Former US Diplomat on US-Asia Relations

Nicholas Platt (

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.

The period of your service in the diplomatic corps coincided with the period of the Cold War. A number of people have suggested that with the end of the Cold War, Islam has replaced Communism as the great threat (or "evil" to use the popular idiom) to American interests. Given your experience in Muslim countries, how would you respond to this claim?

I think this analysis is wildly oversimplified. Having lived in a Muslim society, my experience was with a religion that was broadly moderate which had, like our own, extremist fringes. It is the extremist fringes that have inflamed the world and are regarded as the big threat. It is a huge mistake, though, to equate the extremist fringes with the broad body of believers in Islam, just as it is with Christianity. I do not think that the West or the US or anybody else has a conflict with Islam per se but we do with the extremist fringes.

So you do not believe that there are certain highly placed people - in the academy, in policymaking circles, in the Administration - who are making this argument persuasively, i.e, that at the level of ideology, Islam functions in the same way now as Communism did during the Cold War?

There are people who think that but they are extremists themselves! These people have, in their own way, just as extreme an ideological mindset as the people they are pointing to.

What did you see as the role of the Asia Society following the events of September 11, 2001? How, if at all, under your leadership, did the mission and goals of the institution change as a result?

There were several facets to our response to 9/11. First of all, as a New York institution that had just gone through an extensive renovation, we felt that we should postpone the opening and be responsive to the mood of the community. In fact, when we did open almost two months after we had initially planned, it was regarded as a constructive event rather than as an inappropriate celebration. People in New York really wanted to see things continue, to see life go on, for new things to happen, so they welcomed us.

At the programming level, we saw an immediate need to do a great deal more programming on Islam, on Afghanistan, on the impact of Al-Qaeda in regions of significance to the Asia Society, and that included Afghanistan and Pakistan particularly. Of course that also fed into an urgency about programming vis-à-vis India and Kashmir. Within days, we started to do programming on the situation in Afghanistan. We then tried to integrate some of these political and religious themes into cultural programming as well. If you look at the programs for that year, you will see an integrated packaging of programs around the need for more knowledge about Islam and the need to try and address some of the questions that were most on people's minds: Why are we hated in other parts of the world and what can we do about it?

You have said in a speech recently that, "While there was scant approval among the populations of the Asian countries for our policy towards Iraq, the behavior of the governments was generally supportive of the US, and our relationships were, for the most part in good shape." Do you feel that this disjuncture - between popular will and elected governments - might eventually backfire and make the US more unpopular in the region? In other words, how is it possible for the US to manage this kind of dissonance, which seems particularly unsustainable in democratic contexts?

I have been back to Asia several times since I wrote that speech [in February 2004], and I have found that - with the exception of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where issues related to extreme Islam are front and center - that Asian countries remain mainly preoccupied with their own politics and economics. They are all on a big growth roll right now. Even though their peoples do not approve of what we are doing, they seem to back their governments' desire for a supportive relationship with us.

You can go country by country, from Australia to India to China to Japan, and our policies in Iraq are controversial. But they are not terribly high priority in those areas. Of course a lot depends on how the situation plays out. Like our elections, these attitudes are going to be event-driven and to the extent that these events are favorable or neutral, there will not be much change in the situation. But if there are more disasters and so forth, this will have a bad impact on the way the US is viewed. Most of our Asian allies are reasonably well disposed to America in general even though they have problems with the government and government policy.

There are people in Korea worried about us lowering our troop levels, sending 10 per cent of those stationed in Korea to Iraq. There are people who are worried about where to send the Korean troops that they have committed to us in Iraq. But they are not central, inflaming issues at this stage.

You have suggested elsewhere that Asia has become much more important to US strategic interests than Europe in the post-Cold War, post 9/11 context. Why is this the case? And to what extent do you think Europe or Asia might actually supercede America if the latter's popularity in the international arena continues to wane?

Power and popularity are two different things. Joe Nye will say that soft power is very important and we have dissipated a lot of our soft power. To some extent that is true although I think it is less true in Asia than it is in other parts of the world. Asia has a great deal more growth potential than Europe. It is bigger, it is going to be richer, it is never going to be as unified, but this century, the 21st century, will end up being essentially an Asian century.

The United States is going to have a role to play, both in Asia and in Europe, as it does now. The US will continue to be very, very important. I am not willing to say that we are going to be eclipsed by either one or the other; we are going to be growing, working with both as we go along. I think it is a mistake to be diverted by temporary image-issues. This should not take our attention away from the big indices of national and international strength. The globalization process is inexorable. It is tying us together all the time, more and more. People ask what will happen when China has grown its economy and is four times bigger than it is now, and how the US will deal with that, and the answer is that China with an economy four times the size as it is now will have an economy the size that Japan's is now, but it will have 1.5 billion people to divide up that wealth amongst and those people, 20 years from now, will be much older. They will have to be taken care of. Recently people have been writing that China is going to get old before it gets rich. Japan is now old but it is rich.

The issues that these phenomena pose are ones that are favorable to global financial inter-relationships. We are all going to end up being the biggest investors in each other's countries, which some people might criticize or worry about, but those who are concerned about possible big conflagrations or confrontations should take some comfort from these developments.

How, if at all, does Asia figure in this election year in the US? Are there any issues pertaining to Asia that may be of significance in domestic politics?

Not really. I have been asked this question a lot, and I have researched it quite thoroughly. If you have a crisis in Taiwan, if you have a crisis in North Korea, it could very well play into the election. It is true that there could be a crisis anywhere that could play into the election but those are the potential hotspots. If you talk to the people who are dealing with those problems in China, Russia, Japan, the United States, they all want to make sure that nothing untoward happens. We are very thinly stretched in the Middle East and this will make us more vigilant about preventing any other place from heating up.

The Asian issues are important strategically and economically but for the most part, they do not have domestic political resonance in the same sense that Middle East issues do, for instance. The Arab-Israeli dispute is one that affects the electability of many Congressmen and Senators. Our relations with Cuba and Latin America are central to Florida politics and the electoral college. But there is nothing like that in the Asian issues. Outsourcing jobs is something that has been talked about. It is an issue that appeared to be growing in momentum, as people were worried about the loss of more American jobs to Asian outsourcing. But as the economy has improved and the number of jobs has increased, we are hearing less about that. Of course a lot will depend on where we are in the fall.

How do you envision the mandate of the Asia Society changing in the coming decade? In other words, how would you like to see this institution, which you have headed for over a decade, evolve in the coming years?

I think the involvement of the United States in Asia is going to increase. This is all part of the globalization process: if you look at the role that Asian Americans play in American society, if you look at the role that Asian culture, food, music, visual arts, fashion and so forth, play in our daily lives now compared to when I started here or when the Asia Society started, you see that we are on an upward and outward trend. It will give the Asia Society plenty to work with in terms of explaining these things, bringing them to the attention of American audiences.

We started, in the early-90s, to move decisively towards the Asian American community and we will continue that trend under the new leadership without any question. The Asian American community, in its various different forms - Indian American, Chinese American, Korean American, so forth - will start to assert themselves more in the political arena as well as the cultural and other arenas in which they are already influential.

I would like to see the Society enhance its technological reach. In the last 10 years, we have gone from no capability to the ability to reach over 2 million individual internet users a year through our wonderful websites. Now I think we need to add to that a streaming technology that would enable other people to have access to our programs at times of their own choosing. We have developed teleconferencing ability that enables us to have conferences and conversations simultaneously in widely differing places. We have done them in Hong Kong and the US, India and the US and so on, and this is a big leap forward.

There are people throughout the region who would love to hear speeches, hear seminars, look at exhibitions, see performances and so on, who cannot stay up all night to do it. Now the technology exists which enables you to stream that. I would like to see that happen. It is expensive and we will have to figure out how to do it but it is the next big step in terms of expanding our reach, not only in terms of touching people and having them get information from our websites, but also taking advantage of the very careful thought that has gone into our programming.

Do you intend to continue in any formal way your interest in Asia following your retirement?

I will remain interested in Asia for the rest of my life. It has been a passion, a central theme, and I am planning to spend the next phase writing and, hopefully, at some point, teaching or lecturing on Asia. In this job, I have had to spend most of my time managing, and much of managing is showing up and being in lots of different places at once, making sure that there is funding, that everyone is working together. All of these things make for a wonderful mix of interesting work but I have only had a limited amount of time to write and think. Now I want to turn to that. I have got some things to say and I have done some things that I want to be able to remember. I do not envisage doing a memoir that covers what I did all day long which nobody would be interested in! I do envisage writing some things about what I did and what they teach us about today. One of the essences of teaching and communication is to combine analytical constructs and concepts with good stories. So what I want to do is work on both the concepts and the stories.

I expect to be extremely busy. During my time here, I was also able to take part in a number of so-called Track Two exercises between Indians and Pakistanis, as between Catholic and Muslim Filipinos. We have also made contacts with some elements of society in Iran. I plan to keep up with these things. It is possible to participate in these ventures under lots of different auspices but I would be happy to fly the Asia Society flag over those efforts if that is what people want.

We are also told that you have an abiding interest in film and literature, but it seems unlikely that you will have much time to devote to that given all that you have planned for your retirement.

New York is a feast and I plan to eat! There are all kinds of things here. I have a son who is a writer, a son who is an actor and a son who is a financial publisher and all of them live in New York and are doing things that are of interest to me.

When I got here 12 years ago, my children had all arrived in New York although none of them were born here (my wife and I were). One of the reasons that we came here was because New York had been a magnet for our children. Only one of them was married and only just. Now there are seven grandchildren and they all live here. It is not difficult to work out a good life that combines family and intellectual interests and passions. I would love to travel in Europe, which I have hardly done, but who knows? The European link with Asia has always been there but is now beginning to grow exponentially.

Would you like to add anything else, words of farewell to the Asia Society?

The Asia Society is a great institution. I have had a wonderful time making it grow. Vishakha Desai as my successor was my choice from the outset. I have full confidence that she will take the Asia Society in directions that we will all be proud of.


Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh, Asia Society Online