Each speaker introduced to my two week Western Hemisphere Intense Area Studies course begins the same way: "today we have an impossible task." This two week class at the Foreign Service Institute, an impressive campus yet easy to miss on an uninspiring stretch of Arlington Boulevard, is meant to illuminate the past six hundred years of the Western Hemisphere (South and Central America, the Caribbean) and how that sets the stage for the current status of the U.S.'s relationships.
The U.S. government sends employees to FSI to give to teach them specific skills or give them specific knowledge that will help them do their jobs. People come from a number of agencies, such at the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and C0mmerce, but mostly from the State Department. In our globalized/globalizing world of interdependencies, no government is an island (though some might like to think they are), and every forward looking government institution has people that deal with bilaterally with other governments, multi-laterally with international organizations, and regionally or globally on specific issues.
Despite the seemingly impossible goal of this course, after one week I am utterly astounded by the amount of information and contextual nuance that has been crammed through my eyes and ears. If I and my colleagues are expected to survive "drinking from a fire hose," it is a demand that most seem to swallow with good humor. The caliber of each presenter makes me feel both insignificant and fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from people considered experts. Not only have I learned about the multiple factors contributing to the downfall, devastation and enslavement of America's indigenous populations, I also have a basic understanding of Iran's relationship with Venezuela's leadership and Venezuela's influence on the Andean region, and how fluctuations in the price of oil affect political movements and the sustainability of local food production.