Colin Powell honored in Philadelphia for international work

Mural Arts Philadelphia artist Ernel Martinez (left) and Colin Powell take a selfie. Mural Arts gave Powell the plan for a Martinez mural (rear) to be painted at Olney Charter School.

A Philadelphia nonprofit honored Colin Powell on Wednesday night for his work building international bonds as a statesman and, more recently, as the head of a program headquartered in the city.

Powell, a retired general and former secretary of state, was recognized for completing a 12-year stint as chairman of the Eisenhower Fellowships, which bring mid-career professionals from overseas to spend several weeks in the United States working on projects, and send a handful of Americans abroad.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Colin Powell with his mural as he is honored by Eisenhower Fellowships. Mural Arts founder and executive director Jane Golden was an Eisenhower Fellow in 2003.

During the ceremony at the National Constitution Center, Mural Arts Philadelphia unveiled a digital image of a mural of Powell to be painted at Olney Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia.

In an interview before the event, Powell argued that the kind of international collaboration fostered by the fellowships remains vital. The Republican also reiterated his longstanding support for the Iran nuclear deal that President Trump this month repudiated.

“It’s important for us to be seen as committed to international relations, committed to international agreements. … It’s part of our history, part of our tradition,” Powell said, speaking in general about transnational cooperation. He later added, “Some people think we’re maybe not getting the best deal in trade deals, but we cannot walk away from the rest of the world.”

Asked specifically about the Iran accord, Powell said, “It was a good agreement and I said so when it was signed. I’ve said so every time I’ve been asked about it.”

He said that “everybody who analyzes it or is responsible for implementing it,” including the U.S. military, intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency, “said it was abided by.”

While Powell did not criticize anyone by name, his comments and the awards ceremony come at a time when Trump has frequently rejected international cooperation, including the Iran deal, the Paris climate accord, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, spurning some of the  closest U.S. allies.

Although the president has pursued high-profile diplomatic talks with North Korea, for the most part he has pursued an “America First” policy, winning over some political leaders and voters.

Powell, 81, has long been at the forefront of America’s interaction with the rest of world, serving as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and secretary of state for President George W. Bush.

So, he said, heading the Eisenhower Fellowships seemed like a natural extension. (It also had a personal appeal: It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who signed his commission when Powell joined the Army).

“It takes people from different parts of the world and exposes them to the United States of America for a period of time, and  allows them to learn what’s really going on in America, outside of Washington and New York and the usual haunts,” said Powell, who twice endorsed Barack Obama for president. “It shows the best of America, and I think that benefits us when these [fellows] take this back to their home.”

Americans, meanwhile, are exposed to different cultures through the fellowship.

“We are part of an international community, whether folks say they believe that or not,” Powell said in making his case for the program.

Powell headed the Eisenhower Fellowships for 12 years, the longest tenure of any chairman, a list including the elder Bush and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In that time, he said, he has seen rising concern from foreign fellows about the growth of populism, sometimes empowering autocratic leaders abroad.

“That is a major issue on the minds of people coming to visit us now and seeing it play out in their own country,” Powell said.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will succeed Powell as chairman of the Eisenhower Fellowships, beginning Thursday.