is president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia
Sixty-five years ago this spring, not long after the end of World War II, a group of visionary Philadelphia civic leaders convened to create the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.
In those 61/2 decades, much has occurred. Yet one fundamental principle has prevailed: The founders of the council committed to build an organization that would take no position on any of the great debates of that time or in the future. Instead, it would offer - forever - a serious, neutral platform on which matters of public policy could be thoughtfully debated.
Today, the World Affairs Council continues to operate as a "corner store" in the American marketplace of ideas, just as its founders imagined.
What many Philadelphians may not realize is how much American - and global - history has been shaped at the podium of the World Affairs Council. Words uttered by a speaker at a council event have often set in motion history-shaping events.
Consider these moments:
In 1976, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan spoke before the World Affairs Council. Regrettably, his remarks included a major gaffe, in which he repeatedly referred to the Third World as "the Third World War." He went on to lose the Republican nomination for president that year. To this day, some historians argue that his verbal slip in Philadelphia cost him the nomination.
Reagan and the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia enjoyed a more positive moment in shared history nine years later.
In 1985, Ambassador Paul Nitze, one of the architects of American postwar foreign policy, spoke to the World Affairs Council. Nitze had been appointed by President Reagan to head the U.S. delegation to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces talks in Geneva.
Nitze's speech to the council, titled "On the Road to a More Stable Peace," laid out, for the first time anywhere, the Reagan administration's substantive thinking on defending against nuclear attack. In his remarks, Nitze described an algorithmic approach that shifted the American response from one of offense - matching the Soviets, weapon for weapon, and in the process assuring both countries' mutual destruction - to one of strategic defense.
It was a profoundly important policy statement at the time. As testament to its significance, it is parsed today in strategic studies and history classes in universities around the world.
The nuclear saga came full circle in 1993, when former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited the council. There, he explicitly said that the strategic defense policy of the Reagan administration, as articulated in Nitze's Philadelphia speech, had been a decisive factor in bringing an end to the Cold War.
Over the years, our members and other Philadelphians have been able to take their own measure, at a council event, of almost every president since Lyndon Johnson. Nearly every vice president and secretary of state, along with numerous world leaders, has taken advantage of the significant global platform and reputation of the council to make remarks. A number of world leaders, including Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, would speak to the council.
Just as Philadelphia served as the center of the nascent United States of America nearly 21/2 centuries ago, so, too, does our city retain its global reputation as a platform for important, meaningful, and often history-shaping conversation. In an era of information overload, much of it generating heat rather than light, the World Affairs Council strives to deliver a different, better kind of information with no agenda other than that of thoughtful discourse.
Next up for the World Affairs Council: "Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises," featuring former U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Liaquat Ahamed, economic historian and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World," 6:30 p.m. on May 19 at Hyatt at the Bellevue, 200 S. Broad St.