A most timely confab: USF St. Pete's International Affairs Conference happens at a time of flux

click to enlarge MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Rob Rowen during a recent visit to Nepal. Rowen is a participant in the St. Pete conference. - Courtesy of Rob Rowen
Courtesy of Rob Rowen
MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Rob Rowen during a recent visit to Nepal. Rowen is a participant in the St. Pete conference.

South Tampa gallery owner by trade, Rob Rowen made headlines in 2015 for calling out a Tampa Starbucks store when management refused to enforce disabled parking zones. He’s also gotten press for his frequent treks to Nepal, where he and a small team of volunteers deliver food and supplies to schools in remote mountainous regions.

His next journey, later this month, is to Djibouti, where he was instrumental in arranging for large tents that will house classrooms to be sent to a remote desert region — a need he saw while his organization, Global Action Coalition, was there scouting sites for potential installation of solar-powered water pumps.

But before he gets on the plane, he’ll be one of about 60 experts to participate in wide-ranging panel discussions at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus during the fifth annual St. Petersburg Conference of International Affairs.

The brainchild of retired ambassador Douglas McElhaney, who seeks to foster nuanced discussions on complex issues with this event, the conference will bring perspectives from across the globe on everything from the dynamics of the EU amidst the refugee crisis and the aftermath of Brexit to Donald Trump tweets.

In his bio on the event site, McElhaney has said the panel discussions will focus on the substance of the topic at hand and be “unfettered by political rhetoric.”

The list of speakers features experts from a broad range of backgrounds and geographic areas. Included are investigative journalist Richard Miniter, education expert Susan B. Neuman and jazz trumpeter/CL Best of the Bay Winner James Suggs.

For Rowen, no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, the dramatic changes to foreign relations sought by the Trump Administration make such discussions more important than ever.

He’s slated to speak on a range of issues, including relations between the U.S. and Cuba; international education; and African nations’ status on the international stage. Concerns over the U.S.’s impending retreat from globalism — and the likelihood that the U.S. will pull out of economic and environmental agreements — will loom large.

“We have big issues. We have climate change. I’ve seen that in Djibouti. I’ve seen that in Nepal. Africa has lots of drought issues that happen,” Rowen said. “It’s so important that we work together, but we have a president and Congress that are saying no, no, no we’re fine...and that’s scary.”

He said isolationist policies that pull government resources from humanitarian efforts in countries that need aid can do harm in unexpected ways.

Take Djibouti, which he called a “moderate Muslim country,” one that’s surrounded by three countries wracked by economic and environmental instability: Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Efforts to help the population of a country like Djibouti fend off desperation and strife can make anti-West terrorist causes seem less appealing. But with Trump’s “America First” declaration on Inauguration Day, the burden of such work will shift even more onto the shoulders of non-government organizations like Rowen’s.

“You want to keep terrorism from growing there,” he said. “So how do you do that? By ignoring them? By putting them aside? By not supporting good things there? That’s not going to do that. By making a difference in what people see change, by giving the kids an education… by standard of life, giving opportunities. Then, when a terrorist comes and says come fight the American infidels… there’s no reason to do it because their lives are OK.”

Even before Trump took office, friends from overseas voiced worry over how things would change.

“All my friends from all these countries were emailing and Facebooking me and saying what the heck did you do?” Rowen said. “They couldn’t believe it. They followed the whole thing and they couldn’t believe it.”

Organizers of the conference stress that, while the three-day panel series will certainly have its share of Trump critics, it’s not about Trump-bashing.

Panelist Charles Skinner, a retired Foreign Service officer who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh graduate school of public and international affairs, is slated to weigh in on a panel called “President Trump’s foreign policy: from tweets to reality,” among others, where he’ll talk about the difference between embracing a big idea and actually putting it into practice.

“I think it’s fairly obvious that the president campaigned on a lot of issues and he’s obviously trying to move on those issues. But he’s running into the reality of how things work in the world.”

While participants will likely be academic in their discussions and try to avoid Trump sensationalism, he said, admittedly it will be hard to avoid.

“I expect it [will be] on everybody’s minds,” he said.

The St. Petersburg Conference on International Affairs begins Wednesday, Feb. 15 and goes till Friday, Feb. 17, with sessions scheduled for each of those days between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. For more information including a full schedule and speaker bios, visit stpetersburgintheworld.com

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