FSI fellow underscores importance of foreign area studies


Fingar Flickr Reve Center Headline
FSI fellow Thomas Fingar speaks at a conference held at the Reves Center for International Studies on the "Internationalization of U.S. Education in the 21st Century."
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Flickr/Reves Center

Nearly 250,000 refugees stopped to rest at the foot of an active volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, recalled Thomas Fingar, referring to a situation in 1994 when he served as the deputy assistant secretary for analysis at the State Department. Officials asked him how to respond. Would the volcano erupt? If so, which way would the lava, ash and gas plumes travel? Must the refugees, exhausted from leaving Rwanda, be relocated to a safer venue? Aid workers had to decide whether to move the refugees and risk death by fatigue, or leave them there and risk death from the volcano. Specialized knowledge was required to make a decision. Fingar directed Bureau staff to find a volcanologist with expertise on that particular volcano­–the Nyiragongo–and its surrounding area. It was likely to erupt, the expert informed them, and the path of volcanic debris would be away from where the refugees were assembled. Consequently, the refugees did not have to move.

That example was one of many illustrations that Fingar, the Oksenberg-Rohlen distinguished fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, offered in a keynote speech delivered at the College of William & Mary, drawing upon his 15 years of experience in senior U.S. national security roles.

His presentation entitled, “National Security in the Global Era,” was part of a three-day conference at the Reves Center for International Studies that gathered a cadre of experts to examine the future of global education.

Specialized area studies and foreign language education have reached a critical point in the age of globalization. The current trend is one of steady cuts in funding. If it is not reversed, the nation will quickly lose critical capabilities. Fingar argued that the teaching and study of foreign languages and areas are more important than ever before. 

Fingar (at Left) speaks with colleagues at the conference, which convened a wide range of leaders with global expertise.

“Meeting challenges, managing threats and taking advantage of opportunities on a global scale require different and deeper kinds of knowledge than was required during the Cold War,” he said.

Any effective strategy or policy – whether addressing economic, health or terrorism-related concerns ­– requires in-depth understanding of the countries involved, especially as new transnational threats and global developments emerge.

“If we do not understand, and cannot communicate with, the still highly diverse world, the downsides and dangers of globalization will erode our prosperity, endanger our safety and degrade our security.”

The full text of his speech is available below.

National Security in the Global Era