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Building the World of Tomorrow: Insights from the World Affairs Councils of America 2024 National Conference


 The 2023 World Affairs Councils of America National Conference has officially concluded, and the representatives from the Colorado Springs chapter could not be more excited to have attended! The two-and-a-half days of programming were filled with lively networking opportunities, inspiring keynote addresses, insightful panel discussions, as well as workshops and breakout sessions. All of these elements proved to be melting pots of ideas that transcend borders and foster deeper understandings of our interconnected world. As an avid participant in the conference, I'd like to share my firsthand experiences and key takeaways from this enriching event, which left an indelible mark on my understanding of the world and appreciation for both our local Council and the wider WACA network.

The first day of the conference began like most professional seminars, with a light breakfast provided to tired attendees adjusting to their respective time changes. Personally, this required more coffee than usual, but was quickly replaced by the energy generated by meeting representatives from various councils who joined me at my table. These introductions provided a small taste of the rest of the conference, each serving as a great opportunity to meet my contemporaries across the nation and hear how their councils differed from our own—always on the lookout for best practices that could be implemented in the Springs.

After brief remarks from Matthew Hughes, WACA's President and CEO, the main body was allowed to break off into two smaller groups for breakout sessions. The entire first day of breakout sessions focused on best practices for councils, also known as "Leadership Day." Being relatively new to the functions of our Council, I chose sessions that balanced my desire to learn with concepts that would benefit CSWAC most. This included the Membership Breakout for increased member/donor retention and upgrading practices at 9 AM, the Corporate Partnership Breakout for attracting business sponsorship at 10:15 AM, the Public Programs Breakout to discuss gathering with purpose and perceived value at 1:15 PM, and finally, the Network Membership Meeting to gain a better understanding of the national council's census and network updates at 2:30 PM.

Each of these sessions provided the opportunity to learn not only from various speakers but, more importantly, from council members across the country. Some of the more interesting ideas I heard included how the World Affairs Council of Charlotte (North Carolina) almost exclusively derives its bottom line from the numerous language learning programs it provides to its members. Another intriguing approach came from the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan (Grand Rapids), which has a relatively small individual member base, being more focused on attracting attendees to their speaker series from the various universities and corporations in the area.

The notion of corporate sponsorship was the most impactful for me, as learning how Western Michigan conducts itself, as well as the various lessons learned from the Corporate Partnership Breakout, sparked ideas that I would like to pursue for our Council's sponsorships. Specifically, an extensive examination of the various national or international corporations and organizations that support councils across the country. Reaching out to them regarding support for CSWAC seemed like a logical step—if they're willing to support those councils, why not ours? Another tactic that piqued my interest is more straightforward: to study the countless organizations in our community and see if their missions overlap with our own. From there, setting up meetings to discuss even the most basic level of support from these institutions should be relatively easy.

The evening of the first day was a three-hour opening reception and dinner, providing me the chance to showcase one of my newer bowties (Karen and I discussed at length how bowties never go out of style). Before the dinner, I had the opportunity to meet three instructors from the Ursuline Academy of Dallas. They had brought a handful of their students active in their Global Relationships program, which is a member of the Junior World Affairs Councils of Dallas. The scope of the JWAC in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is staggering, with 61 high schools taking part. Their students regularly engage in firsthand sessions with diplomats, dignitaries, leaders, authors, and others who understand global issues and opportunities in business and education. While such a program in El Paso County might be challenged to grow a network of similar size, it isn't impossible, considering there are roughly as many high schools in our region. This is something that certainly warrants looking into deeper, as our Council is actively seeking to increase local youth interest and involvement in global affairs.

The dinner also served as an award ceremony for the International Service Award, Council Centennial Recognitions, and the Council and Individual of the Year recognitions. The crowd was then fortunate enough to hear from two distinguished keynote speakers. The first was NPR's Global Democracy Correspondent, Frank Langfitt, who spoke about the increasing instability America faces both internationally, as great power competition ramps up, and domestically, with the 2024 presidential election appearing to mark a fundamental shift in American democracic norms. The second speaker was Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, who articulated the importance of the citizen diplomacy conducted by World Affairs Councils and expressed concern for the tumultuous times currently plaguing the international system.

While I was very impressed with Ambassador Pickering's lucid off-the-cuff remarks, it was a very brief aside that Frank Langfitt made that has continued to resonate with me. He mentioned the irony of the WACA Conference's theme, "Building the World of Tomorrow," being the exact same theme used at the New York World's Fair in April 1939, which barely preceded Germany's invasion of Poland in September of the same year. The idea of America moving out of a period of economic hardship into one of global conflagration is a sobering reminder of our country's inflection point.

As the dinner concluded, and most attendees retired for the evening, a few of us stayed behind for drinks and networking, which turned out to be one of the best parts of the day for me. I had the opportunity to meet many of my younger peers from World Boston and the Cleveland Council on World Affairs. The rest of the night was a pleasant mix of light conversation and 1800 Tequila.

The next day followed another busy schedule of sessions and off-site visits. However, instead of best practice seminars, these were panel discussions and one-on-one interviews, similar to our own speaker series events. For me, the day kicked off with a Global Ties members-only breakfast, hosted by the President and CEO of Global Ties, Katherine Brown, as well as the State Department's newest Director of the Office of International Visitors (OIV), Amy Storrow. While it was a great opportunity to juxtapose the struggles and successes of many councils that conduct International Visitor Leadership Programs (IVLP), it was also disheartening to hear some of those struggles. Knowing many Community-Based Members (CBM) might face increased hardships as the OIV budget for FY 2024 experiences a 10% decrease was unfortunate. Despite 2023 being CSWAC's IVLP most successful year to date, understanding there will be budget cuts means we'll have to work that much harder in 2024 to achieve the same results. This has only reinforced my belief that our Committee for International Visitors (CIV) will be that much more important going forward.

After the meeting, I quickly secured a seat at a front-row table just next to the speaker's platform for optimal picture-taking quality. The first session was a conversation between Jim Townsend from the Center for New American Security and Ambassador Francisco Duarte Lopes of Portugal. They discussed the complexities of shared challenges and the role of NATO in maintaining global balances in peace and security. This conversation seamlessly transitioned into the next discussion between Suzanne Maloney, Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institute, and Iulia-Sabina Joja of the Middle East Institute, who delved into regional stability in various trouble spots around the world.

Another set of breakout sessions before lunch allowed the crowd to disperse again, with the choice between three parallel sessions. This presented an onerous decision for me, as all three topics were interesting. However, among How the War In Ukraine Melted Frozen Conflicts in the Baltic States, America's Failure in Afghanistan, and Global Forces Shaping the Future of Energy, I chose the latter, as it was the topic I knew the least about. This breakout session, hosted by Global Minnesota and featuring Dr. John Pournoor, the Founder and President of Government Analytica, was an impressive hour. Dr. Pournoor expounded on the successes and limitations of the Green Revolution, balancing an optimistic outlook for the future of renewable energy with the carbon footprint created by moving our society toward carbon-neutral and carbon-zero standards. It's the one business card I regret not snagging the most.

The luncheon keynote on Thursday, titled 'Tools and Insights from World Class Negotiators,' featured Roelf Meyer, Monica Williams, and Timothy Phillips. Roelf Meyer served as the Minister of Constitutional Affairs and lead government negotiator in the talks to end apartheid and establish a multiracial democracy in South Africa. Monica McWilliams was a negotiator in the Good Friday talks, which brought an end to three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. Timothy Phillips is a leader in the field of conflict resolution and reconciliation, and founder of Beyond Conflict, a global non-profit that has created powerful and innovative frameworks to open pathways for progress in peace talks, transitions to democracy, and national reconciliation in the aftermath of division and violence in dozens of countries around the world. The conversation was a recollection of the personal tragedies and growth experienced by Ms. Williams and Mr. Meyer, who each had to overcome tremendous adversity and ridicule to achieve their respective goals of ensuring peace among their countrymen.

Once again, the main body was broken up according to personal choices for preferred visits to a number of think tanks that had agreed to meet with us. Among the Korea Economic Institute, the Middle East Institute, the Stimson Center, and the Quincy Institute, I chose the Quincy Institute due to its purported mission that 'emphasizes military restraint and diplomatic engagement and cooperation with other nations' in order to best serve American interests. I have to say, I was a little disappointed with some of the perspectives shared by the staff, such as the idea that the BRICS economic is going to be a game changer—despite having no notable development projects or even a charter after over a decade of existence and having added a number of regional rivals to their ranks—or the assertion that Washington is inflating the threat of a rising China, even as the Congressional Select Committee on the CCP investigates the existence of an illegal, PRC-tied biolab in Reedley, CA. Nevertheless, I always find it insightful to hear varying perspectives, particularly when it comes to enhancing the United States' diplomatic outreach.

Admittedly, I did not attend the offsite reception at the Mexican Cultural Institute, as my wife, Jeanette, flew out to join me in DC. Instead, we spent the evening walking along the National Mall, where I shared with her some experiences I had this year. Before 2023, I had never been to Washington DC, but the WACA Conference marked my third visit, the first being in March for the Global Ties Conference and the second as a staff ride conducted in conjunction with the Air Force Academy and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Starting at the White House, we made our way around the Eisenhower Executive Building, took some photos in front of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution Memorial Continental Hall (Jeanette is a big fan of Gilmore Girls), marveled at the scale of the Washington Monument, and felt the solemn reverence embodied by the World War II, Lincoln, and Vietnam Veterans Memorials.

I was immensely grateful for the last day of the conference, even if it was a half day. Breakfast began at 7 AM, as usual, and it was great seeing our own Karen Burghart introduce the speakers for the first panel of the day. Amber Barth of the International Labour Organization and Henry Tugendhat from the U.S. Institute of Peace discussed global economic uncertainty. As an amateur China watcher, my attention was sharply drawn to Mr. Tugendhat, who went into great detail about the cycle of debt traps China has produced worldwide through its economic Belt and Road Initiative. Immediately following this session was another panel looking at global demographic shifts, with an informed panel comprising Ernesto Castañeda-Tinoco of The Atlantic Council, Kristen Lord from the global development and education organization IREX, and Jennifer Sciubba of The Wilson Center. This was another great session for me, as my undergrad and graduate studies have focused on population demographics across the globe, particularly in China, where the population is about to surpass Japan as the oldest and fastest-aging population in the world. It was interesting to hear the various tactics countries are employing to hedge against their population declines, while other countries seek to utilize their population booms to maximum effect.

The conference was graced by the attendance of another former ambassador, Richard Morningstar, who is currently the Chairman of the Global Energy Center at The Atlantic Council but recently served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Azerbaijan and the European Union. Ambassador Morningstar recounted his time developing energy policy as the special advisor to the president and the Secretary of State for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy, promoting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in the 1990s.

The final event for the day, and indeed the conference, was a diplomat luncheon, where representatives from 19 embassies would each have their own table, and council members could sit and converse for the duration of lunch. I decided to choose Azerbaijan, as the first geopolitical podcast I began listening to regularly (Caspian Report) was created by a geopolitical analyst from the capital, Baku. Not to mention, the country has repeatedly made international headlines over the last three years in their conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Unfortunately, the representative never showed up, so I was relegated to talking with one of the members of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs I had met Wednesday night. Thankfully, about halfway through lunch, we had a final keynote from Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women's World Banking, who regaled the audience by discussing the importance and untapped opportunity of financial technologies focusing on gender diversity.

I was sad when the conference finally concluded but enjoyed Matt Hughes' closing remarks. He joked this was his favorite part of the conference, not because it was over but because we could now begin to digest everything we had learned and experienced over the past few days and take those insights with us to improve upon the already phenomenal councils at home. I have really taken those words to heart and have already begun making big plans for the Colorado Springs World Affairs Council in 2024. Our organization is still a relatively untapped resource for our community but represents an incredible opportunity for people from all walks of life to become informed global citizens. I hope you will join me in making our dream of bringing the world to Colorado Springs a reality!

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Friday, 01 March 2024