Lee Wilwerding: New leader of local World Affairs Council


Since 2004, the World Affairs Council of Hilton Head has been the leading forum on the island for serious discussion of foreign policy. Today, the group is approaching 1,000 members — a milestone that reflects the island’s intellectual curiosity and desire for a deeper perspective on geopolitical affairs.

This fall, Lee Wilwerding begins his tenure as the council’s new president. Monthly recently sat down with Wilwerding to gather his thoughts and insights on the Council.  


Question: What about the World Affairs Council is so appealing that prompted you to accept a leadership role?


Answer: A high school history teacher made me think critically. He exposed me to something beyond suburban Minneapolis and sparked my interest in world affairs.

Then, when Uncle Sam sent me to Germany after college, I lived near the sites of historical events: the Prague Spring, student protests in Paris forcing out President Charles DeGaulle, the Six Day War in Israel and Gaddafi’s coup in Libya. I was exposed to a view that wasn’t the American media view. That broader perspective and my experience in Vietnam stayed with me, fostering a very strong interest in world affairs.

Plus, the council is an organization that brings a lot of value to the community — paying it back is logical. 

Q: You are reputed to be a history scholar. How important is history when making programming decisions?   

A: Our Program Committee does the hard work in choosing topics and finding the speakers; I provide a little bit of guidance, but they deserve the credit. The volunteers — a retired admiral, an intelligence officer, a university president and international business leaders — offer a broad perspective on history and geopolitical affairs.

Q: Your leadership in the military and corporate America must give you a unique capacity to serve as the council’s president.

A: When I served in Vietnam then sat down in the Pentagon, I gained two different perspectives: one from the bottom up and the other from the top down. On the corporate side, I gained insights beyond the military mindset. The wider angle provides better context and forces me to think beyond an issue or problem in front of me.    

Q: The council’s prized gem, the Friday Speaker Series,covers a broad range of subjects that, according to executive director Joan Apple Lemoine, “reflect the complex issues we face on geopolitical level from China’s ruling elite, post-Castro Cuba, or the threat of Middle Eastern terrorism.”

Over the past three or four years, the council scheduled programs on “Trends in Global Security” and “Critical Trends in U.S. Foreign Policy.” Do you see the “trends” theme going forward, and if so, where do think it will take the council?

A: The Program Committee uses the trends theme to provide focus. But we still need to be looking at what’s going on — world events change quickly. We consider the educational needs of our membership first. If it’s a subject that we think the membership needs to better understand, then we add it to the program agenda. A good example is Cuba. After President Barack Obama restored U.S. diplomatic relations, we offered a program segment on post-Castro Cuba.

Q: Do you intend to continue your predecessor’s focus on educational outreach?  

A: Absolutely. The programs that we do with local high schools — Academic World Quest and Model UN — are essential. Earlier this year, we invited the kids who competed in Academic World Quest to attend a luncheon with Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S. Such invaluable interactions help students develop a broader view of the world. Payback for the future of our country will be significant.

Q: How would you describe the council’s typical member? 

A: A lot of our members are retired from military, intelligence and government service or corporate and educational institutions. For the most part, our members worked in professional leadership roles. They are a well-educated and well-engaged audience. In fact, our speakers say they like coming here because of the reputation of our well-informed audience.  

Q: How does the council serve working professionals who can’t attend the Friday morning talks?

A: We offer an eight-week, evening Great Decisions Series and a monthly Evening Series.

Q: What do you hope to be your legacy as president of the council?

A: I’m not worried about legacy. My goal is to keep the organization as viable as it is today; offer members the quality of speakers they want and expect; and deliver a breadth of topics that reflect the world we live in today.

  • 2 p.m. Sept. 17: “Rational Middle Energy Series”
  • 10 a.m. Sept. 18: Annual meeting
  • 10 a.m. Oct. 2: “Ramifications of the Iranian Nuclear Deal”
  • 10 a.m. Oct. 16: “China, Russian and Islamic Actors in Latin America”

All meetings will be held at First Presbyterian Church, 540 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island. For membership information, please contact executive director Joan Apple Lemoine at wachh@gmail.com or 843-384-6758. For more information about the council, go to www.wachh.org.