Mark Watson (1978) has lived in Port Moresby, Hong Kong, Singapore and most recently Washington DC, where he recently launched the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) Washington DC Office. Mark shared with us his journey to College and what came after, including a career as a solicitor before he set off to travel the globe with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT). A life-long learner, Mark furthered his studies in Mandarin Chinese at the RAAF School of Languages and the National University of Singapore, and undertook post-graduate degrees in public policy (UNE), the Economic and Civil Law of the PRC at the University of Hong Kong and the Senior Executives Leadership program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. We caught up with him as he prepares to make the move home to Canberra for his next adventure!
Please tell us a bit about yourself – where are you originally from and where did you grow up?
I grew up in Newcastle and went to Newcastle Boys High School. When I came down to College, it was with a group of friends from both High School and even from primary school. It made for a soft landing into College and Sydney more generally.
What were you involved in while you lived at College?
I really tried to engage in College life on all levels (although there were fewer ‘levels’ to College life compared to now). I played sports (rugby, basketball, athletics) and was the Honorary Secretary on the House Committee, and Intercol Rep. But mostly it was the friendships, within Andrew’s and across the Colleges that took up most of my time. It took me a little while to get the social-academic balance right!
Do you have a favourite memory you would like to share?
That’s like being asked to choose your favourite child! In some ways the most enduring memory I have is my very first impressions when arriving at College. The College oval, the sun reflecting off the sandstone of Main Building – the whole package was quite something for a 17-year-old coming from Newcastle. The Main Building at that time had linoleum flooring in the halls, which had just been polished, and the walls had been freshly painted. Whenever I smell floor polish and fresh paint these days, it takes me straight back to those first few days in College and the incredible excitement I felt about what lay ahead.
You have a degree in Law and Strategic Studies. You then went on to do a Master’s in Public Policy and completed postgraduate studies in China’s Economic and Civil Law at the University of Hong Kong. Why did you decide to pursue your education further? How has this helped get you where you are today?
It’s almost a cliché now to talk about ‘lifelong learning’, but it is absolutely true. At different stages of life and career, you need to look up from the path you are on, take some time to consider new subjects or look at new ways of seeing the world in general or your world in particular. I found postgraduate studies sort of hit the ‘refresh button’ for me. The point is to challenge yourself and grow as a person in the process. I took on learning Mandarin Chinese at 32, and of course it was a slog (there is no substitute for old-school memorising when it comes to learning Chinese characters), but it opened up a whole new set of relationships, experiences and professional opportunities.
Having had over 30 years’ experience in law, international relations and national security, what was it that initially drew you to the industry? How has your career path changed over this time and what were the reasons for this?
I started out as a solicitor, straight out of law school, with Moray & Agnew. I really enjoyed my time there, and always expected to return to the law after a period of wandering the globe with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Fact is I enjoyed the foreign affairs job too much, and DFAT kept offering me great new postings – first up Port Moresby, then Hong Kong, Singapore, London and finally, Washington – and so I kept putting off returning to the law until one day I realised I was 30 years into my career, so that was increasingly unlikely! When I finally left DFAT in 2020, I did some private sector consulting and advisory work, before a third career of sorts with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
You recently returned to Australia following a stint as the Director of the ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute) office in Washington DC. Can you please tell us a little more about the organisation and what it is you do?
ASPI is one of a small but growing number of ‘think tanks’ in Australia, and the only strategic policy institute of its kind here. There are several other excellent peer organisations like the Lowy Institute, the United States Study Centre, and Perth’s USAsia Centre, but each has its own particular focus. In the US of course, thinks tanks are common – over 1800 across the US and over 400 in Washington DC alone. ASPI and the Australian Government took a decision a few years back, that it would be in Australia’s interest (and ASPI’s) to open the first Australian think tank in Washington DC, to ensure that Australian perspectives, delivered with a ‘uniquely Australian voice’, would be part of US policy debates on issues that affect Australia, and the US – Australia alliance. I was appointed as the inaugural Director of the ASPI office in Washington, and we have been up and running for about 18 months now – and that ‘uniquely Australian voice’ is definitely being heard!
You have worked in some amazing places all over the world – the US, as well as Hong Kong, Singapore and London! How have you found it?
Working for DFAT presented absolutely incredible experiences and opportunities for myself and my family. The sorts of experiences I have had, money can’t buy (literally). It’s one of the reasons I would encourage College students who are interested in international relations or national security issues to consider a career that takes them out of their comfort zone personally and professionally and challenges them to make a difference for their country.
What was the biggest change or challenge in moving from Canberra to Washington DC?
Biggest challenge? Remembering to look left when stepping off the curb! DC drivers truly are ‘fast and the furious’.
So, where can you find a decent cup of coffee in Washington?
Compass Coffee – a DC chain – is the best brew I found (honourable mention to Blue Stone Lane, an Australian outfit). Word on the street is that Compass Coffee was a start-up by a group of ex-CIA officers… or maybe it was ex-Special Forces. Either way: would recommend it!
There may be current students and young alumni who, like yourself, would like to experience working in another country. Does ASPI offer anything such as internships and what does the application process look like for this?
ASPI has an intern program in Canberra but one of my key objectives in Washington is to create peer-to-peer opportunities for early career policy practitioners and thought leaders. As part of that, I am currently building out an internship program for young Australians to come to Washington DC, work in the ASPI office there and take part in everything that Washington DC has to offer. I am working with the College’s leadership team to explore what possibilities there might be for College students or recent graduates to undertake paid internships, whether short-term (summer internships) or longer post-graduation internships. Keep an eye out for future advice (https://www.aspi.org.au/internship).
Now that you have launched the ASPI Washington DC office you are heading back to Australia. What’s next after you return back home?
I am now a Senior Fellow at APSI, so I will be doing research focussed on AUKUS, the US-Australia Alliance and the role and influence of China in the Indo-Pacific. I also deliver Professional Development programs to Australian government agencies, and I have resumed my strategic consultancy work providing advice to private sector organisations looking to de-risk their international presence or future business planning. Staying on top of strategic trends in China and the US will be a big factor in investment decisions for Australian companies operating in the Indo-Pacific for at least the next decade.
Is there anything you like to do outside of work to help you relax and switch off?
I’m a big sports fan, so Washington was a dream. It’s one of the cities in the US that has teams in all four major sporting competitions – NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA. Time spent at the ballpark is never time wasted – even if the Washington Nationals are currently in a ‘rebuilding phase’. And the whole area around Washington down through Fredericksburg to Richmond, and up to Gettysburg and Antietam is full of Civil War history sites; and Washington itself has amazing galleries and museums as part of the Smithsonian Institution, so weekends are pretty easy to fill.
What are you reading, watching or listening to at the moment that you’d recommend to others?
I have been binge-watching documentaries – ‘David Crosby: Remember my name’; ‘The Last Movie Stars’ (about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward); and in particular, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, a documentary about the civil rights movement in America seen through the life and work of the truly remarkable James Baldwin. The first two probably date me a little, but the Baldwin doco is timeless in its messages.
Lastly, do you have any words of advice on how to go about developing a career in the public policy space?
It really starts with your degree, choosing subjects that will fill your understanding of how history, geography and politics collide to produce the ingredients for current strategic policy challenges, whether domestic or international. Then your options are: government; international organisations; academia; or the world of think tanks. The big Federal Government departments (DFAT, Defence, Treasury etc.) all have Graduate Entry programs, as do national security agencies like ASIS, ASIO and ASD. Have a think about what really motivates you to get up and get going every day (and no, the answer isn’t always “Money!”). My parting piece of advice would be never assume that there is someone else out there better placed than you to make a difference. Back yourself!