The World Is a Mess. But Maybe Princeton Can Help Us Cope With An Extra Five Million Bucks

Yup, the world is a quite a mess these days. And if there's one clear takeaway from a range of global problemswhether in the Middle East, Ukraine, or the South China Seait's that the United States can't just tune out what's happening overseas, as much as many Americans might like to do so. 

But staying attuned to international affairs with expertise and depth requires that the U.S. trains new generations of young people who are knowledgeable about other countries and foreign policy. Universities play a key role here, and, in turn, so do their donors.

Maybe it's just a coincidence, but we've seen quite a few gifts related to international studies of late coming in reassuring tandem with those grim headlines about ISIS or Russian separatists. One gift involved Silicon Valley investor Bob King and his wife Dottie. Part of the story there was that the couple had been hosting Stanford international students for decades, and were thus moved to support international students interested in global scholarship. Meanwhile, another gift I wrote about involved former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Steven J. Green and family.  

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Now, Princeton Class of 1952 alumnus John P. Birkelund recently gave a $5 million gift to establish the Program in History and the Practice of Diplomacy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The program will "prepare students for careers in governmental and nongovernmental organizations, with a focus on maintaining global order and improving lives around the world." One of the directors of the new program is Mike Mullen, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

While we often talk about the prestige of medical and science research gifts, a certain group of donors is also excited about arming students with the ability to navigate an increasingly complex global landscape. What got Birkelund excited about this space? Well, the man behind this $5 million gift has had a long and successful career in business. He's the former chair and CEO of Dillon, Read & Co., and a former director of the New York Stock Exchange. Birkelund is also a co-founder and senior advisor to Saratoga Partners, a New York-based merchant banking firm.

Prior to a lot of this work, though, Birkelund was a U.S. Navy officer. As he puts it: "My interest in the practice of diplomacy stems from my military experience in Berlin from 1954 to 1956, which served as an isolated focal point of the Cold War, and where virtually every day brought a need for negotiation... that we transited these difficult years is attributable to the flexibility and determination of our armed forces and diplomats."

You heard that right: Birkelund logged time in one of scariest hotspots in the showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union. That makes quite an impression—the kind that influences you to write big checks when you're old and rich. 

Related: Thank God Somebody Still Funds Russian Studies

As well, Birkelund has organized and chaired the Polish-American Enterprise Fund, which, since 1990, has supported economic reform and stability in Poland. He's also engaged with the International Executive Service Corps, a nonprofit "dedicated to equitable, sustainable economic growth in developing countries."

With this kind of background, it's easy to see why a guy like Birkelund would be excited to support international studies at his alma mater. Alas, university alumni rolls are not exactly filled with Cold War veterans who understand just how high the stakes can be in global crises. And, in contrast to the nuclear age, today's security threats are not existential in nature. Which is why the money flowing for international work on campus is not what it was back in the 1980s.

On the other hand, global issues have definitely been front-and-center since 9/11, and events of the past year suggest that a return to more quiet and peaceful times won't happen any time soon. That's bad news for the world, but good news for places like the Woodrow Wilson School. 

Related: Can Harvard's JFK School Help Solve Africa's Biggest Problem? One Big Donor Hopes So