So-called ‘planned’ capital cities are known for being sterile, soulless places – Canberra especially, but also Ottawa, Brasilia, Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar… Washington DC, on the other hand, seems so far to buck the trend. We arrived under cover of darkness at around 1 o’clock on Wednesday morning, after a scenic but turbulent 5-hour flight across the country. We were struck immediately by the cooler air in the capital, though the small dirty piles of snow remaining had been helpfully swept to the side of the runway. Shuttles took us to our centrally located hostel, and we rushed to our rooms to get some sleep.
Luckily, we had a leisurely day ahead of us as we awoke. Some of us slept longer than others, but for lunch, almost all of us trudged a minute down the road from the hostel through the heavy slanting rain for some greasy Bolt Burgers. We then dispersed, visiting whichever museums we wished – all of them free and excellent. Some of us visited the National Air and Space Museum and found themselves upside down locked in a flight simulator, supposedly shooting down enemies when in reality they were struggling to orientate their selves; some the National Museum of American History where they admired all the first lady inauguration ball dresses and read about past presidents. Others experienced the US Holocaust Memorial Museum – the story it told was no less harrowing or moving for the fact that we already knew the ending. It was dark by the time most of the museums closed, and then we all found our own dinner in groups and chilled out for the rest of the night.
We started our second morning in the Capital with much-needed coffee, free Politico newspapers, and a trip to the DC Peace Corps office. Communications Coordinator Jessica Williams told us all about her work with the Michelle ‘Arm Goals’ Obama supported ‘Let Girls Learn’ campaign. She then went on to describe her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Malawi. Volunteers, who are mostly college-educated young people, spend three months getting trained up before spending two years living in a developing country; they live and work in a local community, build relationships, learn about life there and share their own American values. Jessica also explained the challenges of adjusting to life back in the US and told us about how grateful it made her for what she had. Communications Director Melissa Silverman then spoke to us about both how they work to recruit volunteers and how they address criticisms of the organisation. While it is difficult to overcome the initial defensiveness, she explained that they try to respond with transparency and learn from their mistakes so that they can tell a story of progress.
After lunch, we met John Mullen at his swanky office where he works for McLarty Associates, an “international strategic advisory firm” (by his description) made up of former politicians, ambassadors and other notable people, which advises companies on entering new markets around the world. He talked a bit about his work, focussing on his area of Australia and New Zealand, but spent more time talking about juicier topics. He teaches a course at Georgetown University (in DC) called ‘Asia-Pacific Integration and Trade’, and so had a lot to say about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement signed the previous day, defending its economic and geopolitical importance for all countries involved. He lauded the ever-increasing closeness of the relationship between New Zealand and the US, now allies again in all but name. And finally, he weighed in on the unpredictable US presidential elections taking place later this year, convincingly linking Trump’s popularity to a national undercurrent of discontent with globalisation (or, more bluntly, to “angry old white men” afraid of a rapidly changing society), but predicting a Clinton-Rubio race in the end. It was a rare treat for us to hear from someone so willing to share all his behind-the-scenes experience in and knowledge of both New Zealand and the US, and we all valued what we learnt from the wide-ranging discussion.
After a quick stop at the hostel, it was finally time for our DC city wander. Like all good politics nerds we made a beeline for the White House, but our plans were foiled by Secret Service blockading the street just as we arrived. Obviously Barack hadn’t heard that the StatesMUN delegation was in town or else he surely would have rescheduled his meeting with the Colombian president. With Obama a no-show, we continued on our tour, only to immediately hit another blockade around the corner. Eventually the delegation escaped and made it to the imposing Washington Monument. Then it was past a waterless reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial for a final round of selfie-taking with honest Abe. After three hours of exploring the city and several security encounters, we were all sready for a quiet night back at hostel.
Written by: Nick Fargher and Claire Black