"Great Decisions": Grassroots Discussion of World Affairs

Group Meets at Desmond-Fish Library

By Alison Rooney

When you sit down to dinner, does the conversation often drift towards topics such as the regional rivalries in the Horn of Africa and their role in producing an environment conducive to terrorism?  Or do you find time on a busy Saturday afternoon to mull over the recent Euro-zone banking crisis?  In all likelihood, in today’s hectic environment you do not, though you may wish you could be more reflective and better educated about many of the issues challenging the world today.

It was for these reasons – – “creating more informed and engaged citizens by bringing people together to discuss U.S. foreign policy and global affairs issues” – – that the Great Decisions program was begun by the Foreign Policy Association (FPA). According to their literature, the FPA is “a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring the American public to learn more about the world. Founded in 1918, the FPA serves as a catalyst for developing awareness, understanding of, and providing informed opinions on global issues. Through its balanced, nonpartisan programs and publications, the FPA encourages citizens to participate in the foreign policy process.”

At its inception, just after World War I, the first focus of the organization (then called The League of Free Nations Association) was to support President Wilson’s efforts to “achieve a just peace – – the world had changed, but how to be certain that it was changed for the good?”  Constituted as a “global town hall” the organization was praised by President Roosevelt in 1943: “The Foreign Policy Association is facilitating the lucid presentation of the facts of world problems and their impact on the United States.” The bipartisan endorsement of the FPA’s mission can be found in President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 statement: “The Foreign Policy Association, by providing a balanced and reasoned forum for the discussion and understanding of complex foreign policy issues, renders an invaluable service to the American people.”

In 1954 the FPA created the Great Decisions program as a public initiative.  Fifty-years strong now, thousands of groups meet in schools, libraries and community centers for focused, non-partisan discussions of world affairs.  One such group has been meeting for about nine years now, at the Desmond-Fish Library.  The library group was begun by Cold Spring’s Lucille Grow, a retired social worker, soon after the September 11 attacks.  The eight-session series, underwritten by the Friends of Desmond-Fish Library, takes place every year, from mid-winter through late spring, and is entirely volunteer-run.  The current coordinators are Garrison’s Eric and Miriam Wagner.  Part of their job is to line up eight community members, each of whom serves as a facilitator for one of the hour and half-long sessions.

The program has a set structure. The FPA comes up with a list of topics each year and provides background material on each topic through a briefing book and videos.  Participants may purchase their own briefing books, at a cost of $16 (the only fee associated with the program), or they may borrow a copy from the library.  Once borrowed, the copy may be kept until the program concludes in June. The assumption is that participants will have read up on the appointed topic before the meetings, which occur every two weeks.

The briefing book includes 12- to 20-page-long scholarly yet accessible analyses of each topic complete with multiple sidebars.  The topic sections conclude with a list of suggested discussion questions, and a rundown of suggested readings, which include books, and, in some cases, online papers. An example of a suggested discussion question for the recent topic Rebuilding Haiti is as follows:

What kind of ‘framework for aid’ based upon the spectrum of options presented in the topic would be best suited for the rebuilding of Haiti?  Should it involve a period of comprehensive tutelage and guidance by the international community, or should recovery priorities be determined strictly by the Haitians themselves, or something in-between?  Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of these difference approaches.

The facilitator begins the meeting with brief remarks, and then moderates the ensuing discussion and raises pertinent questions.  The facilitators need not be experts in the subject at hand, but some are indeed matched up with an area of expertise.  Should one person become too dominant in the conversation, it would be the facilitator’s job to curtail him or her, but this doesn’t often occur, according to Miriam Wagner.

The group has attracted upwards of 20 people; there were 13 at the last session, which dealt with rebuilding Haiti.  One does not have to attend all of the sessions, and anyone is welcome to join in at any time.  Wagner calls most of the participants “information addicts” and says that the program “gives us a chance to sharpen our awareness of what’s happening in the world.”  The group gets going quickly, at the appointed time in the Program Room downstairs, and proceeds in a straightforward manner, with no refreshments or other distractions.  Wagner describes the ambiance as “low key and amiable.  Sometimes people come and are quiet; others people can be caustic at times, but it’s all conversational in a good way.”

In decades past, topics included Divided Europe: cooperation or crisis? (1960); Vietnam: What Price Peace? (1967); Eastern Europe: Emerging from Moscow’s Shadow (1980); and Why Do They Hate Us? The Roots of Terrorism (2002).  This year’s topics and facilitators are noted below:

March 1  American National Security Since 9/22; Carlos Salcedo
March 15 The Horn of Africa; Susan Thatcher
March 29  Banks, Government and Crisis; Margi Condyles
April 12 Germany’s Ascendancy; Hans Moeller
April 26 Sanctions and Nonproliferation; Heather Fowler
May 10 The Caucasus; Camilla von Bergen
May 24 Making Sense of Multilateralism; Anne Impelllizzeri

All sessions meet on Tuesday afternoons, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. The first session, Rebuilding Haiti, took place earlier this month, and was facilitated by Eric Wagner.  By virtue of the time of the meetings, which has remained unchanged since the group’s beginnings, the majority of the attendees are “retirees and people with flexible schedules,” according to Wagner. There is nothing to impede the formation of an evening group for those working during the day.

Anyone who wishes to participate may visit the Desmond-Fish Library in advance to borrow the briefing materials, or the FPA website, http://www.fpa.org/, where the briefing materials may be ordered.  The website also gives a comprehensive background to both the organization and to the Great Decisions program, and more information on the topics at hand for this year.  The library may be reached at 845-424-3020 or http://dfl.highlands.com

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