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Aspen Institute - Policymakers' Playground

Attention this week is focused on the United Nations Security Council where powerful countries are trying to decide how to deal with the threat posed by Iraq. 12 years ago, decisions about whether to launch an attack against Iraq were first worked out thousands of miles from the United Nations - at a mountain retreat in Colorado.

The Aspen Institute is nestled on about 16 hectares in the middle of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. It is a collection of classroom buildings, lodges that can house about 200 people, and concert halls that can accommodate hundreds more. In August 1990, then-President George Bush and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were both invited to speak at an event marking the 40th anniversary of the Aspen Institute. As the current chairman of the Institute's board of trustees, Bill Mayer, says, it was by coincidence a time of crisis - the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. "Of course, none of us would know that the whole Iraqi-Kuwait situation would have but started at that point," said Bill Mayer. "And they were staying at the home of a former ambassador to Great Britain, Henry Catto, who is a long-time trustee. And it is at the Catto's home that Margaret Thatcher and George Bush hatched the plan for Kuwait."

The United States and Britain led a coalition of forces in attacking Iraq and drove the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.

Mr. Mayer speaks with pride when he recalls the Aspen Institute's participation in history. He also notes the Institute's conference center along the Wye River in Maryland which has been used in the Middle East peace process. "In 1995, we had the Syrian-Israeli peace talks with [former president] Bill Clinton and [former Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu on the Wye campus," he said. "And that's sometimes called the Wye River Accord. And that was really negotiated on the Aspen campus on the eastern shore of Maryland. They went on day and night, day and night. ... They picked the venue ... and they thought the Aspen Institute would be comfortable and neutral, because many of them had been there before."

In addition to the conference center at Wye River, the Aspen Institute has offices in Chicago, New York, and Washington DC, and operates internationally through partner organizations in Europe and Asia. But the institute's name is most readily associated with the campus in Aspen, Colorado.

During a recent stroll through the campus, Bill Mayer talked about the institute's history and mission. He notes it was founded in the 1950's by an American corporate executive, Walter Paepcke, as a place for business and intellectual leaders to exchange ideas, broaden their perspectives and search for answers to the large questions of the day. "And if we can improve the way somebody thinks, I don't think there's any greater gift that we could give to that person or frankly the society," said Bill Mayer.

The institute hosts a variety of seminars and policy programs every year. Each seminar brings together 20 leaders in business, government, education, the arts and other fields for five days to explore broad issues. For example, the seminar on global capitalism examines the impact of new technologies on communications and the spread of market economic systems. Participants in the seminar on Asia study the writings of Confucius, Mao Zedong and Mahatma Gandhi and discuss the core values of Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. Participants in the policy programs try to find new solutions to specific questions in areas such as the environment, energy, urban poverty, and law.

Many current and former world leaders have attended conferences at Aspen. They include Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, U.S. National Security Advisor Condeleeza Rice, as well as many members of Congress. And the Aspen Institute has an image - rightly or wrongly - as a place for the rich and powerful to meet and play. Visitors enjoy the health club, swimming pool and tennis courts. They can try their hand at fishing for trout in the two streams that flank the campus, and of course, in winter there is skiing.

Bill Mayer reluctantly acknowledges that image but says there is a reason to include leaders around the seminar table. "What you don't want is somebody sitting around the room, where they all look like each other, they're all of the same religion, and so forth, because you're not going to learn when you sit down with a group like that," he said. "And so the leaders are the ones that we're trying to impact, because that's where we think we'll get some leverage."

But Mr. Mayer says not all seminar participants are famous. There have also been school teachers, policemen, artists, mayors and theologians.

At a recent seminar on Asia, participants included a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, government officials from Washington and New Delhi, researchers from Japan and Germany, and business executives from throughout the United States, including one who lives in Aspen James DeFrancia. "It's been an absolutely terrific experience," he said. "I think it clearly demonstrates and embodies what we locally refer to as the Aspen experience, because it's an intellectually and spiritually envigorating undertaking. And at the same time it's well-blended with the physical environment and we've been able to get outside and enjoy nature and reflect on things. And probably most importantly, we've been able to interact with other people from diverse locales and walks of life, and that in itself is stimulating."

Mr. DeFrancia dismisses the suggestion that Aspen is a playground for the wealthy.

Although participating in one of the five-day seminars does cost about $5,000 - which covers the classes, lodging and all meals - scholarships are available for participants not able to pay the full fee. The institute also receives significant revenue from financial backers. And Bill Mayer points out that many buildings are named after those supporters - corporations or wealthy families. "The reception hall where we go to eat is the Prince Bandar Center," he said. "And of course he's the Saudi ambassador to the United States and has been since the early [19]80's and has been very supportive of the Institute to try to promote the dialogue between the Muslim countries and the west."

Paths through the campus wind past fields of wild flowers and alongside streams and waterfalls. One might see a coyote sitting next to the fish pond or yellow finches flitting among the shimmering leaves of the aspen trees. That's all part of what Bill Mayer says is the attraction of Aspen. "You come with a perception, and if you haven't been here before, it turns out to be a little different," said Bill Mayer. "There's sort of a relaxation that comes over people, and an openness, and a willingness to learn."

Bill Mayer says no matter where the participants come from, when they sit around a table at Aspen they are all equals, and together they explore answers to global questions.

All photos courtesy of Aspen Institute