St. Petersburg in the world

Retired Ambassador Douglas McElhaney brings international issues to the forefront in a conference in St. Petersburg.

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The life of a foreign diplomat can be exciting, inspiring and at times extremely dangerous. The death last September 11 of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three other U.S. staff members, was a case in point.

Stevens’ death — or to be more accurate, the administration’s statement that the furor that led to his death was initiated by a YouTube video —was ultimately used by Republicans to criticize President Obama during last fall’s presidential campaign. But the issue continued to have surprising staying power throughout the winter, at one point becoming Lindsey Graham’s latest excuse for not voting to support Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Defense Secretary.

To Douglas McElhaney, the Stevens tragedy exposes some of the paradoxes of U.S. diplomacy overseas. Ambassadors and other foreign service officers are supposed to go out and interact with people in the nation where they’re working. That’s where, he says, “the rubber meets the road” in American foreign policy. “So how do you go and make friends for the U.S.?” he asks, when conditions might be so dangerous as to require having as many as 10 bodyguards watching out for your safety?

McElhaney knows first-hand about the dangers of foreign diplomacy. The 65-year-old retired diplomat has had a long and illustrious career representing the U.S. throughout the world, including stints in Egypt, France and Portugal. From 2004-2007, he was U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia/Herzegovina; it was in Bosnia, where he was working with NATO during the conflict there in the 1990s, that he was protected by a phalanx of bodyguards.

I was invited to his Signature Place condo (with its stunning panoramic view of downtown St. Pete) to talk about his new mission, albeit one with slightly less global consequences. McElhaney is putting together a two-day event on foreign policy at the end of this month with the unwieldy title, “St Petersburg in the World Conference on World Affairs,” that will feature diplomats, military officers, reporters and academics speaking on international issues. He wants locals to attend it in order to become more aware of what’s happening in the world right now. The format of his conference takes as its template the Conference on World Affairs that has been held for decades at the University of Colorado.

“I want nothing more than to give people the opportunity to address questions and comments to people who actually have worked in this stuff, who don’t have axes to grind, and to tell it like it is,” he says.

One such participant is Dennis Jett, former ambassador to Mozambique and Peru and now at Penn State University. He says risk is just part of the biz for diplomats, recounting how he spent his first tour in Argentina in the mid-1970s wondering “whether I was going to get shot by left-wing extremists or right-wing ones.” Stationed in Peru in 1996, he missed being taken hostage by half an hour.

“You try and make the risks manageable,” he says, “but it is impossible to do the job and not put your life on the line just as the men and women in the military do by the thousands every day.”

Scheduled panel subjects include the worldwide recession; Latin America’s future after the fall of Chavez in Venezuela and (soon) the Castro brothers in Cuba; global news in the digital age; and slowing the development of nuclear weapons, as the West tries to prevent Iran from joining the oh-so-exclusive nuclear club.

One of the current debates in foreign policy circles is whether Iran would be a “rational actor.” Would the country act responsibly, like other nations who possess such weapons, and not actually use them? Other than the U.S. in World War II, no other country has ever fired off such weaponry.

McElhaney says the most rational actors are countries whose governments have had the most restraints placed on them by their own citizenry (i.e., functioning democracies). He points out that some of the countries affected most deleteriously by WWII (like Germany and Japan) have been nearly pacifist in their approach to war for decades (though that may soon be changing). Conversely, he says that’s why there are legitimate concerns about proliferation in non-democratic countries, such as Iran, Pakistan and North Korea.

“I have serious doubts about it,” he says when asked about efforts to reduce nukes, mentioning that’s why defensive weapons, like Israel’s Iron Dome (financed by the U.S.), have become so popular.

Another panel discussion will tackle obstacles in the Middle East, which in addition to the perennial problems between Israel and the Palestinians, is now seeing volatility in Egypt and an intense civil war in Syria, where over 70,000 people have been killed over the past two years.

Regarding Iraq, McElhaney says time will tell whether our seven and a half years there will ultimately have made the country a better place. But he says that he’s never bought into the idea of nation-building.

“We’re a wonderful country and we like to solve problems, but we like to solve them quickly,” he says. Parphrasing Colin Powell’s line that if you break a country, you own it, he says whatever happens in Iraq in the future will be attributed to the U.S. presence. “But taking credit doesn’t generate headlines,” he frets. “I think people who have worked in the Middle East [think] you’re going to win battle there, but they’re going to end up hating you.”

Ambassador McElhaney says he believes that St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay area have a shared stake in being more international, referring to an emphasis on foreign connections with Tampa’s port and airport and Mayors Buckhorn and Foster.

“It seems to me that we can take advantage of those kinds of connections much more effectively if we open our eyes and our ears to the world.”

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