Joanna Shelton

It’s easy to despair for the future, especially when news from so many corners of the globe makes us wonder whether the world as we know it is descending into chaos and violence.

But even when times seem so worrisome – and especially at such times – it’s important to keep our problems in perspective and also to know there are good reasons to be hopeful for our future.

I spoke last month to a group of high-schoolers from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, who gathered in Missoula for the annual Montana Model United Nations program offered by UM’s political science department. More than 430 bright, inquisitive young people spent two days grappling with some of the biggest problems confronting the world and learning how nations work together to seek solutions to these often vexing challenges.

Knowing that so many of our youth are eager and willing to step into positions of leadership and to tackle the many difficult challenges facing us should reassure all of us that the future is in good hands. We, in turn, must do all we can to try to resolve problems facing us today, so we leave the world in better shape for younger generations.

Solving the world’s problems is easier said than done, of course; and these problems are numerous and sometimes seem insoluble. This is where it’s important to keep them in perspective. I’ll share with you some of the thoughts I offered to Montana’s Model UN students.

We human beings have a strong tendency to look back at past eras and wish we could live in calmer, simpler times. “Ah, for the days of the 1950s or ’60s”; or “Oh, I wish I lived in the 1800s, when life was simpler and the world wasn’t as crazy.”

Let’s look for a moment at some of those supposedly easier, simpler times.

Recall these words: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another ... a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Those words are the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776. How do you think people living in the colonies felt at that time? Safe, secure, certain of the future? Or worried, divided, full of anguish over the war about to come and about what the future might hold for people daring to rebel against the greatest world power of the time?

Or take another period of American history. “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Yes, President Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg. How do you think people living in Civil War America felt, with a country divided; families and churches divided; and more than half a million soldiers from north and south losing their lives in the deadliest war America has ever fought?

The same question could be asked about people who lived through World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, or other trying times. Some of those people are reading this column now.

Finally, people my age grew up during a Cold War, when the term “mutually assured destruction” (appropriately called “MAD”), reflected the reality that the United States and Soviet Union had enough nuclear missiles pointed at one other to wipe each country off the face of the earth. We children practiced safety drills by diving under school desks and covering our heads with our arms to protect ourselves from bombs that might fall. That was not a simple, easy time.

My point is that there have been many difficult times and difficult challenges we have faced in this country and around the world. And in every era and at every time, men and women have stepped forward to find ways to overcome divisions, to build bridges, and to try to forge a better future for themselves and their children.

There are no easy answers to the many problems confronting us today. But the lessons of the past and the courage and steadfastness shown by those who have come before should help us realize that by applying enough knowledge, persistence, and patience; and by pursuing cooperation across borders whenever and wherever necessary; we will be able to make progress in addressing some of our most difficult challenges.

I dedicate this column to innocent victims of terrorism and violence everywhere.


Joanna Shelton was Deputy Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris; held senior positions in the executive branch and Congress in Washington, D.C.; and teaches at the University of Montana. You can reach her through her website, joannashelton.com.

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