The Washington Diplomat / March 2016
By Larry Luxner
Forty years ago, a young Irishman named Tony Culley-Foster sprinted 2,986 miles across the United States — averaging 39 miles a day from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. — to promote the President’s Council for Physical Fitness and Boys’ Clubs of America.
Four years later, he ran the entire 1,234-mile circumference of Ireland in 35 days in a fundraising event for the Protestant and Catholic Boy Scout movements.
These days, Culley-Foster runs World Affairs Council-DC, an influential think tank founded in 1980 that prides itself on unfettered access to the Washington diplomatic corps. Billing itself as the place “where learning happens,” WAC-DC has an annual budget of $2.5 million and employs eight staffers at its Dupont Circle headquarters.
“At our annual World Affairs Honors gala we get an average 75 ambassadors, not DCMs or other people, as part of our audience,” Culley-Foster told The Washington Diplomat during a recent interview at his ninth-floor office. “The focus on the diplomatic corps is very important to our international affairs program.”
No on else in Washington competes directly with WAC-DC, said the longtime international business consultant, who was on the group’s board for seven years — part of that time as chair of the global communications committee — before being named president and CEO a year ago.
“We have a synergistic combination of three disciplines that are the pillars of this organization: global education, international affairs and global communications. We have a powerful and influential board, and we’re on a five-year, controlled growth plan to expand from primarily focusing on the Washington metro area,” he said, adding that Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. is helping WAC-DC promote itself internationally.
Culley-Foster, 68, left Ireland at the age of 19 to attend university in London, then became a senior high-school teacher — joking that he “taught English to the English in England for two years” before emigrating to the United States in 1971, and launching a long career in civic and corporate management.
Unlike other think tanks, which schedule their events during the day, WAC-DC’s 40 or so programs a year take place at night, between 6:30 and 9:00 p.m., and are often nationally televised. These events generally draw at least 100 attendees; about 75 percent of them focus on global affairs, with the remainder split between global education and global communications.
WAC-DC has between 8,000 and 10,000 individual members who pay annual dues ranging from $10 to $35 each. Corporate membership comes in two levels: silver ($5,000) and gold ($10,000).
“We are educators and teachers in the knowledge transfer business,” he said. “We are encouraged by the number of young professionals and want to make sure the voice of millennials is heard. They’re not really into yearly or multi-year memberships.”
On March 29, WAC-DC will host its 2016 Global Education Gala at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington, where it’ll present Mninwa J. Mahlangu, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, with its Distinguished Diplomatic Service Award.
In addition, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (winner of this year’s International Public Service Award), will give a keynote address on global education and the military.
Other honorees include Ángel Cabrera, president of George Mason University (Educator of the Year Award); Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society (Global Communications Award); and Daniel S. Pelino, general manager of IBM Corp. (Global Education Award).
Tickets for the extravaganza start at $500 each; last year’s gala attracted 620 people including world-famous basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who personally donated $200,000 of the $972,000 raised that night.
“We are determined to raise $1 million net on that evening to help us advance our strategic goals,” said Culley-Foster, assuring us that no less than 840 guests — including 75 ambassadors and 30 journalists— will cover the event. “Magic Johnson is coming back, and an invitation has been extended to Samuel Jackson to join us.”
WAC-DC is no stranger to large events. It currently works with 75 to 100 strategic partners including the Kennedy Center, the National Geographic Society, the National Press Club and the White House Historical Association. Its guests are frequently think-tank and foreign policy experts who attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, American University or similar institutions.
“This is the most pampered, egoistic, spoiled rotten group of intellectuals in a town where on any given night, people have multiple options as to where they spend their time,” Culley-Foster explained. “So if we want them to spend their time with us, we’d better be batting close to a thousand. These are our futurists, our critical thinkers, and they are people of significant influence.”
Two years ago, for the first time in its history, WAC-DC chose a woman to chair its board: Edie Fraser, CEO of STEMconnector and former president of a public-relations firm who started her career as a desk officer for Malawi with the Peace Corps.
WAC-DC itself belongs to the 98-member World Affairs Councils of America (WACA), a network established in 1986 to act as a national association umbrella for the growing number of councils around the country. Today, WACA is the country’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering grassroots understanding and engagement in world affairs, and seeks to involve citizens in an exchange of ideas, knowledge and understanding of international issues.
As such, WAC-DC seeks to reach young people as early as possible. Its global education program focuses not only on colleges and universities, but also on high schools in the District, Maryland and Virginia, as well as undergraduate students and teachers.
“We feel there’s a knowledge gap in the curricula of the American school system, where not enough emphasis is being given to world geography, social studies, the arts and foreign languages,” Culley-Foster complained. “The issue goes much deeper than having people with language capability. We live in a diverse, multicultural and increasingly interconnected world where news is instantaneous and people want to know why the United States is being vilified in so many countries around the world.”
He added: “There’s a lot of talk that the U.S. no longer wants to be the world’s policeman. That’s positive and good, but the real issue here is global education. How the hell can policy be created if we don’t understand the cultures we’re dealing with?”
To help its members navigate world affairs, WAC-DC offers two types of events. The first is the Ambassador Series, which takes place at the Horizon ballroom of the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center. Generally a diplomat gives an on-the-record televised speech, followed by a 40-minute Q&A, then a reception.
Culley-Foster recalled that WAC-DC’s event with Brazilian Ambassador Luiz Alberto Figuereido Machado took place two weeks before last December’s world climate talks in Paris, which was attended by 185 nations.
“The ambassador did a superb job of giving our audience an overview of what Brazil’s goals were going to be at the COP21 meetings in Paris,” he said.
The Embassy Series, on the other hand, are off-the-record.
“We are a neutral, nonpartisan, independent platform where open dialogue and free speech are encouraged. We try to get those ambassadors to be as candid as possible in their Q&As. It’s a different kind of format than the other guys in town,” he said.
“We understand that each of them operates with different challenges and we respectful them. In our Embassy Series events, very often we get ambassadors to open up in a way they would normally not, because of their sensitivity to media coverage. They also know they’ll get very good, intelligent questions from a well-informed audience.”
One such ambassador was Russia’s Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak, who spoke at a World Affairs Council-DC event the week Culley-Foster started there.
“We had 185 people in attendance, and much to my surprise and delight, the ambassador agreed to accept questions from a very high-powered influential audience. He answered questions for an hour and 45 minutes and did an admirable job — and given the circumstances under which he operates, he was remarkably candid.”
Last month, WAC-DC hosted the envoys of Egypt (Feb. 11) and France (Feb. 25) at their residences for private, off-the-record events.
Since 2000, according to the organization’s website, more than 125 foreign ambassadors, 50 U.S. ambassadors, 23 U.S. cabinet secretaries and two U.S. presidents have shared their perspectives on international affairs with WAC-DC audiences. And since launching its online programs in 2007, the council says more than 350,000 people have viewed its events via the Internet, video streaming, podcasts and other media distribution channels.
In addition to its public program, WAC-DC’s weekly national TV program World Affairs Today, launched in 2010, airs on MHz Networks and is accessible via YouTube. And for high-school educators, WAC-DC offers its Summer Institute on International Affairs — a week-long seminar event that facilitates conversations between educators and experts in the fields of politics, international development and the social sciences.