Conference brings international affairs to USF-St. Petersburg

A retired American diplomat helped start the three-day gathering on the USF campus.
Douglas L. McElhaney, 68, was an American diplomat for 34 years.
Douglas L. McElhaney, 68, was an American diplomat for 34 years.
Published February 10 2016
Updated February 11 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — In 34 years as an American diplomat, Douglas L. McElhaney witnessed a revolution in Portugal, helped negotiate independence for the African nation of Namibia and served as ambassador in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

When he retired in 2007, he spent four years teaching at the University of Miami as an ambassador-in-residence before moving to St. Petersburg.

It was a homecoming of sorts for McElhaney, 68. As a child, he often visited his grandparents here, and his parents lived here, too.

"I feel very at home here," he said.

That explains how an annual conference on national and international issues featuring prominent speakers from the U.S. Foreign Service, academia, the military and the news media began in St. Petersburg in 2013.

The fourth Conference on World Affairs will be Feb. 17-19 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, a co-sponsor of the event. More than 1,000 people have signed up to hear from about 60 speakers on 30 panels.

The conference is free and open to the public.

Among the topics: "Russia: Imperial aspirations on a beer budget"; "Immigrants: A new wall or a new screen door?"; "Internet earthquake: News in an era when everyone is a reporter and publisher"; and "American jobs: Does anybody want them? Can anybody find them?"

The conference began "when Doug brought the idea to me five years ago, and it's since taken off," said political science professor Thomas W. Smith, director of the university's honors program. "He draws on his Washington Rolodex while I tap the academic resources I know."

The honors program administers the conference with "a lot of help from the community and volunteers," Smith said.

As a youngster, McElhaney said, he was "curious about the world."

His father was in the Navy, his mother was a French teacher and his older sister was a flight attendant for Pan-American. He grew up with an interest in travel and foreign cultures.

In high school, McElhaney said, he got to know foreign exchange students and befriended a Brazilian classmate.

As a college student in the 1960s, McElhaney stayed with the friend's family while working for the Brazil Herald, a small English-language newspaper in Rio de Janeiro.

Though his Portuguese was rudimentary, he said, he was able to report for the English speakers in the area and experienced a military dictatorship.

"One of the families down the street from where I lived, their son had disappeared and ended up dead in a military hospital," he said. "He evidently was a campus activist."

After McElhaney earning a master's in international affairs at Columbia University, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service and moved to Portugal in 1973 to serve as a vice consul stamping visas and passports. That, he said, is the "introduction to international life."

In 1974, the day after a one-day revolution toppled Portugal's dictatorship, McElhaney said, he was held up inside the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon for 10 hours while a crowd of demonstrators unsuccessfully tried to break down the doors.

For the next two years, he said, he witnessed the once-fascist dictatorship drastically change to Western ideals. But his time there ended abruptly in 1976.

"They thought I was a spy," McElhaney said with a laugh. After a newspaper printed his contact information, he eventually left the country.

In his 34 years in the Foreign Service, he also served in Brussels, Rome, Paris and Cairo as well as Milan, Italy and Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Before he retired, he served as U.S. ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina for three years.

McElhaney said he got the idea for a conference after attending a similar forum at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which draws tens of thousands of people over five days, according to its website.

The first St. Petersburg conference drew 300 people, he said. "All speakers come on their own nickel" to the nonprofit event.

It's now McElhaney's goal to make the conference weeklong.

Caitlin Ashworth is a student reporter at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Contact her at (813) 850-7471.