Politics at home and abroad
Steven J. Butterfield
Occupation: State legislator and full-time student
Where did you grow up? Hallowell, Maine
Where’s home now? Downtown Bangor
Years at UMaine: I’m a nontraditional senior. I transferred from George Washington University in spring ’04 and took classes for a year, then took some time off and resumed coursework this past fall.
Majors, minors, concentrations: Political science with a focus in international affairs
Milestones in your professional career
Three years as administrative assistant to the U.S.-Japan Legislative Exchange Program; regional field director, SEIU 1000/California; field representative, MSEA-SEIU Local 1989/Maine; winning my first legislative election in 2008; getting accepted to the Young Turkey/Young America program.
Tell me about your most recent professional opportunity as a participant in the Young Turkey/Young America program
While on an official diplomatic visit to Turkey in March 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced this project during a press conference in Ankara. This is a State Department-funded program administered jointly by the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington, D.C., and the Istanbul Policy Center at Sabanci University in Istanbul. The goal is to build relationships between a group of rising young (under-35) leaders — academic, business, policy, political — from both the United States and Turkey. The project consists of a two-week program in D.C., which we did in March 2010, packed with private meetings with foreign policy heavyweights like former Sen. Chuck Hagel and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, as well as panels, working groups, etc. This is followed by a similar two-week trip to Turkey in late June, and then follow-up projects between the participants that will take place in the months and years ahead.
Why Turkey? Well, since World War I, Turkey has had very strong ties to the West. It’s a full NATO member, was a key Western ally during the Cold War, and has had a very close diplomatic, economic and military relationship with Israel. It’s the point where Europe, Asia and the Middle East come together geographically, culturally, economically. It’s the 15th largest economy in the world and one of the fastest growing.
What we’ve been seeing in recent years, though, is a little bit of a shift in the dynamics of the relationship. Turkey has become a global actor in its own right, and has really emerged as a core regional power. Since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has had a growing relationship with Russia. The two are actually quite close now. Turkey has also started making clear that it wants to play a more active role in the region — the Middle East, and also the Caucasus and Central Asia. It also has a new foreign policy goal called “zero problems with neighbors.” But when your neighbors include Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan, that can get quite tricky in relationships with your allies. So there’s this sort of heartburn, or fear, in the West that Turkey is “turning away.” But I learned during the D.C. trip that Turkey really doesn’t see it that way. It sees it instead as developing its own potential. Turkey’s leaders think, and I agree, that they’re capable of looking in many directions at the same time.
The point is Turkey isn’t going to be any less important to the United States in the years ahead. In fact, I’d argue it will be developing into a much more important and complex bilateral and multilateral partnership. And yet there is a large, widening chasm in understanding between the two countries, which was really laid out in D.C. when one of the Turks asked the American participants, “What stereotypes do Americans have of Turkey or Turkish people?” To which I replied, “I’m sorry, my friend, but Americans don’t know enough about Turkey to HAVE any stereotypes.” If the two countries are going to be depending on each other for decades to come, it is probably a good idea for us to know something about each other.
What difference does such an experience (the Young Turkey/Young America program) make in your life?
Well, first, as cliché and corny as this is going to sound, I have 20 new friends thanks to YTYA. Which is great, because when you think about it, that’s really the goal, isn’t it? I think we were all a little surprised by how quickly and completely we meshed as a group and how close we all were by the end.
It’s also an enormous honor and very humbling simply to be one of the 12 Americans selected out of several hundred applicants.
In a bigger-picture sense, though, we’ve long since passed the point here in Maine where we can ignore the world at large, or our role in it. We have a longer border with Canada than we do with the United States. Augusta is only 500 miles closer to Los Angeles than it is to London. In 2009, Maine businesses did a little more than $2.2 BILLION in global exports, and even small Maine businesses compete in a global marketplace. The Internet is making political borders increasingly irrelevant in a lot of ways. Yet we here in Maine did only a few million dollars in business with Turkey — the 15th largest economy in the world and one of the fastest growing. There’s so much at stake when you consider the U.S.-Turkish relationship, and yet paradoxically, it’s all about untapped potential.
If we want our K-12 students in Maine to compete in a modern workforce, we need to change the way we think about education. The standards are all still critically important, no question — math, science, reading. But we need to do much better with foreign language education. You can’t compete for good jobs anymore without a second language, and the languages that we focus on in schools today are not the languages spoken in places where the economy is growing most rapidly. If we want them to be ready to succeed not only today but also tomorrow, our students need to be learning Turkish, Mandarin, Korean, Arabic, Vietnamese.
And they need to be curious about other cultures. I think it’s wrong that people somehow think this is diminishing American culture. Why can’t you embrace and love your own country and culture, and at the same time recognize that not everybody in the world fits the same mold? There’s no excuse for students today not to be more globally conscious than any generation before. We can use a $300 computer to connect a classroom in Fort Kent with a classroom anywhere in the world with real-time video, with programs like Skype, for free. Why aren’t we?
So programs like Young Turkey/Young America pay enormous dividends both short- and long-term. Case in point is the partnership I’m working on with my new friend Gokhan, one of the Turkish participants, who owns and operates a variety of businesses and private K-12 schools in Turkey. We are developing a “wired world classroom” model that will make the kinds of connections I was talking about — connections we can put in place here and now, and then expand beyond just Maine and Turkey to include other states, other countries. That partnership never would have been possible without this program.
Why UMaine for your undergraduate degree?
I actually started at the George Washington University in D.C. and transferred here. I think we’re pretty spoiled growing up in Maine, first of all, which you really don’t realize until you spend some time living somewhere else. I’m glad I left for a while; I’m even happier I came back. What you realize very quickly in D.C. is that it’s a total bubble. You go down there thinking you’ll make a difference in one of the most important cities in the world, and suddenly you’re competing with thousands of other young, bright-eyed policy wonks for every internship, and progress is measured in glacially slow D.C. time, and before you know it, you realize you’ve lost track of whatever it was you went there to do in the first place. So I experienced that for a few years and came back here, because I want to use what I learn to not only bring Maine to the world, but bring the world to Maine.
What were the milestones in your academic career?
Well, it’s not a milestone in MY career per se, but it’s a definite milestone for UMaine. I’m thrilled that the Board of Trustees approved the new M.A. in Global Policy here at UMaine, offered through the School of Policy and International Affairs. This is a new degree offering that gets directly at the heart of everything I’ve talked about in this interview.
Your most memorable moment at UMaine?
Definitely watching the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series with about a thousand fellow students in the Memorial Union.
Favorite UMaine mentor?
Without question, Deb Grant. She’s the administrative staffer for the political science/international affairs departments, and I swear she’s the only reason any student in the department ever successfully graduates. I think I can safely speak for all of our students and faculty in the department when I say thanks for everything, Deb!
The class that nearly did you in?
Anything with Seth Singleton, who teaches some of the upper-level international affairs classes. He makes you work harder, think harder, focus harder. His courses are intense and tough, and there are times during the semester when you question your sanity in taking them over and over again, but you also learn more and come out as a better student. I’ve taken several with him and I highly recommend them to anybody who is serious about his or her degree and career.
Favorite place on campus?
Any place outside during the summer, when it’s quieter and a little more peaceful.
Any advice for UMaine students?
It drives me crazy when I hear UMaine students talk about lack of opportunity in Maine, or how they need to leave when they graduate. Why aren’t students talking about creating opportunity here? Go see the country and see the world, sure, but if you think Maine needs opportunities, you’d better be ready to come back here and make it happen. Bring Maine to the world, then bring the world home to Maine.
Image Description: Steven J. Butterfield