Global Conversations with: Alan Luxenberg, President of the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Kathleen Quigley, for GPA -- A New York native, Alan Luxenberg has worked at the Foreign Policy Research Institute since the 1970s when he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Highly unique in its own city, FPRI has the distinction of being an internationally-renowned think-tank in Philadelphia with an institutional presence in major cities like Washington DC, New York and London.

The FPRI publishes a quarterly journal intended for a broad audience, with articles circulated nationally in defense and military service academies, but also throughout the United States in university settings. Luxenberg has long been an advocate of education and bringing FPRI’s assets to the wider public, particularly to educators. With his profound and invaluable understanding of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s legacy, Alan Luxenberg is an absolutely outstanding Global Philadelphian.

You were elected president earlier this year, and congratulations. Can we begin by talking about how you came to be in Philadelphia?

I went to the University of Pennsylvania. I was a senior and I got a part time job- a two week position- at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

What were you doing for two weeks?

I was clipping the New York Times for the Research staff, and one position led to another, to another, and to another. I ended up deferring graduate school for a year, and then I ended up dropping it all together. That was for a Ph.D. in Psychology. And while I was working here I got a Master's in History. And having worked on a Ph.D., but having never done a dissertation, I guess I'm ABD- "All but a Dissertation." So, everyone else here, however, has a Ph.D.

It wasn't really part of the plan [to stay at FPRI], but I found the place very stimulating, between the intellectual stimulation and the scholars visiting the organization, the diplomats, and statesmen, it was always just a fascinating place.

So when you started here as a young man in college, did you have any stake in this kind of work coming into it?

No, I was a psych major. I didn't have a stake, but I always had an interest in government, politics, public policy, foreign affairs, and this kind of rekindled that interest, and I ended up making it my life. I've always been in awe of the various people who work here.

Do you travel abroad a lot for your work?

Everyone else does. I do a little travel abroad, but I can't say I'm a regular, whereas most of the researchers here have to travel as part of their research. Basically, most of the researchers here are people who are fluent in the language of the countries they're studying, and they've been there many times. You have to, but that wasn't the qualification for this particular job. 

I learned a lot on the job. But my responsibility has been over the years to help run the organization, and I developed all of our educational activities. Up until the 1980s, the Institute did purely research, and didn't really have any kind of outreach to the larger community. That's all been added since the beginning of the 1980s.

Were you involved with the development and outreach to the larger community since the beginning, or was it something you came to do?

It kind of grew. We started when Marv Wachman was President of FPRI in the 1980s- he had been temp President of Temple and Lincoln, and he had a sense of Philadelphia, and he had a sense that FPRI was more well-known in Washington, or in London, or in Moscow than it was in Philadelphia, and that didn't seem right. So we ended starting a series of lectures called the "Inter-University Seminar on Foreign Affairs", and that was really the beginning of our public outreach. That was in 1985, and then what happened, almost by accident, is that in 1989, the Philadelphia School District asked us to put on a lecture series of their monthly luncheons of social studies teachers. Then we ended up building upon that, and of course 1989 was the era when the Communist world was being overturned, and so we had a series on political transition in Central and Eastern Europe. Teachers started to get interested, so we started doing lectures for teachers at various locations. And then we hit upon the idea to put together the "Weekend Academy," in 1992, which was putting together a whole weekend of lectures and seminars for a group of teachers that would stay the weekend. That metamorphosed into our History Institute for Teachers in 1996. We have had over 40 weekend conferences for teachers over the years, reaching teachers from 46 states. Initially, it was only for teachers in the Philadelphia area, but it grew…We are hoping to build a new component that would reach under-served high school students in Philadelphia.

Do you think that with all the turmoil going on in the Middle East right now that this education is even more pertinent?

Absolutely. What we're going to do in upcoming History Weekends is look at the invention of the modern Middle East. We'll look at the invention of the Middle East starting in the 1920s versus the re-invention of the Middle East going on today. What's happening right now is the greatest upheaval of the Middle East since it was established after World War I.

Certainly, and the region has been re-inventing itself continuously over the last century.

Right, and we don't know where it's going to go, but it will help to understand the current upheaval and how it was established in the first place. All these states didn't exist until after Wold War I, and they took a particular direction and now they're taking a different direction.

Since this is an election year, and after watching the foreign policy debate, it just seems like there is so much going on, and that even the politicians are confused.

Well, I'd say the politicians are very confused, and I would say that it probably hurts anyone in this business to watch those debates because of the distortions that are allowed on both sides. Sometimes you can see people are grappling with an issue and they don't really know what to say because they don't know the history. In one of the Republican debates, the issue of Palestine came up, and Newt Gingrich came up with the "invention of Palestine." And you could see everyone trying to respond to it, but they didn't want to say the wrong thing, because they didn't know the history of Palestine. The Institute doesn't take positions, and we have 80 scholars affiliated with us, but they don't all have the same point of view. There is no particular stance in favor of one issue. With the debates, people need to be better informed in order to understand them.

So what is the Foreign Policy Research Institute doing to bring that perspective?

We have a small staff of 8, and we have over 80 scholars affiliated with us, and we call upon them from time to time to write things, to speak, so what we do is we publish a bulletin once or twice a week that is circulated electronically around the world. It provides insight into both historical events as well as current events. Our scholars write books that are published by prestigious presses, whether university presses or trade publishers. We hold lectures here in Philadelphia- we have about 50 programs a year. Some are big public lectures, some are smaller seminars- it's a lot of give and take. We have programs in Washington DC, we have programs in New York City and soon we'll have programs in Princeton. So, we have seminars and articles to educate the general public, as well as "webinars". We had one in Washington DC recently and had people tune in from 20 countries. Everything is archived. The bulletins that go out once or twice a week are read in 85 countries, so we're bring Philadelphia to the world every week.

How has being in Philadelphia affected the Institute's work?

That's a good question because think-tanks, which is what category we fall into, are generally in Washington, where the policy community is. We were initially founded as part of the University of Pennsylvania, and we became an independent non-profit in 1970, and we were founded in 1955. I think by being in Philadelphia rather than Washington, we're not necessarily attuned to what Congress is considering today- we're looking at the mid to longer term of international issues. So it gives us a little distance from the political world, and maybe more time to think clearly. That's a benefit of being in Philadelphia, and the other benefit of course is that you're between New York and Washington.

Let's shift the topic to China, because that summons its own entire discourse. What is Philadelphia's stake in China as FPRI sees it?

We have a very long-running Asia program that is directed by Jacques Delille, who is a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. He's an acute observer of Chinese domestic politics, as well as international relations. We have had relationships with think-tanks in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong. And Jacque is constantly being invited to give lectures in all of those countries, as well as Singapore, India, and elsewhere. We've hosted representatives from those think-tanks here in Philadelphia. We have relationships with think-tanks from all over the world. And we have a half dozen scholars devoted to the study of Asia and East Asia in particular. Terry Cooke, who is also involved with Global Philadelphia Association, is also a Senior Fellow here. He's doing a great deal with US-China cooperation...One of things we hope to offer as the years go by is expertise to businesses in the Philadelphia area, and what we can offer are the experts we have built a network of.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The Institute is vital to Philadelphia and has a lot to offer. We try to make available our services to the city, as needed, so we are a good citizen of Philadelphia.

Interview by Melody Nielsen and Kathy Quigley for Global Philadelphia Association. This text has been condensed from its orginal source.