The East-West Center’s Regional Role in 2022

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By Suzanne Puanani Vares-Lum
East-West Center President

(The following commentary appeared in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Feb. 3, 2022)

EWC President Suzy Vares-Lum speaking at her inaugural eventMaster Navigator Nainoa Thompson, describing the East-West Center in 2015, called it a place of refuge, a pu‘uhonua. Indeed, the Center’s founders envisioned a safe and open space for thinkers from many cultures and beliefs to come together in the hope of building a better future in our region—a national investment in Asia and the Pacific, with dividends of peace and progress.

Today, those aspirations continue to guide us like a navigational star, but in a very different world. The globe’s center of gravity, geopolitically and economically, has shifted to the Indo-Pacific, where East meets West. Our region also faces unprecedented challenges—environmental crises, competition for resources, the pandemic and other health struggles, authoritarian influence and strained alliances, to name just a few.

At the Center, we approach such issues with the values that are at our piko, our core: respect for universal human rights, people-centered development, transparent and accountable governance, social equity, responsible stewardship of the environment, and above all solutions rooted in authentic, people-to-people understanding and culturally informed expertise.

This is why EWC researchers are helping to lead the search for climate change knowledge and policy solutions in our region, bringing together scientists, decisionmakers and local experts to address the problem from many viewpoints. This includes serving as lead regional authors of the federal government’s  National Climate Assessment as well as working with individual Pacific islands to help develop local solutions for the climate impacts they are already experiencing. And here at home, we are gratified to partner with Hawai‘i Green Growth to create sustainable development solutions.

As worries mount over China’s growing footprint in the Indo-Pacific, the Center is leveraging our regionwide network to bring more diverse voices into the discussion. And in areas like leadership development, economic expertise, and media training, we are working to strengthen local capacities and reduce exposure to outside leverage. Like all who have served in uniform, I know the terrible costs of armed conflict and the critical importance of dialogue, relationships, and negotiation to prevent it.

The Center also convenes the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders, the only regional heads-of-state summit that also includes Pacific territories and states such as Hawai‘i. The body is scheduled to meet again later this year, providing an opportunity to engage with U.S. officials at the highest levels. The Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture, now rescheduled for 2024 in Hawai‘i, will provide another opportunity to build regional bridges, and the EWC Arts Program looks forward to playing an integral role.

As an institution built on international education and exchange, the pandemic has been a dual challenge for us—both keeping our student residents safe on campus and pivoting to virtual programming for our audiences spread around the globe. But the lessons learned have propelled the Center into a comprehensive digital transformation, enabling us to reach more people in more places than ever before. By mid-2022 we will be implementing a new strategic plan to further focus our efforts on today’s regional priorities.

As the first Native Hawaiian to have the privilege of leading the Center, I am excited to renew our commitment to values such as lōkahi and laulima—coming together despite our differences to work for the good of all. With the help of many hands throughout Hawai‘i and across the region, we are paddling together on a voyage of equality and listening, our destination a pu‘uhonua where people from all places and walks of life can come together to create new understanding and stronger bonds.

Suzanne Puanani Vares-Lum, a retired Army major general, took office at the beginning of January as the first woman and first Native Hawaiian to serve as president of the East-West Center.