Alexander Hamilton Society debate on Singapore Summit brings more agreement than debate

A group of fifteen students gathered in the Simmons Auditorium in the Tepper Quad last Monday for a moderated debate about the Singapore Summit of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. While eating Chipotle under a projector displaying larger-than-life images of the U.S. and North Korean flags, the small audience watched moderator Dan Silverman of the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS) prompt his colleague Dani Nedal and visiting professor Aaron Friedberg to share their thoughts on the diplomatic effort.

The unprecedented summit, which took place in June after a brief cancellation period, was intended to usher in new diplomatic relations between the two countries, mainly by denuclearizing North Korea and halting provocative joint-military operations between the U.S. and South Korea. Each speaker was chosen for their expertise on the summit.

Nedal is a postdoctoral fellow at the IPS who teaches a number of undergraduate courses. His work has a special focus on international security and nuclear weapons. Friedberg is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and served the U.S State Department from 2003 to 2005. His work has mainly been focused on U.S. foreign policy regarding East Asian countries.

For the students who organized the event, choosing experts was easy. Chandler Stacy, a sophomore in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, is currently taking a class with Dr. Nedal. “When we decided on this topic, I knew Dani would have experience in this field and that we would get a good discussion out of it,” he said.

The “we” he’s referring to is the campus chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society (AHS), a national nonprofit which sponsors political debates on college campuses around the U.S. Dr. Friedberg is a co-founder and an official speaker for AHS, so when the chapter reached out to him, he agreed.

The push to start a chapter at Carnegie Mellon came from Dr. Kiron Skinner, director of the Institute for Politics and Strategy and founder of the Washington Semester Program, who is currently on leave. “Dr. Skinner reached out to all of the IRP students, and we thought it sounded really interesting,” said Nick Bellante, a member of the AHS executive board.

The organization’s debate goals seem well suited to Dr. Skinner’s research interests, which include “The inherent tension among political conservatism, political liberalism, and libertarianism.” She was appointed Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department in August and is currently on leave from Carnegie Mellon to work in Washington.

The Singapore summit, Nedal and Friedberg agreed, didn’t accomplish much. Nedal called it a “vacuous statement” and Friedberg lambasted President Trump for “casting in his hand for a photo op.” With these fundamental agreements, the event proceeded much more like a conversation than a debate.

“We didn’t go for a topic that would bring a lot of divisive issues to the table,” said Millie Zhang, president of the young chapter. Her vision is to reduce partisanship in political discourse on campus. “We’re trying to foster discussion where it’s constructive,” she explained. “Politics is a really hard topic for most students to talk about.”

Politics is personal, and as the student body of U.S. higher education becomes more diverse, a long-overdue questioning of traditional discourse is taking place. Student protests opposing conservative speakers on campuses across the country have put pressure on school officials to think more deeply about the opposing thorns of free speech and hate speech: one person’s political opinion could marginalize their classmates’ lives and experiences. Topics like police brutality, reproductive rights, gun control, and immigration rights make this issue painfully clear because so many students have personal experiences with such topics, making it impossible to separate personal struggle from political opinions.

Officially recognized in September, the Carnegie Mellon chapter is the newest addition to the AHS network, which has chapters at 36 schools and three professional offices in New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco. The national organization was founded in 2010 by Dr. Friedberg and his colleague Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. Though most of its leadership is conservative, AHS identifies itself as a nonpartisan organization, hosting debates on topics such as the economy, foreign policy, and national security, all of which came into play during Monday’s debate.

The main point on which Nedal and Friedberg disagreed was on how to move forward from the summit: Nedal advocated for more South Korean and Japanese involvement, while Friedberg maintained that continued American pressure on North Korea is the best way to guarantee denuclearization.

With a subject so removed from most students’ daily lives, their opinions were met with quiet inquiry from the audience. Zhang wants to continue this kind of dialogue in the future: “Our main goal is to have more political discussions on these issues,” she said. That way, students can be involved in debates without the intense personal stakes that domestic topics raise.

For more information about the AHS at Carnegie Mellon, email Millie Zhang at