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Great Decisions Series attempts to raise community's Global IQ

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The World Affairs Council of Western Michigan presents the annual "Great Decisions" eight-week series on global issues, international relations and foreign policy.
Lebanese journalist Rania Abouzeid, author of No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria

Lebanese journalist Rania Abouzeid, author of No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria

Great Decisions Series: Every Monday and Tuesday in February and March in 2019

Monday evenings at Aquinas College, 7 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center

Tuesday afternoons at Calvin College, 12 noon, Recital Hall of the Covenant Fine Arts Center

Migration, cybersecurity, China and trade, Syria and the state of the State Department. The World Affairs Council of Western Michigan once again tackles important global issues in its annual Great Decisions series, scheduled for February and March of 2019.

The series features national and international experts, including former U.S. Ambassadors, top global business experts, a special agent from the FBI, and an award-winning journalist arriving directly from Beirut. These speakers will use their diverse expertise to lead conversations in our community.

“At the World Affairs Council, we believe that in order to change the world, you have to know the world,” said Michael Van Denend, executive director of the Council. “Through these presentations, we hope to help our community learn about complex issues and create space for thoughtful engagement and dialogue.”

The eight topics are chosen by the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) in New York as the global issues about which all American communities should be more knowledgeable and engage in thoughtful conversation.

This year, the series will offer two options to hear these respected speakers live: Monday evenings at 6:00 p.m. in the Aquinas College Performing Arts Center and Tuesday at noon at Calvin College in the Recital Hall of the Covenant Fine Arts Center. Each of the eight presentations scheduled for 2019 also features a question-answer session.

Dates and topics are as follows:

February 4 and 5:  “State of the State Department,” Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association

The State Department has faced significant challenges recently, with senior positions left vacant       and the manner of diplomatic engagements taking on a different tone. As president of the American Foreign Service Association and with 33 years of experience as a Foreign Service officer, Ambassador Stephenson is superbly qualified to assess the current State Department and explain why strong American global leadership depends on a strong U.S. Foreign Service.

February 11 and 12: “Democracy on the Run: Dispatches from Eastern Europe,” Carol Schaeffer, freelance journalist

Illiberalism across the globe is on the rise. Perhaps most alarming is its rise in Europe, especially considering the weight of its 20th century history. Eastern European countries in particular are exhibiting a turn towards fascism both on the social level and that of the party politic. The turn towards global illiberalism may seem like a sudden shift, but to understand its origins (and its future), it is best to examine its prominence in Eastern European nations. A journalist whose work has been featured in­­­­­­­­­­­ The Atlantic, The Nation, The Intercept and other news sources, Carol Schaeffer will discuss this growing trend.

February 18 and 19: “Immigration Policy beyond the Border,” Ambassador Jim Nealon, former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras

After serving as U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, Ambassador Nealon served as Assistant Secretary for International Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security.  He will address the root causes of migration from Central America, which has drawn attention by the media as Central American asylum seekers have traveled to the U.S. Mexico border. Ambassador Nealon will give us the greater context for migration and suggest a foreign policy that can address migration in the future.

February 25 and 26: “A New Nuclear Arms Race?” Kelsey Davenport, Arms Control Association

For the past 50 years, the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has played a critical role in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and reducing nuclear arsenals. Yet prospects for additional progress on U.S.-Russian arms control remain bleak, the Trump administration has split from key allies over the nuclear deal with Iran, and the denuclearization of North Korea remains uncertain. Kelsey Davenport, the Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association assesses the possibility of a new nuclear arms race.

March 4 and 5: “China-U.S. Trade War,” Amy Celico, Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG)

Amy Celico has decades of knowledge on China, serving in both the U.S. Department of Commerce and State Department before joining ASG. She now leads the firm’s China team in Washington, D.C. In her presentation, she’ll address the rapidly evolving and still uncertain path ahead for the U.S.—and for global businesses—working with China.

March 11 and 12: “Life after the Arab Uprisings and the Islamic State,” Rania Abouzeid, author of No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (named a NYT “Notable Book” for 2018)

Beirut-based award-winning journalist Rania Abouzeid has covered the Middle East and South Asia for well over fifteen years. She has covered events in Syria, from inside Syria, since 2011, despite being banned from entering the country and placed on the “wanted lists” of several intelligence directorates in Damascus.

Her first book, No Turning Back, recently listed by The New York Times as a Notable Book of 2018 and by the Financial Times as one of the Best Books of 2018, explains the tragedy of Syria’s war through the “dramatic stories of four young people seeking safety and freedom.” Listen as Abouzeid shares her ground-level take on a region roiled by the aftermath of the Arab uprisings and the rise and fall—but not disappearance—of the Islamic State group.   

March 18 and 19: “Global Cyber Threats,” Peter Jolliffe, FBI

As U.S. companies and academic institutions seek further global interaction and integration, they capitalize on opportunities to grow international trade, and to share ideas and culture. With these new opportunities are inherent risks, from the loss of intellectual property to illicit foreign influence. With an ever-growing level of connectedness, it is imperative to understand the motivations of foreign competitors, the objectives of foreign nations, and the means by which they could target U.S. institutions. Only then can we begin to construct a holistic defense to the threat. Special Agent Peter Jolliffe, who has worked for the Bureau for the last decade, will outline cyber risks and the work being done to minimize them.

March 25 and 26: “Mexico and the U.S.: The Economic Ties that Bind,” Carlos Capistran, Bank of America Merrill Lynch (New York City)

The U.S. and Mexico have a long, intertwined history, with both countries prominently featured in each other’s politics, economic policies, and history. Yet the relationship has been strained over the years. With new leadership in both countries, what does the future hold for this bilateral relationship? Carlos Capistran is the head of Canada and Mexico economics at Bank of America, and a frequent media commentator on finance and macroeconomics. He’ll reflect on the ways Mexico and the U.S. fit into a larger North American system and how we can develop policies that allow each country to thrive.

The cost to attend the discussion is $10 per presentation, and $60 for a series pass. No reservations are needed. World Affairs Council of Western Michigan’s Corporate and Senator members attend free—as do the students, faculty and staff of WACWM member institutions: Aquinas, Calvin, Davenport, Ferris State, Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State, Kendall, Montcalm Community College, and Western Michigan. The Council also broadcasts the series live to educational partners Northern Michigan University (Marquette, MI) and Rhine-Waal University (Germany).

WACWM is the local sponsor of Great Decisions, America’s largest discussion program on world affairs. The Council has sponsored the series for more than 60 years. Wolverine Worldwide is an underwriter of the series, and Gerber is the livestream sponsor. Other corporate supporters include AlphaMax Advisors, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, BDO, PriceWalgren, and Steelcase.

Throughout the year, the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan offers numerous programs on global issues and international affairs, including a spring “community conversation” with the Kent District Library. A global executive briefings series is aimed at business leaders and an annual anniversary event brings in a world leader or global headliner. 

More information on the series and the speakers available on WACWM’s website:


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