CAMDEN, Maine — The concept was simple: Bring people together to discuss some of the most complex challenges facing the United States and its place in the world.
That’s how the annual Camden Conference started 25 years ago at the hands of a dozen area residents, including Robert Tierney, a retired Central Intelligence Agency foreign service worker. Tierney died in 2008, but his son, Tim Tierney, said Saturday that his father was never the type to sidestep a challenging question — a trait the conference still embodies.
“What he wanted was to stimulate critical thinking about complex problems,” said Tim Tierney. “It was really about getting people to think clearly.”
Tierney died in October 2008. At the time, the United States was embroiled in two wars, had a mounting deficit and an increasingly gridlocked Congress, and the economy was about to collapse.
“He was worried,” said Tim Tierney of his father, who along with the other founders was honored this weekend at the Camden Conference, which attracted more than 450 people at the Camden Opera House and another 260 people watching by closed-circuit television in Belfast and Rockland. Topics have ranged from the inaugural year’s “The Making of American Foreign Policy: Myth and Reality” to a focus on Asia and Afghanistan in the past couple of years.
This year’s theme, “Do We Have What It Takes?”, strikes at the heart of angst surrounding America’s role in the world and problems within its borders. The economy, a looming energy crisis and a faltering education system were just a few of the topics explored by policy professionals, including former New Mexico governor and U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who gave the keynote address to kick off the sold-out conference Friday night.
Emily Lusher, marketing director for the mostly volunteer-run organization, said the directors opted to turn the focus inward this year after several years of topics from around the world.
“People felt we couldn’t talk about other countries any more until we talk about us,” she said.
Amory B. Lovins, co-founder and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, has worked on energy policy for more than four decades. Saturday, he tackled the issue of energy and America’s dependence on foreign oil. He said the technology to solve the problem is available, though the political will, so far, is not. He pointed to countries such as Germany and China as the global leaders in this area. In a 30-minute presentation, he articulated how new construction methods for buildings and cars and the use of renewable resources could help the U.S. follow suit.
“This isn’t just about new technology,” he said. “It’s just about rearranging our mental function. Focusing on outcomes instead of motives can lead to solutions, not gridlock.”
Other speakers on Saturday addressed the broader topic of how America fits into the world on several different fronts. Retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, envisioned the United States in the year 2050 and discussed what steps need to be taken now to ensure that the country is no longer “adrift” in four decades. Among Wilkerson’s suggestions is that the country spend more resources on diplomacy instead of military action, even in the face of tragedies such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Navy Capt. Wayne Porter, chairman for strategic strategy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calf., and retired Marine Col Mark Mykleby, who together penned a 2009 document called “A National Strategic Narrative,” reinforced some of Wilkerson’s themes. They said America lacks a clear and sustainable direction on a number of fronts including education, the use of renewable resources and homeland security.
“We have so many strategies that we have no strategy,” said Porter. “Every single strategy we have is focused on avoiding or countering a recognizable risk. The unfortunate thing is that by the time we recognize the risk, it’s already there.”
Mykleby said the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent on homeland security since the 2001 terrorist attack represents too many resources spent on not enough return.
“Sustainability is not just for tree-huggers anymore,” he said, causing laughter among the audience. “If a Marine can say it, it’s OK.”
Martin and Jane Schwartz from Long Island, N.Y., have come to the Camden Conference on several occasions.
“”The people they have speak here are so intellectually superior,” said Martin Schwartz. “They give you something to think about.”
Marshal Wade, a University of Maine sophomore studying political science, is taking a class that is built around the Camden Conference. He was one of more than 150 college students from Maine at the weekend conference. He said he still hasn’t come up with an answer to the question of “Do we have what it takes?”
“Honestly, I do not know,” he said. “A lot of countries seem to have the opportunity to overtake us in a lot of areas.”
For Col. Mykleby, there was less doubt. His answer to the question was “hell, yeah,” though he acknowledged the challenges are considerable.
“The planet Earth is going to be just fine without us,” he said. “We just need to come up with a plan so we can stick around for a while.”