An Interview with Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov

Special Coordinator Mladenov

18th October 2017

Nickolay Mladenov is the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. His previous UN role was as Special Representative for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. Before that, he was Minister of Defence and Minister of Foreign Affairs in his home country of Bulgaria, as well as a Member of the European Parliament.

Q: Do you feel like you are making progress in the peace process?
A: Depends on how we define our immediate tasks. As long as we’re avoiding a deterioration that leads to war and people being killed and displaced, yes, we are. But if our immediate goal is to have an encompassing political process that brings the two sides together on a final status negotiation, I am afraid we’re very far from it. Given the coalition and political constraints both on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, I think the main focus right now has to be on taking steps on the ground to create the conditions for a return to negotiations. Whether these are bilateral steps related to empowering the Palestinians in terms of their economy and society, or whether they’re steps related to resolving the division between Gaza and the West Bank, this is where we’re now focusing.

Q: Do you think that the eventual deal will be in the form of a two-state solution? What are the alternatives to this?
A: When you talk to people, they’ll will easily speculate about alternatives to a two-state solution. However, nobody’s been able to convince me that there is a credible alternative which allows Jews and Palestinians to legitimately meet their national and historic aspirations in any other scenario, except by separating in two different states. A one-state solution in which people would have different rights would certainly not stop the conflict. In fact, it would exacerbate it. The only way to really fulfil the national aspirations of both sides is to have two states. Now obviously, there will have to be complex security arrangements because of the environment, and many issues will need to be dealt with, ranging from settlements to borders to refugees, but ultimately, they there should be two states — independent, however intimately connected and linked to each other. If you talk particularly to Israelis, who on the surface may be a little more accepting of the one-state prospect, the majority would admit that Palestinians and Israelis have to go their separate ways in order to be able to live together.

A Selfie of Me with Special Coordinator Mladenov

Q: How long do you think it could take for an agreement to be reached? Do you think it might happen this generation, next generation, in the next hundred years, or never?
A: I’m very hesitant to answer this question because I think people who come from the outside, myself included, tend to get overwhelmed with what we see, and define every crisis of the day as being the ultimate crisis that will lead to an unravelling. Yet when you look at the reality on the ground, you see that this conflict has not been resolved for half a century. For fifty years now, Palestinians have lived under occupation, and Israelis have lived with a sense of lack of security and with terrorism. So it’s very presumptuous for somebody from the outside to say: ‘Well, it has to be resolved in twelve months or twelve days’, or whatever.
What I think is more important is to look at what needs to change on the ground, so that both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, are more amenable or accepting, and more politically capable of getting back to negotiations on the core issues. The hard facts are that if you look at people today, their lives are far more separated than in the past: the interaction between Palestinians and Israelis is far less, whether it’s in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, or more so in Gaza. There’s a lot of mistrust, a lot of burned bridges that need to be repaired, and a lot of anger. To address that, one obviously needs to change the conditions on the ground. One also need political leadership that’s capable of challenging the naysayers and going forward with positive messaging on peace. That is why I hesitate to talk of a timeframe. With the right leadership on both sides, attitudes can change very quickly.

Q: There are so many different parties involved in the peace process. What effect do you think the involvement of America and President Trump in particular has on the peace process? Do you think someone like Jared Kushner can push it along?
A: The new US administration has taken its time to understand the issues at hand over the past year. They increasingly understand the challenges of dealing with this very complicated conflict. They also see the limitations of both sides. Increasingly the focus on the need to build support in the region as well in order to help both parties return back to negotiations. Granted, they’ve taken a very different approach from previous administrations: they’ve been far more careful about what they say and have preferred to work quietly for now.
I think it’s important for the American administration to decide when they will be in a position to put forward a proposal as a basis of negotiations between the two sides. Soon we will come to that point. I find two things encouraging: firstly, the administration’s substantial focus on what can be done in terms of the situation on the ground to improve the lives of Palestinians. In the past year, we’ve had quite significant agreements reached on water and electricity that previously seemed impossible. Over the last few weeks the push to bring the Palestinian Authority back to Gaza is also an encouraging move. Secondly, the increasing interest of the US in engaging with the region, with the United Nations, the Europeans, the Russians, as part of the Quartet, in order to consolidate our collective efforts to reach the reopening of negotiations. Any proposal however would need to take into account UN Security Council resolutions that are relevant to final status negotiations. It would need to address key obstacles to peace— settlement expansion, violence and incitement, and it would need to define the two state outcome as the goal of a negotiation.

Q: On the Quartet specifically, what legacy do you think Tony Blair has left as UN Special Envoy for the peace process? Do you think it has been a positive one?
A: Indeed it has been positive. During the time Tony Blair was with the Quartet office, he facilitated a number of agreements that led to a reduction of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and freed up movement for Palestinians. But that was a different time.
Today we are at a different stage, and I think what is required is really focusing on the economic and social opportunities the Palestinians need in order to be mor self reliant. Just to illustrate, let us look at the West Bank. Over 60% of it is not accessible for Palestinian development. This limits the ability of the Palestinian economy to grow. But it’s not just that, it also limits the opportunities for Palestinians, outside of the areas under the immediate control of the Palestinian Authority, to develop. We recently looked at some numbers – I think it was two years ago that out of approximately two thousand applications for housing building permits for Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, one or two were approved in a whole year. Meanwhile, thousands of settlement units were authorised. This year in fact has seen quite a dramatic increase in the number of Israeli settlement advancements compared to last year. This is just a broad illustration of the obstacles on the ground, and there are a myriad of them.

Q: With the US and Israel withdrawing from UNESCO, do you think the time of the multilateral organization is over?
A: No, it’s not over, and it’s quite sad to see these withdrawals. I strongly believe that countries need to make their cases heard and build alliances and coalitions with other countries in order to support their goals in a multilateral diplomacy. Multilateral diplomacy is one of the essential achievements of modern civilization, so if countries start withdrawing, closing in they will ultimately undermine the global order that has kept peace for fifty years. Certainly many organisations need to be reformed. But that will not happen by walking out.
The UN must however also realize that the environment in which we deal with member states is rather different from five, ten, or twenty years ago. We live in a time of identity politics, when universal liberal and human rights values are being increasingly challenged. Member states will be much more assertive of their national interests and national positions across the board. The factors that will influence member state decisions and the decisions of multilateral bodies today will be far more diverse than they were twenty years ago.

Q: What’s your opinion of the new Secretary-General? Do you think he can help the UN’s image?
A: Antonio Guterres has a multitude of challenges ahead of him. He takes the helm of the UN at a time when, as you just said yourself, multilateral diplomacy is being challenged. We see a proliferation of conflicts, particularly but not exclusively in the Middle East. We are still in the midst of the largest global refugees refugee crisis since the Second World War.
The Secretary-General is focusing on the right things: preventive diplomacy; building the capacity of the UN to mobilise political, humanitarian, or developmental resources to prevent crises before they escalate into conflicts. I think the UN needs to become much more proactive rather than reactive in that sense.
One of his other priorities is for the UN to have a regional approach to conflicts as the threats transcend state borders. If in the past the risk of war between states was one of the main risks for peace, in today’s world is the collapse of states, or conflicts within states that present a growing risk to international peace and security. Religious radicalation, extremism, migration or refugee flows are just some of the trans-border factors that are pertinent to global and regional secuirty today.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: Everything and anything written by V.S. Naipaul. His novels, his letters, everything. He is by far one of may favourite authors of all time. A master of the English language. But if you want to understand what’s going on now in the Middle East, read memoirs. Read about the people and the circumstances that have shaped the realities of today. Gertrude Bell’s letters are an interesting read and a good start.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: Speak less and listen more. Words have consequences. Be interested in what you do, not in the titles you have. Titles are transitory. But also to never assume that I know everything. Particularly not to be patronising about other cultures and countries. Never assume that you can do it better than the local people. You can help, you can give ideas, you can facilitate, but that’s it. To slightly paraphrase T. E. Lawrence — Do not try to do too much with your own hands, it’s their country, it is their ways. And finally, never seize to be amazed at the world and the people you meet, never allow yourself to become truly cynical.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: To me personally, it was the fundamental belief that we’ve got to protect democracy in society. Perhaps because of the history of my own country, Bulgaria, and the time in which I grew up. I firmly believe that we must at all costs protect democracy, liberalism and human rights. That means standing up to nationalism, it means standing up to xenophobia in all of its forms, wherever it comes from. I learned that if we’re not vigilant enough about democracy, liberalism and human rights in our societies, we will lose them. And if we lose them in Europe, we can lose them anywhere in the world. It will be a dangerous and dark world if we allow that to happen, so I think that’s become pretty much the central focus of everything that I believe in.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: Get out more, because later, you realise that you want to, but you don’t have the time.

Q: Who is the most interesting person and you’ve met, and why?
A: Two people stand out immediately. Shimon Peres would be first. A patriarch of peace, who dedicated his life to Israel and the security of the Jewish people. I met him for the first time when I was a student, and engaged with him in various positions until a few months before he left us. His unrelenting belief in the ability of humanity to overcome boundaries and progress has always been an inspiration. Similarly, but in a very different context, I have been deeply impressed by a Muslim religious leader that I was honoured to meet and engage with many times in Iraq: The Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq. He rarely meets foreigners but we developed a strong relationship. Despite being a religious authority, he was always able to transcend the boundaries between faiths and put forward a message of tolerance and understanding at a time when his country was bent on destroying itself. He is a very thoughtful and moderate person. More of a humanist, than just a religious reference for his followers.

An Interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg MP

Jacob Rees-Mogg

21st March 2017

Jacob Rees-Mogg has been the Member of Parliament for North East Somerset since 2010. A prominent figure on the Conservative backbenches, he is staunch eurosceptic. He is also a member of several respected parliamentary committees, most notably the Treasury Select Committee. Well known for filibustering, he holds the record for the longest world spoken in Parliament: floccinaucinihilipilification.

Q: With Article 50 being triggered next Wednesday, how confident are you that a trade deal will be struck with the EU? Do you think that we will leave on WTO terms, and how devastating do you think this could be for the UK?
A: I think a trade deal is more likely than not, and it’s in the interest of the EU to have one. It would be very damaging, particularly to the Irish economy but also to segments within other economies, if they were subject to the common external tariff when exporting to the UK, and we have a large trade deficit with the EU. It’s in our interest, as well, to maintain the free trade that we’ve got, that very few countries wish to impose tariffs on. So, that’s the first point.
To your second question, WTO terms would be fine. There are so many opportunities for us in the rest of the world, that the tariffs on our goods going out would be manageable. On cars, it’s 10%, but the pound has gone down by 13% against the dollar since Brexit, so that’s manageable. On agricultural produce, we’re only 55% self-sufficient, so if tariffs were imposed on our agriculture, they would be able to sell into the domestic market, assuming we retaliated.
Ultimately, the option must be to get cheaper food along with cheaper clothing from the rest of the world, and a sensible UK government would look to go to zero tariffs on everything, to go to genuine free trade, because that’s in the interest of both UK consumers and UK businesses. The inputs of the latter get cheaper, but they also then specialise in the things they’re best at. So WTO terms are fine and workable. It’s not a big problem if we go out without an agreement, but an agreement is more likely than not.
Bear in mind, with tariffs you punish your consumers, and the great shift in the economy from the 1930s when there were last major tariff increases is that consumers are now much more powerful than they were then. In the1930s, overwhelmingly, employment consisted of large numbers in large factories. Therefore, protecting producer interests was also an electoral interest. Now, society has changed, and the consumer is much more important electorally and economically than the producer.

Q: How much do you think Brexit will affect business? We have yet to see the exodus of talent from the UK which was predicted, but do you think this could start once Article 50 has been triggered?
A: I think it’s likely that many people who are here are settled and will want to stay here, and also, that there will be a settlement that allows people who are here to stay. But even if the EU won’t agree, even if we tumble out without an agreement, there is no way that the millions of EU nationals living in the UK will be expected to leave. This is partly because we’re a civilised nation, and civilised nations don’t deport people who haven’t broken the law, and partly because the Home Office simply isn’t capable of deporting that number of people. And there would be an outcry if it was even attempted.
As we get further away from the 23rd June 2016, I think people will feel more secure about staying here. Then, once we’ve left the EU, a new immigration system will develop, to allow people all over the world to come in, if they’ve got talents that we need. So it will be a much fairer immigration system, without the skew towards the EU. I don’t think we’ll lose a lot of talent, and I think that we will make arrangements so that businesses can get the people they need. And that’s going to be a mix: it’s going to be people needed for seasonal work in agriculture, but it’s also going to be people to work in the City, on a more permanent basis.

Q: Do you think that it was right for Theresa May not to give Scotland a referendum in the next couple of years? How much do you think this will strengthen the nationalist cause? Do you think that Nicola Sturgeon knew that she wouldn’t get a referendum, but announced that she was seeking one anyway to increase her support?
A: I think you hit the nail on the head: I think Nicola Sturgeon asked for a referendum, desperately hoping that it would be refused. Then she could say: ‘My referendum is being stopped by those beastly English, and it’s all very disgraceful’, thinking that that would increase the appeal of Independence. It doesn’t seem to have worked, because the Scottish people don’t seem to want a second referendum.
Why should it be delayed until after Brexit? Well, the UK leaves as the UK, and so, Scotland will have to reapply as a new member state; as a candidate member state. It therefore makes sense for the people of Scotland to have a vote (which they’re entitled to at some date in the future) once we’ve left and the negotiations are completed, and they see the new situation. That is to say, will fishing and farming go to Scotland, will it be a devolved matter, will they find that devo max is reinvigorated – and then they’ll be able to ask themselves whether they really want to hand fishing and farming back to Brussels. But to do it before they’ve seen what happens means that they might be missing out on the great advantages of Brexit, and they might then find they want to change their minds again.
I think you want to have a degree of certainty, and I think the Scottish people actually understand that. If opinion polls are to be believed, they don’t want a second vote until after Brexit has taken place. I accept their right to have a second vote, I accept that Brexit has changed things quite significantly, but that was a possibility in 2014. It was known that the referendum was on the table, and the SNP said they wouldn’t have another vote for a generation. I think they are playing politics with this; you would expect them to; it’s the one thing they believe in. But I think the right time is no earlier than after we’ve left, and maybe considerably later.
If there is another referendum, I don’t want us to do a Project Fear campaign, which we did in 2014, and it was tried by the Remain side in 2016. There are economic difficulties in Scotland leaving, but I’d rather concentrate on the advantages of the Union: namely, that they are part of a bigger successful whole, that they are our fellow countrymen, and that we are British – United Kingdom-ish, if you prefer. In addition, all parts of the union benefit, we have a shared history, we have shared relationships with family members who are Scottish, Welsh, or Irish, and that’s very important as the definition of country. Also, we share burdens, and although some of the money that comes from England is spent in Scotland, Scotland has been a great contributor to the United Kingdom, and this has benefitted everybody. I’d far rather have a positive campaign emphasising the benefits, than: “If you leave, you’re bankrupt,” which is what we tried in 2014.

Q: What’s your opinion of George Osborne taking up his new position as Editor of the Evening Standard? Do you think that he can properly manage his growing list of responsibilities?
A: I think it’s a good thing for MPs to have outside interests – I do personally, so it would be hypocritical of me to complain. I think it’s beneficial to Parliament, because it brings in outside experience, and it means that we don’t have entirely professional politicians. I think you want some professional politicians, but you also want a bit of variety.
I think the question really for George Osborne is: will he have the time to do all the things as well as he would like? It’s going to be an enormously busy life for him. I think most of the conflicts are with the Evening Standard and not with Parliament, so if the Proprietor of the Evening Standard is happy about that, who am I to second guess him? From a parliamentary point of view, I’m sure he will be able to fulfil his responsibilities to the people of Tatton, as well as editing the Standard. But editing a newspaper is a very busy job – my father was editor of the Times when I was child, and I know how busy he was. So there’ll be a lot of demands on George’s time, but I suppose the defence is that when he was Chancellor, there were a lot of demands on his time, and probably, being Chancellor is even busier than being the editor of a newspaper.

Q: You’re currently the favourite to be the next Speaker of the House of Commons. Given John Bercow’s recent comments on Trump, how soon do you think an election for the speakership will be? How would you be different to Bercow in this role?
A: First of all, I’m a longstanding supporter of John Bercow. I think that he’s a very important Speaker and he has done enormously good work in improving the standing of the House of Commons. He is biased in favour of the House of Commons, and that’s as it should be. He’s always making the Commons central to national debate, and that’s really been important and beneficial, so I am an admirer and supporter of his.
I don’t think his recent comments on Trump are that important. I think it was a brief flurry of news that has now passed into the background.
If there was a vacancy tomorrow, I wouldn’t put my name forward. The convention is that it shifts parties, so it would be a Labour person this time. If it were to come up at this very early stage, I wouldn’t put my name forward because I still want to speak out on the issues of the day, which obviously as Speaker you can’t. Basically, it’s not going to be me, and I hope that Bercow carries on and completes his time, or goes on longer.
It’s not in the interests of the House of Commons to attack its own Speaker. The Speaker is symbolic of the influence of the House of Commons, and attacking the Speaker is attacking ourselves.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: Well, you should definitely read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, if you haven’t already. If you’re thinking of a financial career, you should read Graham and Dodd on investment analysis. You should read something like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, partly for the historical knowledge, but partly for the elegance of the writing. You should take Churchill’s advice and read a Dictionary of Quotations, because that’s a very good cheat for knowledge about almost everything. And then, as you’re allowed to relax, you should definitely read PG Woodhouse, who is great fun and always uplifting.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: Really obvious ones: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again. In business and in politics, you just have to keep persevering, and eventually things turn. It is also true with investment – you need to keep on going to find good stocks, to find the thing that will change your portfolio, to find a bit of information that you need to complete the picture that you’re trying to build up. And in politics: today, we were just speaking to Yasmin Qureshi, a Labour MP, a wonderful Member of Parliament, who, shortly after she was first elected, started a campaign to reveal the great scandal about a drug called Primodos, which was prescribed in the 60s and 70s to pregnant ladies and seems to have created birth defects. Until now, claims to this effect have been denied and covered up, and so on. Today at lunchtime, I was at the pre-broadcast of a Sky News documentary about this, and it’s a complete exposure and a vindication of what Yasmin Qureshi has been saying – really impressive, and it wouldn’t have happened without her energy and determination to campaign over six years. But that’s a hard campaign: you face lots of setbacks, you find lots of people who ought to take you seriously but brush you off, and she’s been so wonderfully determined. Perseverance applies to all aspects of politics: take Bill Cash, a longstanding friend of mine, he’s been banging the Eurosceptic drum since the early 1990s, and he was considered marginal and eccentric, but because he knew more about the EU than anybody else, he’s finally won the argument, and now we’re leaving. So if you really believe in things, perseverance is the key.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: It’s now so long ago, I can’t really remember what my teenage years were like. I think I was very lucky in my education, and I therefore discovered that there was a world of opportunity, and that there are amazing opportunities if you want to reach for them. There are forks in the road, and you can take the fork that leads on to success, or you can decide to cash in your chips and retire. When I was at Eton, there were opportunities to do lots of things. I saw other people doing them and being successful, and I realised they were worth trying.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: Well, you’re not quite at university, but the one thing I wish I’d done at university was to spend more time on history and a little less time on politics. Having said that, I met a don at Oxford on Friday evening, and we were discussing what it’s like at Oxford now and so on, and I told him that I felt I should have spent more time on history. He said that he wished he’d done the reverse: he wished he had spent less time on his subject and taken more time to pursue all the other opportunities on offer to undergraduates!
I absolutely love the study of history, and I think I allowed politics to be too distracting when I was an undergraduate.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met, and why?
A: I’ve been very lucky to meet lots of people over the years. There are obvious ones, like Margaret Thatcher, who I met mainly in her older age. She was impressive then because you knew what she had done. I also met her once or twice before she had dementia, and she is obviously an enormously impressive person.
I’ve met Henry Kissinger, who is an incredibly influential man; very interesting in the effect he’s had on global politics. I’ve met, albeit briefly, the Queen. All of those are up in the pantheon of the greats, and so it’s hard to say who is the most interesting.
Sometimes, the most interesting conversations are the ones that you have with people who you meet randomly, and I think that everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions. Therefore, the fault is with you rather than the person you’re talking to, if you don’t find them interesting. I can’t remember who it was who said ‘Even the boring person is interesting, because if he’s the only boring person in the world, he’s interesting simply because he’s unique.’ I think there’s a lot of truth in that. If only you can find out that one thing that somebody is really passionate about, then you will have an interesting conversation. And so, you always want to try and make time to find out what that is.

An Interview with Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov

13th February 2017

Garry Kasparov became the the youngest world chess champion in history in 1985, at the age of 22. Now a prominent activist for more democracy in Russia, he is also the chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.

Do you think that NATO is obsolete now that the Cold War is over?
Absolutely not, and keep in mind the Cold War ended over 25 years ago. But NATO is more relevant today than it’s been in a long time. Even before Putin became a clear and present military threat when he invaded Ukraine in 2014, NATO was important on a practical basis and a symbolic one. Even without the existential enemy of the USSR, fighting terror, for example, is done far better collectively, sharing information and coordinating action the way NATO can do so well thanks to so many decades of collaboration. Note that Putin presses on NATOs borders, in Ukraine, in Syria next to NATO member Turkey, to put stress on the weakest links in NATO and to attempt to discredit it.

What is your opinion of Trump’s Russian ties? How do you think they could influence foreign policy?
What we know for sure is very troubling, that many of his advisors have had contact with Russian officials and then lied about it repeatedly, and that the one area where Trump has been consistent is his defense of Putin. But the biggest problem is what we don’t know, especially because Trump won’t release his taxes. Without knowing the extent of his empire’s financial connections to Russia, we don’t know if he’s compromised, enriching himself, anything. This means we don’t know to what degree US foreign policy is also compromised. We can only watch very carefully to see if all this leads to policy, such as lifting sanctions against Putin for annexing Crimea. Obviously it’s distressing that so many of the key people working in US foreign policy have extensive connections with Putin and his oligarchs, including Secretary of State Tillerson and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
[See also Mr Karsparov’s Daily News op-ed: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/week-revealed-president-putin-russia-article-1.2975915]

Do you think that the international community’s response to Russian aggression has been proportional?
In a way, yes, but this is a problem. It has been slow and well below the level required to actually deter Putin. That’s really the point, that deterrence isn’t about responding proportionately after the fact. The idea, which worked for decades in preventing a major conflict between the US and USSR, is to make it clear that aggression will be met with a severe, disproportionately severe, response. If the aggressor can make a calculation that it’s worth it, as Putin has done repeatedly, you end up in a cycle of perpetual escalation.

Do you see Syria as a possible flashpoint for conflict between Russia and the West?
It already is, in how Putin and Assad have weaponized the flow of refugees against Europe and also the US. It shows very well how problems can escalate and have unintended consequences even if you refuse to act. Especially if you refuse to act, in fact. Direct military confrontations aren’t the only way to have a serious, even deadly, conflict, as the disinformation war, cyberwarfare, etc. show us.

For how long do you think Putin will remain as President of Russia?
Until he can no longer guarantee the fortunes of the people around him. That has always been the equation. As soon as they think they have more to gain by removing him, despite the risk, they will.

How much do you think the skills one learns playing chess are transferable to politics?
[From the Vox interview with Mr Kasparov: http://www.vox.com/conversations/2017/2/11/14577834/garry-kasparov-putin-trump] I used to joke that chess was terrible preparation for politics in Putin’s Russia because in chess we have fixed rules and uncertain results, but in Putin’s elections it’s exactly the opposite. But for personal development, chess developed my ability to plan, to look for connections, to find weak spots, to see the big picture.

Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
Don’t limit yourself by your age! Read what you enjoy, what interests you and inspires you, not what adults say you should read, or expect you to read. Read broadly to increase the chance of finding new things you enjoy. Locking in on one genre or author or category is bad, both for kids and adults. This doesn’t mean only reading difficult things, or “serious” books like non-fiction at all. Fiction is just as capable of opening our minds to the ways the world works as any non-fiction.

What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
Life is about finding new challenges and making difference. If you aren’t learning something new every day, having your ideas challenged every day, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.

What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
I was already one of the top players in the world while still a teen, so my experience wasn’t exactly normal. But when I was young I was taught the importance of discipline and work ethic, and how closely correlated they are to success. Brilliance is a gift, but so is the ability to keep at something, to outwork everyone else.

Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
I didn’t really have a stereotypical childhood, but this isn’t something I lament. I don’t feel cheated or like I grew up distorted because I was playing in the Soviet championship instead of goofing off with friends. I had very rare opportunities for a Soviet youth; to travel, especially. But there were also far fewer opportunities for diversion for a teenager in Baku in 1979 than in 2017 London!

Who is the most interesting person you’ve met, and why?
I’ve been privileged to have met with many fascinating people, from world leaders to sports stars, celebrities, authors, philosophers, and Nobel Prize-winning scientists. And there are many other individuals I have met who I admire for their moral or intellectual capacity, such as Natan Sharansky. But of course accomplishments do not always make someone interesting, which you can define as sparking your humor, curiosity and respect. And in this there is no contest, it is my wife, Dasha!

An Interview with Antony Blinken – Part 2

Antony Blinken

9th February 2017

Antony Blinken was Deputy Secretary of State between 2015 and 2017, second in the State Department only to John Kerry. Before this he was Deputy National Security Advisor for President Barack Obama, having previously been National Security Advisor for Vice President Joe Biden. He was part of Biden’s presidential campaign in 2008, and served on the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition team after Obama’s first victory.

This is the second of a two part series. You can find the first part, about the future of US foreign policy here.

Q: What do the Democrats need to do to rebuild support following Obama’s departure, now that they hold neither the Presidency, the Senate, nor the House of Representatives?
A: It’s a bit of a paradox because the Democratic candidate, Mrs Clinton, won almost three million more votes than President Trump in the election, but because of the nature of our system with the Electoral College, the way those votes were distributed meant that he won the presidency, not Mrs Clinton. So if you’re looking at the majority of the country, and if you’re looking at the basic policies Democrats are pursuing, there’s actually a majority for Democrats.
But certainly, at a local level, everything from mayors to governors in our states, Republicans have done very well of late, and I think the Democrats have a lot of work to do. First of all, they should listen very carefully to what people are saying, to what their concerns are. I think one of the things we’re seeing is that this isn’t a debate between Republicans and Democrats; it’s a debate between those who want the United States to remain open to the world, engaged and connected, and those who think we should in effect pull up the drawbridge and build walls. And it’s understandable why some people feel that way. The extraordinary flow of information that people get every day, together with the rapid pace of technology change, can lead to a sense of chaos, confusion and growing vulnerability, as well as to the sense that borders are eroding.
All of this gives people a great sense of uncertainty, and they tend to see immigrants as a threat to their identity, refugees as a threat to their security, trade as an enemy to their jobs. So I think any political party has to hear that, and has to think about how to do a better job of explaining why American engagement and the connectivity we’ve built with the world has been beneficial to us, not harmful, and why it’s still the best path forward.
Political parties also need to address this prevalent sense of insecurity. People who feel left out and left behind actually need to be brought along, and that may mean anything from figuring out better ways to assimilate people in communities when they immigrate here, so that people’s sense of identity isn’t lost, to doing a better job in helping people adjust to a fast moving economy, for example, in manufacturing, where the biggest challenge is not coming from trade, but from automation. People are losing their jobs to robots, not to the Chinese. We need to think of smarter, more creative ways to help them adjust to that reality. That’s where the debate is, and Democrats need to get a grip on that.

Q: Do you think that Joe Biden will run for President in 2020?
A: I don’t know. Well, he’ll be 77 years old. But as he put it a few weeks ago, he’ll be 77, President Trump will be 74, but he, Joe Biden, will be in better physical shape. I don’t know what he’ll do, I don’t know if he’ll run, but I do know this: he’s a powerful leader in the Democratic Party. He is highly regarded across the country, beloved even, and what’s very powerful about Joe Biden is that he is a bridge between the internationalist wing of our party – the people who believe we need to remain engaged with the world and open and connected – and people who are concerned about the downsides of globalisation, especially the middle class. He is the one person who speaks to both communities, so I think no matter what he decides to do in terms of running for President, he’ll play a leadership role going forward through 2020.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: There are books that animated me when I was in my late teens. There are books of fiction that had a powerful impact on me because they did so much to illuminate either the human condition, or just what I was going through and thinking about in my own life. Books by Milan Kundera, Martin Amis and Philip Roth are all extraordinary windows into the human condition. There was a book that had a very big impact on me by a French author, André Schwarz-Bart, called Last of the Just. It is the story of the legend that in every generation of the Jewish people, there is one just individual who shows the way to the future and connects the community with its values. In this book, the last of the just dies at Auschwitz. It’s a very powerful meditation on history, and on the place of Jews in history, and on notions of morality and justice. So those are some of the fiction books and authors that had an impact.
I think when it comes to non-fiction, something that really has an impact is reading great political histories and biographies, like William Manchester on Churchill, or David Herbert Donald on Lincoln, or Edmund Morris on Teddy Roosevelt. These books are wonderful because they show the impact that one individual can have on history and on the course of events, and they’re also incredibly beautifully written. Then finally, I think one of the most masterful books on how the world works and foreign policy more generally, if that’s your interest, is Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger, and I would recommend that to anyone.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: You hope you learn a lot. I guess a few things stand out, just in terms of my general way of engaging with people; there are some wonderful clichéd statements and aphorisms and so forth that are no less true for being clichéd. It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. I found that that works pretty well. Taking responsibility and giving credit; that works pretty well too. If something goes wrong and you’re to blame, own up to it. If someone else does a good job, give them some praise, it’s amazing how that comes back to your benefit. I think knowing what you don’t know is important, especially when you’re dealing over time in a job, maybe with a superior. I tell people to memorise these words when they’re asked a question and they don’t know the answer: the words are ‘I don’t know, I’ll find out’. If you give someone bad information because you’re embarrassed to say you don’t know the answer, you’re usually on a path to getting fired or written off by that person.
I’d say that maybe the most powerful thing is this: you’ll be very surprised that so many of the people that you meet along your life’s journey, particularly in school, will have an impact, a role, a place in your life many years in the future, in ways that you never expected. I’ve literally gotten jobs through people that I met back at university, or even in high school. We stayed in touch, and something came up, and a friend thought of me. So those kinds of relationships, friendships, networks are incredibly enriching, and I think they’ll animate your life in ways you can’t even imagine many years into the future.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: I guess if you have the luxury, and it really is a luxury, of being able to follow some of your passions at a young age, that’s a wonderful thing. It just makes you a broader, richer, more open person. I loved music, so I played in bands, and that’s something that has enriched my life, and I think in strange ways, helped in other areas. Writing for my school newspaper; that too, I think, played a big role. But mostly, I think what I learned was what I said a moment ago: the friendships and the relationships that you build, even as young as in your teenage years, are going to have an influence. Finally, I was fortunate because I was born in the United States, but I lived for nine years in Paris, from the age of nine to eighteen. I think that taught me to look at my own country, the United States, through different eyes; to see it as a foreigner might see it. It helped me to see some of its foibles, but it also put me in a position of having to defend my country, and what it stood for, and how it acted. I became an advocate, and that probably influenced me more than anything else to become a diplomat in later years.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: Not really, because I was able to try a lot of different things, in sports and the arts and writing. I was very fortunate because my family travelled a lot, and I got to see a good chunk of the world at a young age. So other than getting turned down for a few dates, that’s about it.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met and why?
A: The truth is, in many ways, the most interesting people I’ve met starts with my own family; listening to their stories, hearing their experiences, thinking about how I would have reacted in similar situations.
Like so many Americans, I’m from a family of immigrants and refugees. My father’s father fled the pogroms in what is now Russia at the turn of the last century, and made his way to the United States with virtually nothing in his pockets. He was welcomed into this country with open arms, and was able to build a life, build the family, and build a very successful career and contribute back. My stepmother fled communism from Hungary, and literally got on the train in the middle of the night as a young girl with her mother to flee. She too was welcomed into the United States, and was then able to contribute back by helping refugees for many years.
My stepfather passed away recently, about a year ago; he was born in Białystok, in Poland. It was a very prominent city, a strong Jewish city. But during the Holocaust, he was the only child in his school who survived, and his entire immediate family was wiped out too. He spent four years in various concentration camps, among them Auschwitz, Dachau, and Majdanek.
At the very end of the war, he was on a death march out of one of the concentration camps, and he made a run for it, and he made it into the forest in Bavaria. A few days later, he heard this rumbling sound, and he looked out, and instead of seeing the dreaded swastika on the approaching tank, he saw a five pointed white star, and he ran to the tank, and the hatch opened up, and an African American GI looked down at him. He got on his knees and he said the only three words that he knew then in English; his mother had taught his those words, and they were ‘God bless America’. The GI lifted him into the tank, into freedom, into the United States. And then he was able to rebuild a life. To me, I learned more from hearing those stories about human resilience and perseverance and courage, and more about my own country and what Abraham Lincoln used to call ‘the better angels of our nature’. That’s what we stand for, that’s who we are, that’s what we do. And all of that, I learned from my family.

An Interview with Antony Blinken – Part 1

Antony Blinken

9th February 2017

Antony Blinken was Deputy Secretary of State between 2015 and 2017, second in the State Department only to John Kerry. Before this he was Deputy National Security Advisor for President Barack Obama, having previously been National Security Advisor for Vice President Joe Biden. He was part of Biden’s presidential campaign in 2008, and served on the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition team after Obama’s first victory.

This is the first of a two part series. You can find the second part, about the recovery of the Democratic Party and Mr Blinken’s life lessons here.

Q: Do you think that Trump’s current policy on Iran is a good one?
A: Firstly, I think that the administration is right to be concerned about some of Iran’s behaviour. The ballistic missile test, their support for terrorism, and their destabilising activities in general are very much worthy of concern. The question is what to do about them, and what concerns me is that the response to date seems to be this open-ended threat of ‘putting Iran on notice’, without in any way backing it up.
I think this creates difficulties, because it creates pressure on the administration to match its deeds to its words, and it’s not clear what those deeds would actually be. And then you sometimes create a crisis where one did not need to exist. Also, it ignores the fact that for years, including with the last administration, we’ve put a significant amount of pressure on Iran for these malicious activities, including sanctions related to terrorism, related to human rights, and related to ballistic missiles. We have tens of thousands of military personnel in the region, but mostly what I’m worried about is that in order to really counter Iran, it’s not enough for the United States to do it alone; it has to be with international support. That takes diplomacy and hard work. For example, sanctions are only effective if they’re deployed by many countries, not just the United States, otherwise Iran will carry on doing business around us, even if we are not doing business with them.
I would say that when you think about how best to counter your concerns about Iran’s actions, you also have to think through what they might do in response. Right now, we have about 5,500 troops in Iraq going after ISIL. There are Iranian-backed militia in Iraq which could be turned on our troops, and that would be dangerous, so we have to think that through as well.
So, in a nutshell, it’s right to be concerned, but maybe it’s wrong to take a blustery public approach, as opposed to giving the Iranians very clear and strong private warnings if they’re doing something that we object to; building our cooperation with countries in the Gulf; getting others on board with diplomacy; and then looking at what we can do in terms of effective financial and diplomatic sanctions. Those are the best ways to counter them.
Finally, I would say this: I am pleased that the administration seems to be moving away from undoing the nuclear deal with Iran. That agreement has made us safer, it’s made countries in the region safer, and it has put far into the future the possibility of Iran getting materials for a nuclear weapon. Whatever else Iran is doing, at least if we don’t have to worry about them getting a nuclear weapon, that puts us one step ahead.

Q: How do you think the US should defeat ISIL? How do you think Trump’s plan will differ?
A: Well we are defeating ISIL, and it’s quite striking. President Obama implemented a comprehensive campaign to do that, and it’s succeeding.
Right now in Iraq, the Iraqi forces supported by the international coalition have taken back about 65% of the territory that ISIL controlled at its height. Even in Syria, we’ve taken back about 30% with our partners on the ground. As we speak, the key strongholds for ISIS, both in Iraq and Syria, are under siege. Half of Mosul, the biggest city in Iraq that it controls, has been liberated, and the rest will follow soon. Raqqa in Syria is also now surrounded, and its liberation could take place over the next several months. That’s going to be decisive, because Raqqa and Mosul together are the heart of ISIL’s so-called caliphate, the state that it claimed it was trying to build. If you take that away from it, it’s going to have devastating practical effects, because it’s no longer controlled territory, it isn’t going to have places for foreign fighters to come to, it won’t have resources to exploit, and it will totally undermine the narrative that ISIL has put out there that has attracted so many people: namely, that it is actually building a state. So physically, in Iraq and Syria, ISIL is on its heels, and it can and will be defeated.
You still have to deal with its affiliates in other countries, groups that sometimes pre-existed ISIL, but started waving the flag when ISIL was successful. You also have to deal with individuals, and networks of individuals, in Europe, in the United States, and in other places, who may be susceptible to ISIL. What is critical here is getting countries to work together, to share information, to share intelligence, and to have police cooperation. There’s been remarkable progress on that front over the last two years, again as a result of a lot of leadership from President Obama. We have information sharing agreements among fifty countries, and countries are now feeding intelligence immediately to Interpol, so that that information can be used, and people can be found and arrested.
The last piece is dealing with ISIL’s propaganda and its narrative, particularly online, which it uses to recruit. Finding credible local voices, not governments, is the best way to combat this. So we have a good strategy, and I think the best thing that President Trump can do is to continue with what we’ve been doing. And if he does, we will succeed.

Q: What’s your opinion of Trump’s immigration ban? How do you think this will impact the fight against ISIL?
A: I think the immigration ban is totally counterproductive to the fight against ISIL, and it is also counter to what this country stands for. Trump is basically taking a sledgehammer to the wrong problem. The notion that refugees pose a threat in the United States is simply wrong, and the immigration program as a whole does not threaten national security either. It takes, on average, about two years for refugees to come to the United States, because of all the security checks in the system. The last way a terrorist would try to infiltrate the United States is through the refugee program. Moreover, not a single American has been killed by someone from one of the seven countries that were targeted by this ban, going back to the 1970s. So, it’s the wrong solution.
Unfortunately, the problem that does exist is lone wolves. That problem is likely to be exacerbated, not made better, by the ban, because the ban is sending a message that we’re somehow opposed to Muslims writ large. People will feel more isolated and discriminated against, and they will become more susceptible to violent extremism.
At the same time, at the very moment that ISIL is on its heels in Iraq and in Syria, this ban has handed them a propaganda bonanza, a tool with which to recruit people by making it seem that the United States is at war with Islam, which of course it’s not. So I think this is the wrong approach, and it’s also against our values: it’s not what this country stands for.
Finally, it risks killing the goose that laid the golden egg. If you look at Silicon Valley, one quarter of start-ups in Silicon Valley were founded by immigrants. Half of the start-ups valued at a billion dollars or more were founded by immigrants. Almost half of the Fortune 400 companies in the United States were founded by immigrants, or the children of immigrants. So the last thing we want to do, in terms of our economic vitality, is to curb immigration.

Q: The right wing media response to the criticism of this ban has been to point out that Obama also banned Iraqi refugees a few years ago. What’s your rebuttal to this?
A: The media outlets point to two things that the Obama administration did, and it’s misleading because it was very different to what is being done now.
First, they point to 2011, when two Iraqis who came to the United States as refugees were arrested, because we developed information that they might be connected to terrorists in Iraq. This was in Bowling Green, Kentucky. And at that point, we reviewed the refugee program from Iraq, but we never stopped it: Iraqis continued to come into this country as refugees throughout a six month review. We made some adjustments to the resettlement program to make sure it was as secure as possible, but there was never any ban, and the flow of refugees from Iraq never stopped. Keep in mind, these are mostly people who are fleeing violence and fleeing terrorism. And also, by the way, when it comes to refugees, the vast bulk that we take into this country are women, children, people who are ill, and people fleeing violence and persecution. A very small percentage, less than 2%, are unattached men; that is, people over the age of 18 without their families.
The second thing is that in 2015, there was another terrorist incident in the United States, in San Bernardino, that had nothing to do with refugees or immigrants. But Congress in the United States decided that it should crack down on refugees, and on the immigration program. The Obama administration had to negotiate with Congress, and in order to prevent them from doing anything more extreme, one of the things we agreed was as follows: if a dual passport holder, with one passport from one of the four countries (now seven) that were of concern, and one passport from a country that was part of the visa waiver program (which is where you don’t need a visa to enter the US), we removed the visa waiver portion of the program. In other words, you would still need a visa to enter the country. That’s what we did, but again there was no ban, we didn’t stop people from coming, which is what’s happening now.

Q: Do you think that Donald Trump will be impeached before 2020, and how do you think this could happen?
A: President Trump is President Trump, and we need to look at the policies that he is pursuing and the decisions that he is making, and try our best to move things in a smart direction. I think that speculating about things like impeachment is not very practical and not very productive. Events and decisions will dictate the future. I think it’s very difficult to speculate on that now.

A Second Interview with Mmusi Maimane MP

Mmusi Maimane

28th January 2017

Mmusi Maimane has been the Leader of the Democratic Alliance, the Opposition Party in South Africa, since May 2015. Before this, he was the leader of his party in the Johannesburg City Council, and in 2014, he ran for Premier in the province of Gauteng. I first interviewed Mr Maimane in 2015, shortly after he became leader. In the interview, which you can find here, I asked him about his vision for South Africa, racial politics, and the ANC’s abuse of office.

Q: Last year, you had a very successful regional election and you won several cities. You also entered into several coalitions with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). How are the coalitions going so far?
A: I think that they’re going well. I’ll start with all the respective cities. Nelson Mandela, that coalition is working fairly well. We’ve started to deliver more effective governance. Johannesburg is doing better than I thought it would, because there, we’re not the largest party, we’re the second largest. But our coalition partners now realise how serious the project of governance is, so I think that’s a unifying factor.
They are also uncovering more ANC corruption, so the fact that we oppose the ANC kind of keeps the glue together. Tshwane (Pretoria) is doing brilliantly. They have had a brilliant start to the year. Now, we get into budget season, where we will try to pass some budgets, but overall , the coalitions are working well.

Q: Looking towards the 2019 General Election, if there was a hung parliament, would you consider forming a government by entering a coalition, either with the EFF, or with a faction of the ANC if it splits?
A: National government, in contrast to local government, is where policy matters a lot less. Local government is really about delivery and execution. I’m not suggesting that national government is not about that, but ideology in that space is a huge variable. So I think that in national government, we would be more open to saying ‘Let’s agree on some key program of delivery’, and I think we’re much closer to that because we and the ANC agree on the National Development Plan.
Also, we agree on a market based economy, we agree that people need to start microenterprise, and my program would always be ‘how do we ensure that these things happen?’ It would be a bit trickier to try and deal with the EFF within that space, but we can’t ignore the conversation around corruption. I would never compromise by going into government, even with the ANC, if there was clear evidence that that particular faction of the ANC was corrupt. We can’t do that, it undermines government. I think 2019 has one or two options: a grand coalition of opposition parties, or a coalition between a faction of the ANC with the DA, around values that we will deliver.

Q: How do you think another leader of the ANC in 2019 will change your election strategy?
A: What’s become clear is that the ANC has suffered from the cancer of corruption, so it becomes immaterial who the leader is. The only two leading candidates as of today are Mrs Zuma, who is the former chair of the African Union, and Cyril Ramaphosa. Neither of those candidates is dissociable from the ANC; they are all one. Voters in the 2019 election need to make a fundamental choice about who is going to make a better South Africa. The ANC and its leader will campaign on its historical achievements and race mobilisation. The focus of my campaign – and this is the focus of work even now – will be the future of South Africa: what we envisage for our young people, for the development of Africa, for a prosperous economy for all, and for a non-racial tomorrow. So I think that’s going to be the distinguisher going into 2019.

Q: Do you think that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan should lose his position, and do you think that he actually will?
A: I don’t think Zuma will do it in the first six months of the year, mainly because I think Zuma is working back at the branches of the party and getting support from there. Heading toward the ANC’s conference, it might be a credible opportunity for Zuma to say ‘Our policy pronouncements look like this. The Finance Minister is practicing a different policy outlook’. And then, he will make that a reason to legitimise his decision.
I think that the second half of the year is going to become rough and there may be many more casualties along the way. The Finance Minister has now got to table the budget, and then will move on from there. But the battle really, broadly speaking, has got little to do with the economy of South Africa, and everything to do with a corrupt President whose agenda has always been about himself; a President who is trying to gain access to the Treasury; and an organisation that has no credibility on the issue of the economy, and no interest in the economic outcome for South Africa.
What we’ve got to do as a party is to say ‘How do we set up a macroeconomic policy that not only creates stability, but can direct economic activity in certain areas that would benefit South Africans?’

Q: There’s a focus on corruption at the 2019 election, but you also have to talk about your policies, so how are you going to balance the two? How are you going to make your policies understandable even for the undereducated?
A: I think that broadly speaking, for the first time, the DA is thinking hard about how we transition from just being a party in opposition to being a party of government, and therefore, putting forward policies that are going to address the needs of the people.
The first key anchor point is how we govern our metros. We now have access to 16 million people, and we control the majority of the local government budget, which has a material effect on people’s livelihoods. If we govern well in those places, then in some ways, the conversation about policy becomes secondary, because when people can taste good governance they are inclined to give credence to that national government.
Secondly, we’ve got to be less about the nuances of policy; we’ve got to be a lot more specific about what we offer South Africans. So there will be a lot of quantifiable, measurable, policy stances that we’re going to articulate for 2019.
The last component is about how we demonstrate that we’re not corrupt. We need to put up leaders across all provinces, and show that they have no track record of corruption. These are the people who can take South Africa forwards. So it’s a bit like modelling non-racialism, you can talk about it all you like, but it comes down to whether you can demonstrate it and whether people can see it.
My project between now and 2019 is to establish that vision, and I’ve already got a draft document called My Vision for South Africa. It focuses on two main issues: jobs and justice, but it’s also about recruiting the best talent in South Africa to be serve in the government.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: There is a book written by a minister who does leadership work in the US called Courageous Leadership, which I read as a teenager. It poses the question: ‘Are you willing to confront injustice in society, without position?’ It’s about understanding your own locus of control; whether you fundamentally believe you can make a contribution to society. If I speak to my own kids, who are still little, I try to say to them ‘Your fundamental existence has everything to do with whether you can impact another individual’s life in society’. So that was a really great book to read, and certainly made me question my role in the world, and how I could contribute to it.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: Sometimes, your gut matters more, because all you have to defend in life are your convictions. The best way I can describe it, is that there are some decisions that aren’t about right or wrong, that aren’t about policy choices, but are about a deep gut reaction. Even as a young leader, there were times when my gut was telling me one thing, but the politics was telling me something different. You have a natural inclination to say ‘Let’s take the political decision’, and being politically correct in the moment can sometimes undermine you being historically correct. You’ve got to decide whether or not to go with your gut. This is something I would like to practice more.
Also, someone once said to me ‘You’re going to have a choice in life between whether you want to make a difference or a noise’. Sometimes, you have to make a noise to make a difference, but you should always choose to make a difference.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: As a teenager, I grew up in a fairly poor community, and my exposure to a different world gave me a vision that things didn’t have to stay that way. And even as a teenager, I learnt that however impossible it seemed, I shouldn’t accept the conditions as they are, but should keep hoping and working for something different.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: I did woodwork at school. Today, I’m not the handyman type of guy. The girls did typing, and the boys did woodwork. If I wish I’d done anything, it would be typing, because I certainly do more typing today than I do woodwork, and the only woodwork I do is building a braai (barbecue), which isn’t even great.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met since I last interviewed you, and why?
A: The US ambassador to South Africa, a man called Patrick Gaspard, I thought was a fascinating individual because he has worked in the Obama campaign, and then in South Africa, so he understands the complexities from a different point of view. Another person I found interesting was Olusegun Obasanjo, the former President of Nigeria, because as a former President, he has a different stance and different views about the region. That’s knowledge that you wouldn’t have otherwise, and I found him and Thabo Mbeki interesting to listen to. I don’t always agree with what they have to say, but they lived through very fascinating periods.

An Interview with Lord (Mervyn) Davies

Lord Davies

16th December 2016

Mervyn Davies was CEO of Standard Chartered between 2001 and 2006, and then became its Chairman until 2009. He was ennobled that year and was made a Minister of State in Department for Business, Innovation and Skills under Peter Mandelson, with a particular focus on UK Trade, Investment and Small Business. Today, he is the Chairman of the private equity firm Corsair Capital. In 2011 and 2016 he authored government reports about the number of women on boards. 

Q: How easy do you think it will be for the UK to make trade deals post-Brexit? With which countries do you think deals should be prioritized?
A: Well, I think that there is a sadness about Brexit, which is that the full facts for staying in, or indeed for exiting, were not really revealed. I do think one of the big issues that people have to be aware of is that negotiating trade deals – and I was the Trade Minister in Gordon Brown’s government – is a torturous and long process. We have many trading partners, and our biggest trading partner, arguably, is the European market, and then we’ve got the US. So I think that the process of Brexit will not be an easy one, and I wouldn’t prioritise any countries per se. I would just say that the terms of a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit are very unclear, and we’ve got to protect certain industries that are critical to the UK. In that regard, I think the government has a very challenging period ahead of it.

Q: Do you think that, as a result of Brexit, the banking sector in London will move to elsewhere in the EU?
A: I think it depends on the deal. We need freedom of movement for people and goods, and for labour generally. The implications of Brexit are far wider-ranging than simply its impact on the financial services sector. If you go to the NHS, if you go to restaurants, if you go to farms for fruit picking, if you go to a huge range of industries, the British economy is reliant on these 3 to 3.5 million foreign workers that live in the UK. I think the reality is that to be a successful economy, we need to be an open market. We need to attract the best talent. I think that when you look at financial services, it’s a critical industry for the UK, both in terms of tax revenue and strategic positioning. It’s not just the jobs in banks or the currencies centres and Lloyd’s of London, it’s also the jobs that support them, like accounting and law. I think that as we negotiate our exit, it is incredibly important that all the negotiators realize the strategic importance of financial services to the economy.

Q: If a vote on triggering Article 50 comes before the House of Lords, do you think that it should be opposed by peers?
A: Well, if they want to vote to say no, they should. The government and the newspapers keep on mentioning that 17 million people voted to exit, but what they never say is that 16 million voted to remain, and that roughly 12 million didn’t vote. So I think that if peers in the House of Lords or MPs in the House of Commons want to vote against it, they should. I do think that a lot will depend on the terms of the exit, and how long we’ve got to transition out. So obviously, I am massively in favour of the soft Brexit, and I think that a hard Brexit will have disastrous consequences on some of our key strategic industries and on the economy.

Q: What do you think of Theresa May’s first one hundred days as Prime Minister? Do you think that she can make a success of the Brexit negotiations and win the next General Election?
A: Well, I think that that’s a very political question, so I think what I would say is that the very important issue for the government is to keep the country together. Brexit highlighted, as did Trump’s election, the fact that there is a huge part of society that feels they haven’t benefited from the economic success of the last ten or twenty years. Now that’s something that every government has to address. There is too much of a divide in society and my worry about Brexit is that the very regions that will be the worst hit and the very people that might suffer, are the ones who voted for Brexit. So, I wish that Theresa May had uttered a rallying call right at the start of her premiership to bring the country together. It feels as if the government is only interested in the 17 million that voted to exit, and I think that is a mistake. So, I would hope that Theresa May is astute enough to realise that. I think there’s a danger that the Tories move to the right, and Labour has already moved to the left, and the people in the middle feel like they have no voice. I think the other thing that’s very true is that in both in the US election and Brexit, we entered a post-truth era.

Q: Private equity has seen remarkable growth over the past couple of decades. What do you think its future will be, and do you think that the current rate of growth can be sustained?
A: I think that private equity is a very exciting form of capital. I think that the governance burden, the returns burden, and the spotlight on public companies have led to a bit of a brain drain of talent to private equity. I also think the returns have been there. So, I think private equity will continue to flourish. As an investment class, it’s very exciting, and I think it will continue to grow. It is something that the UK is very good at.

Q: Do you think that there are enough women in boardrooms? If not, what needs to be done to fix this?
A: I think that the Davies Review had great success. I think we have made fantastic progress, from less than 10% to now nearly 30% female non-executive directors on public company boards. I think the challenge now is to get more women into executive roles in companies, and I think that genuinely, we’re on a journey, we need to carry on putting pressure on everybody, but yes, we’ve made great progress. At the end of the day, 51% of the UK’s working population is female, and boards and executive committees should represent that.

Q: Which books would you recommend for someone my age?
A: I think that it’s really interesting to read books about people who have succeeded in different walks of life. So, I think autobiographies and biographies of remarkable people are always fascinating. I think that it’s also really good to read the great pieces of fiction, like A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, which takes you through the Indian lifestyle and the Indian family. I think books about people and books about different parts of the world help your mind to grow because they provide different types of experience. So, I think any book that takes you out of your comfort zone at your age has got to be good for you.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: The harder you work, the luckier you get. Treat everybody the same. And life is not just about intelligence, it’s also about emotional intelligence: you have to be bright, but you also have to have intuition. So, never stop learning, and have a voracious appetite for technology, because we are living in a period of extraordinary technological change, which is impacting politics and business. You’re living through a very exciting period.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: I think that you have to have a zest for life. I think that you have to enjoy yourself. I think you have to have fun. I think you should respect your family and your friends. Never bully anybody. So I think that if you treat others well, they will treat you well. I genuinely do believe that you have to have a true zest and voracious appetite for life, and if you use that as a mantra, you will have a very enjoyable time. Don’t surround yourself with negative people or negativity.

Q: Is there that anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: Concentrated a bit more in my French lessons.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met and why?
A: My wife and I were lucky enough to have afternoon tea with Nelson Mandela on his 88th birthday. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the most extraordinary cup of tea and hour and twenty minutes of our married life. Apart from Nelson Mandela, probably my wife.

An Interview with Lord (Peter) Mandelson

Lord Mandelson

18th November 2016

Peter Mandelson has played a major part in British politics over the last two decades. He was influential in the rise of New Labour, and held a number of Cabinet positions under Blair and Brown. Between 2004 and 2008, he served as European Commissioner for Trade.

Q: Do you think that the Labour Party will split into two separate parties because of the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking it in?
A: I hope not, because I think it would be a huge setback for what we stand for, and for all of the people we seek to represent in politics. At the moment, we are like two different parties co-existing in the same organisation, with very different cultures: the one strongly committed to the primacy of parliamentary democracy, the other focused on extra-parliamentary protests. This cannot go on indefinitely.

Q: Do you think that Tony Blair will return to politics?
A: In a real sense, Tony Blair has never left politics because he offers analysis and opinions which many people still respect, whilst others scorn. What’s interesting is that whether they agree with him or not, most people regard him as a strong leader.

Q: But do you have any idea whether he might return to frontline politics, perhaps to form a new party?
A: He’s given me no such clue.

When do you think Labour will next win a General Election?
A: I have to be realistic and say that to get over this period, to stabilise the party, to re-modernise it again is going to take some time.

Q: Who would you like to be the next leader of the Labour Party?
A: I have no personal preference at this time, but I see a lot of the younger generation who are competent and fit to lead.

Q: Having been EU Trade Commissioner, how easy do you think it will be for the UK to make a trade deal with the EU post-Brexit?
A: It’s going to be tough, and from Britain’s point of view as well as from Europe’s, it would be better if we stayed in Europe’s single market, with all the trading rights and preferences that comes with it, or at least in the customs’ union. Without either, our trade is bound to be hit, and our economic growth reduced.

Q: Which countries do you think it will be easiest for the UK to do trade deals with when Brexit occurs?
A: I don’t think that it’s going to be easy, as such, to do any deal, because public sentiment is not so supportive of free trade, or of free trade deals. In my view, probably the most useful and most important would be China and the United States.

Q: What have you thought of Theresa May’s premiership so far?
A: I think the problem is that she never expected to be Prime Minister at this stage in her career, and not so quickly after the referendum. Any Prime Minister takes some time to get into their stride, to create the right team, and the right mind-set. It’s a learning curve, as I know from the two Labour Prime Ministers I served, Blair and Brown.

Q: How do you think a Trump presidency will change the global geopolitical landscape?
A: I think there’s a real danger that a Trump presidency will create disorder, and that’s what I’m most nervous of.

Q: Which books would you recommend for someone my age?
A: George Orwell’s 1984, Germinal by Zola, and The Third Man by Peter Mandelson.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: Don’t make unnecessary enemies, but don’t be afraid to do so when absolutely necessary.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: To put work before pleasure, but always to look for new experiences, especially internationally.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: I wish I had learned to play competitive sport, and a musical instrument.

Q: Who is the most interesting person that you’ve met and why?
A: I am lucky to have met many interesting people during my political career. I am spoiled for choice but Henry Kissinger comes pretty high up the list because he has such amazing historical reach as well as current knowledge, and he knows how to use both to best analytical effect, with considerable personal charm.

An Interview with Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz

carrie-schwab-pomerantz
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz

8th November 2016

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz is an expert in financial literacy, and has served on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, where she was Chair of the Partnerships Committee, as well as President Bush’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy. She is Board Chair and President of the Charles Schwab Foundation, which provides financial support to a variety of charities and community events selected by Schwab employees. In addition, she is Senior Vice President for Community Services at Charles Schwab.

Q: Should investors be concerned about this election?
A: There’s no doubt that this has been one of the most contentious elections in American history, at least in our modern history. I do think from an investor perspective that you should always be aware of what’s happening in the world, and obviously this election is a big deal. But for a long term investor, which most of us are and should be, how the election turns out should not affect our strategy. We know that markets go up and down, and they ride all sorts of historical events. Certainly in the United States, we’ve withstood many different kinds of leaders of different political alignments, and the stock market in the country itself still continues to grow. I believe that this election is not any different.

Q: How well do you think brokers have adapted to the rise of the internet?
A: I think it has been a total evolution, and Schwab, throughout history, has been a very technology-dependant company; it has definitely been the backbone to our success. I think that’s been the case for many different financial institutions. Utilizing technology to better serve clients has always been in Schwab’s DNA. Technology and access to the internet has helped more Americans gain access to the markets and investing. That’s a good thing, because in my view, investing is key to building long- term wealth.
Probably when you talk about technology or the internet, you’re also thinking about robo-advisors, which is the latest advancement in utilizing technology to create portfolios for investors. I think there’s always this question of ‘will it replace financial advisors?’ We believe absolutely not. It will just augment and support humans’ work. People, especially when it comes to their money, will always need human interaction. I do think that brokers will evolve with the advancement of technology, for instance, despite robo-advisors, individuals will always need help with planning and keeping their clients focused on their goals, and monitoring their progress, and course correcting.

Q: What are the main financial literacy challenges that people face?
A: What I’ve found with my work, focusing on this for over thirty years, is that the lack of financial literacy in the United States cuts across Americans from all walks of life. It is blind to socioeconomic status, gender, and age. I think it is because the issue is driven by many different factors, including the fact that in the United States, very few schools teach young people the basics of money management.
With the rise of technology, we have more options and more innovation around financial products, which while being a good thing, also creates a sort of analysis paralysis, and keeps people from moving forward because they’re overwhelmed. Some of the most obvious challenges for people are being able to make ends meet, getting into debt, and not saving enough, which in combination are a disaster. Also, saving for retirement in the United States: not only are we required to save for our own retirement, we have to invest our savings and, as I mentioned, not many Americans really know how to invest. Saving and investing is how you get the growth that you have to have in order to build the cushion you’ll need for retirement. Quite frankly, for many Americans, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way with these problems. Certainly, there are Americans for whom it is very tough, and they need assistance, but there are still those who can avoid it.

Q: What are some of your favourite programs from the Charles Schwab Foundation, and what do they entail?
A: I would say that there are a couple of programs I’m pretty proud of. The first is our national partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of America, which is the largest youth agency in the United States, serving four million kids in four thousand clubs. Twelve years ago, we co-built a financial education program for teenagers called Money Matters: Make It Count. It’s a pretty robust program: five modules, talking about needs versus wants, how to save, and budget, and manage debt. There are also some basics around entrepreneurship. We supplement it with games, and we have college scholarships for those teens who really embody the Money Matters concept and the values of the Boys and Girls Club. We’ve had over 800,000 teens go through the program. We’ve evaluated it three times over last twelve years, and every time it shows that not only are we increasing the knowledge of teens, but we’re also helping to change their behaviours around savings and budgeting.
The other set of programs that I’m proud of is our employee volunteerism at Schwab. We’ve got a very strong offering for our employees to get involved in the community. One of the two flagship volunteer programs is the Schwab Volunteer Week, during which about one third of our employees go out and volunteer for about half a day together in all sorts of different capacities, from teaching financial education to cleaning parks, painting, helping folks prepare their resumes, giving preparation for job interviews, and resume building. So there are all sorts of volunteerism there.
The other flagship program is the Schwab Pro Bono Challenge, and that’s where we bring about three hundred fifty employees together into small groups in order to help a non-profit with a specific challenge. So, a non-profit might have a marketing challenge, or a technology challenge, or a human resources challenge that they need to think through and strategize. And so we’ll bring folks with those different skill sets to help them think it through and create plans. We’ll have HR folks go help with the HR program, or technology folks help with the tech program. We save the non-profits a lot of money with this sort of free consulting. The majority of non-profits implement the actual strategies that we help them with, and they feel that it really helps them to become stronger.

Q: What do you think companies have to do in order to achieve gender boardroom equality?
A: I think that’s a really tough question. I think it has to start beyond the boardroom, with supporting women in executive leadership roles at the company level. Studies show that there is a real drop off in the mid-career period for women, which is when they’re forced to think about the choice between career and home. I’m not sure that corporate America really provides the support system and training and encouragement to move and advance to the next level. I think that the more women we can get at the top of the corporation, the more we’ll start seeing even more women at the corporate board level.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: I like books about personal finance, and I would love for anybody your age to learn the basics of money management. I would highly recommend any young person to take a look at our Schwab MoneyWise.com website, which was created for all novice investors. It is helpful, not only for young people, but also for people who have expertise. I am a big believer in learning the basics of saving and budgeting and living within your means, and the basics of investing for your future.
In terms of a more personal perspective, I’ll share a couple books that I have read. They’re both historical nonfiction. I think that they’re inspiring and they both create a level of empathy for others. One of them is Team of Rivals, and it is written by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a book about Abraham Lincoln. That book has really struck me in a lot of ways as a leader. The word they use to describe Lincoln in the book is magnanimous, and that’s somebody who puts his ego aside for the betterment of others. Abraham Lincoln, when he became President, brought all his rivals into his cabinet. Initially, they didn’t have a lot of respect for him, but over time, they grew such a close friendship and respect for one another that they created a very strong team to guide the country through the Civil War. It made me think about how we can all put our egos aside, and work with others who have skill sets we don’t have, to achieve something bigger.
The second book might be more relevant to the UK with the whole Brexit issue. It’s called Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. It’s about a young man, he’s only thirty-one, and he is a Yale educated lawyer, but he grew up as a hillbilly. His mother was a drug addict, so he was raised by his grandparents, who married at ages thirteen and seventeen. He grew up with Appalachian values and it gives you a real glimpse into the sociology of these people who are the backbone of America, in terms of blue collar factory workers, and how modernisation and technology has ripped up the American dream. It helps you reach a better understanding of what’s going on in the world at the moment with disenfranchised people.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: I think for me, I learned some important life lessons later in life and wished I had learned them earlier in my career. I think young people need to have a bigger vision for themselves, and aim high. When I say have a vision for yourself, literally visualize where you hope to be. I’m a big believer that when you start thinking big and start seeing yourself in this capacity, you start to take the steps to get there. There may be some twists and turns, and maybe some changes, but it creates some building blocks for you, and it also creates a level of excitement and drive to go for it.
The other is networking, and it sounds so simple. What I mean is building relationships or reaching out to people who can be potential mentors, or people you admire, or people who could be partners of some sort with you down the line. I think that the power of building relationships as a leader is how you get things done. I would say most of my work and achievements have not been through formal managerial structures, they have been based more on influencing people and bringing them along. The way you do that is to build close trusting working relationships, within your organization and outside.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: I come from a family that has run into some hard times. My father was a struggling businessman, and my parents divorced when I was young. I was just working hard and plugging away. I’ve been working since I was thirteen, starting with the paper route. I tried to do a little housecleaning, but that didn’t work out so well. I always had summer jobs, and I had a sense of accomplishment from paying my dues. I think paying your dues pays off in the long run. I didn’t see it at the time, but I believe that it is how you gain respect from others and your colleagues.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: Well, getting as many experiences as possible when I was your age. Also, meeting more people: I wish I had reached out to more people that I admired or thought could be good advisors to me. I was very shy, and I didn’t see why anybody would want to spend time helping me. One regret, perhaps more as an adult than a sixteen year old, is not starting my own company. I’m not sure what it would be, but I wish I had started my own organization.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met, and why?
A: I’m thinking about that, and I’m not sure who I could say. Certainly, I’ve been fortunate in my role to meet lots of interesting people: I’ve met politicians, and philanthropists, and CEOs. I’ve met young women in Kenya living in the bush. I saw how they overcame unfortunate circumstances to get an education as girls in Kenya. Rather than picking just one person, I would say that I admire people who have drive and grit, and don’t let anyone get in the way of their North star. I would say that my twenty year old daughter is that way, she’s very driven, and she’s very focused. Now that I think about it, as I mentioned to you, there are those Kenyan girls that I met. I met one girl in particular, Rebecca, who lived in a tribe in Kenya with a lot of tribal warfare. She had a lot of relatives killed, and she was slashed as well with a machete. She found herself in a school that she’d otherwise never get to go to, and by working very hard, she is now going to college. Her hope is to go back to her community and become a doctor and have a medical centre in her hometown, thinking about all the people that were killed and hurt in the tribal warfare with no hospitals or medical care nearby.

An Interview with Ambassador Anthony Gardner

anthony-gardner
Ambassador Gardner

2nd November 2016

Anthony Gardner became the United States Ambassador to the European Union in early 2014. One of his main objectives in this position is to negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. In 1994 and 1995, he was Director for European Affairs on the National Security Council, and before becoming Ambassador was managing director at private equity firm Palamon Capital Partners.

Q: Do you think that Brexit is the beginning of the end of the European Union?
A: No, not at all. I’m often asked that question. Clearly, Brexit poses a challenge, not only for the European Union, but also for the United States across the gamut of issues on which we deal with the EU. The list is long: it includes data privacy issues, digital single market issues, sanctions, trade, and many others. We spoke out before the referendum. The results of the referendum, however, need to be respected, and we will obviously respect the decisions that were expressed in a democratic process. However, we do have interests at stake, and we won’t be shy in expressing our views, given that these interests are significant, including in the economic field. Many of our businesses are following this with keen interest, especially given rising concerns about a hard Brexit, meaning a disorderly process by which the United Kingdom could eventually find itself without privileged access to the single market. However, despite these concerns, we still think that the European Union is an important partner of the United States, and will remain so. We intend to continue working closely with the European Union post-Brexit to ensure that we can make progress on all the issues that I mentioned, and others

Q: What are your views on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership?
A: This is an important deal, not only for economic reasons, but equally for political and even geostrategic reasons. Many critics are saying that this deal is on life support, but that is not true. We have made important progress in negotiations. We’re not where we thought we would be after three years of talks, but we’re hopeful that discussions will continue into the next administration, and they should, because the economic and political benefits are substantial. It would be a real shame if the United States and the EU, the world’s two largest trading blocs – that share the same values and high standards when it comes to environmental issues, health protections, and consumer protections – are unable to come to an agreement that would set the standard for 21st century trade.

Q: How easy have you found it to negotiate with the EU? How do you think the UK will fare when it does so?
A: These negotiations were never going to be easy or fast for the following reasons: trade negotiations are never fast or simple, the US and the EU are the world’s largest trading blocs and very sophisticated partners, and there are many difficult issues at stake, including the agricultural sector, government procurement, data flows, and maritime services, just to cite a few examples. We are just three years into our transatlantic negotiation, so it’s still ‘early days’.
The UK has expressed an interest in coming to some sort of a free trade agreement with the EU, but these negotiations can only start once it has left the European Union. The process of exiting the EU will take time, possibly even more than the two years after the Article 50 withdrawal notice has been sent. And once the UK is out, an agreement is not going to be a simple thing to negotiate, partly because the deal will have to be approved, not only by the European Parliament, but also by 38 national and regional parliaments. So the idea that this will be an easy deal to negotiate and ratify is unfortunately incorrect.

Q: In your opinion, is there anti-American sentiment in the EU?
A: Many ask me that question. I have not felt it in general, certainly not from the EU institutions. I don’t believe it’s the case either in the competition field, including in the state aid investigations into a number of US companies. That’s not to say that we don’t have significant concerns: we do have concerns, particularly in the case of the Apple investigation, and we have expressed them in the form of a paper published by the US Treasury. We do not comment on competition cases as a matter of policy, for the simple reason that these are legal cases. In the case of the Apple investigation, however, we felt that a number of specific US government concerns were at stake, so we took the unusual step of publishing that paper.
More generally, in a number of member states, we are concerned at some anti-Americanism that has manifested itself as a particular focus about US technology companies. But one should be very careful about generalising this anti-Americanism. There are parts of several member states’ governments that we feel are excessively focusing on the United States, when they should be focusing on more general principles, or other countries. So the short answer is, no, I don’t see anti-Americanism in the EU, or generally speaking across Europe.

Q: How could a Clinton or Trump victory next week impact on the relationship between the US and the EU?
A: As you can imagine, first and foremost, as the US government official, I need to be non-partisan. Secondly, it’s really hard to predict the outcome of the election and the impact this would have. If Hillary Clinton were to win, I feel confident that there would mostly be a continuation of the policies of the current administration with regard to Europe, including the European Union. There may be some changes, for example, policy on Russia, but with regard to the European Union, I think we would continue to build on the good progress we have made over the last 8 years. For example, we’ve made significant progress with our relationship data privacy issues, which went through a troubled patch post-Edward Snowden’s revelations, and we’ve made good progress in our cooperation over digital issues. We’ve cooperated extremely tightly on climate change negotiations, on the negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, also on sanctions on Iran and, more recently, on Russia after its illegal annexation of Crimea. So we’ve had very tight cooperation with the EU and I expect that would continue under a Hillary Clinton administration. If she doesn’t win, it’s really impossible for me to speculate as to what the impact would be.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: Well, let me recommend a couple of books I’ve just read that had an impact on me, and I think are relevant for someone of your age because they touch on really critical issues that we’re going to be facing over the next couple years.
The first book is called Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford. It’s about how automation in the workplace is going to have an absolutely fundamental impact, not just on blue-collar workers, but increasingly, on white-collar workers, and on society as a whole.
The second book deals with crucial issues and it’s also a very uplifting book. I think we need uplifting books because there’s so much pessimism about the future. It’s called The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman, and it’s about how certain countries have successfully addressed big challenges. The examples are very varied. It discusses Botswana, which has dealt with its diamond industry successfully – they managed to harness that industry without squandering it. It talks about Mexico, and its successful economic reforms. It also talks about Singapore, a country that had very few natural resources, but managed to become a giant in financial services. I really like the book because it reminds us that with good management and good policies and government, we can fix many of the problems we’re facing.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: That’s a tough one. There are a few, and this may sound a bit strange coming from me, a diplomat, former lawyer, and businessman. The first is don’t underestimate the power of passion. We can’t let just the extremists have passion, because if we do, we’re in trouble. The moderates, the people who care about facts and about making progress in the world, also need to be passionate in defence of their vision. We don’t often learn that at school, because we learn from books. I can tell you from my defence of this trade agreement all over Europe, that when pure facts meet pure passion, passion normally wins. We need to be fact based, but we also need to be passionate.
The second lesson is believe in what you do. It’s related to the first point. Many of us have very challenging careers. If you don’t believe in what you do, it’s difficult to put up with the rigor of the workplace and the work day.
The third is that keeping an appropriate work/life balance is critical for the longer term. If you don’t feel satisfied in your personal life, it becomes very difficult to be successful professionally.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: Well, I think that’s an easier question for me. I grew up in an international family. My mother was Italian, I lived abroad when I was young, and that formed me fundamentally from an early age. I knew then that an international career was something I wanted. I learnt that understanding foreign cultures and speaking foreign languages was important to having an open mind, and it was culturally enriching. So I would say all those things had a fundamental impact on my future career.

Q: Is there anything that you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: That’s an interesting question. There were things that I wish I had done more of, formative experiences that were a bit outside the box. For example, I went to Poland in 1983. It was a very unusual time, because Poland was under martial law. My parents sought to dissuade me from going to study at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow. But I decided to do it because I wanted to be in a special place at a special time, and not just doing a typical summer job. Well, I can tell you that experience was something that will live with me forever, because I met some extraordinary people. I ended up meeting Lech Wałęsa, who was under house arrest, in his home in Gdansk. I interviewed him for the Harvard International Review, and I had a terrific time.
I also studied at the Leningrad State University for a summer program in 1982. This was early days, before Gorbachev. Again, it was an odd thing to do, but the experience stayed with me for the rest of my life.
I would urge any young person to consider doing things that are unusual, that challenge you and open your horizons, because I think as you get older, it can only be positive to look back at those experiences, and say you did something at a time when you were young and able to benefit. And I think that one’s mental flexibility is a skill for the future.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met and why?
A: Well, there are three people. Firstly, Bill Clinton. I worked with Bill Clinton in the White House in 1994 and 1995. He is a very unusual person; unusual in the breadth and depth of his knowledge, and his ability to interact with people from many different walks of life. He’s extremely intelligent, with an ability to absorb information rapidly. I witnessed this on many occasions, including when we travelled together and I had to brief him. He’s a truly skilled politician, who I think will go down in history. I should note that I had the opportunity to work with Hillary Clinton, who also impressed me with the depth of her knowledge and ability to absorb information quickly.
The second person is Jeffery Immelt of General Electric. I worked with him at GE for a number of years. He struck me, not only because of his breadth of knowledge, but also because of his international outlook, which I thought was unusual for a CEO.
The third person is our current President, Barack Obama, with whom I’ve worked now for years – I supported him from an early stage. Initially, many people thought I was naïve, and that he would never win. But I thought Obama was extraordinary from the outset, for some of the same reasons that I mentioned with respect to Bill Clinton. Also, Obama is a very cool, rational analyst of every situation. I’ve never heard him say something that was not thoroughly thought through. I’ve never seen him lose his cool, even in tough situations. And again, I think he will go down in history as a great President.