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Attend, listen, ask questions: lessons from the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs | GUEST COMMENTARY

Gen. Keith Alexander, then the head of the NSA acknowledged a familiar face before he delivered his speech at a Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs event at the Hyatt downtown.
Gen. Keith Alexander, then the head of the NSA acknowledged a familiar face before he delivered his speech at a Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs event at the Hyatt downtown. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men” is a mordant observation traditionally attributed to a French general, Charles de Gaulle, among others. With a shrug we are told there are no indispensable persons. But for the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs there was one: Frank Burd.

BCFA was founded in 1980 by a broadly representative and distinguished group of academic, business and community leaders. The goal was to provide to the greater Baltimore region a forum to learn directly from diplomats, generals and academics — even the occasional spy — how deeply intertwined the political, economic and military affairs of the 195 (give or take) countries around the world really are. The founding and, until his retirement two weeks ago only, president of BCFA was Frank Burd. Dr. Burd was also a founding faculty member of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), chair of its Department of Political Science, and director of the International Studies Center there until his retirement after 34 years of service to the rapidly growing university.

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Dr. Burd and the other BCFA founders ensured that, like its council counterparts in over 70 communities across the nation, the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs would be a purely local organization in programming, governance and support. The council is a private, not-for-profit, nonpartisan, non-position-taking, open membership, public service association. A catalyst was two parts geographic: International commerce in a major port city is significant driver of Baltimore’s economy as well as its proximity to Washington, D.C. But most of all, the founders knew that an informed citizenry would best be able to govern themselves.

How long ago was 1980? Ronald Reagan had just become president. The Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the USSR would last another decade. The Baltimore Sun, still an independent newspaper, had a foreign bureau in Bonn, the capital of West Germany, which was still split from its eastern half by the Iron Curtain. And in that regard the world hasn’t changed all that much. From the economic and supply chain interdependency of nations to the saber rattling in the Strait of Taiwan between the U.S. and China, all citizens need to understand the world in which we live because the stakes are high.

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Frank Burd tended to that need here in Baltimore. A member of BCFA for over three decades I tried to attend lectures and panel discussions at least once a year. Dr. Burd introduced the distinguished speaker who would present for about 40 minutes, take questions for about a half an hour, and then host a strictly off-the-record dinner in honor of the BCFA guest and companion. The ambassador of every nation of note on the planet — friend or foe — has presented to the council more than once, as well as experts on the politics and economics of a particular industry or region.

Attendees, typically numbering in the hundreds, would ask in-depth questions that showed a deep understanding of an issue. Or just have an ax to grind in a public forum. Low key, charming and (at appropriate moments) wickedly funny, Dr. Burd kept the programs on track for the benefit of speaker and audience alike. These presentations are regularly telecast and livestreamed with recordings on the council’s YouTube channel. For years an annual highlight was The Baltimore Sun panel discussion featuring Pentagon correspondent Charles Corddry and foreign correspondent Joseph R.L. Stern.

One notable absence was CIA Director William Casey, who sent his deputy director to present to the Council in his place in the 1980s. Only much later did we learn that Director Casey had been detained by what came to be known as the Iran-Contra Affair.

The Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, with a strong Board of Trustees, will continue its important mission while its truly indispensable man, Frank Burd, enjoys a well-earned retirement. Well done.

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We can best honor his impressive legacy by attending, listening and asking questions.

Frank Fillmore (Twitter: @ffillmorejr) is the founder and principal of The Fillmore Group, a Baltimore-based international database technology consultancy.

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