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Smith Simpson Debate on Diplomacy 2009: WASH Wins Again

Posted by K.E. White on March 13, 2009

Summary: A half-heartedly serious re-cap of the Smith Simpson on Debate on Diplomacy from a very biased source.


It’s spring time in Charlottesville-the University of Virginia, to be exact. For some students this may bring groans: avoiding reinvigorated joggers and listening to the cries of streakers on The Lawn (a stretch of greenery encompassing UVa’s initial campus). But for some-or at least two debating societies-Spring brings the thud of a time-keeper’s hand against wood, the rapid-fire enunciation of debate points, the thrill of victory and, flowing from it, the sweet sting of defeat.

I speak of the annual Smith Simpson Debate on Diplomacy where the Unversity’s two debating societies face-off for pride, glory and a set of metal cups. 

The topic this year: whether or not the United States should push for Georgian membership within NATO in light of the recent Russian-Georgian tensions.

Photograph of Smith Simpson and Family in India, 1960

Now celebrating its 23rd year, the debate owes its existence to its namesake: R. Smith Simpson, a former labor advisor for the National Recovery Administration, diplomat, and passionate lecturer on diplomacy.  Mr. Simpson, a former student and lecturer at UVa, set aside a fund to have an annual debate on diplomacy in 1983. The participants: the university’s two debating societies, The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society (‘Jeff’) and The Washington Literary Society & Debating Union (‘WASH’).  


Representing the Jefferson Society and arguing in favor of NATO membership for Georgia were Emma K. King (’10) and Wm. Grayson Lambert (’09); their opponents: Jason Shore (’10) and Byran Henning (’10). Professors James T. Cargile, Jeffrey W. Legro and David W. Breneman adjudicated the debate.

So onto the substance!

Mr. Shore opened the round, structured his first affirmative around two board points: 1) Georgia’s drawbacks as a potenial NATO member before its conflict with Russia and 2) the greater folly of America supporting Georgian membership in NATO after the 2008 Georgia-Russian war.

Shore took what some may call a ‘traditionalist’ view of NATO: as a military alliance where additional membership should be judged on the ‘hard power’ calculations of its membership. As such, Georgia’s relative military weakness, its unreliable leader Mikheil Saakashvili and the current membership of Turkey-which, he contended, already provides overlapping benefits, made it questionable why America would push for its NATO membership. Shore then continued his line of argument in light of the Georgia-Russian war: with Russian troops now occupying land in Georgia, and Russia violently proving its desire to keep Georgia out of NATO, why risk alienating Russia? Particularly if the United States needs Russian support to effectively combat terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Mr. Shore also wore an impeccably stylish tie.

Emma King started her case arguing that Georgia was, in fact, geographically and culturally European. In fact, she took the time to cite a geographical authority on the matter. This became, rather strangely, a key part of the Jefferson Society’s argument: since NATO is a European alliance meant to hem in Russian aggression, all European nations who wish to join should have American support (somewhat regardless of nation-state particulars, and let’s forget that NATO has ever evolved before or after the Cold War). But her real aim was on two fronts: 1) NATO membership would make a valuable ally in the region and 2) any current difficulties relating to the recent Georgia-Russian conflict should not bar Georgia-especially as obtaining NATO membership is a 10-15 year process.

             For the Jefferson Society, NATO membership for Georgia was a diplomatic tool to relieve tensions in Georgia, keep Russia from dictating NATO members, and the best tool to keep Georgia democratic and economically prosperous.  And any problems from membership would be worked out over the 10-15 year process of joining…somehow.                

Two moments stood-out: 1) Miss King claimed current Georgia-Russian tensions should not be weighed too largely because, like WWI, war between Russia and Georgia is inevitable. And 2) Apparently, harkening a near neo-conservative line, Miss King saw this moment as the moment for Georgia’s membership in NATO. The cost? That fell to her partner, Mr. Lambert to discuss latter.

But, fret not dear reader, even grander statements of world history and international relations were waiting-ever patiently-to hurl themselves into the proceedings.

Byran Henning started on the attack: pointing out, quite rightly, that according to Miss King Russia should be a member of NATO. He then bought the debate to back to Georgia’s weaknesses, and contended that NATO membership would increase tensions between Russia and Georgia. Such an outcome, Henning argued, would force the NATO members to risk direct military conflict with Russia-a steep price to pay if the status quo-American military support for Georgia-can continue with the added stress of NATO membership. He also pointed out that little-if anything-had yet to be stated against his partners earlier case that Georgia was never an ideal nation for NATO membership.

Henning, while under cross-secs, was pressed by Mr. Lambert on the following question: if active containment of Russia during the Cold War worked why not do it now? Henning’s response, causing a mild stir in the hall, was ‘Was the Cold War worth it?’

I believe that question would make a great 2010 round of Smith Simpson. Unfortunately, Lambert’s swallow response of ‘we won’ caused a deafening series of snaps from Jefferson Society supporters. (Added detail: ‘WASH’ members, in the Germanic tradition, pound one hand on an arm of their chair to applaud; ‘Jeff’ members prefer to snap their fingers)

Bryan Henning and Jason Shore

Bryan Henning and Jason Shore

While Miss King’s speech could be wound up as a geography lesson wrapped up in a delicious, cake-walk view of the future, Mr. Lambert’s speech was a historically drenched tirade against anyone who dear condone Imperialist Russian actions. Russia was no partner of the United States, Lambert contended, only a power-hungry state bent on retaking its former empire. He also extolled the virtues of democracy in Georgia, arguing NATO was the best strategy to ensuring a free society in Georgia.

Lambert made many other points-doubtless, some had to be compelling. Unfortunately I cowered under my chair during the vast majority of his speeching-time. His hyperbolic bolivating convinced me the Red Army was only seconds from invading Charlottesville, and killing every last capitalistic pig-human American they could find.

I recovered quickly enough to hear the closing rebuttals. The judges then left to decide the winning team.

Jason’s tie was still impeccably stylish.

After a lengthy discussion, the judges returned a 2-1 verdict in favor of the Washington Society.

 The only surpise? The lack of a unanimous decision. Kudos to Mr. Henning and Mr. Shore.


K.E. White (University of Virginia ’06) is a former Washington Society president and is a two-time winner of the Smith Simpson Debate.

One Response to “Smith Simpson Debate on Diplomacy 2009: WASH Wins Again”

  1. Cassie said

    Congratulations to Mr. Henning and Mr. Shore. Well done!

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