Diverse thought leaders headline Octavian Forum

23 October 2019

The Octavian Forum returned to Sotheby's global headquarters in New York on 23 October 2019, bringing together a diverse array of thought leaders to discuss geopolitics, technology, finance and culture. The Forum was sponsored by Macquarie Capital with the goal to share deep expertise and an open exchange of ideas across industries and networks.

The two-day event focused on innovation in the evolving global education space and broader cultural, economic and geopolitical topics such as Brexit and the rise of China. Guests heard from former heads of state and cultural heavyweights, such as José Maria Aznar and Paula Dobriansky who offered insight on some of the most challenging topics across the globe.

"The Octavian Forum aims to restore public discourse across disciplines by giving a platform to world-renowned experts and their insights that help enable constructive conversations."

Richard Hurowitz, founder and publisher of The Octavian Report

Uncertain geopolitical times

José Maria Aznar, who served as Prime Minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004, discussed the economic tensions between the US and China and his concern for a world without a strong European Union.

Aznar, an adamant supporter of a unified Europe, noted that after suffering through two World Wars and the Cold War, 28 countries with different languages and cultures were able to form as a unified force.

While Aznar acknowledged major challenges with the European Union, he still believes that Brexit and dismantling the European Union is "a very serious mistake." Blaming the Brexit scission on a lack of leadership, Aznar also decried the global rise of the nationalism, popularism and tribalism forces that he believes undermine a unified Europe.

Paula Dobriansky, former US Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2009, addressed concerns over China outpacing other countries in research and development and how the US needs to step up or risk falling behind China within a decade.

“I think if we do not change our own game and look at what constitutes the new frontier, then we will be woefully behind," Dobriansky said.

Supporting this is a recent Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored report, which noted that while the US has been the world leader when it comes to innovation and R&D since World War II, spending on the latter has plummeted from 1.2% of GDP in 1985 to 0.66% in 2016. Contrasting that was China, which has increased its R&D spend an average of 18% annually since 2000, and “will likely equal or exceed the United States in overall R&D expenditures after 2030," the report states.

The event also featured a panel of experts who have shaped policy in the Middle East, which outlined potential consequences of US action and inaction in the region today. It included Lana Nusseibeh, permanent representative of the United Arab Emirates to the United Nations; Dennis Ross, former US Special Envoy to the Middle East; CIA veteran Norman Roule; and Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In a separate presentation, renowned French philosopher, activist, author and filmmaker Bernard-Henri Lévy spoke passionately about his long-time support of the Kurdish community. Lévy serves as president of the New York-based non-profit, Justice for Kurds, and has advocated fiercely for the Kurdish people including creating two documentaries in 2016 and 2017 about their fight against ISIS.

What culture teaches us

While many forum presenters shared their insights on today's most contentious geopolitical issues, the audience was also treated to discussions addressing current cultural topics. Speakers included contemporary painter John Currin, former principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre Ethan Stiefel, investor and journalist Zachary Karabell, and Abraham Foxman, who led the Anti-Defamation League for nearly 30 years as its national director.

Foxman shared his thoughts on the divisiveness in much of today's society. Despite his own doubts about eradicating hate in his lifetime, Foxman urged his audience to be proactive in standing up to bigotry and prejudice.

Calling hate a “disease without an antidote," Foxman declared “we need to find a way to live with it…We don't have the luxury not to see [hate]." He also spoke of the internet and how it has made it easier for people to hide behind a mask, resulting in further wide-spread incivility, where bad actors face limited consequences.

Also rejoining the stage after participating in the Octavian Macquarie Education Forum from day one, was former CFO of Pixar animation film studio Lawrence Levy, whom alongside Steve Jobs, resurrected the once failing studio.

Levy, who credits Buddhism and meditation for his mental well-being and success, spoke about the “perils of prosperity," and the dire consequences on psychological well-being for a culture that prioritizes materialism and wealth above all else. He noted that nowhere is this more evident than in Silicon Valley.

“Never had so much wealth been created in one place so quickly," Levy said. “And if prosperity is the key to a good life, I would expect Silicon Valley to be the land of joy. It isn't."

About Octavian Forum

The Octavian Forum is organized by the creators of The Octavian Report, a quarterly journal of contemporary analysis and insight. Richard Hurowitz, CEO of Octavian Media and Octavian Group, previously founded a global hedge fund that was sold in 2013 to a private equity firm.