Kansas City’s International Relations Council and the Foreign Policy Association are trying to give locals ownership of weighty foreign policy issues through Great Decisions discussion groups.
These groups meet regularly to discuss topics such as defense technology, relations with nations such as Israel and Turkey, energy independence, American trade policy and more.
The list of topics can seem daunting. Group members purchase a new book each year from the council that provides information on that year’s topics.
One such group meets regularly at Oak Park Library. Group leader Ram Iyer said they usually get about 10 people at their Saturday morning group, and most have been coming for years.
Other groups meet around the Kansas City area, including locations in Waldo, downtown Kansas City and the Country Club Plaza.
Iyer has been leading meetings for 14 years. He tried to step down as group leader three years ago, but he found he just couldn’t stay away.
“There’s some kind of friendship with this group — they’ve been here forever,” Iyer said. “They all like it, and we have a connection here. Everyone is enjoying it, and I learn from them.”
It’s not school, so there aren’t assignments or participation requirements.
“Every year, we get to focus on a certain number of topics, and it stimulates one’s thinking,” said group member David Hochman. “You can learn a lot. You can express yourself. I find that it’s an intellectual exercise.”
Iyer leads the discussion, based on an article in the book that everyone has read, or at least skimmed, in preparation for the meeting.
“He provides us with a good framework to talk about (the issues), and we really appreciate it,” said group member Jack Shelton of Overland Park. “These books are hot off the press on situations that are confronting us now. So, you come here … and it makes you pay greater attention and gives you greater background as to why things are happening tomorrow.”
Former U.S. 3rd District Representative Jan Meyers has been coming to the Oak Park Library group discussions for about five years.
“I am a great believer in being an active member of the foreign policy of your country,” Meyers said. “Even in a group of 10 or 15, you get different points of view and very intellectual points of view.”
Meyers served on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“I think all of us contribute our own beliefs, but mostly, I think I contribute what I learned in Washington and what I have learned in studying foreign policy,” Meyers said. “(It’s important) to understand foreign policy from that point of view and to understand from the citizens’ point of view. I value both.”
Shelton agrees that regular citizens should take an interest in foreign policy.
“I’m interested in the bigger forces that are moving the economy of the globe, because it’s all so interrelated now. Even as Kansans, you cannot begin to overlook that,” Shelton said. “We talk about the flashpoints and the common national interests that different countries have. It explains the frictions we have and the wars we have.”
The academic discussions also can provide benefits other than improving your foreign policy knowledge.
“I’m a stroke victim, and this is marvelous therapy for me,” said group member Lois Bock of Overland Park. “I literally couldn’t find my way home after the stroke, and I’m constantly trying to get ways to rewire my brain. These wonderful folks help me, and it’s terribly interesting.”