washington way of doing things which is very hectic and frantic. We have hundreds of people every day into our new building in Washington. I’m thinking something more like what the Aspen Institute does in Colorado or the Salzburg seminar. There are various groups like this.

And so, to have a partnership with Colonial Williamsburg and, in fact the whole of Williamsburg if you include William & Mary, provides us with that sort of extra dimension for a way of looking at policy and political challenges around the world in a different setting and one in which people can be more relaxed and can have a real conversation; become friends, explore these issues and that’s what we’ve been doing.

I should add to what Colin said is one of the focuses of our partnership is to look at the formation and development of political cultures and institutions. And so in our first conference on Egypt, we were looking at a country in the process of a revolution which was looking for newer institutions, drawing up new constitutions -- and that of course is very relevant to American history as represented here.

And in Europe and in particularly inside the Euro zone, they’re looking at how to create new institutions for running a federal or confederal Europe which recalls very, very strongly the discussions that were held by the American founding fathers in the late 18th century. The whole question of state authority versus the central federal authority and on the economic front, of course, that was the focus of the arguments between the federalists and Alexander Hamilton and the anti-federalists and you see exactly that same argument going on in Europe today.

Harmony: I don’t know whether we should think of it as heartening or disheartening that these same conflicts seem to echo through time. I don’t know if we ever really learn the answer to some of these questions. Is that what makes discussion so important in an ongoing way?

Colin: I’m not sure it’s conflicts, so much as addressing a variety of views and debating values. It’s a more positive thing than addressing conflicts. It’s not a negative thing that’s happening in Europe today. In many ways, it’s a very positive thing as it was in the American Revolutionary period. One of things that’s important about doing this here is the historical context. To the fact that we are at Colonial Williamsburg very concerned about history and history is very relevant to what’s being discussed in these meetings today, as was so obvious yesterday afternoon.

Reggie: I don’t think it’s that we haven’t learned anything. It’s that when human beings confront an endeavor like this, great cooperation, forming a greater and more cohesive unit among states or countries. These are inevitably the sort of dilemmas that they come up against, and therefore there may be something that Europeans today can learn from seeing what the Americans went through and the sort of arguments and successes and failures they had with their own very similar efforts.

Stephen: If I can add to that briefly, I think that’s one of the things that makes this partnership so exciting for William & Mary, because it really does connect American history to contemporary events in a way that’s not preaching, you know, it’s not really saying, “We did everything right, everybody else has to learn from us.” Rather, it’s to re-engage with the big debates of American history that did create a pretty remarkable republic and right in this spot in Williamsburg.

But nevertheless to be open to a debate about what we did wrong, what others might do better. And I’ve seen that reflection and that kind of interaction between history and contemporary events of both of the forums so far. It’s really inspiring. I may add, too, that for William & Mary it’s a wonderful partnership precisely because we see the intellectual firepower of all three organizations coming together in this incredible synergy.

You know, we’ve been a global university at William & Mary since 1693 when we were really founded as an overseas campus of the British crown, educating world intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson. And this, in a way, is reclaiming our heritage, bringing it together with similar intellectual firepower at Colonial Williamsburg, at CSIS. So I think this kind of tripartite approach is really creating something much greater than the sum of its parts which is already pretty considerable.

Colin: I think one of the interesting things about this particular approach is that we started out in the Egypt conference and in this conference with a look back at American history and as Steve has said, “the successes and the failures.” And the thing that is gratifying to me is that, as was the case last spring at this conference this week, there is constant reference back to the historical comments that were made by Professor Gordon Wood at the beginning of the conference. People are seeing what we’re trying to do, and they’re fitting their comments into that context and it’s very gratifying.

Harmony: What does this partnership look like going forward? I’d like to hear from all of you on this question. Maybe we’ll start with you, Reggie. We haven’t heard your voice in a little while. What does this partnership look like for you moving forward into next year and the decade beyond?

Reggie: Well, next year we’re planning another conference on Africa as Colin mentioned. But it will be looking at the issues of constitutional development in Africa, which is a very interesting topic because Africa is emerging as a big new focus of interest in the world. It’s economically, it’s prospering as it hasn’t probably ever since the colonial time in Africa and for the first time since independence. Most African countries only became independent in the 1950s or around there.

They’re beginning to, as prosperity increases, they’re beginning to look at their matters of governance and they’re not very happy with them. For one reason, the borders of countries in Africa were drawn by colonial powers and they don’t fit naturally. They’re not a natural fit onto the African pattern of race, religion, ethnicity, so they cut across a whole lot of areas. And you’re left with countries which are very diverse and groups of who are from different tribes, from different religions and so on. It is very hard to govern.

So what they’re looking at now, several African countries either have to create new constitutions like South Sudan, who has just broke away from Sudan. It’s totally new. It has to start from scratch. Other African countries like South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria have also been instituting constitutional reforms, and they’re looking and this brings us back to exactly the same subject. How do you have a good governance of an area which contains different or the equivalent of the American states or European countries? Because these are very powerful regional groupings.

One of the trends at the moment, because these countries the ones that became independent from Britain, many of them inherited a British Westminster-style centralized government are now thinking, “Well, maybe we need a more federal, more U.S. style of government to govern these diverse countries with perhaps more power for the regions like the states in the United States.”

So in fact exactly across Africa again you find the same sort of arguments or discussion going on as you do in the Eurozone and as you did in the 1780s and ‘90s in the United States. So that’s a perfect fit again for us. You can look at American roots for these sort of dilemmas and yet they’re extremely important contemporary issues.

Harmony: Steve Hanson, where does the Reves Center come in in the future of this partnership?

Stephen: Well I’ll say a few words about Africa first and then maybe go broader from there. On the Africa side, we’re also very excited about that next conference. We’ve been investing a lot in African studies at William & Mary. We actually have four African historians now, which is a really large percentage compared to most history departments. We do work on global health issues and we’re going to be one of the sites for hosting the Obama administration’s Young African Leaders initiative, which will bring young African leaders from 25-35 years of age from all over the continent, sub-Saharan as well as north Africa to the U.S. for summer stays over the next five years.

So it’s perfect timing for us to think about ways in which William & Mary student and faculty engagement and the entire African continent can intersect with the forum. Going forward for us it’s a signature initiative. The Reeves Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. We were founded actually in 1989 just as the Berlin Wall was about to fall, and so we see ourselves really as part of a trend in higher education or maybe leading such a trend to take global issues much more seriously to bring them into interconnection with each other, not to segment out different disciplines or different regions, as if somehow you could study the history of Africa and the isolation from the history of the United States or global health issues in one country as opposed to on a genuinely transcontinental basis.

And William and Mary’s small enough that we can bring those disciplines together in a fairly effective, we think, fairly impactful way. So these are all things we hope will feed into the forum’s relationships with CSIS and Colonial Williamsburg.

Colin: I think one thing, Harmony, that I would mention is the issue of citizenship because citizenship is what is concerning of the folks at CSIS and as we talk about Europe its what’s concerning us all as we think about what’s happening in Africa. What do we mean by that today? What is the role of the citizen today and how is that role related to the role of the citizen at the time of the American Revolution?

And so, we have a common core question about the role of the citizenship, and I think that’s something that will make a big difference to us over time. That’s why Colonial Williamsburg has taken an initiative here, because we really believe that that linkage between history and citizenship is so important.

Harmony: Thank you all for being here today. Best of luck with this conference and with the ones coming forward in the coming years.


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