Nicholas Platt, the fifth president of the Asia Society, has spent most of his life working on relations between the US and Asia. He assumed the presidency of Asia Society in 1992 after a 34-year career as an American diplomat in Asia which culminated in service as US Ambassador to the Philippines (1987-1991) and Pakistan (1991-1992).
Ambassador Platt will be retiring this summer after twelve years as President of the Asia Society and will be succeeded by Vishakha N. Desai. In this interview, Ambassador Platt discusses his time in the diplomatic corps, American foreign policy in Asia, the mission of the Asia Society following the events of September 11, 2001, and the future of the institution.
You came to the Asia Society after a 34-year career at the US Department of State. How did you make the transition from government service to a non-profit organization? To what extent was there some continuity between the work you did as an American diplomat and the work you have done as president of the Asia Society?
The transition was very rapid. The Asia Society had approached me to take this job in March 1992 and I had only been in Pakistan for about six months. I had told the Search Committee that I would like to take the job but it would have to wait for me till November. I could not just abandon my post; I had to tell the President that I was his at least until the elections that year. So I left Pakistan on election day, before the polls opened. I retired from the Foreign Service on November 16 in the morning and became President of the Asia Society in the afternoon; between careers I had lunch!
There was a lot of transference; some of the muscles that you use in doing this job are similar. The contacts that I had in the Foreign Service and among the Asian leadership and in the foreign policy field were all usable. But I had to learn a whole new set of skills. I never realized the extent to which running an NGO is similar to running a business: the importance of setting up a budget, of raising the funds to balance it, of making sure that the programs you do are the most efficient and effective and at the same time affordable. All of this involved considerations that I never had to make before. As Ambassador in three different places, the budgeting was done. I had a mission, I had to report and represent and negotiate and do all the things that ambassadors do, but the last thing it was was a business!
The State Department career infected me with a passion for Asian cultures and societies, as for the political and economic problems in the region. What attracted me to the Society was the ability to continue to work on those and to do so in a holistic way. I found as a Foreign Service officer that it was impossible to work in a foreign environment without knowing something about the culture. You could not understand politics or economics or society unless you had some feel for the culture. And here was an institution that presented it all.
In your experience, has the Asia Society been entirely independent of US government interests or has it in some broad sense pursued American foreign and economic policy objectives in the region?
We are independent in terms of funding and in terms of the details of policy. We can do programs that people in the government would not do or would not approve. That said, the interests of the United States and the interests of the Asia Society are broadly congruent. Our mission is to teach Americans more about Asia and to connect Asians and Americans, to provide a full range of information so that America and Asia can come closer together. I regard that as very much in the interest of the US government as well as American society, economy, etc. We cannot do a good job of those things unless we know more about each other.
The cultural programs at the Asia Society, while they have no political content for the most part, are designed to raise people's levels of awareness and understanding of countries in Asia: their histories, their polities, their interests. The focus on contemporary art is quite political and we can and do present programs in the contemporary art field that are not necessarily to the liking of the governments of the originating countries. We feel that they add to the knowledge and understanding of these places and therefore we should do them.
There are programs that we can do and things that we can say that people in the government wish they could but cannot. We do that. Having worked in the government, I have good contacts and I try to keep track of what policy is, not so that I can necessarily follow it, but so that I can be aware of when we might be deviating and when we might be filling in some blanks that the US government cannot.