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Thoughts on the Peace Corps

There's a post that's been kicking around in my head for awhile and reading the blog of one of my fellow South African finally brought it into focus (her blog is great, by they way, you should definitely check it out):
As much as I came into this thinking I was expectation-free, the reality of it is I did expect to see circumstances more along the lines of what I saw in Ghana and Uganda. I’ve been struggling a little bit with this and somewhat questioning the role of Peace Corps here. The biggest problems, as far as I have seen thus far, lie in the lack of morale and motivations of society and continued disparity among races. These are problems that can only be healed with time. Clearly, there is work to be done in the schools and there is definite value to having Peace Corps volunteers working in them. I think my problems are more selfish, in the fact that I have never held much interest in working in education, among other things. Anyway, I know there’s no use in second-guessing since I’m determined to stay regardless.
This is almost exactly how I've been feeling lately, being right up in the face of an education system in almost total collapse. The biggest problem is not the lack of teachers (though that is a problem) it's that the teachers don't do their jobs. For my part, I'm tending to trace this to a problem with the Batswana culture in general, but I won't go into that yet; I'll save it for another post. Yet I too am asking "what the hell am I doing here?" (Not that I want to leave--I'm having a great time for the most part. Think of it as more academic curiosity.)

Matt Yglesias turned me on to this article in the Washington Note:
It is undoubtedly true that the United States remains the predominant military power on Earth - and that countries as diverse as Canada, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Japan (along with many others) depend on American military power to provide security for international commerce as well as for baseline, worst-case scenario security guarantees. There is also little doubt that the United States obtains strategic benefits in exchange for these services in the form of energy supplies, cooperation against common threats, and more.

The problem is that this power - while immense - is not very fungible. That is, the United States cannot easily threaten to withhold a portion of its security guarantee or its protection of international waterways if (say) Turkey chooses not to support the United States' policy toward (say) Iran. Compounding the problem is that the worst-case scenarios in which American military power would be necessary are more difficult to imagine today.
My college history professor reminded me just the other day of something he calls "Segel's First Law: Every problem is essentially a problem in diplomatic history." Here I think I've found my answer. We're here as one of the faces of a new "soft-power" approach toward diplomacy for the new administration. Since we aren't invading random countries left and right one might suppose that America had lost interest in influencing the world, or had perhaps scaled down its efforts. Not so. I'm part of the diplomatic shtick now.


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