Recently, I’ve been hearing an uptick in remarks from friends and colleagues about the distressing state of our world today, often citing examples like the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the rash of airplane crashes and/or disappearances, the rise in anti-Semitism in response to the latest waves of violence between Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government (and the violence itself), the global response (or lack thereof) to the Ebola crisis, failure to converge in collective action on environmental issues, the handling of the Ferguson protests and the spread and actions of ISIS. Considering these examples, it’s hard to answer the questions of what kind of world do we live in? with anything but negative replies. But that’s the wrong question altogether.

Victoria Noble

As students, it would be fun to believe that the work that we’re doing right here and now can seismically affect the systematic destruction that we see in the world today — but for the most part, save for a few rather impressive exceptions, we unfortunately can’t. The decisions shaping global interactions today are made by men and women who were educated years ago. As we further our own education and careers, the more relevant question becomes: what kind of world do we want to live in?

We have the awesome — and I really do mean to use that adjective literally — privilege of shaping the future world. So pay attention, because the problems of today will soon be lessons of the past — simultaneous sources of failure and wisdom, actions that lay the seedbed for future progress and further regression into violence and regional entropy.

The Cold War proxy war in Afghanistan, lasting from December 1979 to February 1989, is an example of this . The United States aided and effectively armed the mujahideen to help combat the ideology behind the Brezhnev Doctrine. The victory over the Soviet Army was quite profound, and left a lasting victory for capitalism and democracy over socialism, and marked the turning point in the eventual dismantling of the Soviet state.

The actions of the leaders at the time laid the groundwork for the issues that the now matured leaders of our world today contend with. U.S. foreign policy in the Afghan intervention was a contributing factor to the rise of Al-Qaeda and other powerful yet extreme groups. As a more mundane example, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations academic work influenced the ideology of this same group.

To maintain that the current events and their analysis won’t be relevant by the time that it is our time to lead is nonsense. We live in an important period in international relations and domestic politics. The moves our leaders make in dealing with ISIS will shape regional culture long-term, impacting the types and strength of movements that could gain traction in the Middle East in the future. The multilateral public health response to the Ebola crisis will not only set a precedent for future efforts, but also all but determine whether or not the disease will become introduced outside of the region in non-hospital settings. Systematic review of police policy and a conscious look at cultural attitudes in response prevent a repeat occurrence of the Michael Brown shooting could substantially affect race relations and the quality of the American criminal justice system. There is no issue today that won’t have a lasting affect on the work that may need to be done in the future.

We will have to collectively determine what kind of world we will want to live in as adults. But, to quote my favorite musical “The Sound of Music,” “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.” The basis for our decisions about what to do next must be predicated on what has already has been done. Even if we aren’t conscious of the events that shape future interaction, the implementation of policy will reflect the impact of past realities.

So read, and read a lot. Learn, and seek out the experiences to learn as much as you can about anything and everything. Undoubtedly, many of us will eventually find ourselves in highly responsible positions with the ability to affect the outcomes of very pressing situations. But even before we get to that point, it’s important to remember that we live in a democratic country. The option to hold the powerful accountable and affect political decisions rests in the hands of all of us (assuming that we are all 18 and don’t have any unserved jail time). Hopefully, we’ll fulfill our civic responsibility this November to cast an informed ballot.

Understanding the current world is key to determining what kind of world we want to live in later down the road — and how to build that world.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.

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