OGDEN -- There are no simple solutions to the problems of the world, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof repeatedly told students at Weber State University, but it was clear that if he had to pick one, it would be to educate women.
It was a theme he repeatedly returned to in a 90-minute talk Tuesday with foreign policy students at WSU. It's also the subject of his new book, "Half the Sky," which he came to the university to discuss Tuesday afternoon. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting of the Tiananmen Square revolt in China in 1989. He was widely anticipated to be the convocation speaker at WSU and the university even moved his talk from the Wildcat Theater to the Shepherd Student Union ballroom to handle the expected crowd.
However, weather delayed his flight to Utah from Montana, so his first appearance was with a smaller group of about 25 in a class on American foreign policy taught by Nancy Haanstad, a professor of political science and philosophy. The convocation speech was moved to the evening in conjunction with a book-signing.
Kristof told the students he first became aware of how important it was to write a book about women after the Tiananmen Square revolt. The Chinese government killed more than 500 people putting down that democratic movement and he and his wife won American journalism's top prize writing about it.
"The following year, we came across a study that 39,500 baby girls die in China every year because they don't get access to health care," he said, because of that country's strong emphasis on having male children.
"We'd never written about that. Not one inch, and that got us wondering about what we write and what is news."
He and his wife, who share authorship of the book, started looking at emerging countries in the Far East, such as Singapore and China. They wondered what caused their economies to bloom after decades, even centuries, of stagnation, "and one of the real common threads is each of these places had taken girls, who were noncontributors to the economy, educated them and put them into the labor force, doubling output."
That also reduced the birth rate, he said, as women found they needed more time to continue working. With increased production and slower population growth, the countries suddenly took off economically.
That is an important lesson for American foreign policy, Kristof said.
"The Pentagon really sees that if you want to stabilize Afghanistan, it is through women's education," he said. "It's a real security issue that has implications to the U.S."
Sadly, he said, that's not the emphasis of many in government.
Responding to a question about whether American foreign policy is too focused on military solutions, he said it was and said even Defense Secretary Robert Gates is "giving a real interesting series of speeches pleading for more money for diplomacy," not defense.
The United States defense budget has more money for brass bands than the American Foreign Service has for diplomacy, he said. "That's totally crazy, and the argument is especially compelling coming from the secretary of defense."
The economic benefits of educating women may be the best argument to use with rulers of some Third World countries where women are kept down for religious or cultural reasons, he said. "I don't think the humanitarian argument gets much traction. The argument that has the most effect is the economic argument," showing what can happen if the labor force is doubled. One student asked Kristof, who has traveled extensively in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Far East, what he'd tell President Obama in the current debate over expanding American armed forces in Afghanistan.
"I think that there's kind of a false choice presented in the newspapers, between pullout and putting in 40,000," he said. While he agreed pulling all forces out sends a message of weakness, he said sending in more troops would be counterproductive.
"I think the reality is sending more troops into the parts of Afghanistan that are insecure tends to create more instability," he said. The people there don't like Americans in their country, and when you send in troops, there will be mistakes, innocent people will be killed and more enemies will be created. While the Afghan people have very mixed feelings about the Taliban, he said, they know "the Afghan government is totally corrupt and they are deeply distrustful of us."
So his advice to Obama would be to concentrate on cities, keep a lighter footprint in the countryside and work on educating the people, especially the nation's women.