“The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”
This famous quote is often attributed to the Duke of Wellington, a 19th century British political and military figure.
He was right, but this applies to more than actual wartime battles.
The underlying, fundamental idea is that leadership requires a strong institutional pipeline. The world stage craves well-meaning statespeople from all around the world.
Such was the case at last week’s 2023 Vilnius NATO summit where world leaders came together to discuss urgent geopolitical issues such as the 2% defense spending pledge, unconventional threats and support for Ukraine in the ongoing war.
Summits such as these remind me of a stint I had in Washington, D.C. a few years back. I was living on R Street at the time, at the International Student House of Washington, D.C. The nonprofit organization houses students, scholars, researchers, interns and anyone making their journey to Washington, which I consider the epicenter of global politics.
The house caters to a diverse international community by promoting intercultural dialogue, lifelong connections and global citizenship.
Unsurprisingly, I met some of the most brilliant minds during my time there.
My roommate has a doctorate from Germany and was conducting research at Georgetown University. Some days, I’d have breakfast with a think tank intern from Marrakesh who studied in France. Another day, it would be with a Portuguese polyglot working at his country’s embassy.
I’d then commute to the White House, where I was interning at the time. For lunch, I’d stop by the World Bank and grab a meal with my Dutch friend who worked in agriculture and our other housemate who studied economics at Johns Hopkins University.
Dinner was the best. It was a concoction of even more students, interns, lawyers and other bright, young political minds.
On the weekends, we’d do typical Washington stuff, such as visit museums or play soccer, which the French and Spanish residents were unsurprisingly good at.
However, our favorite activity by far was exchanging ideas.
We were all news junkies, so (respectful) political discussion was the bread and butter of our time in Washington. We’d sit outside on the patio and spend hours discussing the pressing issues of our time. Every nationality, political alignment and idea was represented at the table.
It’s cliche in retrospect. We were just a bunch of bright-eyed, 20-something-year-olds who knew how to solve the world’s problems. We didn’t think we knew, we believed we knew. But that patio was our playing field of Eton.
Rather, it is a playing field of Eton — one of many that exists around the world.
I expect to see some of those I befriended at the International House on the world stage. In fact, I hope to see them there. Last week’s summit is a good example of what the tail end of this pipeline could be.
The NATO summit was consequential. In comparison, our conversations were not. The participants of the summit were three times our age, and their discussions were structured around an international agreement established more than half a century ago. Our discussions were structured around what young people like to share: stories from different perspectives.
But in many ways, it was similar. A lot of progress was made at Vilnius, such as Turkey withdrawing opposition to letting Sweden into NATO. Yet, just like our conversations, many disagreements remained at the summit, including Ukraine’s prospective membership and an ambiguous future that will remain after the war.
This is the imperfect world we will all inherit. A world that has progressed a lot, but one that is still full of conflict, inequity and disagreement. A world in which many people succeed, while others are unfortunately victimized by war and poverty.
However, I don’t see success on the world stage as something to be measured by how many technical points different people can agree on. Rather, I believe it should be measured by how many different people can agree to come together and have a conversation.
That’s not to say that everything international is always good every time. NATO enjoys bipartisan and global support for a reason. Other globalist institutions, such as the International Criminal Court, draw bipartisan condemnation.
At the end of the day, we are all participants on the world stage. Even those who shy away from politics are affected by and affect our globalized society, whether they realize or not. Some day, our generation will lead NATO, just like the current generation of leaders were handed the mantle by the founding post-war generation.
The future starts now.
The events we experience and the ideas we are exposed to shape us and guide our actions. The world was watching as its leaders came to work together. Among those watching were the future leaders who will one day face the very real issues we all face as humans.