Does America have what it takes to prosper in the 21st-century world? To compete effectively? Or to thrive and offer its citizens the kinds of satisfying lives they want? Those are a few of the questions the Camden Conference will be posing next February during its 25th anniversary conference, "The U.S. in a 21st Century World: Do We Have What It Takes?" The country's political system, diplomatic and military establishments, educational system, media, and energy and environmental policies will all be scrutinized, with an eye to both where the country may be exceptionally strong and to where it may be falling behind.

The keynote speaker who will set the tone for an exploration of the nation's prospects is Bill Richardson - a 2008 presidential candidate, governor of New Mexico until last December, and before that U.S. energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration, congressman and international negotiator.

Richardson negotiated the release of U.S. prisoners from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, and Cuba -accomplishments he tried unsuccessfully to repeat in Cuba this autumn. He may well have further opportunities for such efforts in his current role as special envoy for the Organization of American States (OAS). Richardson's successes as a negotiator have won him multiple Noble Prize nominations.

The political gridlock that has made many question America's ability to cope with the challenges it faces is another aspect of the conference theme that Richardson will address from a deep base of experience. Having been confirmed unanimously as secretary of energy in 1998, Richardson withdrew from consideration for commerce secretary in early January 2009, when it emerged that a grand jury was investigating allegations that his administration in New Mexico had awarded contracts improperly to a political donor. The investigation was later dropped with no finding of any wrongdoing, but Richardson said that his nomination would have encountered "an untenable delay" at a time when the new administration was grappling with an economic crisis. Delays in confirmation of nominations by presidents of both parties are part and parcel of a logjam now affecting government decisions of all types.

As the son of a New England banker and a Mexican mother who spent his childhood in Mexico City and his teenage years in Massachusetts, not to mention being a former governor of one of the most diverse states in the country, Richardson is also well positioned to address immigration and other domestic aspects at this introspective Camden Conference.

Besides his tenure as secretary of energy, Richardson's energy and environmental credentials include developing a requirement that utilities in New Mexico obtain 20% of their electricity from renewable sources. He spurred creation of the Rail Runner Express commuter rail system in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and cofounded the nascent Western Climate Initiative for cap-and-trade carbon control in several western states and Canadian provinces, including Quebec and Ontario. The Western Climate Initiative is similar in concept to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in which Maine participates.

Tickets for next February's conference - including Richardson's keynote plus two days of discussion and debate led by a roster of speakers representing a range of viewpoints - will go on sale to Camden Conference members November 7 and to the general public on November 28. Attendees can listen to and interact with the speakers in person at the Camden Opera House or watch a live-streamed video feed at the Strand in Rockland, the Hutchinson Center in Belfast or The Grand in Ellsworth. For more information, visit www.camdenconference.org or call 236-1034.