American Committees on Foreign Relation's Experience in Birmingham

The purpose of this communication is to record the events in Birmingham on October 18-19, 2006 and how it was evaluated by Frank Young, Chairman of the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations (“BCFR”); David Carder, President of the American Committees on Foreign Relations (“ACFR”) in Washington, D.C.; and Ken Jensen, Executive Director of ACFR..

In accord with an understanding between The American Interest (hereafter “TAI”), publisher Charles Davidson, and the BCFR staged a number of events together in Birmingham. TAI provided and paid the expenses of speakers in the persons of its editorial board chairman, Frank Fukuyama, editor Adam Garfinkle, and contributor Raymond Baker. The BCFR did the organizing of local meetings and arrangements. ACFR acted as an intermediary initially, but almost all of the organizational work was undertaken by TAI and the Birmingham Committee

In accord with an agreement with the head of America Abroad Media (AAM), Aaron Lobel, one of the events in Birmingham was the taping of a radio program for NPR broadcast distribution. Again, ACFR acted as an intermediary only. The taping was conducted in conjunction with a local NPR outlet, which provided the moderator/host for the panel discussion.

The events of the 18th-19th were as follows:

1) The Committee leadership (including a member of ACFR’s Board of Distinguished Advisors, Herb Sklenar) hosted a dinner on the evening of October 18 at the Mountain Brook Country Club for the four TAI visitors (publisher Charles Davidson came down as well), Aaron Lobel and Mr. Jensen. Guests included former city council president William Bell and his wife. The spouses of Committee leaders also attended. While dinner went forward, Frank Young called upon the group to introduce themselves and then to make remarks on what each of them hoped to get out of the events of the next day. This became a very lively exchange of views that focused both on national and local concerns of an international character.

2) The 19th began with the radio program taping. Panelists included Frank Fukuyama, Adam Garfinkle, Frank Young, and David Pollick, the president of Birmingham Southern College, which hosted the event. The topic was the Bush Doctrine and the Middle East. The guiding principle of the event was the bringing together of significant national opinion makers and local concerned citizens/international actors. A number of Committee leaders were in attendance. They formed both the audience and were a source of questions and dialogue. The quality of the product was, all agreed, outstanding. 

3) The next event was an hour-long meeting with the editor and editorial board of The Birmingham News. TAI spoke to its own “creative centrist” editorial position and its concern for American public policy as well as foreign policy. A discussion of Alabama politics as they related to national foreign policy and other political issues ensued.

4) At noon, a public event was held at Birmingham Southern College. On the occasion, the speakers were Frank Fukuyama, Adam Garfinkle, Raymond Baker, and William Bell, with Frank Young moderating. BSC president David Pollick did welcoming remarks. The topic was, roughly, “America in the World,” with Baker opening the bidding with a presentation on the role of international corruption in globalization, Bell speaking on his experiences in dealing with the PRC as a local trade official, Garfinkle speaking on the Middle East, and Fukuyama speaking on the limitations of the Bush Doctrine. The presentations were followed by a lengthy question and answer period.

5) There followed an afternoon visit to the Birmingham Civic Rights Institute, which began with a panel of three local speakers discussing civil and human rights issues pertinent to Birmingham. This was hosted by Institute director Odessa Woolfolk, who afterwards led a tour for TAI and BCFR members. The greatest effect of this, inasmuch as it explained and gave evidence of the way in which the Institute was created as a civic response to Birmingham’s uncomfortable civil rights history, effectively acquainted the non-Birminghamians present with local civic and political culture. The Institute and Odessa Woolfolk proved to be a world-class experience. Accordingly, the group’s visit was very much more than a visit to a local attraction: it conveyed meaning regarding life in Birmingham.

6) The climax of October 19 was the monthly dinner meeting of the BCFR, at which Adam Garfinkle spoke on a half-dozen realities of the Muslim Middle East and Frank Fukuyama spoke once again on the limitations of the Bush Doctrine and the current problems of U.S. foreign policy. It should be mentioned here that each of the TAI presentations throughout the day was fresh, which was much to the benefit of the BCFR members who attended more than one event. Some 120 BCFR members turned out for dinner and asked first-rate questions. Host Frank Young and ACFR President David Carder thanked the TAI participants and presented Fukuyama, Garfinkle, and Davidson with a number of gifts as mementoes of their stay in Birmingham.


TAI visitors Fukuyama, Garfinkle and Davidson expressed their pleasure at the success of the enterprise and stated that the manner in which they were hosted was demonstrable. What interested them most was what they had learned about Birmingham civic life and Alabama politics. They also discussed the possibility of further collaboration.

A large amount of work was necessary to pull off a program the likes of which occurred in Birmingham - several hundred man-hours would be no exaggeration at all. The BCFR provided 2-3 drivers continuously throughout the two days, managed the logistics of each event, fed the speaking participants between events, gave them mini-tours when time between events permitted, and, generally speaking and most importantly, engaged them personally throughout.

It is hoped that TAI editor Adam Garfinkle will print an article regarding the Birmingham experience in a future edition of The American Interest. A piece will also be submitted to The Birmingham News as a possible feature article.