Political Science senior Morgan Fritz was Iowa State University’s participant at the Student Conference on U.S. Affairs (SCUSA), at the United States Military Academy (West Point), November 3 to November 6, 2021.
The topics for this year’s 72nd SCUSA conference was Disruptive Technology and American Influence in the Coming Decade.
West Point hosts SCUSA every fall. It is the oldest and largest conference of its type and is attended by approximately 200 undergraduate students from over 125 colleges and universities worldwide. The experiences of SCUSA inspire many delegates to pursue a career in public service. Equally important, the four day conference provides a foundation for strong civil military relationships among future leaders in the military and public policy. Further information is available at https://www.westpoint.edu/academics/academic-departments/social-sciences/conferences/student-conference-on-us-affairs.
“Attending the Student Conference on U.S. Affairs was an incredibly unique and valuable experience for someone interested in public policy. During my time there, I was able to learn about the U.S. military, foreign policy, and how that intersects with domestic policy. Having emphasized in classes pertaining to American government, I particularly enjoyed learning about the state and federal aspects of innovation, technology, and cybersecurity.
The overarching theme of the conference was disruptive technology, which is distinct from traditional technology in the sense that it must “fundamentally change the playing field in which countries, firms, and people operate.” Ultimately, areas such as automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning will impact our world in large ways. It will be a big task for the public and private sectors – government, military, and civilian – to balance the positive aspects of technology, while ensuring privacy, civil liberties, and national security for our citizens.
While at West Point, we were able to see how the cadets live and go to school. It was an incredibly structured environment, where the campus starts their day at the same time, all 4,000 students eat meals together in one dining room, wear their uniforms to class, and everyone is involved in a sport of some sort with a required hour of practice each day. I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the history of West Point itself. I was able to stand on the same ground as George Washington when he declared West Point the most strategic position in America during the Revolutionary War. We were able to see a segment of the original Hudson River Chain, strung across the river to deter British ships from entering. The U.S. Military Academy has also found a way to preserve traditions, some of which have existed since their founding in 1802, in a material way such that it can almost be felt physically. They have maintained a very hierarchical system of upper and underclassmen with each class gaining privileges and responsibilities as times goes on, created the concept of class rings that we see today starting in 1835, and have a strong rivalry with the other military academies. I was thoroughly impressed with the cadets, and I feel confident that the students I met will be leading at the highest levels of our country someday.
As for my working experience at the conference, each roundtable group was tasked with creating a policy proposal by working together with students from universities across the nation, cadets, and field experts in that policy area. My roundtable topic was the United States and the Political Economy of Innovation, which focused on how to ensure that the United States maintains its position in global innovation. Our policy paper largely focused on increasing the cybersecurity workforce through public educational funding and incentives, and decreasing response time to cyber attacks through partnership with the private sector. It was a great experience to take part in deliberative discussions with students from across the United States.
We heard a speech from General Paul M. Nakasone, who is the Director of the National Security Agency and Commander of the U.S. Cyber Command. He spoke of the changing character of war and conflict – where disputes will now occur through social media, network intrusions, disruption of infrastructure, and technological interference with systems of government and democratic values. Cyber warfare is no longer limited in a military sense, but it can now reach into the economy and the values that we hold. There are both opportunities and challenges as technology develops, and the civilian, military, private, and public sectors need to focus and be prepared for in the coming years.
Many of my favorite classes at Iowa State have been in the realm of political theory, so naturally my biggest takeaways from this conference lean in that direction. Throughout the few days at West Point, we often spoke of the values that our nation holds, and the challenges that we face because of our democratic institutions. As a general matter, democracies are not unified on most issues – we are deliberative, varied, and hold the free exercise of speech and assembly in the highest of regards – making us open to ideas of all kinds. But, what we should all be unified on is the process, which is exactly what many intrusions of disruptive technology seek to circumvent. I view disruptive technology and innovation in the coming decade as having some parallels to the Space Race of the 1960s. I am currently an undergraduate teaching assistant for POL S 335: Science, Technology, and Public Policy, where a main theme in the class is that our space program was so successful because it was public. It was a shared success, backed by the American people, because we believed in the cause – a cause which put our system of government on display for the rest of the world to see, and in doing so, proved exactly who the American people were through daring and bold action. The challenges of and threats to cybersecurity that our nation will face in coming years due to disruptive technology will require us to act together to solve problems, take a public and shared approach to these issues, and be unified on the processes which guide our government and institutions.
I am very grateful for the Department of Political Science offering the opportunity to attend this conference. The Student Conference on U.S. Affairs was a great complement to political science coursework at Iowa State, and great classes and professors allowed me to feel well-prepared for discussions with students and experts from across the country.”