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Mar 29, 2018
by Oscar Tollast
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Charles Morrison - Asian Leadership Will be Needed to Help Address Climate Change

Former president of East-West Center reflects on new multi-year series and importance of collaboration Charles Morrison speaking at Salzburg Global Seminar

Two years ago, Charles Morrison, the former president of the East-West Center, took part in a planning meeting to discuss ways in which to increase capacity in Asian regional organizations. He and others identified two or three areas where progress could be made. The output of this meeting was a new multi-year series held in partnership between Salzburg Global Seminar and the Japan Foundation. The Asia We Want: Building Community Through Regional Cooperation I - A Clean and Green Asia is the first of three meetings which will hopefully lead to a synthesis program convened in Asia in 2020.

“Climate change [and] environment was the first area,” says Morrison, speaking during the session he helped plan. “It’s an incredibly important issue, not just for Asia but for the world. It’s one in which Asian leadership will be needed…” Morrison is at Schloss Leopoldskron, the historic home of Salzburg Global Seminar, as a facilitator. After complimenting the selection of participants, he says, “I think it’s generally really lively discussions and a lot of learning because people are talking to other people with whom they share interests but not necessarily with whom they’ve ever met before or had discussions.”

Morrison first joined the East-West Center in the 1980s, moving to Hawaii to work as a research scholar. At the start of the next decade, he became the director of the Center’s economic and politics program. In 1998, he was selected as the Center’s president. After nearly 20 years at the institution, Morrison still underlines the importance of bridging divides and bringing people together from different parts of the world.

“The biggest thing that has happened during my lifetime, aside from the kind of rise of Asia, has been this continent - Europe - where two world wars started,” Morrison says. “People are now growing up in France, Germany, Britain, Italy [and] can’t even imagine their countries at war… It’s a transformation, not just in international relations, but in a way that people that think. They can squabble [on] the soccer field, but the idea of countries being at war is unimaginable.”

Morrison says this is a 20th-century achievement which is continuous and requires constant work. No achievement is necessarily forever, he warns. Reflecting on Asia, he says, “There’s a lot of regional rivalries, and with the development, there’s a lot of new issues. Climate change is only one of the many issues that Asia faces. Building those relationships between Europe, North America, and Asia, I think, is incredibly important.”

Alongside his role as president, Morrison has written on Southeast Asian international relations, US foreign and trade policies toward Asia, and Asia-Pacific regional organizations. He adds, “The East-West Center works mainly on [the] North America, East Asia - to some extent - and South Asia relationship, and it does [in] the same ways as Salzburg Global. It’s [a] very complementary institution from my perspective. We work with young people. We do educational programs and research activities, and we do dialogues for prevention and development.”

Morrison stepped down from his position as president last year. He remains involved with the Center as a distinguished senior fellow. He assists with fundraising and activities where he feels he can contribute. Commenting on the presentations he’s witnessed at Salzburg during the latest session, he indicates some of the projects proposed may be, in his opinion, “overly ambitious.” That said, he doesn’t rule any of them out from succeeding. He adds, “I think as long as people are committed to work together, the projects will be further refined and actually achieve something.”


Charles Morrison was a facilitator at The Asia We Want: Building Community Through Regional Cooperation I - A Clean and Green Asia, the first session of a new multi-year series held in partnership with the Japan Foundation. For more information on the session, please click here. To keep up to date with the conversations taking place during the session on social media, follow #SGSasia.

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