In less than a year’s time, Steve Israel’s daily agenda went from discussions with the Huntington highway superintendent to urgent national security meetings with the secretary of defense and the President of the United States. That’s what happens when you go from town councilman to congressman of New York’s 2nd district and sitting on special committees. Especially when the deadliest terrorist attack in world history occurs mere months into your congressional tenure.
Josh Sapan’s Persistence of Vision
“I was elected to Congress in November of 2000. Less than a year later we had 9/11,” Israel recalled. “Suddenly, I was thrust into the most searing and vital decision making on how to protect the American people.” The next 15 years of Israel’s career in Washington would see the U.S. marred in an unremitting stretch of involvement in one war after another. This period turned Israel’s interest in national security into an imperative to understand the changing dynamics of international affairs.
But Israel is quick to point out that this knowledge pivot is having an impact on all levels of citizens. “You can’t live in a bubble. If you’re concerned about your safety here, you’ve got to understand what’s happening outside of here.”
Israel kept this in mind when devising his post-Washington career. “I decided that I wouldn’t run for reelection at the end of 2015. I spent most of 2016 figuring out what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to surrender my curiosity and impact on national security issues. Kim Klein, the president of LIU, and I were having lunch. I was sharing my vision and she said, ‘Let’s turn your vision into a reality.’”
That reality took form in the Global Institute, a regional platform for studying and discussing international relations and national security. In its first year the Institute has hosted Bill Clinton, Colin Powell and general David Petraeus for both large audiences and intimate dinners. With each event, Israel and the Global Institute shed a little more light on one complex subject at a time.
What prompted you to remain in the political sphere and start the Global Institute?
I was always interested in national security but 9/11 and the years after crystallized it for me. I was on the armed services committee and the appropriations defense subcommittee. I traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan over a dozen times. I landed on carriers in the middle of the Persian Gulf. I just delved into those issues. The work was getting increasingly complex because the world has been getting increasingly complex. I was talking to an army general about the state of the world and he said, “The world is so complicated right now that we in the army have actually invented an acronym for it.” I know one thing: when the military gives something an acronym, pay attention. That acronym is V.U.C.A.: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. That’s the world we’re in. The problem that I came upon is that Long Island, which is a major population with significant ties to countries around the world both economically and culturally, which was ravaged by the impact of 9/11, didn’t have any real platform for understanding world conditions. I wanted to fill that vacuum. The Institute has become the place that really helps people understand. We don’t do it through academic course work, we do it by bringing world leaders here. If you’re a foreign leader and you’re in our area, you know that this is a stop you want to make.
The U.S. was at war nearly the entirety of your time in Congress. What lessons did you learn that you hope to bring to the Institute?
The worst vote I ever cast as a member of Congress was the vote to authorize the war in Iraq. I’m a huge Mets fan and I know about a ball getting released from a pitcher’s finger and him saying, “Oh boy, I wish I could get that back.” This was not a pitch in a game. This was our national security and war. I still wish I could get that vote back.
I learned from that experience, having re-litigated it in my mind almost every day, that you have to be skeptical of what authorities are telling you when they want you to commit. I became increasingly skeptical when I was told that we needed to go to war here or there. One percent of the population of America is doing the fighting for the other 99 percent and for those people who make casual decisions to go to war or have casual opinions to go to war, I think that they have an obligation to more fully understand what that decision means and why that decision has been made. And to do more than just watch the war on television. There has got to be more of a collective responsibility among all Americans to support our troops. Not just to say we support our troops, but to actually do it.
What is your take on the current state of international affairs?
I was in Congress for 16 years. From when I went in to when I left is two different worlds. When I went to Congress, we had robust global institutions. We had the growth of small terrorist organizations but at the same time, military doctrine strategies and technology that seemed fairly reliable. When I left Congress, we were in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It’s going to take us a while to rebalance and that’s why I wanted to form this institution—to figure out what it’s going to take and how to do it.
Even with the volatility, or maybe because of it, it seems that more people are interested in joining this dialogue. What do you think is fueling people’s interest?
There used to be a sense that what happened abroad doesn’t really impact us—what’s happening in Greece doesn’t impact Great Neck. But we’ve learned that what happens abroad has an impact on Long Island. We learned it from 9/11. We learned it from our economy. We learn it every time there’s a report of a possible terrorist act in New York City.
What are the actions that result from the Global Institute and its members joining the discussion? Is the group purely academic or is it action-oriented?
The most important function of the Global Institute is providing Long Island leaders with first-person, real-time analysis of what’s happening in the world and merge practical intelligence with action-oriented programs. With our global network, we can do this for any hotspot in the world.
What types of events does the Global Institute hold to support its mission?
We do diplomatic crisis conference calls. Like when North Korea test-fired a missile, the next day we had the South Korea ambassador on a conference call explaining what happened and what the response might be. We do breakfasts with foreign policy and defense leaders ranging from members of Congress to diplomats to analysts. We do major events with global leaders like Bill Clinton and general Petraeus and Colin Powell. Those are the three things we do on Long Island.
Beyond that, we travel. We take our members to places around the world that are in the news. In February, we took a delegation of 25 Long Islanders to Israel to meet with Israel’s national security leaders and our ambassador. I just got a good email from Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. saying he thought we could meet with prime minister Netanyahu. Over 16 years I developed these wonderful relationships with global leaders and now I’m able to knock on doors at those places. The doors don’t always open wide but they open at least a crack initially and then get wider. Finally, we do specific projects of interest to our members that fulfill a curiosity. Some members are interested in trade, so we’re trying to strengthen the trade relationships between Long Island businesses and foreign markets.
Will these events always have a geopolitical slant or will you address social issues?
The fundamental goal is understanding national security. But you can’t get to that goal unless you understand the geopolitics of a region and how it impacts the United States. If you talk to any military planner they will tell you that conflict abroad is created by a variety of conditions including social conditions. For example, regions where women are not empowered, where you have no small business growth and where you have no democracy, that means you have no security. And where you have no security, terrorist groups recruit and become more of a threat to the United States.
Why are some of the Global Institute’s events exclusive to its members?
It is free to be a member. Every morning we send out an email to our members—you don’t have to pay one penny—telling them the two or three significant things that happened the night before. When I was in Congress, I got a daily intelligence brief every morning. I’d get up and say, “Oh wow, there was a riot in Turkey. There was a missile firing in North Korea.” We do the same. We have programs that are also free for everybody. We just had a program on how emotion governs our voting decisions. We had a conference on anti-Semitism. For more intimate experiences with global leaders, we have to pay their expenses and we have to pay our expenses. For people who make a tax-deductible contribution to the Institute, they have that higher level of access.
What are members of the Global Institute looking to get out of the experience?
We’ve got entrepreneurs like Global Credit Advisers’ managing partner Steve Hornstein, but we also have students at LIU who are members. It’s anybody with an interest in national security and foreign policy and understanding how those issues are impacting us every day. If you are a CEO and you’re doing business in Asia, you want to know whether North Korea is going to fire a missile and how that’s going to destabilize the markets. We provide that access instantaneously. If you’re a student at LIU and you want to know whether ISIS is planning a terrorist attack and how that’s going to impact your future, this is the place you go because we track and monitor what’s happening with terrorism and share that with our members on an obviously unclassified basis.
Are there other organizations similar to the Global Institute?
New York City has the council on Foreign Relations and the Foreign Policy Association but in order to go to those places you have to drive through a tunnel or cross a bridge. For us, all you have to do is know how to get down 25A in traffic. We are the only one on Long Island that focuses on national security and foreign policy as our mission, nobody else is doing it.
Are there similar organizations elsewhere, either in the US or other countries, that you will collaborate with?
As our region’s premier platform for national security and global leadership, we have ongoing collaborations with the most respected think tanks in the country, including the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Brookings Institution.
What is your long-term vision for the Global Institute?
I never thought in year one we’d have Bill Clinton and general Petraeus and Colin Powell and all of these ambassadors. I thought those things would happen in year five. The fact that they happened in year one gives us a sense of how valuable this platform has become. I hope to continue that credibility and continue providing that value to Long Island’s leaders and activists.