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Q & A: Steven E. Sokol, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh

What brought you here from New York?
It's funny. I get that question all the time. I've only been in Pittsburgh about seven months, and people keep asking me why I moved here. The answer is simple really: I came for the opportunity and for the challenge.

I am new to Pittsburgh. I came here after stints in New York and Berlin to head the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh – a non-profit nonpartisan organization which was created 80 years ago to educate and inform the community about international issues. In its work, the Council focuses largely on students and teachers in the region's secondary schools and offers a range of public policy discussions tailored to the interests of the professional community. The goal is to provide people with a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of international affairs – and their impact on southwestern PA.

This is an exciting opportunity – and, I am very happy to be here.

What has surprised you the most about Pittsburgh so far?
Since I arrived here in July, I have met lots and lots of people. I have been struck by the pride people have in Pittsburgh – which goes beyond a passion for the Steelers and Penguins as well as the high "quality of life" ratings Pittsburgh has garnered in recent years.

But, what has really surprised me is the unbridled enthusiasm Pittsburghers have to affect change. Regardless of their professional background – the arts, education, business, non-profits, foundations, etc. – people have talked about the tremendous opportunities which exist here.

Pittsburgh is a place where if you have energy and ideas, you can make a difference.

I've also become infected by Pittsburgh's transformation. Everyone talks about Pittsburgh evolving from a city of iron, steel, and coke to a city of "meds and eds" as well as energy and financial services. It seems to me that we are eight chapters into a twelve chapter narrative. There are some tremendous successes we can look back on over the past thirty years – but there is still a lot to do in order to make sure that Pittsburgh remains competitive.

What are your plans for making Pittsburgh a more international city?
There's no doubt that Pittsburgh is an international city. But, it may not be as international today as it was in its heyday.

Hosting the G-20 Summit in 2009 focused international attention on this city. There are more than 340 international companies in the region. But, there is still a lot more to do…

My goal is not to make Pittsburgh a more international city per se but to make Pittsburghers more aware of developments around the world as well as their implications on Pittsburgh and the region. The World Affairs Council serves as Pittsburgh's window on the world by providing people with the opportunity to learn about and discuss a range of foreign policy issues as the unfold. The Council can also serve as the world's window on Pittsburgh. I'd like to use the Council to showcase some of the exciting things which are happening here.

Why is this so important?

This may sound trite, but we don't just live in Pittsburgh. We live in a world with a global economy. The recent economic and financial crisis which sent shockwaves around the world should have made clear how interconnected the global economy is.

Every major challenge we face – from environmental degradation to global warming, to pandemic diseases, to shortages in energy, food, and water, to terrorism and weapons proliferation – has an international dimension. Solving these problems requires international cooperation among governments, professional organizations, and corporations.

As the line between domestic and international issues blurs, U.S. citizens will increasingly vote and act on issues that require greater knowledge of the world. This is true in Pittsburgh as well.

I also think it is important for people to have a deeper understanding of international issues in order to maintain the region's competitiveness.

We live in an environment which is multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual. If people have the skills and ability to navigate other cultures and languages, they will be better off.

What are you most curious about these days?
That's a good question.

It seems as though there is an endless number of intractable foreign policy issues. Some of them are tangible – such as Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Arab-Israeli peace process, ongoing instability and unrest in Afghanistan and Iraq, and (unfortunately) many more. Others are less tangible – such as the role and responsibility of the emerging powers, global warming, energy security, responding to natural disasters and pandemics. The first set of issues is shaped by geography. The second transcend boundaries.

These issues are all important. But, the topic that keeps me awake at night is not the world we live in today, but the world of tomorrow.

According to the National Intelligence Council, between 2009 and 2025 world population is expected to increase from 6.8 billion to 8 billion. The United Nations predicts that the world population will reach 9 billion by 2050. It is anticipated that virtually all of this population growth will take place in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

As the world population is slated to reach eight – or nine – billion people, global demand for many key materials is growing at an unsustainable rate. Taken together population growth and economic growth are leading – and will continue to lead – to growing competition for highly strategic natural resources (such as energy, food, and water) and ultimately shortages in many vital resources.

Conflict over energy, water, arable land, and minerals – and the power and wealth they confer – is becoming an increasingly important global security issue. However, unlike the more immediate security threats we face today, a discussion of the medium- to long-term implications of shrinking supplies of critical natural resources coupled with the dramatic growth of the world's population and increasing industrialization is often relegated to the "back-burner."

What's your favorite possession, big or small?
Can I mention two?

When I was a student in Berlin from 1988 to 1990 I bought a pair of sturdy leather hiking boots. I still have them – and love to wear them to hike or navigate tough winter terrain on my walk to/from work.

When I bought them, I thought they cost a fortune. It was a real splurge. But, I knew that if I took care of them they'd last a long time. It's been over 20 years and they are still going strong.

The second possession is a beautiful Mont Blanc fountain pen. Today people are always sending messages electronically. Typing or texting. But, a personal handwritten note can make a huge impact. It shows that someone has taken time. I like to use my Mont Blanc for personal notes.

Favorite thing to do?
I enjoy good, simple food. I like to cook but I also like to find good restaurants.

It's been fun poking around and searching out good places to eat in Pittsburgh. I was surprised how many good restaurants there are here – and I have not even tried them all!  

I live close to the Strip District and I've had a great time exploring the food stores in the Strip. It reminds me a little of Europe.

One of the reasons why I like food is because it brings people together. People convene for meals and conversation ensues. I'm big on getting people to exchange ideas and opinions.

I was recently interviewed by the BBC at "Conflict Kitchen." One of the things that we talked about is how food can bring people together to talk… Through food and engagement, one can draw down stereotypes. I think that's a good thing. And, it can be fun to share a meal with different people.

What public figure do you most admire?

I really admire the New York Times columnist Nick Kristoff.  I value his reporting on global health,poverty, and gender issues in the developing world.

Who are your favorite writers??
I read a lot. My favorite novelists include the British writers David Mitchell and Ian McEwan. I also like Haruki Murakami.

Some of the non-fiction writers I enjoy are Calvin Trillin, Michael Pollin, and Malcolm Gladwell.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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