Sewanee Debate Union hosts debate on the role of the U.S. in the world

Vice-Chancellor Brigety speaks at the Sewanee Debate Union’s debate in Convocation Hall. Photo by Sambhav Bansal (C’23).

By Maggie Lorenzen
Contributing Writer

On Tuesday, October 27, the Sewanee Debate Union hosted a U.S. Global Leadership Debate with the topic “This House Believes the United States Should Act as the Predominant World Leader.” Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety, Alexa Fults (C’21), and Ben Shipp (C’22) stood in proposition and Dr. Scott Wilson, Jared Williams (C’21), and Kate Cheever (C’23) in opposition. Students, faculty, and staff were invited to attend either in-person or online, and all had the opportunity to submit questions to the Union beforehand. Viewers were then offered the ability and encouraged to vote for the side they believe gave the best argument. 

The event drew much attention: at the maximum, there was an audience of 188 on Zoom and 53 present in Convocation Hall. Each side was given two rounds of eight minutes each, switching between teams, to argue their side and respond to the previous statements, and then eight minutes to make their closing statements. There was a question period where the audience (both in-person and via Zoom) could ask questions directly to the proposition or opposition. Tyler Reese, member of the Sewanee Debate Union, read virtual questions on behalf of the online participants and aided in explaining the procedures of the debate and the Debate Union.

The debate began with Ben Shipp for the proposition. He argued that the United States has recently been forced to act unilaterally and contribute disproportionately to various organizations such as NATO due to other member countries’s lack of participation. He used four points to structure his argument: 1) “foreign policy is not a zero-sum game,” because its aim is improve the world as a whole, not punish one party, 2) most situations in which the US is involved require global action, 3) change in global leadership and events is not spontaneous, and 4) the US has the means to adequately interact and take charge of situations, so it is unethical and unwise not to do so. He also mentioned that the United States’s military power is crucial to a predominant world leader and is justified by the argument that it has maintained peace by preventing war. 

Jared Williams then countered by arguing that the predominant world leader should be representative of the entire world, but that the United States is not. He explained that, as demonstrated by the current civil unrest in relation to the Black Lives Matter, the blatant civil liberty violations in relation to the treatment of families and people in detention camps at the border, and our previous actions in relation to various civil rights situations throughout the world, the United States is unfit to properly address and aid foreign civil rights violations. 

He also used the many-pronged argument that firstly, the US is not currently stable enough to provide for other countries either economically or politically due to brokenness within. Secondly, the United States would no longer maintain its allyship status with many countries due to an increased overall power dynamic: he argued that countries the US controls would not be willing to maintain the same treaties or allyships as if on equal playing fields. Finally, Williams argued that US citizens are not even in agreement about the United States’s efficacy, thus foreign bodies would view the US’s ability to lead them as even less. Williams argued that the US does not have the economic, political, or societal means to be an effective predominant world leader, and that the US does not have the same interests as the international community, as shown by its lack of participation in several environmental and humanitarian efforts. 

Alexa Fults then offered the last remarks for the proposition before the closing arguments. Her argument was different from the other arguments by offering a strong concession of previous faults made by the United States, but a counter argument with an even stronger rebuttal explaining all of the promises kept and advances made. 

She painted a vivid image of the realities of America’s fulfillments and shortcomings and, on the other side, the other options if not the US. She conceded that the United States has made grievous mistakes in the past, but that they have made attempts to correct them and improve when faced with similar challenges later on.

Fults asked, “What is the alternative?” She illustrated the freedoms the United States allows and the same freedoms that would be denounced with China or Russia as the predominant world leader. Closing with, “Don’t allow others to take our place,” she allowed the audience to search their understanding of the options and how well other countries would fare if in the United States’s position. 

Dr. Wilson then finalized the presentation stage for the opposition. He offered several statistics on the United States’s not only inability to, but also unwillingness to lead, such as its carbon footprint and withdrawal from several key international groups. He argued that because of the US’s lack of resources, it is also unfit to lead, and from a Gallup poll also used by Williams, Americans do not believe in their government’s ability or right to be the predominant world leader. Wilson stated that if the United States led, no one in the international community would follow because people in its domestic community do not.

After a five-minute conference with his colleagues, Vice-Chancellor Brigety presented the closing argument for the proposition. He began by noting the effect this question posed to all Americans will have on November 3 . He explained that the reason the United States is even considered as the predominant world leader is because it has stepped into the role. The United States has noticed the needs of others and filled them. The United States has proven it is able to be the predominant world leader because it already is — it has brought others together in the past, it has acted as a peace-maker. The world would lament it if it were to leave its position. 

Vice-Chancellor Brigety continued Fults’s argument of the fear of the alternative: other countries will be eager to assume the US’s role, but at what cost? It is only through US citizens’ freedom to dissent that this debate question can even be posed. He concluded that others will be worse than the US, and that there will be an alternative if America leaves the seat open.

Kate Cheever then delivered the opposition’s closing statement. She fervently addressed the flaws of the proposition’s arguments, opposing Fults’s claim that the mistakes the United States has made in the past will change how it will act in the future; that simply acting out of force to assert its place at the table does not confirm the United States’s efficacy. She also noted that the US cannot claim more power in the international arena simply because it believes it belongs to the US, especially when the US is not claiming its seat in international organizations built to improve world collaboration and improvement. 

At the conclusion of the questions, voting began on menti.com. Both teams fared extremely well and clearly stood up to the task of defending their side, but the opposition (Dr. Scott Wilson, Jared Williams, and Kate Cheever) won by four votes, 86 to 82. Every single vote counted, and moderator Dr. Mila Dragojevic eloquently noted the similarities and parallels between the event and the recent state and upcoming election.

A professor in the Politics Department, Dragojevic remarked about the eloquence and manner of respect maintained by all speakers. She delivered a short speech of her own about the current state of our nation in light of the upcoming election, explaining the extreme importance of high participation voting because of how close the race is expected to be, similar to the neck-to-neck nature of the voting for the debate outcome. 

Adri Silva, (C’24) and a virtual attendee, explained her gratitude to the Sewanee Debate Union for hosting the event: “I greatly enjoyed getting to learn more about not only the US’s stance on foreign policy and how we view our position in terms of the international community, but also about the process of debate itself.” As Adri commented, the event was informational in many ways and highlighted the University’s ability to maintain courteous discourse about political issues. 

The Debate Union meets at five p.m. in the Spencer tent every Tuesday. All are welcome to join or simply listen and learn, and the Union looks forward to hosting similar events in the future. 

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