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Camden Conference at 25

A week or so ago my wife and I journeyed to Camden for the 25th annual Camden Conference on foreign affairs. Once again the Conference’s all-volunteer force turned a small town in mid-coast Maine into the epi-center of a global debate on the most pressing issues of the day. The topic this year was “The US in a 21st Century World:  Do we have what it takes?”  Experts from around the country gathered to discuss America’s positioning in areas that ranged from education to clean energy; from the competitive positioning of US manufacturing to the need for a new strategic narrative for the country.

 

The Conference moderator was once again Nicholas Burns, former Under Secretary of State and professor at the Kennedy School of Harvard University.  Burns is the diplomat’s diplomat.  His grasp of global issues and deft touch in framing the issues, posing the difficult questions, and engaging audience participation is key to the quality of the Camden discussion.  And if you haven’t been there, the Camden Conference is very much a quality discussion.  There are relatively few speakers and their time is carefully proscribed to allow for a meaningful dialogue with the audience.  The audience is knowledgeable and engaged – concerned citizens from here and away along with a large contingent of university students.

 

I have now attended five Camden Conferences.  All of them have had a singular focus.  Yet the energy and spark that turns out to drive the dialogue often comes from an unexpected direction.  This year that spark was provided by two military officers, Navy Captain Wayne Porter and Marine Colonel Mark Mykleby, outlining their perception for a new national strategic narrative for America.

 

 You may well ask how did two relatively obscure military officers decide to undertake such a task.  It is quite a story:  Captain Porter was serving on the staff of Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and accompanied Admiral Mullen to a meeting with then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The topic was future US military strategy.  At the meeting it was clear that a problem in developing a new strategy for the military was the absence of a clearly articulated national strategic framework.  As they left the meeting Captain Porter mentioned this to Admiral Mullen.  The Admiral said:  “Why don’t you take a crack at it.”  Captain Porter recruited Colonel Mykleby to assist and the rest is history.

 

They are quite a duo and have produced a seminal piece on reshaping America’s strategic narrative toward two enduring interests, prosperity and security – a prosperity and security closely aligned with traditional American values. The essence of their narrative is “we want the US to become the strongest competitor and most influential player in a deeply inter-connected global system which requires that we invest less in defense and more in sustainable prosperity and the tools of effective global engagement”. This is remarkable:  two young military officers proposing reducing defense spending to invest in education, renewable resources, and diplomacy.

 

Country first is no mere phrase to Porter and Mykleby. Kudos also go to our nation’s military leadership for giving them this opportunity – only in America. They certainly brought the audience alive on Saturday afternoon.  Their challenge was personal:  “Does America have what it takes?  Hell, yes, but we have to get off our duffs and participate.”  Turn off your televisions America and join the civic dialogue.

 

There was much more to the Conference, of course.  Amory Lovins, the preeminent authority on alternative energy in the United States, gave a dazzling presentation that showed how the US could rid itself of dependence on oil and coal by the year 2050. This was a compelling argument for the extraordinary payback on investments in alternative energy once one incorporated the full costs to society of using oil and coal. Lovins had several practical ideas for how this could be done. Most of us there, I suspect, had the urge to immediately invest in something renewable- Lovins is that persuasive. My wife was a convert. She is ordering up photovoltaics to supply the electricity for our home.

 

I came to Camden this year with real concern about whether “America has what it takes” in the 21st century.  The concern remains, but I was part of a dialogue at Camden that was hopeful.  It reminded me that we have an extraordinary base in America from which to build – as long as “we get off our duffs and do something about it.”

 

One of the few things the Camden Conference is missing is more presence from Southern Maine. It is always surprising to me that we have participants from all over the country but few from the Portland area. This year the global sponsor was R.M. Davis from Portland so perhaps we may see more of a Camden-Portland connection in the future. Let us hope so.