The fourth round of the Pulitzer Center-Helium Global Issues/Citizen Voices contest was a study in contrast. Two of the four essay questions engaged issues that have lingered in the national spotlight for the past year: the 2008 presidential election and Iran. The other two pressed readers to consider lesser known conflicts in the jungles of Ecuador and in the Caucasus mountain region of Eurasia. All the issues - the overexposed and underexposed - received a diversity of responses ...
And the contest is gaining some loyal followers; two past winners - David Chapronière and Don K Potochny - have once again earned top honors.
Chapronière, who won a first round contest on Somalia, wrote on how Iran's progressive youth population will affect international relations in the coming decades.
Before the contest, Chapronière said that he had not realized that Iran's youth population was so large. Persian rap music also intrigued him, especially its use to criticize the Iranian government.
In his essay, he argued for a humble US approach to Iran.
"US foreign policy-makers should recognize that a more progressive and liberal Iran lies in the hands of Iran's young population," he wrote. "There is an opportunity here to build bridges with a dynamic and democratically charged majority. To ignore that could prove to be the west's undoing."
Don Potochny (pen name Keith Bailey) of St. Louis, Missouri -- fresh off a round 3 win on water scarcity in East Africa -- examined how drugs and money have emboldened rebels and strained relations between Ecuador and Colombia. Potochny spent five weeks reading Kelly Hearn's South American reporting and writing his essay. He said that the stories enlightened him about global issues -- and his own writing.
"This is why I'm really interested in the Pulitzer Center - it would be nice if the Pulitzer Center were to get 90 seconds on nightly or morning news," Potochny told the Pulitzer Center. "It's not the quality of international news I'm disgusted with, it's what's chosen as the story. I've always been someone who likes to learn - I've been blinded the last couple of years - Pulitzer Center provides an outlet not only to learn about global issues but to write about it."
For Townville, Pennsylvania's Matt Geiger, the essay contest helped broaden his global perspective beyond the nightly news and allowed him to write about a region racked by ethnic fracture. Geiger answered the question: Why does the U.S. government support independence for the breakaway Serb territory of Kosovo but oppose independence for the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
In his winning response, he said that the United States was bound to its involvement in the region ever since its 1999 support of NATO forces in Kosovo. Containment and separation of the region's separate ethnicities became a necessity.
"By reacting to the state sponsored terrorism conducted by Slobodan Milosevic, the United States politically and morally bound itself to achieving stability in the region" Geiger wrote. "Ultimately, the solution to ending ethnic violence was to divide the region into several small sovereign nations; therefore, supporting an independent Kosovo is consistent with US policy. Moreover, it is viewed as a means of preventing future conflict and building stability in the region despite recent outbreaks of violence."
Geiger's essay is particularly relevant today, as the conflict in Southern Ossetia intensifies.
In a region on the brink between diplomacy and military action, the Caucasus can potentially be a proving ground for the next US president John McCain or Barack Obama, whose foreign policy differences were analyzed by round 4 winner Brian Bolin.
"The most dramatic difference between the two senators' plans hinge on the use of diplomacy, and the role of military force in international conflict resolution ... ultimately, the final difference seems to be a matter of change versus a continuation of our current course," Bolin argued. "With very few exceptions, McCain's foreign policy is a continuation of the Bush administration ideals of aggressive military spending and deployment, non-negotiation with enemies, and a continuation of the Iraq war. Obama favors more diplomatic solutions, and a quick end to the Iraq war."
In his essay, Bolin also saw high stakes for the future of the United States -- and the world.
"The decision voters make in November will determine the course of American discourse in the world at large, and to our relationship with our enemies."