The keynote speaker for the 2012 Camden Conference will be 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.

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?

These are a few of the varied angles to the challenging question the Camden Conference will be posing at its 25th anniversary conference, Feb. 17-19, 2012: “The U.S. in a 21st Century World: Do We Have What it Takes?”

The Camden Conference theme is an unusually searching and introspective one, an examination of the country’s prospects for the future against the backdrop of major transitions in global alignments, an unstable world order, and the rise of new economic power centers in an era of prolonged economic distress. The country’s political system, diplomatic and military establishments, educational system, media, and energy and environmental policies all will come in for scrutiny. As it has been for the previous 24 years, the aim of the gathering will be to foster informed discourse on world affairs, in this case with a particular eye both to where the country may be exceptionally strong — and to where we may be falling behind.

When Richardson was nominated by then President-elect Barack Obama to be Secretary of Commerce in late 2008, The New York Times noted that his was “a resume of unusual breadth.”

Who better to explore the prospects for the U.S. role on the evolving world stage, for example, than a man who, besides his experience at the UN, negotiated the release of U.S. prisoners from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, North Korea, Sudan and Cuba — efforts he tried unsuccessfully to repeat in Cuba this autumn and which he may well have further opportunities to replicate in his current role as Special Envoy for the Organization of American States. Richardson’s earlier 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 tough challenges it faces at this time is another aspect of the conference theme that Richardson will be addressing 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. It was an incident in a progressive lengthening of delays in confirmation of nominations by presidents of both parties that is 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 a former governor of one of the most diverse states in the country, Richardson is uniquely positioned to address the varied domestic aspects of this more 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 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. He spurred creation of the Rail Runner Express commuter rail system in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and co-founded 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.

Even education — another part of the conference topic — is an area on which the former New Mexico governor speaks with pride of having “shifted money from administration to the classroom and increased access to early-childhood education.”

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 on all these varied aspects of America’s role in the 21st century world — will go on sale to Camden Conference members Nov. 7 and to the general public on Nov. 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 Theatre in Rockland, the Hutchinson Center in Belfast or the Grand in Ellsworth. For more information visit camdenconference.org or call 236-1034.