Later this week I’ll be posting a new article by Ingrid Anders. I met Ingrid at a diplomatic meeting of officials and experts which had gathered to discuss nuclear non-proliferation in San Francisco. In this article I tell the story of how I got there. It’s a story about the importance of backing yourself and the power of will to make things happen.
The Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders Group is a great initiative run by the Hawaiian offshoot of the prestigious CSIS in Washington. It brings together the next generation of thinkers and policy-makers from around the world to thrash out the complexities of the various strategic challenges faced by the international community, especially those in the Asia Pacific region. The Young Leaders have the amazing privilege of attending what are known as second-track diplomatic dialogues. The second-track talks are extremely important as they are much more informal and often off the record. Delegates have the opportunity to really wrestle with the main issues before the official talks begin. At this level, government officials are often joined by relevant experts and members of organizations like the United Nations and their nuclear arm, the IAEA.
The story behind my joining this group starts in 2004 when a wrote a couple of small research papers on the nuclear situation on the Korean Peninsula. In particular, I was interested in the part that history and culture was playing, and how better understanding of this might inform the way the major players handled the situation to create the most desirable outcomes. A couple of these papers can be downloaded from the Publications page on this site.
A year later, I published one of these in a new academic journal, Strategic Challenges, and in the year following I put it forward for a competition held by the body the published the journal, the Kokoda Foundation. Now, I didn’t win first prize but I got third and the prize money covered my plane ticket to the award dinner in Canberra where the Minister for Defence presented the awards. It was a proud moment in front of an impressive line-up of politicians, officials, and media.
Not long after, I noticed a call for Young Leaders in an email from one of the international strategic policy groups, CSCAP (Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific). They wanted countries to nominate a YL to send to a meeting on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (‘WMD’) in Hanoi Vietnam. This was my chance. I had two weeks to secure a nomination and get funding.
I immediately wrote off to the Australian CSCAP office to ask for their blessing. Getting nomination was straight forward as I had the relevant background and the recent acknowledgement of my work from local peers. That was day one. Now for the cash.
I was a broke PhD student so I didn’t have the money for a ticket. I started an intense campaign lobbying various organizations to invest in me. Over 9 hours I approached over a dozen offices, beginning with my own department, and then strategic policy institutes, and even professors in other university faculties that might have an interest in being represented at this meeting. Despite rejection after rejection I kept on thinking of more options to try, including writing to the Minister of Defence himself and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Professor Glyn Davis.
No one was interested, though a couple of people saw the value of what I was trying to do, including the Chancellor of the university at the time who a friend had contacted on my behalf. His interest, while confidence boosting, had no practical outcome. Those who saw me primarily as a Classics person couldn’t appreciate the point of this. What was a PhD student writing about Homer doing trying to get to a meeting on WMDs? Of course, to me though, these distinctions were irrelevant, especially as I’ve successfully worked across several areas for years. All I focussed on was that this was a great opportunity and I knew I was the man for the job, so to speak.
A week passed, and still nothing…
Another week and still nothing….
Then just as that week was coming to a close, I checked my email and waiting for me was a message from the Director of the Office of the Vice Chancellor saying that they would be delighted to give me the funding and wanted me to represent the University at this meeting. Wow!! This was even better than I had expected and to top it off they actually gave me more than I asked for. The only thing was that the meetings in Hanoi were in two days time. There was no way for me to get the visa in time (note to self, next time, get the visa ready anyway!).
What to do? Well, my superiors advised me just to accept that I had missed the boat. The funding was an amazing coup but it was a one-off thing, so I had better not push my luck.
I would not be deterred though, and as it turned out, the VC was more than happy to hold the funding for the next meeting which would be in San Francisco. Two months later I found myself sitting alongside the full array of experts and officials. All the delegates stay at the same hotel, so the conversations go day and night, some of the best being held over lunch and dinner. For someone like me, this was incredibly exciting, chatting with North Korean officials over dinner about my interpretation of their policies, and delegates from nuclear weapon states like India and Pakistan. It was particularly cool when American State Department officials would pop out of the room and come back in with news from the 6 Party Talks that were being held in Beijing to settle the Korean Peninsula crisis. The chief of the American delegation, Victor Cha, then the National Security Advisor, was meant to be with us in San Fran but the talks were making good progress. We were getting the updates in real-time, a day before the news appeared in the headlines of the world press. It was an exciting, at times nerve-racking and even overwhelming experience. It was one I’ll never forget.
I was only there because I backed myself 100%. I saw an opportunity and I was prepared to do what it took to make it happen. This required communicating the value of the enterprise and my own value in the clearest possible terms, while putting into effect the advice of an old mentor who once told me don’t be backward in coming forward. It required thinking as broadly as possible to find the right people to communicate my message to. I knew I had to deal only with those with the power to make quick discretionary decisions, so this meant going straight to the top, and this requires a bit more guts than usual. It changes the message from an application which is very passive to an investment invitation. It required filtering the advice I was getting from different people – listening and acting on that which offered a new way forward while respectfully dismissing that from those who did not see the value that I saw. It required that I believe in myself rather than accepting the limited understanding that others had of me and the contribution I was capable of making.
Basically though, it was all about persistence and belief – believing that I was worth it, and that I would find a way, because when the will is there, we can achieve anything.
…and if you’re curious about what was achieved at this meeting, read the report here.