St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs looks to bolster local interest in global issues

The wide-ranging conference returns to St. Pete to up our international I.Q.

Posted by Mitch Perry on Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 3:44 PM

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What are the biggest issues in the world today? Climate change? Iran having the bomb? Terrorism? A global pandemic? 

And how does one keep abreast of it all? In our vastly changing media environment, citizens have to be aggressive to keep up, whether that means reading the international section of the Washington Post or the New York Times, or checking out CNN International, the BBC or Al Jazeera America.

Or, if you live in Tampa Bay, attending the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs.

Douglas L. McElhaney certainly thinks it’s important for Americans to know what’s going on in the world, which is why he’s once again organizing the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs (formerly known as St. Petersburg in the World) on the USFSP campus.

Douglas L. McElhaney graced the cover of CL last March.
  • Douglas L. McElhaney graced the cover of CL last March.
McElhaney, a St. Pete resident since 2007, served as a foreign service officer at the U.S. State Department for 34 years. He says that ultimately the goal of the conference is to make local residents more informed about the world they live in, and the choices they make about who governs them.

“It’s always been kind of an anomaly to me that there wasn’t the interest in foreign affairs that there is in other countries,” says McElhaney, sounding like those foreign human rights activists who say that the U.S. presidential election shouldn’t be limited to U.S. citizens.

“The more people can be articulate and informed about these issues, the more they can say to their leaders, ‘Well, wait a minute. Why are we doing this, or why are we doing that?’ And I think as the most powerful country in the world and the one that so many people rely on, that we need to have that in our electorate.”

This year’s conference, running Feb. 13-15 at USFSP, features 16 panel discussions and 31 speakers, both a noticeable increase from the initial conference in 2013, which drew an average of 200 attendees to each of 10 seminars. Speakers pay their own way, and funding comes solely from “mostly small contributions from attendees,” says McElhaney, with USFSP providing the facilities.

Here are four panel discussions that are likely to provoke thought, discussion, and maybe an argument or two.

Did we bail too soon?
“Getting Out of the Mideast and Asserting U.S. Power in Asia,” Fri., Feb. 14, 9 a.m.

Panelist Walter Andrusyszyn, an adjunct professor of international business at the College of Business Administration at USF, worked in the foreign service from 1980-2003, serving in the Balkans along with Eastern and Western Europe. He’s a sharp critic of how the Obama administration has conducted itself in the Middle East, going back to our involvement (or lack thereof) when the Arab Spring movement exploded in Egypt three years ago.

Although acknowledging that it’s easy to comment in retrospect, Andrusyszyn blames the Obama administration for bailing out too early on the regime of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. U.S. realpolitik admirers would say he might have been an undemocratic despot, but he was “our” undemocratic despot.

“I think I would have supported Mubarak because I didn’t want the Muslim Brotherhood in there. If we had taken that position, we’d still be with 50 percent of the population there — right now we have zero percent of the population with us,” he says.

Another foreign policy issue that bothers Andrusyszyn was how the White House dealt with the information that a rocket carrying poisonous sarin gas exploded in a Damascus suburb last August, the supposed “smoking gun” that gave the U.S. and NATO permission to use military action against President Bashir al-Assad.

At the time it looked like Obama had painted himself into a corner, as he’d said a year earlier that a chemical weapon attack would immediately cross a “red line” and demand a military response. But instead of enlisting the military, he asked Congress to weigh in first. Strong opposition immediately manifested itself on Capitol Hill and among the American people, and it took Russia’s Vladimir Putin to broker a deal that would put Syria’s chemical arsenal under control of international inspectors.

“The issue was not just the American public,” Andrusyszyn says. “There was no stomach for military action in the Obama administration,” which he says raises the question: “Why do you demand an ultimatum with that red-line policy when you know you’re not going to live up to it?”

In an illuminating and lengthy piece in the New Yorker last week, President Obama again downplayed the power and significance of the modern-day Al Qaeda, saying that the analogy employed among his seniors staffers is that “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” He went on to say that that there is a clear distinction between the reach of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden “versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

“That’s not reality,” Andrusyszyn asserts. “Al Qaeda is very strong and growing, particularly in North Africa, certainly in parts of the Middle East.”

Hey, U.S., it’s your old pal Europe
“Europe and America Can Go Their Separate Ways,” Fri., Feb. 14, 10:20 a.m.
For the past few years there has been talk that the U.S. plans to pivot its military focus to the Asia-Pacific. That’s led to great concern from some of our European allies, worried that we might be abandoning them.

Panelist Judith M. Heimann is a retired senior foreign service officer and a non-fiction writer who has spent most of her adult life abroad — chiefly in Western Europe but also in Southeast Asia and Central Africa.

“Europeans are, understandably, pretty allergic to war,” she says. The horrors of the two world wars, combined with the fact that NATO effectively became the West’s police force post-WWII, gave Europe little incentive to bulk up its military, says Heilman.

That relationship allowed Western Europe, unlike the U.S., to concentrate on building up its domestic social safety net through such programs as government-controlled health care. “They just have a different conception of where the priorities should be,” says Heilman, adding that only the United Kingdom and France have any military presence to speak of.

As for Obama’s relationship with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Heinemann is uncertain of how deep the connection goes, but says it’s fair to assume it isn’t on par with FDR-Churchill, Reagan-Thatcher or even the Clinton-Blair alliance. But Obama hasn’t taken a big personal role with any country overseas, allowing Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, to lead the way. Heilman thinks the reported tension between the U.S. and its allies (particularly Germany’s Angela Merkel) over the Edward Snowden leaks has been “blown up” by the media.

Her biggest concern is the status of our diplomatic corps, which she says is now filled up more and more with political appointees rather than career diplomats. “We have over the past 25 years gradually removed more and more of the career professionals from embassies abroad,” she complains. “Now we have two thirds of the senior jobs of the state department who are rank amateurs” with no particular credentials for diplomacy.

Edward Snowden - WIKIPEDIA
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The damage done
“Snowden and Manning — Traitors?” Sat. Feb. 15, 9 a.m.

Usually when this question is posed, there’s the option of calling Edward Snowden a whistleblower. But that omission may reflect exactly where this discussion will go, judging by the comments of panelist Charles Campbell. Campbell worked for 40 years for the CIA before retiring in 2004. Since then he’s consulted with several companies related to counterterrorism and counterintelligence programs. And like virtually everyone else who’s been interviewed in the wake of the Snowden revelations about NSA spying, he’s not willing to cut the former Booz Allen Hamilton consultant any slack when it comes to criminal prosecution.

“My own view is that his revelations have been severely damaging,” Campbell told CL from his home in Washington D.C. last week. “In my mind there’s no doubt that what he did significantly betrayed the trust that the U.S. government placed in him by giving him access to this sensitive information.”

Two reports have been released in recent months taking stock of the NSA revelations. In December, the presidential commission made 46 different recommendations. One of the most significant was that the logs of all American phone calls collected — so-called metadata — should remain in the hands of telecommunications companies or a private consortium, and a court order should be necessary each time analysts want to access the information of any individual “for queries and data mining.”

Last week a report produced by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board said that the bulk collection of such metadata violated the statute that the Obama Administration has cited to justify it, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and called for the program to be halted.

CL asked Charles Campbell if he would grant that the man did a service for everyone in lifting the veil of secrecy from the NSA’s domestic surveillance operations.

He said it was a difficult question to answer, but he feels comfortable that our civil liberties have not been damaged. “Neither of those reports has basically indicated that there’s any evidence that anybody was involved in any sort of abuse of power of these programs.” He says that the congressional oversight committees put in place after the revelations of the FBI and CIA surveillance programs in the mid-1970s have played a “very active role over the years” in informing Congress about what our intelligence organizations are doing, though comments by lawmakers since Snowden went public challenge that assertion.

Under attack
“Cyber-Terrorism is a Greater Threat Than Nuclear Weapons,” Fri. Feb. 14, 10:20 a.m.
Former CIA official Charles Campbell unhesitatingly affirms that yes, cyber-terrorism is a bigger threat to the U.S. than nukes are, mainly because of the uncertainty about what a cyber attack might do to our way of life.

“We know a lot more about nuclear weapons,” he says, adding that the use of those weapons is considered so “horrific” in the minds of just about everybody familiar with them that it’s a bridge nobody wants to cross, because of its massive consequences.

But a cyber attack, he says, is more likely, whether from a hacker, foreign government or terrorist. “I think there are a lot more unknowns out there in that world,” he worries.

Citing the recent hacking of Target’s corporate system that involved stealing the credit and debit card data of at least 40 million customers, USF’s Walter Andrusyszyn says it’s just a matter of time before the U.S. is a victim of a major cyber attack.

“We aren’t ready for it. I’m not sure that any country is,” he says, adding that the Russians committed two major cyber attacks during military invasions of Georgia and Estonia in 2007 and 2008.

The St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs takes place from Thurs., Feb. 13 through Sat., Feb 15 at the USFSP Student Center. For more information go to

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