For one evening last week at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I was transported back to my days as chief of correspondents at Newsweek magazine as well as the years I lived in New York and was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The council (CFR) is the nation’s premier nonprofit, nonpartisan foreign policy and international affairs organization, think tank, and publisher of Foreign Affairs. Its members include senior government officials, career diplomats, scholars, journalists, educators, and business and religious leaders.
For the five years my wife, Monika, and I lived and worked in New York, from 1985 to 1990, I often walked from Newsweek’s offices on Madison Avenue and 50th Street to CFR’s home at the historic Pratt House at 68th Street and Park Avenue for talks delivered by presidents, prime ministers, autocrats, military generals, Nobel Prize winners, ambassadors, royalty, revolutionaries, and human rights leaders. It was a front-row seat to the world and the very people orchestrating the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the struggle for freedom and democracy sweeping Latin America.
My work at the time took me around the world more than once, yet I still felt like an interloper standing in the company of people making history.
Last week that world came to UTSA’s main campus. A standing-room-only audience was there to take it in, the auditorium packed with political science students, faculty and administration, and community leaders. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, himself a veteran diplomat and noted author, is bringing the CFR’s U.S. Foreign Policy Forum this presidential election year to four university campuses in New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan, and Texas.
It was quite a score for UTSA to be selected as the host for the second of the four programs. As a UTSA political science graduate myself, it was a reminder of how far the university has come in the decades since I was a student and how rewarding it is to support that growth and progress.
The program came at an especially uncertain time as the Trump administration continues to challenge and disrupt traditional world order, U.S. military alliances, global trade relations, climate change agreements, and more.
University of Texas System Chancellor James Milliken, the former chancellor of the City University of New York and a CFR member, offered welcoming remarks. UTSA President Taylor Eighmy welcomed Haass and three fellow panelists who previously served in senior foreign policy and national security roles in three different administrations, including presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Haass, along with Stephen Hadley, a senior national security official under the younger Bush; Jeh Charles Johnson, the U.S. secretary of homeland security under Obama; and Mary Beth Long, a former CIA operative and assistant secretary of defense under the elder Bush, together offered decades of high-level experience and perspective. Each one reminded me of how highly I have always regarded foreign service and intelligence professionals and how poorly they have been treated of late.
The panel was moderated by Margaret Talev, the White House and politics editor for the Washington, D.C.-based news site Axios.
For one whirlwind hour, Talev led the panelists through a discussion of the trade war with China, the war in Syria, negotiations with the Taliban, tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and the stalemate in Venezuela. China and climate change were cited as two of the most urgent challenges facing the nation, although when pressed to cite the biggest threat to the U.S. standing in the world, Haass said it was the United States itself and our current path away from liberal democracy as well as what Hadley called our long-held commitments to democracy, freedom, and human rights.
The name of Donald Trump was scarcely mentioned in the conversation, or in the following questions from students, but his unconventional presidency and his inexplicable penchant for favoring the word of Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own foreign policy and intelligence experts has clearly unsettled the traditional establishment.
Readers who wish to view the entire program, which was livestreamed, can click here.
Haass and the CFR organized the four-campus tour to promote civic engagement and voting as essential to preserving democracy. The CFR Election 2020 site is a comprehensive guide to the presidential candidates’ positions on international issues. It’s a useful and timely resource in this age of disinformation, especially in a presidential election year when voter turnout is so important.
In the eight years we have published the Rivard Report, whose singular focus is San Antonio, my mantra to younger colleagues has always been “think globally, act locally.” So much of what our reporters cover – the importance of a good education for all, the quality of local government, good job creation, access to affordable housing, health care, and transportation, safe streets and neighborhoods, clean air and water – these are also global issues. People everywhere share the same concerns and aspirations. We are always part of something bigger, a world community.
I left that evening at UTSA reminding myself of my own mantra, deciding I was long overdue, after a 30-year hiatus, to apply anew for CFR membership.