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Change and Leadership: The Role of the East-West Center By Charles E. Morrison, President, East-West Center
Delivered at the

2006 EWC/EWCA International Conference

"Building an Asia Pacific Community for Sustainable Development"

Hanoi, Vietnam

December 8, 2006

Aloha.  What a pleasure to be with Center alumni and friends – all 550 of you!

Your presence is a tremendous affirmation of the value and continuing meaning of our organization and network.  A special and very heart-felt thank you to the distinguished Vietnamese and American, Dr. Vu Tuyen Hoang and Ambassador Michael Marine, who opened our meeting just now and to our East-West Center Association Chair Kok Kian Poh and President Lawrence Foster.

We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to our host Vietnam chapter, under the leadership of Huang Hoe.  Two years ago as we were seeking a site for this meeting, the Vietnamese alumni, with the important encouragement of Hawaii-based alumni Thanh Lo Le Khac Sananikone, quickly offered Hanoi.  We were somewhat surprised because our chapter here is quite new.  But because of the close cooperation of our conference honorary co-chairs, Ambassador Le Van Banh and Ambassador Raymond Burghardt, our conference co-chairs, Thanh Lo Le Khac Sananikone and Hoang Hoe, and of the Vietnam Union of Scientific and Technological Associations, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, the U.S. Embassy, and Gordon Ring and his staff, the preparations for this meeting moved much more quickly than any previous East-West Center/East-West Center Association conference.

I also want to thank the management and the staff of the Melia Hanoi Hotel for their cooperation and support.  During 2006, I have stayed in no hotel more times than the Melia Hanoi Hotel.  This is my third stay -- the first was in April for the meeting of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, and the second just three weeks ago for the APEC Ministerial Meeting.

That we are holding this conference of an American-sponsored organization in Hanoi is symbolic of the importance and vigor of the growing number of Vietnamese alumni within our larger East-West Center community.  And in a wider sense, it is symbolic of the changed relationship between Vietnam and the United States, and that, in turn, is symbolic of the fast pace of social, economic, political and international relations developments in our region.

When Americans and Vietnamese of my generation were young, our two nations were at war.  Some in this room served in that war, and others remember friends or relatives who gave their lives.  Despite that tragic history – and despite some lingering legacies – Vietnam and the United States embarked on a course of reconciliation that led to the normalization of relations in 1995, and relations continue to strengthen.

This reconciliation reflects the fact that the two countries recognized that they have no strategic differences, since the key national objectives of each were achieved.  Vietnam achieved national unification.  The United States achieved a perceived objective of preventing Soviet global domination.  There are still challenges for the two nations to overcome together, some arising out of their growing interaction and others from continuing systemic differences.  Nevertheless, the Vietnamese-American reconciliation stands as a model for the Asia Pacific region and for the world.  And I have no doubt that the relationship will continue to deepen in the years ahead, partly through activities such as this conference.

While diplomatic and treaty frameworks are ultimately matters for governments, the processes of reconciliation are typically pioneered by private individuals and by non-government or quasi-governmental organizations and often at considerable personal and professional risk. 

I am proud to say that the East-West Center and East-West Center alumni were leading the way.  Vietnamese from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam began to come for research at the East-West Center as early as 1981, although sustained exchanges did not occur until 1987.  The East-West Center was the very first mainstream American organization to have regular program activities with the unified Vietnam.  As for the East-West Center Association, some of you who were at the alumni conference in Bangkok in 1991 recall an extended and very fruitful roundtable on Indochina relations, chaired by Phuongpun Sananikone, that discussed issues, renewed personal relationships, built new ones, and led to a variety of follow-on business and academic activities.  The East-West Center and Vietnam now have many other special bonds.  These include esteemed alumnae such as Thanh Lo Le Khac Sananikone and Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh of the National Assembly and the distinguished former American ambassador to Vietnam, Raymond Burghardt, now directing all of the Center’s dialogue and exchange activities.

I refer to this history not just because we are in Hanoi, but because the Center’s connection with Vietnam and its role in U.S.-Vietnamese relations illustrates the basic purpose of our institution.  By bringing together people of influence from all parts of our region for study, research, and exchange, the East-West Center seeks to build a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific region.  When I say “people of influence,” I am referring to the fact that in seeking participants for all its activities, whether students, teachers, journalists, professional experts, artists, business people or politicians, the Center is looking for people whose work and opinions are listened to by others.  In other words, leaders.

Leaders at all levels have a multiplier effect, extending the influence of the East-West Center experience to others in the society and acting as true change agents.  At our last meeting, I talked about what happens at the East-West Center – the fruitful ‘hot fusion’ of bringing together people, ideas, and lessons from East and West.  This time, I will focus on a product of “hot fusion,” which is leadership.

But first a word about the challenges our region has overcome and those it faces now and in the years to come.  If we use the early years of the East-West Center, the 1960s and 1970s, as a starting point, the Asia Pacific region, in contrast to other parts of the developing world, has made truly dramatic strides.  This is a region undergoing a rate of development and change that is totally unprecedented in world history.  As a whole, the people of this region are healthier, more prosperous, better fed, better educated, and enjoy more civil rights and personal freedoms than ever before.

In 1960, when the East-West Center was created, the entire region, except Japan, consisted of very poor countries.  In some, famine was not uncommon.  Basic freedoms -- freedom from want and freedom from fear -- were typically very lacking.

Today, in contrast, the majority of East Asia’s people live in nations that fall within the World Bank’s categories of middle and upper income nations.  In fact, when Vietnam joins the middle income category, perhaps as early as 2010, virtually the entire sub-region of East Asia will be in these categories.  For South Asia, there are still high rates of poverty and economic progress has been slower, but it has accelerated remarkably in recent years.

The Asia Pacific region now has the world’s largest financial reserves, it turns out the world’s largest number of engineers, and it has the world’s largest number of construction cranes.  Moreover, the region is laying down the infrastructure for further growth and development, such as the educational and legal infrastructure.  For example, China’s leaders are pledged to develop 100 world-class universities.  And another long-term infrastructural development of enormous consequence is that the region is beginning to really tap into the long under-educated and under-utilized talent of its women for professional and leadership positions.

Dramatic progress has also been made in the relations among nations, as we have seen in the U.S.-Vietnam case.  The first general meeting in history of the heads of state of nations on both sides of the Pacific took place as recently as 1993 at the APEC leaders meeting in Seattle in 1993, and this now occur annually, most recently here in Hanoi last month.  In 1960s and 1970s, such organizations united diverse economies as the APEC, the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation, the ASEAN Plus Three, and the East Asian Summit would have been unimaginable.  Do cooperative relations among states make a difference?  Just think about how much more difficult it would have been to tackle an epidemic like the SARS or an avian flu pandemic in a coordinated manner in the 1960s or the 1970s.  It has now been a quarter century since there has been an international military conflict in the Asia Pacific region.

There is no doubt that the Asia Pacific region as a whole has been a success story.  I am sure that many of you feel that you are living in a time of unprecedented opportunity for yourselves, your family, your community, and your nation.  But we also know that there are many troubling trends and huge challenges ahead, and that there are many in our region who are disadvantaged rather than empowered by development.

Ironically, the new challenges are often a consequence of the successes.  For example, in the early years of the East-West Center the biggest single focus for our research program was the explosive growth of population and its consequences.  Now our research program also concentrates on the aging of our populations.  For our region as a whole, although not yet in Vietnam, the number of age group over 65 is growing 4.5 times as rapidly as the population as a whole.

In Northeast Asia, by mid-century, one in every four persons will be over 65, and in Japan and Korea the number will be closer to one in three.  The aging boom has obvious implications for health care and pension systems.  The impact on economic growth, creativity and innovation, political life, and personal security and well-being are less well understood.  Asia is leading the way toward a demographic future without precedent in human experience.

The many impacts of globalization also have enormous positive as well as deeply problematic effects.  In most rapidly developing Asian economies, and certainly here in Vietnam, the inflow of direct foreign investment and the export of manufactured goods to open markets in higher income nations have been critical ingredients for economic growth.

But globalization also brings enormous adjustments and dislocations, most notably widening income gaps.   According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the richest 10 percent of the Chinese population has disposable income 12 times that of the poorest ten percent, and this gap is continuing to widen.  The same is true in many other economies, including the United States, as some segments of the population benefit from pre-existing advantages of education, location, or wealth, and others are hurt.  These trends threaten social stability, especially in countries where rising inequality occurs side-by-side with obvious public corruption.   Addressing the income disparities issue and the corruption issue are major emphases of many developing Asian government.

Development is also placing the region’s natural resources and the environment under tremendous pressure, one reason that our conference theme is on sustainable development.  On a per capita basis, Asia has less fresh water than any other continent, only a quarter that of North America and a tenth that of South America.  Water use is increasing rapidly because of industrialization, more intensive agricultural use, and increasing home use for toilets, washing machines, dishwaters and other now popular appliances.  Pollution, waste, and climate change accentuate the challenges.  Municipal water systems in Asia on average leak about half their water, and irrigation remains largely based on less efficient ditch and furrow systems.  Industrial wastes are polluting rivers, aquifers are being drained, and glaciers are melting at unheard of rates.  On the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the rate of melt of glaciers is a whopping 7 percent a year.

I have not mentioned many other challenges – air pollution, oil and gas scarcities, gender issues, ethnic tensions and conflict, governance and due process of law issues, nuclear proliferation, health issues, educational quality and equity issues, and many, many others.  These are all very important, and at the East-West Center, we and our partner organizations are hard at work on most of these issues.  Over the next three days, we have the time and expertise to explore these issues in some depth together.

But what is the region’s scarcest and most critically needed resource?  I ask this because addressing this challenge should be our highest priority at the East-West Center.  And I believe we are addressing it because in my judgment, the most critical resource – the resource most important for addressing all the other problems – and most essential to a beneficial future – is leadership.

What do leaders do?  The popular image is that they give orders.  Take this example, the story of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister.  While Molotov was briefing a new assistant, he received a call from the boss.  “Yes, Comrade Stalin, he said, and then “Yes, Comrade Stalin.”  But the assistant was amazed when Molotov suddenly started shaking his head vigorously and barked “No, Comrade.”  After a brief pause, Molotov, almost shouted into the phone, “Definitely, not.”  “A Thousand Times No”.  When Molotov put down the telephone, the stunned aide asked him in awe:  “How could you say ‘no’ to Comrade Stalin?” he asked.  Molotov looked puzzled and then he shrugged and explained.  “Comrade Stalin asked me if I disagreed with anything he said.  And, when I said ‘no,’ he asked again, “Are you sure?”

We know that the essence of leadership is not in giving orders, but in harnessing and making opportunities from change.  The faster the change the greater the demand for leadership.  Since the Asia Pacific region is the world’s most dynamic, the demand for and the responsibilities of leadership here are also greater than anywhere else.

Much has been written on the characteristics of leadership, but I believe that the most important aspects are broad vision and the translation of vision and direction into action by convincingly communicating the need to others and seeing through to results.  If the initial element of vision is missing or faulty, the entire leadership process breaks down.  

In fact, some individuals with lots of other leadership skills lack the needed base of knowledge and experience.  Rather than recognizing the direction of changes and envisioning the forward-looking strategies, they seek to lead backward.

This is why the East-West Center, through its educational programs carried out in partnership with the University of Hawaii, and its research and dialogue programs, provides not simply disciplinary training, but puts great emphasis on the overall context of the trends, issues, and challenges facing the Asia Pacific region.  And that is why we emphasize multinational teams, cross-country comparisons and cross-disciplinary approaches, so that our participants can draw upon experiences and lessons in many contexts.  And why we emphasize communications skills and action plans.

In October, I was speaking with a group of recent alumni who are working in the Chinese Council for the Promotion of International Trade in Beijing.  “We now guide our work through action plans,” one told me.  “We never talked or thought like this before we went to the East-West Center.”

These were alumni from the East-West Center’s, Asia Pacific Leadership Program or APLP, a new educational project created just five years ago.  I am pleased to say that this year’s APLP students are here, having connected the alumni conference with their field study.  I hope you will all have a chance to meet some of these very talented women and men, and to talk about their experiences at the East-West Center.

Just as the region changes, and as the demand for leadership changes, so too the East-West must change.  The APLP is only one of the Center’s many new offerings of the past six years, during which we have had two outstanding Board of Governors chairs, Governor George R. Ariyoshi and now Roland Lagareta.  We have other new special education programs carried out in partnerships.  These include the U.S.-East Timor scholarship program in partnership with the U.S. Department of State, the Obuchi Educational Program for Okinawa in partnership with the Japan Foundation, and Ford Foundation’s International Fellows Program which brings to the East-West Center dozens of exceptional students from backgrounds lacking access to higher education.

Through student leadership, East-West Center student conference has become the region’s premier international graduate student conference.  We have doubled the numbers of students and quadrupled the number of journalists coming to the East-West Center.  Thanks to your support, we have new private sources of scholarship funds for students.  We have established a women’s leadership program.  We have opened new research areas in infectious diseases, human rights, educational policy, and even international sports, and our mix of current research activity mirrors the key challenges of the region.  We have increased our research support for regional organizations and networks.  We have added new training activities for disaster managers and Pacific Island diplomats.  We are engaged in conflict management activities in the Pacific, and in efforts to understand the dynamics of internal conflicts in Asia and possible solutions.  We have added three new publications series, and established a wire service to bring greater attention to our work.  We have built a new Hale Manoa, a new Friendship Circle, and a new Thai Sala.  All this in the past six years, and under the Strategic Plan, which you helped our Board of Governors and our management team to develop, we will continue and intensify these efforts.

You, as alumni, of the East-West Center are a part of the Center’s valued tradition, and also a big part of its change.  Over the last two days your chapter leaders have been working on their new strategic plan, which follows on and complements the East-West Center’s new strategic plan. 

You have established new chapters and reinvigorated old ones.  You now have 40 chapters, and a goal of 50 active chapters by 2010, the Center’s 50th anniversary.  Even as your carry out your day-to-day professional responsibilities, through your voluntary chapters you have hosted programs, identified and mentored students, raised funds for local activities as well as the East-West Center, and engaged in philanthropic work.  And you are making this conference in Vietnam, like the previous ones most recently in Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur, a smashing success through your participation and academic input.  There is no other anywhere else in this region that can match it for its breadth, depth, scope, and multinational participation.

You are among the scarce leadership resources of the Asia-Pacific, individuals who can think and act with the best interests of the region at heart.  As Ambassador Marine just said, “each of you is a leader.” Your burdens are heavy; your accomplishments are great; and the opportunities greater still.

So I close by honoring and congratulating you -- both for your choice of initially associating yourself with the East-West Center, and your choice of continuing your deep association with and active support of the East-West Center and its mission of building a peaceful, prosperous, and just Asia Pacific region as an essential building block in our global future.  The challenges ahead are great, but let us today, and every day, rededicate ourselves to making a difference for our region and the world by converting challenges into opportunities.