REVIEW: Article

Promoting the Public Spirit

At the elegant Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey, Mexico, a crowd of hundreds looked on this past November as the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship was presented to Don Lorenzo Zambrano, Chairman and CEO of the multinational cement-manufacturing giant CEMEX. Don Lorenzo is among Mexico’s most generous and creative philanthropists, noted especially for his support of programs designed to give Mexicans the opportunity to own their own homes.

At the Wilson Center, we have long believed in the importance of recognizing men and women who exhibit unusual public spirit. Our two principal means of bestowing that recognition have been the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship and for individuals in public life, the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service. As the Center continues to expand its international reach, we have begun in recent years to identify worthy recipients, outside the United States. The ceremony in Monterrey was the ninth such event we have sponsored abroad, and in coming months we plan to host ceremonies in São Paulo, Calgary, Helsinki and Athens.

One of the striking things about these international events is how enthusiastically they are received. In large part, that is a reflection of the esteem in which the award recipients are held. In Vancouver, nearly a thousand people came to applaud Michael Harcourt, the former premier of British Columbia, and industrialist-philanthropist William Sauder, the founder of International Forest Products. In Sydney, we honored entrepreneur Frank Lowy, cofounder of the Westfield Group, for corporate citizenship, and we were proud to recognize Australian prime minister John Howard for public service, in our first such citation of a head of government. In a taped message, President George W. Bush saluted the prime minister, observing that “the award pays tribute to those who have shown a special commitment to free and open debate and demonstrated strength of character in working for thoughtful public policy.”

In extending the reach of the awards, we are acting in accord with the international character of the Wilson Center. We hope to promote and publicize around the globe the values of public-spiritedness, intellectual engagement, and international dialogue that are as fundamental to the Center as they were to Woodrow Wilson himself. The ceremonies are usually accompanied by a scholarly program—a practical demonstration of the value of sharing knowledge and ideas to build international understanding.

Best of all, the events leave a legacy of scholarly activity, because the Center uses the funds raised by the awards dinners to maintain and enlarge its programs of study and exchange with the host countries.

Which brings me to a second reason why I think the awards ceremonies have been so enthusiastically received. In many countries, the hunger for better dialogue with the United States is palpable, and the Wilson Center embodies the ideal of free and open discussion. Angus Reid, the Canadian Co-Chair of the Advisory Board of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, explained to The Vancouver Sun that bilateral issues get very little serious attention in the United States. Like our other divisions, the Institute fills the need for “a place for much more reasoned debate than the courtroom or the world of political rhetoric.”

Political debate these days—and maybe any days—is often cacophonous. The Wilson Center provides a zone of quiet—a neutral forum where scholars and policymakers from around the world can discuss issues of mutual concern at a civilized volume. By recognizing the work of exceptional men and women through the Woodrow Wilson Awards, we hope to widen that discussion and to support and recognize the efforts of innumerable other public-spirited individuals around the world.*


* Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2006 edition of the Wilson Quarterly. It is reprinted by permission.

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Author(s)

Chair, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars;
United States Ambassador to Switzerland, 1989-1993