Home » News » Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Davor Kunc on Building Bridges and Transatlantic Ties

Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Davor Kunc on Building Bridges and Transatlantic Ties

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Join Roger Ream ’76 in this week’s Liberty + Leadership Podcast as he speaks with Davor Kunc, a senior coordination officer at the European Investment Fund in Luxembourg.

Davor discusses what it was like attending three TFAS programs, how TFAS’s European programs help bridge the divide among students from adversary states, Davor’s internship at the Voice of America Croatian Service, the work he does at the European Investment Fund, the historic connections between the U.S. and Croatia, and how “the pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit” is the best way to approach challenges.

Born in Zagreb, Croatia, Davor Kunc serves as a senior coordination officer of mandate management at the European Investment Fund, where he manages working groups on EU multi-annual financial framework and sustainability, policy and climate, and assists with the improvement of mandate management strategy. Davor attended three TFAS programs: Prague 2002, Greece 2004, and the Public Policy and Economics program in Washington, D.C., in 2005. He is also a winner of TFAS’s Kevin Burket Alumni Service Award. In 2023, he attended the TFAS Alumni Curriculum of Liberty Seminar in Athens, Greece, co-sponsored with TFAS and Liberty Fund. He is an alumnus of University of Zagreb and earned a master’s degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).


Episode Transcript

The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.

Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, supporters, faculty and friends who are making a real impact in public policy, business, philanthropy, law and journalism. Today, I’m excited to be joined by Davor Kunc, a three-time TFAS alumnus. Davor attended TFAS programs in 2002, 2004 and 2005, joining us in Prague, Greece and Washington, D.C. While he was in D.C., Davor had the opportunity to intern with the Croatian Service of the Voice of America, which kicked off his long career in international relations. He came back to Washington to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins SAIS, and then to work at the World Bank. He later returned to Europe, where he is now. He worked first for the international organizations in Brussels and Luxembourg. Davor exemplifies what it means to be a lifelong supporter of TFAS. And today, we’ll discuss his passion for TFAS programs and his commitment to world affairs. Davor, thanks so much for joining me today.

Davor Kunc [00:01:24] Thank you, Roger, for the invite and for this kind introduction.

Roger Ream [00:01:28] I want to talk about your involvement in TFAS programs at first and then shift a little bit to the work you do in your home country of Croatia and the work you do in Europe. That’s all very important. Tell us a little bit about your life prior to coming to your first TFAS program in 2002. I know you were born in Zagreb, I believe, and grew up there. Can you give us just a little snapshot of that?

Davor Kunc [00:01:54] Born and raised in Zagreb, spent my life there. I was just commenting in the backstage, my 25th high school reunion is coming up soon in October. My undergrad was at the University of Zagreb in economics and business. I worked for about four years before I moved on to first studying abroad at SAIS and then on to also working abroad, what you mentioned in the intro. The summer program that I did two years before my grad school in D.C., so the summer program that I did with TFAS really was crucial for making the decision to do grad school in the U.S.

Roger Ream [00:02:42] The first program in 2002 was in Prague, and for those people listening to this who don’t know about that program, I’ll just mention that, that program was something we established in 1993, and it brings together impressive, outstanding young people from throughout Eastern Central Europe, some from Western Europe and the United States, and occasionally a smattering of other countries. So, you went there in 2002 with 80 to 100 other young leaders from throughout Europe. What was that experience like? I don’t know if you had traveled much before going to that program, whether it was your first trip out of Croatia. I imagine not, but I’d love to hear about that experience.

Davor Kunc [00:03:24] There were plenty of opportunities to travel on these student conferences, seminars, etc., but not many of them had such a strong academic program that TFAS did, but also, I would add, such a strong selection of participants. I mean, I was recently in Greece on a TFAS weekend program, TFAS and Liberty Fund, and a colleague mentioned, “You know, Davor, I went to all these student conferences, etc., but when whenever I land in a new city, the first people that I call are the TFAS alumni.” You guys did something good. I don’t know what it was, but something about the selection program was really, really done well. Amazing participants, amazing academic content, good networking, fantastic faculty. These were all the differences compared to some of, let’s say, competition to TFAS at that time.

Roger Ream [00:04:29] After Prague and that experience you went to a program we had in Greece that was on the island of Crete, was it?

Davor Kunc [00:04:37] Yeah, I think I might be the record holder, what I mentioned to you – besides the three programs, meaning Prague, Greece, and then the English Institute in D.C. I also did some of these alumni related, I think one of them was in D.C. and then two in Greece. I mean, the one in Prague had the focus besides the Americans on Central Eastern Europe, the one in Greece besides Americans and Central Eastern Europe had also the students from the Eastern Mediterranean, so you had the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Israelis, Palestinians, and this was indeed the first exposure to that region. It was amazing. I mean, I remember it was intense, positively intense. I mean, whether it was the content, whether it was Adam Smith, whether it was Ibn Khaldun, the national presentations that we did, the social element of it, the fact that we were in Greece in July for a month with people from several dozen countries there. Those links remained, and with also some of those Croatian participants who were there, we formed then afterwards the alumni club.

Roger Ream [00:05:54] You mentioned that in Greece the students came from the Eastern Mediterranean, the Levant. There were several dozen countries represented. You know, when we established that, you know, we built into it a conflict management component. At the time, that was 1996 when we had the first year, of course, the tensions in the Balkans were still fresh and taking place really. The conflict, of course, in the Middle East, multiple conflicts, perhaps tensions between Greece and Turkey. At one point I think we counted among the student body about a dozen conflicts that were taking place in the areas they came from. What was the interaction like? I mean, were students from Croatia and Serbia and other countries in the Balkans interacting, the interaction between Israelis and Palestinian students, and Lebanese? How were those interactions? Does that kind of program break down those barriers and start conversations that otherwise wouldn’t take place?

Davor Kunc [00:06:55] You know, there was a course on conflict management, which was a very good one. I forgot the names of the professors; I remember the face. The biggest or the best conflict management was just to put all of them together and to discuss all the other topics, to discuss Adam Smith, to discuss Fukuyama. On the side, conversations also discussed their situations. It was, I think for a lot of them, the first experience to see the Israelis, sometimes vice versa. For the Balkans, I would say it was less of an issue. It was immediately a party. For the Arabs and Israelis, maybe the day after, not immediately the first day. The national presentations were always interesting, like how do you present? There’s a lot of sensitivity there, but you need to put it out there, and the kids need to find their way to cope with those differences and with different views, different perspectives. And it helped a lot, I think, for any further that the students went to.

Roger Ream [00:08:07] I recall one of those early programs being at the closing ceremony in Crete and a Turkish student, actually I think it’s when the program was still in Athens, but a Turkish student got up at the closing ceremony and talked about how he developed lifelong friendships with Greek students. He never thought that would happen. He came to the realization that Greek and Turkish food was kind of more similar than the food of the other countries that were represented there. The language had some similarities, perhaps the culture, the music they liked. He went on and on about this, and afterwards I said to him: “boy, that was a beautiful testimonial about our program. Could I get a copy of it?” He said: “No, are you kidding? You know, if my friends at home heard what I had said, I’d be in trouble with them for saying good things about Greeks.” But he came to believe that and respect the differences, I guess, and acknowledge the similarities and built friendships, so that’s a success. It’s interesting what you said. I just thought your comment was very interesting about saying: you know, you didn’t necessarily focus on the exact conflicts, but you talked about Adam Smith and Tocqueville and Ibn Khaldun, and you name some others as part of that discussion that goes on both in the classroom and after the classroom. I think a lot of those issues that those thinkers raise in their writings and that are looked on in the classroom certainly have reverberations wherever you live today, whether it’s in Israel, Lebanon, Croatia, Luxembourg, whatever, for people to consider as to how we organize societies in ways that promote peace and human flourishing.

Davor Kunc [00:09:50] Absolutely. I mean, just now, relatively recently, in March in Athens, we had 12 or so alumni, everything in between Estonia, Croatia, Serbia, down to Lebanon, and it was kind of like the repetition of that, but much more mature with much more, let’s say, you know, respect for the other people’s opinion and time and expressing it than might have been the case back then. That’s also part of the learning experience, like some of the kids would have for the first time learned how to fully listen to the opinion of somebody who has potentially completely different views. Certainly, a rewarding experience that, as I said, might happen in some other student programs, but those other student programs are relatively short. They don’t put this critical group there as TFAS does, and I think don’t maybe necessarily have such a focused content and program as TFAS does.

Roger Ream [00:11:02] In 2005, you came to Washington, D.C., for the Public Policy and Economics program, and you lived at Georgetown, took the academic courses. Was that when you interned for the Voice of America Croatian Service?

Davor Kunc [00:11:16] Yup, indeed.

Roger Ream [00:11:18] What was the internship like with Voice of America?

Davor Kunc [00:11:21] Well, it was good. Student interns have different experiences depending on where they are. With this one, I had hands on radio experience. I mean, I was at the end reading the news on the radio in the Croatian language. And similarly, this was with George, the colleague there, the boss, and then the same for the TV program. This helped a lot to not just understand how you do media, radio and TV in this case, but it also helped to position myself to know which parts in the work that I’ll be doing afterwards. One needs to emphasize what to point out, how to do that, how to work, either myself in similar situations or to prepare my bosses. It was really hands on, it was fun, and it was useful afterwards for several jobs that I did when coming back to Europe.

Roger Ream [00:12:31] Your career seems to have made you an expert on political and economic development in the Balkans and beyond there. Can you say a little bit about the European Investment Fund that you’re working with now and in Luxembourg?

Davor Kunc [00:12:47] I’m working with Europe Investment Fund, which is part of the European Investment Bank Group, and these are the Bank and the Fund of the European Union. We are the EU institutions. I mean, the bank, like any other bank, gives out a loan, charges interest rate, and that’s how they pay their salaries. We in the European Investment Fund, the business model is that we manage the money of either the Commission, meaning the equivalent of the government of the EU or any of the member States, and for managing that money we get a fee from which we pay our salaries. The particularity of the Europe Investment Fund is that we work with access to finance for SMEs, whereas the investment bank works on big projects. Let’s say you’re building a bridge in Spain. That’s a direct relationship between the EIF and the government of Spain. What we do on the fund side is we work with financial intermediaries, meaning with commercial banks, with investment funds via whom we channeled the money to SMEs. There are maybe around 25 million SMEs, small and medium enterprises in the EU. We target around a million. So, you know, paying attention not to be market distorting and we target those policy areas for which the European government, the European Commission, is instructing us to do, whether it’s in innovation, in green, in digital, in space and defense these days. That’s where we try to channel the money. In plain terms, in innovation, for example, innovation could be more risky, but because it’s riskier, the banks would charge higher interest rates, and that’s where we come in, and we give various benefits to the banks and the funds in order to channel the money, which otherwise they wouldn’t, or they would charge more. So, we enable these benefits, you know, in order to get the money flowing. We do that within the EU 27, but we do that also globally.

Roger Ream [00:15:00] Do you like Luxembourg? Is that a pleasant place to be living now?

Davor Kunc [00:15:05] Well, it’s a small place, but it’s in many ways a utopia, right? It’s super well-organized, it’s functional, it’s clean. The air is clean, has like alpine quality of air. About half of the country is immigrants. The city of Luxembourg, which has the same name as the country, is only 30% Luxembourgish, 70% is foreigners. It works pretty well, and it’s in that sense, it’s unique in Europe. You can compare it to the UAE in which 80 are expats, 20 are local Emiratis. It has particularly low taxes, and with that, it tries to attract business and headquarters. Amazon is headquartered here. ArcelorMittal, the steel company, and several EU institutions are here, besides Europe Investment Bank, you have the European Court here, part of the European Commission, dealing with the economies here. So, the expat life is lively, the country is small, and the city is small. You need to move out on and off, not to be too bored in a small place, but when you are in Europe, you can do that. You are 2 hours, €200 away from any destination in Europe.

Roger Ream [00:16:34] Well, I do want to talk a little bit about your post-TFAS experience in our three summer programs because you did some remarkable work for us in helping to found a Croatian alumni chapter and put on some outstanding programs. You worked hard and raised money in Croatia and beyond for a great conference you held in Dubrovnik, or perhaps it was in Zagreb. When we called upon you in 2021 because we couldn’t go to Prague that summer due to COVID protocols there, you enabled us very quickly to find an opportunity at the University of Dubrovnik to hold our summer program there, which unfortunately I didn’t attend, because I heard it was not only an outstanding program, but I’ve not been to Dubrovnik, which I know is a beautiful place for a summer program. So, first, let’s talk about your efforts to found the alumni chapter and what you’ve done with that when you were there.

Davor Kunc [00:17:44] The whole idea arose already in 2004 in Greece, and between the couple of us who arrived at the IIPES in Greece. We had found there, we wanted to continue the exchanges not just with the fellow Croat alumni but with the international ones. So, we said we set up an alumni club in Croatia. I mean, for the American viewers, unlike in the U.S. where alumni groups are something which is very much a regular thing. You know, you graduate, you get the drink, you buy it, you have your alumni network. In Europe, it’s less so and at least at that time, a bit less of it. At that time, the whole concept was unknown in Central Eastern, and I would say some parts of Southern Europe. The people were connecting themselves based on other criteria, the region where they come from, the family connections, God forbid, the party connections, whereas alumni connection is a connection based on merit, on a shared educational experience, and that’s something that we wanted to promote, meritocracy. So, there were several motivations to do it continue these exchanges between Croats, do it internationally, promote the alumni concept and contribute to positive change in the countries where we come from. We did the first gathering of the Croatian alumni in 2005-2006 and then we did 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 – four international conferences. The concept was always 20 Croats, 20 internationals from Central Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean and fond memories from that period. Look, it was founded as an NGO in terms of a legal entity, but we did it with a kind of a business spirit. You know, you always knew who does what when. The how was less important. We managed to get all the necessary funds from the U.S. embassy, from NATO, from any kind of sponsorships. We participated in the scholarship fair. We got the info about TFAS out. We prepped the students before they went to one of the TFAS programs. Good enough experience while it lasted. The younger generations didn’t pick it up, but it’s still there as a legacy. I can certainly vouch for several alumni friends that I know that they keep this this spirit alive.

Roger Ream [00:20:57] A very special recognition that we give out at TFAS is our Kevin Burket Alumni Service Award. It’s special to us here in Washington, especially because Kevin Burket always meant a lot to us. He was one of our most enthusiastic volunteers, lived here in Washington, and his life was cut terribly short by cancer. So, we established this award to recognize a graduate of our program for their service. We were so pleased to present it to you as recognition for all you have done as an alumnus of our program. So that’s just an indication of the incredible work you did with recruiting other volunteers to accomplish this. In 2021, as I mentioned, you helped us with introductions at the University of Dubrovnik. I don’t recall if you were there for the program, but the feedback I got from the faculty and the students was just tremendous. I mean, it was much appreciated that you helped us initiate that. So, thank you for that.

Davor Kunc [00:22:04] I was happy to do that. I mean, 2021 had these different lockdown experiences in different countries. The Czechs were pretty much closed. Croatia never introduced this curfew that other European countries did, and the situation overall was not bad. So, there was a positive element. Dubrovnik had all the facilities. It was just recently they opened a new student dormitory there. They were interested also to have these kinds of programs during the summer. The dormitories are always full during the academic year. From what I understood from the colleagues who were there, Jane and Michelle’s team, it went well. So, the test was passed well. Dubrovnik is otherwise attractive. I think it’s interesting also the from the values and history point of view. It was among one of the first countries which recognized the U.S., I guess after France, and it was also one of the first to abolish slavery. It had this free spirit. They changed the government on a monthly basis, but then from Middle Ages renaissance onwards. So, it has a lot of symbolism there. One of the most famous Croatian poets, half of whose poems were about freedom and liberty and free spirit, is from Dubrovnik. I mean, I encourage you to further explore that idea of having something in Dubrovnik. It could be during the summer when there are maybe more tourists. So, logistically it’s convenient. There are a number of flights. So, in that sense, the logistics, the symbolics and the boxes checked, I think speaks enough for Dubrovnik.

Roger Ream [00:24:26] I’ve read a little bit about that story that you’re sharing about that history, and it was remarkable. Well, in your work now, do you do a lot of travel around Europe or globally?

Davor Kunc [00:24:38] There is a lot of travel around Europe, not so much globally for what I currently do. I do that anyway on my own, in my free time. As you know, over here in Europe, we have quite a few annual leave days. We tend to use them, and our bosses do. You don’t have the situation: somebody is going to take over my files or something like that. No, the other one is also using that opportunity for the annual leave. It’s rewarding to live in Europe. It was rewarding to live in the U.S. I mean, what we were discussing in Greece – we were discussing many topics in Greece under Chatham House rules, but everybody agreed, you know, I would never exchange efficiency, and full safety for, I don’t know, freedom and democracy if you want to put those. This was one of the takeaways. It was Michelle there who said: “freedom wins” and put a strong exclamation mark, and I think when I put my photo from the Acropolis, I put that hashtag besides TFAS. It’s a challenging time, and I’ll share with you that I know a TFAS friend of mine who prefers efficiency and 100% safety in terms of everyday safety in an otherwise autocratic regime that he’s living in to fake democracy or fake freedom somewhere else. So, I think in order to preserve and protect what we have, we need to work a bit more on the econ side also in order to prevent losing freedom and democracy in elections, which is also an option, and unfortunately what we discussed quite a lot and reflected on a lot in Athens.

Roger Ream [00:27:08] That harkens back to Benjamin Franklin warning us that people often choose what he called temporary safety over freedom, over liberty. You can get temporary safety sometimes by turning in your freedom, but in the long term, you need the freedom and free markets and the ability of free people to live their lives peacefully in order to promote human flourishing in the world. So, I’m sure those themes were themes that came up in class. Let me ask you, is the war in Ukraine impacting your work at the bank? We’re getting a healthy number of applicants from Ukraine coming to our programs, last summer and again this summer, we’re providing scholarships for these young people to go to Prague and come to Washington, D.C. It’s just sad to see what’s happening in Europe, something I didn’t think we’d see in our lifetime, but do you have any thoughts about the impact that’s having on Europe?

Davor Kunc [00:28:20] On our side with the European Investment Bank and European Investment Fund, we have provided financing to Ukraine. Now, at this moment also rescheduled some of the existing loans, but the focus I think will be and should be in the postwar reconstruction once there is a ceasefire that holds and a solution to the war, we would certainly jump in. Not just us, but also a few other banks and financial institutions, as well as the European Commission and the individual member states with grants and us with loans and with financial instruments and with advisory services. There will be a lot of work there, and the EIB is ready to help and has already helped quite a lot. I was also surprised that it came to open warfare and of this kind and on this scale. However, it’s not something that I would have discarded in my cold-blooded analysis or objective analysis as an option over there. There was a divide, you know, Western Europe and Central Europeans. I think we were a bit more objective in exploring all the possible options of what might happen, including this one. Some of those which might have had wishful thinking or might not have had the full picture on the behavior of Russia might have thought otherwise. It is what it is. I think we have helped a lot. My homeland, Croatia, was in a similar conflict in the nineties. We did not get such help that the Ukrainians are getting. So, I’m happy to see that the Ukrainians are indeed being backed financially and in terms of arms shipments. We’re ready to do so on our side also once the hostilities stop for the postwar reconstruction.

Roger Ream [00:30:53] Well, shifting in our last few minutes, Davor, I’d like to ask you what thoughts or advice you might offer to the young people coming to our programs this summer. We’ve just finished recruiting for Prague. We’ve finished recruiting for Washington, D.C., programs. Young people will arrive, kind of both trying to kick the tires and figure out what they want to do in their careers. They’ll be gaining internship experience in Washington, along with the academic experience that goes on in both programs. Perhaps you could offer some thoughts as someone who has been so involved with us in our programs as to how to get the most out of these programs and what kind of questions they should be asking themselves as they prepare to embark on careers. Wide open question, so take it where you want.

Davor Kunc [00:31:48] There’s this statement that I often use, often quote, it goes: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit. I was previously in the World Bank but also commissioned here. There are a lot of challenges, right. I mean, when you look at pessimism of the intellect, when you look at the situation now, it could be better, but optimism of the spirit to make the best out of it. You see what is possible and you try to do your best, the best you can do to contribute. The advice to students is to be inclusive, to be open, to listen. To speak also, but to listen. To listen to the oral argument. You mentioned Ukraine. I watched Russia Today. I watched Rossiya one. I wanted to see also the other side of the story, even in that context in which, you know, before watching it: I’m not sure I’m going to change my opinion, and I didn’t, but it’s good to see in which way the public opinion is formed on the other side. What did that go for, you know, political situations, conflicts that we discussed earlier conflict management where it goes for economics. TFAS was always good providing the content on a platter from which you can take everything. You don’t need to take anything, but you can take some and leave some. That was a good approach not imposing the content in any way. So, you would have always shifted a bit; somebody who was to the far left would have shifted to closer to the center, somebody who was left to the center would have shifted more to the center and so on. You know, in that sense, be also open to new ideas on economics. You might have some but want to hear what TFAS is offering you. Make sure you get all the content in but make sure you also make up your mind on your own and have fun. If it’s 12 hours for the lectures, then do the 12 hours partying and sleep zero, and you can do it in the twenties or thirties, whatever, when you are in Crete – it works for three, four weeks.

Roger Ream [00:34:44] Well, I appreciate that. I mean, I love what you said about the pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the heart.

Davor Kunc [00:34:54] To interrupt you. Do you know whose quote it is? Talking about openness to other ideas? It’s a quote from the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. The guy had a Marxist title, and I wouldn’t agree with him on anything else, but the quote is good. So, in that sense, be open to even the ones that one might consider loonies or to the far extreme of whichever side of the spectrum. There’s something a bit to pick anywhere or to look at your views and from a different perspective.

Roger Ream [00:35:37] Well, I was recently described as not having much optimism, but having a great deal of hope and a sense that’s more of a maybe a spiritual concept or an idea that goes beyond just pure optimism and pessimism. I think the advice you give there about listening, something I try to stress at orientation. I like it as someone once said: God designed us beautifully with two ears and one mouth and expects us to use them proportionally. So, listen twice as much as you talk and be open to new ideas. So many of us get insulated from views outside of what we already believe, and it’s important to have friends that have a contrary opinion to you or to me and to sit down with them and have civil conversations, listen to them, think about how they’re approaching an issue and share your views with them in a civil way. So, those are all things we stress in our programs. We hope to promote this interchange of ideas that’s lively and will prompt people to think critically about the political and economic ideas. Well, Davor, we’re out of time. I want to thank you so much for joining us from Luxembourg and taking time out of your day to be with us. as Michelle Le, my colleague at TFAS likes to say: Davor bleeds TFAS, and you’ve been a great friend of ours, a great participant to our programs. Thank you for coming this march to our Liberty from Lock to Hayek program in Athens, just the latest step we’ve taken with you along the way. So, I’ll leave it at that unless you want to add anything in closing.

Davor Kunc [00:37:38] The one big thanks to you, Roger, also to Steve and to Michelle and to Randall and to the whole TFAS fantastic team. Thanks a lot. Keep up with doing a good job.

Roger Ream [00:37:50] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcast. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host, Roger Ream, and until next time, show courage in things large and small.

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