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Ambassador Frank Wisner: The vitality of New York

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-01-24

What does a New Yorker do after spending four decades abroad in the cause of American foreign policy? Frank G. Wisner, former American ambassador to India -- among other high-level assignments that he's held -- returned home to New York to sustain his foreign policy interests through the corporate world. As vice chairman of the American International Group, better known as AIG, Mr. Wisner says he's come back to "what continues to be the pre-eminent global city."

"I sense a new optimism in New York, I sense that we've bounced back from the horror of 9/11, and certainly from the anxieties and discouraging climate of the 1970s, when the city went through a wrenching financial crisis," Mr. Wisner said, over tea at the Four Seasons restaurant the other day. "There's been a rebirth, evidence of a huge resilience, a re-emergence of public spiritedness, especially among young Americans."

"No city anywhere in the world offers the freedoms, the intellectual and artistic excitement, the professional opportunities, the venues for partaking of the good, wholesome life, that New York does," the ambassador said, adding that he considered himself "unabashedly pro-New York and pro-America."

"Not only is the New York the most American of all cities, it is the most international of all cities that I've seen," he said. "It's all happening here."

He warned, however, that New Yorkers mustn't take their city's pre-eminence for granted. "Look at Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, Dubai, Singapore -- these are all hugely powerful urban centers -- and they will give New York a run for the money, as far as its status as a global financial center is concerned," Mr. Wisner said. "And they have the advantage of not enjoying the tender attention of Mr. Osama bin Laden."

How does he view New York's business and financial community?

"The business and financial community in New York was always civic minded, but I am impressed by how much more the community is engaged today in New York's civic life," he said. "I've yet to come across a city where, when the mayor or governor calls in with a request, business leaders respond so quickly and generously."

Mr. Wisner has special words for Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, AIG's chairman and CEO, who he said recognized the importance of encouraging young professionals to advance rapidly in business and also to be mindful of social justice.

Like Mr. Greenberg, Ambassador Wisner is concerned about maintaining and improving high education standards so that America can better compete in today's world of explosive globalization.

"I worry about education a lot," he told The New York Sun. "We are facing global competition, the like of which we've never seen before. The lowering of trade barriers and barriers has meant that the playing field is even more level internationally. Americans need to be better prepared to deal with such competition. And that means that we must give the best educational opportunities for all our people so that, in the final analysis, America isn't left behind."

He drums that message repeatedly -- not only in informal conversations -- but also when he makes his frequent appearances before audiences at prestigious institutions such as the Asia Society and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and at schools and colleges in the city and around America.

In fact, Ambassador Wisner has three core messages: the importance of providing solid and affordable education to the masses; the importance of tolerance; and the importance of maintaining America as an open society.

"One of the prices we paid after 9/11 was limiting access to our country," he said. "But even as we fight global terrorism, there must be sensible visa policies. America has always been nourished by the talent and energy that outsiders bring to our society. I want America to be more open. That's where New York offers a lesson -- a lesson in tolerance, in cooperation, a certain toughness, and, I dare say, even a certain humility."

"I am worried by the great divides that seem to be sprouting in the world today," Mr. Wisner said. "I'm most alarmed by what separates thoughtful Americans and people in the Middle East, a region that we cannot afford to ignore. At the same time, the world out there needs to understand who we are as a people, what our needs are. American culture is something to be appreciated, not denigrated."

"When all is said and done," Ambassador Wisner said, "I really do believe that sensitivity and tolerance are embedded in the American system. But it's our collective responsibility -- as business leaders, as politicians and diplomats, as educators, as religious and social leaders -- to ensure that America remains a citadel of tolerance and openness."

"I've been enormously fortunate because I came out of era of certainty and clarity about where the world was going," he said. "There are fewer certainties now. It's a different world, and the test of leadership will be how to prepare Americans to cope with -- and triumph -- in this changing world."

What would be his advice to young people for them to do well in this changing world?

"Think of a multiplicity of careers," Ambassador Wisner said. "Get more variety into your professional life early on -- whether it's a combination of public service and the private sector, or something else, like nongovernmental organizations. Learn more about what it's like to live in other parts of the world. That will teach you to be more tolerant and more open to other cultures. Then you can bring back your newly acquired knowledge home to America, home to New York."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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