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Conversations with David

As the Vice President of the UN’s business network for the Asia Pacific, how do you engage business in helping to help achieve the 2030 Global Goals?


We have to work together, because governments alone can’t solve the world’s social, environmental and developmental challenges.  As leaders of any successful organisation know, only partnerships can help us tackle complex problems, so we welcome business leaders who are stepping up to join government and non-government organisations in attacking the great challenges of our generation such as inclusive and sustainable development.


I will be convening a conference of business and government leaders committed to investment and innovation in sustainable development at the Asia Pacific Business Forum in 2019.  This is the flagship business event of the United Nations in the Asia Pacific, delivered as part of the ongoing work of the Sustainable Business Network  of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. I am delighted to bring this forum to Papua New Guinea, where there is so much potential for development but very real challenges to overcome.


The world’s leaders agreed on the 17 Global Goals in 2015, following the remarkable progress in reducing world poverty in recent decades. 
Of course most of the progress was a result of East Asia investing in education, infrastructure and opening markets for investment and trade.  But we are entering a new period of uncertainty, with a lack of confidence in some of the large, developed economies and unease about the shift of economic power to Asia.  This is not just about economics, but about how we engage, learn to understand each other and subsequently find ways to work together to achieve our shared goals.


From your experience as a diplomat, why do we so often misunderstand each other?


We are in the midst of the biggest global power shift in memory, with East Asia now driving the world economy, China aspiring to a greater global role and the steady rise of other important economies including India and Indonesia.  The world is getting more complex, more multipolar and it’s happening so fast that we naturally form stereotypes and frames through which we create a simpler, more predictable world for ourselves.  It is only human that we do this, because we all seek certainty and meaning.  But it also means we run the risk of seeing the world as black and white: goodies and baddies; our country first and everyone else last.  West versus East, East versus West, which is just too simplistic to be helpful.  We also look at the world through the lens of the past, because we know – or at least think we know – more about the past than we can possibly know about the future.  So we typecast nations as having the agendas we believe they had in the past.  We discount the possibility that actually each generation reinvents its own society and as we have seen global geopolitics can realign very quickly.  We need to find ways to talk with each other that deepen understanding and build cooperation.


But if we can’t walk in each other’s shoes, if we remain trapped in stereotypes, we talk past each other.


What can we do to build greater understanding?


It all starts with communication.  Learning the skill of dialogue is important for anyone who wants to work in international relations, governance or to excel as a business leader.  I am on the Advisory Board of an important initiative in Central and Eastern Europe, the Institute for Cultural Relations Policy , which runs programs with young leaders to do just that.  As a diplomat, I had the great opportunity to observe the dramatic transformation of Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, both its triumphs such as the success of Solidarity and other movements for national liberation, as well as its failures in preventing appalling inter-community violence in the former Yugoslavia. 
Now Europe is polarizing between rival groups of zealots and respectful dialogue and deliberation is needed as much as ever.


We need dialogue across cultures. We need to travel outside our own comfort zone to observe how different people and societies organise themselves, listen and learn, to walk in each others’ shoes.


Once we have some understanding, we can put it into practice with common sense, not convinced that we have all the answers but that we can find them together.  A healthy dose of pragmatism and respect for each others’ interests helps to find the areas in which we can cooperate and in which we can complement each other’s needs. 


You have been working with China for decades as a diplomat and trade official and now as adviser to a number of Chinese universities and businesses.  What is the problem with the Australia-China relationship?


Australia and China, two very different nations in almost every respect, developed a mutually beneficial, mutual interest-based relationship of economic linkage over the last forty years that has served both countries well.  Australia has supplied China with resources and provided education and other services that helped China to modernize, while China’s demand has fuelled a strong Australian economy even as other OECD economies have suffered recession.  Underpinning it all has been regular leader exchange and dialogue and growing people-to-people connections.   Australians are learning more about China.  I was proud to oversee the establishment of the University of Sydney China Studies Centre and there have been other valuable centres of learning established.  But the Australia-China relationship (like that between many nations from different civilizational traditions) remains fragile and prone to outbreaks of distrust, intemperate language and wild assertions from time to time because of the wide cultural differences and a tendency of some interest groups to see the world as constituting more threats than opportunities. 


I remain an optimist that we all have more in common than what divides us, especially when it comes to building trade and other economic cooperation and ultimately in building peace, which most people prefer over the alternative, most of the time.


How do we turn better understanding into strategies for peace instead of war?


I observed the patient work of the peacemakers in Northern Ireland, who respectfully listened to those who had suffered from terrorism on both sides and found a way to offer equal esteem and participation to all who live there.  That is still a work in progress but the killings have stopped, which is a great achievement.  Listening, and frankly acknowledging the pain of the past on both sides of an argument, are critical to finding reconciliation and moving forward. 


Every situation is different, although I learned much about how to apply general principles to peace building and conflict resolution in my work with former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and a team who researched and promoted in the United Nations the frameworks and analysis in his 1994 book Cooperating for Peace, which laid the groundwork for much of the reform of UN peacekeeping but which also needs much more work. As Peacekeeping Desk Officer, I wrote a study of the classic peacekeeping operation in Cyprus, which has kept the peace but has not necessarily helped resolve the underlying problem. 


At the end of the day, we do need to build a more resilient international system or else individual nations, especially smaller ones, will always be fragile.  As former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam once said at the United Nations, “true national independence depends upon international interdependence.”


These are turbulent times in geopolitics and therefore for international business.  Is globalisation helping or is it the problem?  And what is the significance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative?


I have brought many business delegations to and from China over two decades and have observed first-hand how the dramatic expansion of trade, investment and tourism have created wealth, jobs and much greater opportunities for people and communities.  The globalisation of recent times has brought massive change and yet, in some countries more than others, not everyone has benefited, so that change has not always been welcomed.  That is a problem if people turn to simplistic solutions of blame and conflict.  Trade wars are never the answer, because they hurt the most vulnerable.  China’s growth has made the global economy much bigger, so the challenge is to ensure we can all have a piece of the bigger pie.


Part of the problem is a problem of our imagination.  Neo-liberals convinced themselves for the last few decades that the invisible hand of the market and liberal democracy would conquer the world.  But history didn’t end.  It wasn’t a matter of the West “winning”, but neither is it useful to create fear about the West “losing” some imaginary zero sum global game.  Nations are still as important as ever, because they are the territory in which power resides, but nations have demonstrated that they can cooperate, at least most of the time.  Liberal democracy, as yet unknown in most of the world, cannot be imposed.  But that does not mean that it is not remarkably resilient in those parts of the world in which it has taken root. 


Still, the rise of China actually does change the paradigm.  The world is looking to see how China will act now that it holds such immense economic power.  Since joining the World Trade Organisation, China has massively benefited from flows of trade and investment in both directions.  It has built infrastructure on a scale unknown in human history and Xi Jinping’s proposal to use China’s massive capacity to help build new infrastructure and connectivity to better link developing nations is a fascinating concept.  Does the Belt and Road Initiative benefit China?  Of course.  The interesting question is how can it benefit developing nations and indeed all participants in the global economy?  Openness and transparency will help, as will abiding by and strengthening the norms of the international trade and investment system. 


The international economy is becoming more and more a global village, which means we must attend not just to business, but to the responsibilities of the village, including sustaining our environment, building our community infrastructure, investing in our young people and ensuring nobody is left behind. 


Looking back over your career, what were the moments when you thought you were making a positive difference?


I have been lucky to work with some inspiring leaders, people who understood that it is better to take proactive action by engaging and finding solutions together with people affected by a problem.  With wise leaders, engagement, dialogue and deliberation, it was possible to produce a better outcome than just following what someone else did in the past.  Conditions can’t be repeated, and therefore the past is not an appropriate model for the challenges of the future. 


So I salute those wise leaders and the teams in which I was fortunate to be a member.  Over a thirty-year career so far, there are too many to mention.  I will mention one, though.  In my home island of Tasmania, I was lucky to have the lead advisory role in the world’s biggest deliberative democracy experiment (of its time), called Tasmania Together, which brought together all political parties and a broad range of interest groups to map out and commit to an ambitious change agenda.  We formed industry councils to implement bold new strategies and formed partnerships between levels of government to focus on outcomes instead of bureaucracy.  Looking back, I am delighted to see so much of what we began to build then has now become a reality and Tasmania is thriving, with innovative new industries, strengthened commitment to its precious environment and confidence for the future. 

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