PCFR speakers from far and wide

  Speakers at the 2014-15 season of the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations ( were:

Anders Corr, a geopolitical analyst and former Defense Department official in Afghanistan, on Chinese expansionism.

Richard George, former high National Security Agency official, on international cyber-security.

Prof. Evodio Kalteneker, on the Brazilian economy and politics.

Professor and journalist Janet Steele on democratic Indonesia.

Jennifer Yanco, a public-health expert and a director of the West Africa Research Association, on the Ebola crisis.

Australian Consul Gen. Nick Minchin, on his nation’s relations with Asia and the U.S.

Delphine Halgand, a high official of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, on threats to free speech and journalism. (She spoke a few days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.)

Amir Afkhami, M.D., a psychiatrist, on dealing with mental illness in war zones, particularly the Mideast.

Military historian and retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich on why America should stop fighting wars in the Mideast.

Famed Canadian journalist Diane Francis on why the U.S. and Canada should consider merging.

International landscape architect Thomas Paine on making cities more humane, especially in China.

Admiral Robert Girrier, deputy chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, on countering Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.

Gary Hicks, deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time of the Benghazi attack and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on lessons for the U.S. in Libya and the future of international trade.

The new season looks exciting too. (And maybe even useful for investing decisions.)

We’re still penciling in speakers and dates, but we can say that Cuban-American businessman and civic leader Eduardo Mestre will speak on Sept. 30 about the reopening of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the land of his birth.

Mr. Mestre is a member of the boards of the International Rescue Committee and the Cuba Study Group.

He’s also a senior adviser at Evercore and was previously vice chairman of Citigroup Global Markets and chairman of its Investment Banking Division. Before then, he headed investment banking at Salomon Smith Barney and its predecessor firms from 1995-2001 and was co-head of Salomon Brothers' mergers and acquisitions department in 1989-1995.

Skedded for Oct. 22 is Scott Shane, the New York Times reporter who wrote the new book Objective Troy, about  Anwar al-Awlaki, “the once-celebrated American imam who called for moderation after 9/11, but a man who ultimately directed his outsized talents to the mass murder of his fellow citizens’’ and was eventually killed by an American drone. Among other things, he’ll discuss the moral issues raised by the increasing use of drones.

Some of the people we have on the drafting board for the rest of the season:

A U.N. expert on international refugee crises; a journalist or diplomat who will discuss the Greek crisis; a member of the Federal Reserve Board who will discuss international financial-system challenges; a Japanese journalist to talk about that nation’s increasingly muscular regional posture; an expert on international shipping in light of the widening of the Panama Canal; a status report on Mexico; a Chinese philanthropist; a member of the Ukrainian Congress Committee; (we have been trying for some time to get a Russian official or journalist to give Moscow’s side of the war in eastern Ukraine), and the director of the Aga Khan University Media School to talk about training journalists in the Developing World

All subject to change. We frequently repeat Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s purported response when he was asked what he most feared:

“Events, my dear boy, events.’’

Members should feel free to chime in with suggestions.

Also, we’ll strive to frequently update the PCFR Website with supplemental news and commentary on international matters that may be of interest.

Please consult or message for questions about the PCFR.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Robert Whitcomb, chairman


Robert Whitcomb: Local power; summer music; Iran


Politicians love news stories about their luring big out-of-area companies, even as they camouflage the associated tax breaks. But rarely do these arrivals bring as many jobs as promised, and they sometimes kill existing local ones. Then they may leave town in a few years, drawn by another sucker’s offer of bigger subsidies. What they don’t pay in local taxes, others must make up. And even if they stay, their profits leave town.

For obvious fiscal and emotional reasons, locally owned firms usually are loyal to their communities, and spend most of their profits there. These businesses tend to reliably support good jobs, tax revenue, social stability and civic participation, including local charitable donations – mostly without tax breaks.

Still, local businesses have found it hard to offer the cheaper prices and range of products of the huge national and international companies because they haven’t had economies of scale, especially in purchasing and overhead.

But technology, and especially the Web, are now making it easier for “Main Street’’ businesses to pool resources and benefit from economies of scale. Some use computerization to help cut costs, by, say, merging some back-office administrative and distribution functions. And local firms can do joint marketing to widen the range of goods and services that they sell collectively -- operating sort of like departments within the same store. Consider Providence’s Hope Street Merchants Association.

John McClaughry, a vice president of the free-market Ethan Allen Institute, wrote about this in a column, “The Local Economy Solution,’’ in the July 12 Valley News, an Upper Connecticut Valley newspaper, inspired by Michael Shuman’s new book, “The Local Economy Solution.’’

He cites such Shuman examples as ShopMidland, in Ontario; Main Street Genome, in Washington, D.C., and Sustainable Connections, in Bellingham, Wash.

Mr. McClaughry notes that in “In Ann Arbor, Mich., a successful deli named Zingerman’s has created a family of independently owned but coordinated enterprises – creamery, bakery, coffee roaster, candy maker, produce grower, roadhouse restaurant {and} online sales collectively named the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. It operates an entrepreneurship training program for employees who have visions for new businesses of their own.’’

Local firms that want to collaborate to compete with the big shots should consult the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and the American Independent Business Alliance for pointers. And consumers seeking to improve their local economies should do the obvious and patronize locally owned business, be they manufacturers, farms or stores.


Jeb Bush has been backing and filling after saying that Americans ought to “work more’’. He meant that more people should be able to get full-time jobs, but his arrogant-sounding (if not intended) phrasing reminded people that his wealth and career success are due in large part to his being born, as they say, on third base.

He also focused on sustaining 4 percent annual gross domestic product growth. Economic growth in itself won’t make most people’s lives better. It depends how it’s sliced up.

But I enjoyed David Frum remarks in July 10 Atlantic online article, “What Jeb Bush gets right – and wrong -- about American workers’’:

“Nor are these under-employed Americans for the most part devoting themselves to childcare, elder care, community involvement, or self-improvement. As sociologists such as Robert Putnam have noted, contemporary Americans do less of all those things than their longer-working counterparts of half a century ago. Instead, as Americans reduce their work commitments, they increase their hours watching TV and playing video games.’’


For people of a certain age, there are “Summertime,’’ “Hot Town, Summer in the City’’ “Those Lazy-Hazy-Days of Summer,’’ etc. Whatever your age, the season sends lots of songs. The durable institution of the summer vacation (more time to listen) and the invention of the transistor radio have played key roles in making so many of them memorable.

Every July, I have flashbacks of riding around in the mid-‘60s in a friend’s Mustang listening to the Beach Boys blaring. The hot-weather music will fade out in a few weeks. But new songs will arrive late next spring and become life markers for the young.


Foes of President Obama’s deal with Iran need to be forthright about what they’d do instead. The other major powers are dropping sanctions, so keeping sanctions doesn’t work very well with us as the only ones imposing them. Or do we attack them militarily? Really? How? Are we prepared for the Iranian retaliation?

Robert Whitcomb ( is a Providence-based writer and editor, chairman of the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations (, a partner of Cambridge Management Group ( and a Fellow of the Pell Center.

Pacific Fleet admiral speaking tonight at PCFR

Admiral Robert Girrier, deputy chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, will be our speaker tonight at the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations ( monthly dinner.  We're pretty sure that he'll talk about how to counter Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.

World 'Cities With a Heart'

We're looking forward to tomorrow's  (May 5) talk at the Providence Committee on  Foreign Relations ( by Thomas Paine, the international landscape architect and urban planner, on "Cities With a Heart'' around the world. His beautiful book with that title just came out.

'Merger of the Century'

Diane Francis, a famed Canadian editor, writer and book author, will talk tonight at a Providence Committee on Foreign Relations ( dinner about her book "Merger of the Century,'' which says that the U.S. and Canada should merge. Who would get the better of that deal?

Beyond Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of expression besieged in much of the world

  Delphine Halgand, who runs North American operations for the global organization Reporters Without Borders,  gave a terrific talk the other night at the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations.  She, of course, talked about the terrorist murders  in France.   But she also reviewed the condition of freedom of expression and information around the world. Her maps expressed the fragility of  freedom of expression, upon which many other freedoms depend. That fragility includes the United States in some ways, she said.


The PCFR, created in 1928 under the aegis of the Council on Foreign Relations, but these days completely independent of the council, has monthly dinners with speakers from  many walks of life. Past and present political leaders,  diplomats, military officers, physicians, historians, theologians and many other fascinating people  from around the world have spoken over the years.


Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based organization perhaps better known internationally as Reporters Sans Frontières,  promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press. The organization has consultant status at the United Nations. Reporters Without Borders has two major activities: one is focused on  censorship, and the other on providing material, financial and psychological assistance to journalists assigned to dangerous areas.

The link to the U.N. is somewhat ironic since so many U.N. members are corrupt dictatorships that enthusiastically suppress freedom of expression, sometimes using imprisonment, torture and murder to do it. Still, we must have something like the U.N.  It's perhaps just a reflecti0n 0f human nature so that so many members are so bad, and hypocrisy so entrenched.

The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips said:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either form human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

The PCFR (,  founded in 1928 under the aegis of the Council on Foreign Relations, but these days completely independent of the council, has monthly dinners with speakers from  many walks of life. Past and present political leaders, from around the world,  diplomats, physicians, historians, theologians and many other fascinating people have spoken over the years.

--- Robert Whitcomb










Ebola and the future of West Africa

I'm very interested in hearing what Jennifer Yanco, who is U.S. director of the West African Research Association and has lived for long stretches  in West Africa, has to say about the outlook for that region in light of the Ebola epidemic.  Ms. Yanco, with a master of public health degree from Harvard, will be speaking to the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations ( about it next Tuesday, Nov. 4. -- Robert Whitcomb

Blame Russia for Russian aggression


Some denounce the United States for Russia’s reversion to brutal expansionism into its “Near Abroad” because we encouraged certain Central and Eastern European countries to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The argument is that NATO’s expansion led “Holy Russia” to fear that it was being “encircled.” (A brief look at a map of Eurasia would suggest the imprecision of that word.)

In other words, it’s all our fault. If we had just kept the aforementioned victims of past Russian and Soviet expansionism out of the Western Alliance, Russia wouldn’t have, for example, attacked Georgia and Ukraine. If only everyone had looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and decided to trust him.

Really? Russia has had authoritarian or totalitarian expansionist regimes for hundreds of years, with only a few years’ break. How could we have necessarily done anything to end this tradition for all time after the collapse of the Soviet iteration of Russian imperialism? And should we blame Russia’s closest European neighbors for trying to protect themselves from being menaced again by their gigantic and traditionally aggressive neighbor to the east? Russia, an oriental despotism, is the author of current Russian imperialism.

Some of the Blame America rhetoric in the U.S. in the Ukraine crisis can be attributed to U.S. narcissism: the idea that everything that happens in the world is because of us. But Earth is a big, messy place with nations and cultures whose actions stem from deep history and habits that have little or nothing to do with big, self-absorbed, inward-looking America and its 5 percent of the world population. Americans' ignorance about the rest of the planet -- even about Canada! -- is staggering, especially for a "developed nation''.

And we tend to think that “personal diplomacy” and American enthusiasm and friendliness can persuade foreign leaders to be nice. Thus Franklin Roosevelt thought that he could handle “Joe Stalin” and George W. Bush could be pals with another dictator (albeit much milder) Vladimir Putin. They would, our leaders thought, be brought around by our goodwill (real or feigned).

But as a friend used to say when friends told him to “have a nice day”: “I have other plans.”

With the fall of the Soviet Empire, there was wishful thinking that the Russian Empire (of which the Soviet Empire was a version with more globalist aims) would not reappear. But Russian xenophobia, autocracy, anger and aggressiveness never went away.

Other than occupying Russia, as we did Japan and Western Germany after World War II, there wasn’t much we could do to make Russia overcome its worst impulses. (And Germany, and even Japan, had far more experience with parliamentary democracy than Russia had.) The empire ruled from the Kremlin is too big, too old, too culturally reactionary and too insular to be changed quickly into a peaceable and permanent democracy. (Yes, America is insular, too, but in different ways.)

There’s also that old American “can-do” impatience — the idea that every problem is amenable to a quick solution. For some reason, I well remember that two days after Hurricane Andrew blew through Dade County, Fla., in 1992, complaints rose to a chorus that President George H.W. Bush had not yet cleaned up most of the mess. How American!

And of course, we’re all in the centers of our own universes. Consider public speaking, which terrifies many people. We can bring to it extreme self-consciousness. But as a TV colleague once reminded me, most of the people in the audience are not fixated on you the speaker but on their own thoughts, such as on what to have for dinner that night. “And the only thing they might remember about you is the color of the tie you’re wearing.”

We Americans could use a little more fatalism about other countries.


James V. Wyman, a retired executive editor of The Providence Journal, was, except for his relentless devotion to getting good stories into the newspaper, the opposite of the hard-bitten newspaper editor portrayed in movies, usually barking out orders to terrified young reporters. Rather he was a kindly, thoughtful and soft-spoken (except for a booming laugh) gentleman with a capacious work ethic and powerful memory.

He died Friday at 90, another loss for the "legacy news media.''


My friend and former colleague George Borts died last weekend. He was a model professor — intellectually rigorous, kindly and accessible. As an economist at Brown University for 63 years (!) and as managing editor of the American Economic Review, he brought memorable scholarship and an often entertaining skepticism to his work. And he was a droll expert on the law of unintended consequences.

George wasn’t a cosseted citizen of an ivory tower. He did a lot of consulting for businesses, especially using his huge knowledge of, among other things, transportation and regulatory economics, and wrote widely for a general audience through frequent op-ed pieces. He was the sort of (unpretentious) “public intellectual” that we could use a lot more of.


I just read Philip K. Howard’s “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government.” I urge all citizens to read this mortifying, entertaining and prescriptive book about how our extreme legalism and bureaucracy imperil our future. I’ll write more about the book in this space.

Robert Whitcomb (, a former editor of The Providence Journal's editorial pages, is a Providence-based writer and editor, former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and a partner and senior adviser at Cambridge Management Group (, a consultancy for health systems, and a fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.

member of.