BRATTLEBORO — For years, former Ambassador Peter Galbraith has given an annual talk to the Windham World Affairs Council (WWAC). These talks have usually focused on the various hot spots in the Middle East and the U.S. role in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.
This year's annual Galbraith Lecture, set for Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 6:30 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church, will take a wider view of U.S. foreign policy. The talk - titled "Is the American Century Over? Can America Still Lead the World? And Should It?" - will be moderated by constitutional scholar and Marlboro College Professor Emerita Meg Mott.
Galbraith told the The Commons that his talk is intended to dial listeners in on tough questions about America's future.
"I had the advantage, the rare benefit, of being an ambassador [in Croatia] in the 1990s at a time where the U.S. was at its max in terms of power and influence in the world," he said.
"In its entire history, it was the apogee of the American Century, the 20th century. After all, the Soviet Union had disappeared and the American ideal of a democratic world was widespread," Galbraith continued. "China was a much less important country in the 1990s than it is today - less powerful and not immune to democratic forces that were sweeping the world."
Galbraith recalled that during his time in Croatia he "was serving in a country that had been a dictatorship until 1991. A lot of what I did was to promote democracy."
That, he lamented, has changed as the United States is no longer seen as a standard-bearer of democracy.
"Freedom House, a fairly conservative institution, has downgraded the U.S. from being fully free to a flawed democracy," Galbraith reported. "We're not even in the top category and it's foolish to think this doesn't affect America's position in the world."
Of course, he added, in terms of military strength, the U.S. is still all-powerful, but citing recent events on the U.S. political scene - election denial, insurrection, judicial biases - he said our democracy is, indeed, threatened.
"So much of what we deal with in the world is not military," said Galbraith, and given the interconnectedness of the world today and the challenges faced, democracy is key to coping, to moving forward.
"We have to remember, too, the danger of nuclear war has not gone away. And then there's the existential threat which is, of course, climate change," he added.
"The U.S. is no longer at the forefront, and maybe it shouldn't be," Galbraith observed. "European countries are more democratic. A country where "the judiciary is nakedly partisan and political" and where an election can be so unfoundedly challenged is not poised to model democracy.
"One thing you expect of judges is that they have the same law, same facts, and same result without regard to the political party of plaintiff or defendant," he said. "That does not exist today in the U.S."
Part of the problem - a huge part, he said - is that our institutions no longer serve us. "We need to take a look at our institutions - the courts, legislatures, the electoral college - systems that are out of date and many, at the core, undemocratic," he said.
Are these times a blip on the screen? Can America recover?
"You have to question the strength of democracy if one person [Donald Trump] can cause so much damage," Galbraith said.
For over six decades, the independent, nonpartisan, educational WWAC has, according to the nonprofit's website, "brought the world to Windham County."
"Our mission is to build community engagement, dialogue, and resilience by helping people better understand our world's issues and problems," he said.
"In this way, we hope to contribute to creating a livable, peaceful, better world in which we are better prepared to participate knowledgeably in public affairs and make informed choices in elections and in our lives," Galbraith said.
"It's so important to have an organization that convenes conversations of a global nature, considering issues beyond our border," said Chuck Collins, of Guilford, a WWAC member.
"At a time when our culture and news are increasingly hyperlocal and nationally focused, WWAC honors Brattleboro's internationalist bent with our sister cities, residents from many nations, and the history of the School for International Training/World Learning," added Collins, an author and the director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Community engages in international events
The WWAC is one of more than 90 such organizations across 40 states, with two in Vermont. Windham County's is the smallest of them.
Formally established in 1961, WWAC had been the only all-volunteer chapter nationwide until a year ago, when Susan Healy was hired as administrative director in an effort to get WWAC back on track and moving forward after the pandemic.
The organization's funding depends solely on memberships and donations.
A retired U.S. history teacher with a track record of involvement in youth empowerment, Healy manages WWAC functions and communications, including media relations, outreach, and membership development.
The WWAC engages a different speaker monthly and holds board meetings the fourth Wednesday of every month at 118 Elliot in Brattleboro. Each meeting is followed by a members-and-friends salon, where participants are invited to discuss a specific topic.
"It gives the community an opportunity to not only learn about current international events, but also to have discussions about them," Healy said. "We provide refreshments: It's our way of saying thank you to the people who have been supporting us over the years."
It's also an opportunity for members to bring friends and potential new members into the effort.
"Our meetings are open to anyone who wants to participate," said Healy. "The tangible outcome of the WWAC's work is to provide a forum for people to come together to become better informed about international affairs and our place in the world, and it is an especially pressing need in this era of disinformation."
Treasurer Lissa Weinmann, a member for 10 years, added that the WWAC is entering a "new and exciting phase."
Those new initiatives include some new branding and a partnership with Brooks Memorial Library and other organizations to create programming around "the idea of American identity and global purpose leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States," she said.
Weinmann would like to see the organization - and broader community - "use the 250th and months leading up to it as a time for reflection and for examining who we are as Americans and who we want to be." This, she added, offers optimal guidance for planning WWAC's programming over the next few years.
The WWAC demographic, Healy admitted, is an older one, "but we are actively doing youth outreach-especially with the local chapter at Brattleboro Union High School of PeaceJam."
The international organization works with Nobel Peace Prize laureates, who offer time, commitment, and insight, with a focus on "preparing a generation of young leaders who will create a critical tipping point for change in all sectors of society," according to the PeaceJam website.
The local chapter, which launched at BUHS in 2021, aims to "raise the next generation of Nobel laureates," Healy said warmly.
Weinmann, who helped establish the chapter, added that the initiative focuses, too, on encouraging activism among youth - toward whatever cause they hold worthy.
PeaceJam involves gatherings by teleconference with other youth worldwide and a curriculum implemented during high school advisory periods. Now in its second year at BUHS, "the school administration sees its value," and membership is growing, Weinmann said.
The WWAC board chair is Tamara Stenn, Ph.D., an economist and entrepreneur with a specialization in sustainable development, indigenous people, and well-being.
"WWAC is important in bringing global perspectives and options to the Brattleboro community, expanding how we understand our world and neighbors," Stenn said, calling it "a de facto hub for spirited conversation."
"It is also an important connection to youth and community with outreach to the high school through PeaceJam and projects with diplomacy leaders," Stenn said.
Also on the WWAC board are Clare Morgana Gillis, Ph.D., a historian and journalist; Starr LaTronica, director of Brattleboro's Brooks Memorial Library; Rev. Scott Couper, pastor at Centre Congregational Church; Jim Kirbey, who has studied and taught in Mexico, Sweden, Kenya, and China and whose career was in the application of solar energy, conservation, and efficiency in buildings; and Paul Love, board member emeritus, who has had more than two decades' involvement with WWAC.
Weinmann stressed that WWAC is nonpartisan.
"We try to be inclusive and objective," she said.
The WWAC also tries "to remain objective about the possibilities for America," Weinmann added, calling the idea of the country "still a very intoxicating concept."
"We feel we need to participate in trying to build that more perfect union," she said. "And we do aim to stimulate action."
The Galbraith tradition
"Many distinguished individuals have led and participated in WWAC over the years, providing today's generation with strong examples of enlightened public service," according to the organization's website. "Perhaps the most notable was [Peter Galbraith's father] John Kenneth Galbraith (1908–2006), an important contributor in the early days of the WWAC."
One of the world's best-known economists, his "eloquent and internationally recognized writings on economics, public policy, and culture helped shape the identity of the modern United States and 20th-century American liberalism."
The annual Galbraith Lecture, Peter Galbraith said, "is a Galbraith family–supported venture."
"I think my father was one of the very first speakers when WWAC started. For nearly every one of the WWAC's 62 years, a Galbraith has delivered a seminal lecture," he said.
Having missed only a few - one of which was delivered by his brother James, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and at the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin - Peter Galbraith has delivered the annual WWAC lecture for some 30 years, even during the pandemic when Zoom was employed.
A speaker of six languages with degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Georgetown, Peter Galbraith has held senior positions in the U.S. Government and the United Nations. He taught at Windham College for four years before leaving to work on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That catalyzed a 14-year leave from the Green Mountain State, during which he taught for a year at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., and was the first ambassador to Croatia - appointed by President Bill Clinton and serving from 1993 to 1998, manifesting what the headline of an article about him in The Harvard Crimson hails: "Diplomat [Peter] Galbraith Makes Peace His Career."
His has been a rich career, indeed, the highlights of which he lists:
• Being instrumental in the twice-elected Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto's release from prison. Having been schoolmates at Harvard and Oxford, the two remained good friends until Bhutto's assassination in 2007.
• Uncovering and documenting the Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds and prompting the U.S. Senate to pass consequent comprehensive sanctions.
• Negotiating the Erdut Agreement, which ended the civil war in Croatia.
• Director for Political, Constitutional, and Electoral Affairs for the U.N. Mission of Support in East Timor and a cabinet minister in East Timor's first transitional government, Galbraith designed a change in East Timor's system from being strictly a U.N. mission to being a transitional government with eight cabinet ministers. Galbraith served as de facto foreign minister. While there, he also negotiated the Timor Sea Treaty.
• Reuniting young Yazidi women with their children born of rape while they were slaves of the terror group ISIS.
Back in Vermont, Galbraith served two terms as a state senator from 2011 to 2015, representing Windham County during its recovery from the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. In 2016, he took an unsuccessful stab at the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
"I loved representing Windham County and was proud to represent issues that made a difference," he said.
Among those issues: preserving forest contiguity, tending to biodiversity and the climate, increasing the minimum wage, and trying to implement single-payer health care.
He extols the community for its grit, vision, ingenuity, and intellectual mettle - and the "international character of this extraordinary community," of this region which has been home to SIT and other cutting edge learning institutions, and to his father and family.
The region has also been home to U.S. ambassador to Tunisia Joey Hood, U.S. diplomat Ellsworth Bunker; Nobel laureates Jody Williams and Rudyard Kipling, among other high performers in world affairs.
Sometimes, Galbraith says, he misses being in office. "I enjoyed my time in public life, but it's time for younger people to take the lead," he said.
Author of several books, Galbraith was working on his memoir on his screen porch overlooking Townshend's hills on a perfect late summer afternoon.
"Writing a memoir is complicated business," he quipped, noting that he can "resist the temptation to write a book that's really an ad for a future job or career or campaign."
He said that he aims in his writing for an "honest rendering of the history of the events I was involved in because they actually were consequential."
Galbraith has been to and even lived in myriad places all over the world. Of them all, what's his favorite?
Without pause, he answered: "Vermont."
"I travel to places, and I can say I see more trees from my house than exist in your entire country. There aren't so many places in the world like that," he said.
The Sept. 27 talk at the ADA-compliant Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St., Brattleboro, is open to all and free, though the WWAC encourages a donation ($10 suggested). Visit windhamworldaffairscouncil.org for more information.
This News item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.