THE BLOG
09/30/2008 02:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What I Learned in Grad School

Two months ago, I completed the Global Master of Arts program at Tufts University's Fletcher School, a one-year intensive degree in international affairs. For a year, I asked my husband and two grade school children to tolerate my all-nighters, as I churned out a paper on drilling rights in the Amazon, or submerged myself in tariff law, while I fulfilled a long-delayed passion for world affairs.

The exhaustive curriculum, which included courses in politics, economics, negotiation, finance and law, required weekly readings, problem-sets, papers and massive preparation. Getting through it, and my final thesis, was itself an act of endurance. It's hard to believe that Governor Sarah Palin is doing in a few weeks what it took me a year to cover. And even though I now have a Masters degree, which I guess suggests I've "mastered" something, what stays with me is not how much I mastered but how much I missed, how vast, how intricate, and how humbling this area is. If there is one sobering truth about studying foreign affairs, it's that each bit of knowledge one gains only opens the door on another hundred bits of ignorance. Take a moment to dip into the academic database on "Democracy in Uganda," and dozens of articles come at you, each with a different take - historical, economic, political. They lead to articles about fair trade coffee, post-flood food insecurity, rebel movements in the north which bleed across the border to Sudan, or the Pentagon's unified command for Africa. The point is, international affairs are non-linear, complex, never black and white. And even after being immersed in it for 12 months, I wouldn't expect anyone to say I could run the country based on my understanding of international affairs.

Every era might make a claim to be the most important one for the study of foreign policy. But I would maintain that there has never been a riper time for it than today. Much like the curriculum of my program at Fletcher, the issues of the moment are urgent and interweaving. Humanitarian issues are tied to those of national security, which relate to energy concerns which bring in environmental questions. And where I would not wish on my worst enemy a course on International Trade, it becomes clear to any student of foreign affairs that the engine of the whole planet is trade, and knowing those fundamentals is indispensable to understanding pretty much everything else.

Furthermore, though no one expects Palin - or any candidate - to give an exegesis on the criteria necessary for democracy to emerge, some demonstrable grasp of history might be helpful in making an argument for why our system is best for most countries in the world. It's not enough to contend that freedom is good. It's simplistic to reduce a head of state to the status of "bad guy." Sure, we all can love a self-made, plain-spoken hockey Mom, but we also value expertise, and we raise our children to study hard for a reason, not to be satisfied with skimming the surface.

One can only speculate what Governor Palin actually knows about Iran, or her neighbor Russia, the far reaches of which skirt the Arctic Circle and flirt with Alaska's shores from across the Bering Strait and the International Date Line. Maybe she knows a lot - after all, the ties with Alaska are significant. A century before her birth, the territory was part of the Russian Empire under Tsar Alexander II. But Governor Palin's suggestion that foreign policy experience wafts over to the Statehouse from the Russian Far East is startling, made more so because while defending her claim, she also apparently believes it.

I have to wonder what her thoughts were as she sped through Manhattan in her SUV, garnering foreign policy cred by osmosis, as if her presence at the UN gave her some automatic bona fides. Did she feel at all embarrassed for herself, or for Presidents Karzai and Uribe, who allowed themselves to be props in this tableau, looking themselves at once charmed, compassionate and slightly diminished? Did she allow herself a moment of introspection as she adjusted the angle of her bangs, and while catching her eyes in the compact mirror, privately yearn for the safety and familiarity of Wasilla, a frontier town so small it was not listed among the top 13 major cities on www.mapofalaska.net?

It is hard to determine, like all Palin conundrums, if she would be more or less appealing were she to concede that she had much to learn. No doubt, she spent her weekend boning up on North Korea, Afghanistan and Georgia. Still, no one seems to be asking for Winston Churchill, especially in a Vice President. Good enough may be, well, good enough. You can't get depth from cramming, (I learned that the hard way), but her supporters may not care.

Gov. Palin stresses her executive experience. When he was still Governor of Texas, George Bush scored a memorable 25% when asked by a reporter, early in the 2000 campaign, to name the leaders of four countries: India, Chechnya, Pakistan and Taiwan. Last week, Laura Bush called Palin a "quick study" on foreign policy. But do we really think foreign policy can be studied "quickly" with the clock ticking? As anyone who took high school chemistry knows, memorizing is one thing, but integrating it into real knowledge is another. This was obvious when Gov. Palin said, "When Putin rears his head," - the beginning of a sentence that devolved into another linguistic pretzel. What exactly was happening with Putin's head still remains unclear. What did come through was not only Palin's naivete, but also her lack of humility when it comes to these complex regions of the world.

That is why I feel so flummoxed by Sarah Palin's glad-handing her way through town last week on her whirlwind public tutorial. One could excuse her lack of international experience if she convinced us that she has studied, considered, or pondered the world beyond Alaska's borders. I'm sure Gov. Palin will soon be using impressive words such as Waziristan, Ossetia, and Yuschenko as her running mate did last week, but I want to know that she has considered the nuances, and thoughtfully, before she got McCain's call, donned the designer heels and hit the political equivalent of the red carpet. If not, I want to know that she is now immersing herself in writers and thinkers, in treatises on coercive diplomacy, Wahhabism, the Law of the Sea, the Doha round, and China's dollar reserves, like my own Fletcher classmates have done, like every student of history and current crises must do. This is not to score points with some dreaded "elite" but because no complex situation - be it Iraq, Afghanistan, or Haiti - can be approached, let alone solved, with anything less. I don't believe it's enough to be briefed and primed; Palin needs to dive into Foreign Affairs 101 with all the seriousness and humility it requires. To real students of foreign policy, so far Palin makes running for V.P. look a heck of lot easier than the twelve months I spent hunched over trade laws and the Kyoto protocol.