ONE WORLD. Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress since June 2007, is on the board of the Estée Lauder Companies and Chairman of Clinique Laboratories. He also serves as Chairman of both the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, whose mission it is to rebuild Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. In 2001 he opened the Neue Galerie in New York, dedicated to German and Austrian art, and he is the world’s largest collector of medieval and renaissance armor.

Listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Ronald Lauder, you have many jobs and many interests. You were appointed US deputy assistant Defense Secretary for Europe and NATO in 1983, and in 1986 President Reagan named you US Ambassador to Austria. You also have long standing ties with Israel. Would you define yourself as an eclectic personality? 

Eclectic, I don’t know, but, perhaps, many personalities. Today, my most important role is President of the World Jewish Congress – that’s what I feel strongest about. We see a huge uptick in anti-Semitism in many countries throughout the world today, including Italy. This is my major concern. Yes, I am still involved in the Neue Galerie, I am still an art collector, and I’m still very much involved in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2020 we honoured all the survivors, an event where I gave the keynote speech. I am also very involved in Israel, particularly in the Negev where we have an Employment Center, that helps many young people settle in the Negev. I have many different interests. 

Are you still close to the Estée Lauder Companies, and what has changed since your parents, Estée and Joseph, died?  

I continue on the Board of Directors and I am Chairman of Clinique, one of our most important brands. I’m involved on an almost daily basis. I would say the greatest change is size – the company has grown dramatically since my parents died. My father died in 1983, but my mother died in 2004, so it wasn’t that long ago. But it’s a much larger and more complex corporation today. Estée Lauder is one of the leading US corporations worldwide.  

Your mother was an exceptional woman. What did she teach you?  

Growing up, I remember every meal we had involved a discussion about the business. I learned it at the dinner table, and I worked with her for 17 years in the business. She was a brilliant woman. My brother Leonard, who was CEO for many years, is now Chairman Emeritus. He has just written a book (The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty) about his time growing up in Estée Lauder and what it meant. It was truly a family business, and from my earliest memories, I remember we heard about the stores, the new ideas and all the products. There were always products on the table that everyone was trying, so it was very much a hands-on business. Literally.

Estée Lauder is one of the leading US corporations worldwide.

Ronald Lauder

Ronald S. Lauder has served as president of the World Jewish Congress since 2007.

Ronald Lauder, was your family involved in the Jewish religion and charity, or did that come later?  

Both. We were definitely a Jewish family, but at the same time, my own strong affinity with my Jewishness came many years later.  I was very much an assimilated Jew. It wasn’t until I came to Vienna as Ambassador in 1986 and witnessed the Jewish children coming out of the Soviet Union (at that time), seeing the hardships they were going through had a deep, personal impact on me. That’s when I started getting involved with Jewish schools and education. Slowly but surely I became more and more involved. Ironically, it was the anti-Semitism that I witnessed and its effect on the children that turned me into a much more committed Jewish person than I was before.  

Did you become very interested in Central and Eastern European Jews because of your origins, or because you were in Vienna, or because of the Holocaust?  

All of the above. My family came out of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They came from Hungary, from lower Austria, and from part of the Czech Republic. The result is a mixture on both sides of the family. When I thought of Europe as a teenager I always thought more of Eastern Europe, and I was fascinated by the Iron Curtain and what it meant. 

Did you explore this further when you were US Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for European and NATO Affairs between 1983 and 1986?  

Those three years were very important years for me. I went to all the NATO countries and worked very hard to strengthen our defenses. I worked at keeping the United States very involved with all the NATO countries, as well as sharing defense spending. I came to know all the defense ministers. It was a fascinating job.  

After which when you became US Ambassador to Austria? 

Because of my NATO experience, I was very well versed in the issues when I went to Austria. My focus had been Eastern Europe, which at that time consisted of the Warsaw Pact. Vienna was a turning point that changed my life. That’s when I became more Jewish, but it also made me more aware of the problems between East and West. At that time everything was focused on the Soviet Union, what today is Russia. When I was there, I also made my first trip to Israel. I was in my 40s and I had a chance to see the Middle East and see the possibilities of what could be done.  

Your present focus is with the World Jewish Congress. What is it? 

The World Jewish Congress is an organization that was founded in 1936 by a group of concerned Jewish leaders, working in Geneva, who saw what was happening in Nazi Germany. They tried to warn the world, particularly the Jewish world; and because they had very little influence, no one listened to them until it was too late. One of the leaders, Nahum Goldmann, saw this and decided to create a congress that would have strength and be able to talk to governments on a ministerial level. For the last 76 years (since the end of World War II) we’ve seen what can be done.  

What is the job of the President of the World Jewish Congress?  

I am in almost daily contact with many of the European countries. We are constantly fighting anti-Semitism and working together to help Jewish communities in 100 countries. We are working very closely with Israel and I’ve made five trips over the last six months to the Middle East, to countries that are now part of the Abraham Accords, which has had a major effect. The job of the President of the World Jewish Congress is to represent Jewish people all over the world. That’s a big job. 

You mean Diaspora Jews in America and Europe?  

Diaspora Jews plus Israel. We also represent Israel, so we represent Jews all over the world. The majority are in six or eight countries, but the fact is that we represent the Jewish Communities in 100 countries.  

How hard is the fight against anti-Semitism?  

It’s growing harder. Right after the Second World War, when people saw the atrocities the Nazis committed on the Jewish people, nobody in their right mind wanted to be associated with the Nazis and what happened. We are now three generations past that, and we are seeing that young people do not really and truly understand what happened in the Holocaust. There’s something evil that pulls a lot of young people into these anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi movements. That’s on the political right. But on the left, a new form of anti-Semitism has emerged … where people are using the Palestine movement as an excuse to attack Israel and Jews in general.

The next year will be very crucial for the entire world

Ronald Lauder, politically you are a Republican. You were at the Wharton School of Economics with Donald Trump, and supported him in his campaign. What do you think about the behaviour of Trump after the result of the election? And what do you think about the new President, Joe Biden?  

As a Republican I am always very supportive of the Republican Party, but as President of the World Jewish Congress, it’s my job to be very close with every President, and I’ve been close with every President since Richard Nixon. Although I’ve known President Trump for 50 years, I’ve known Joe Biden over 40 years, and I have a very good relationship with him as well. What happened at the Capitol after the election was a disaster for all of us. It was wrong. But rather than looking at the one event, we have to look at the four years in which Donald Trump did some very good things. There are things he did that I don’t agree with, and there are things I agree 100% with, and I’m sure that during the Biden administration there will be things I will agree 100 percent with and issues where I will disagree.  

President Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and a lot of work was done on the peace process with the Emirates and the Arab countries. Is Joe Biden going to go forward on the same lines?  

One of the first things President Biden has said is that he’s keeping the Embassy in Jerusalem, and that he is going to keep the Abraham Accords and what was accomplished by the Trump administration. The fact is that there are changes going on. President Biden is trying to build a strong relationship with Europe, and the real question for the entire world, not only for the US, but for the world, is what’s going to happen with Iran.  

What is going to happen?  

I believe that the Biden administration will find a way to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. However, there are two different philosophies: the philosophy of the Trump administration was to place strong sanctions on Iran and attack them and really and truly make a case that it’s not to their advantage to have nuclear weapons; and the Biden administration believes in sitting down and talking and negotiating with them. They are both ways to gain the same end result. But, the fact is we must accomplish it, because if Iran ever gets a nuclear weapon, so will Saudi Arabia, and so will all the other countries in the Middle East. The next year will be very crucial for the entire world as to how this is solved. I know from my friends in both the Biden and the Republican administrations, we really and truly want to see an agreement. We have no choice but to make an agreement.  

What is the position of Israel?  

Well, there’s an election taking place.  

But there are elections all the time. Are you friends with Prime Minister Netanyahu?  

I know his philosophy, and although there is an election taking place, there is very little difference between his philosophy and his opponent’s philosophy as to what should be done. In both cases, they do not trust Iran to stop its aggression towards Israel, and remember, Israel is surrounded by Hamas and Hezbollah (Iranian proxies).  

Is the new opening of relations with the United Arab Emirates very important for Israel and for the international community?  

The Abraham Accords are critical for the future of the world, because if you have a strong and safe Middle East, it is better for everyone.  I just wrote a piece in the Arab News suggesting that the Middle East should have a coalition similar to NATO. Just as I saw the positives that NATO accomplished in Europe to stop the Soviet Union, I also can see what it could do in the Middle East for countries working together to stop nuclear weapons and weapons in general.  

The other big issue in American politics is China. What do you think about the difficult relationship between the US and China?  

It’s extraordinarily important for China and the US to become friendlier, to work together, because there’s no other choice. Their economies in many ways depend on each other, and as they work together it helps the global economy. A fight between the two would hurt the economy of the entire world. It’s very hard to be an optimist, but I am.  

As an art collector you specialize in German and Austrian art. You opened the Neue Galerie in New York, you are one of the largest collectors of the painter Egon Schiele, and you purchased for $135 million the very famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt. They say that you call it your Mona Lisa. Does your passion for the Vienna Secession art movement come from your time in Vienna?  

Collecting Schiele and Klimt preceded my time of Vienna by about 30 years. I started when I was about 14 and 15, when no one had heard of them, and I have never stopped buying their works. I purchased a great piece of Austrian art a month ago. It’s part of what I’m about. At the same time, I collect art in many other fields. I never stop collecting.  

You gave 91 pieces of medieval and Renaissance armor to the Metropolitan Museum. What does that armor have to do with Vienna?  

They are completely different. Just as one has to eat, sometimes you eat fish, sometimes steak, sometimes vegetables.  

When did this collecting passion of yours really start?  

When I was 14 or 15 with the different fields. The first piece of medieval art I bought was when I was 19 years old; my first piece of armor when I was 21. I’ve been collecting a long time. A famous author named Pierre Cabanne describes collecting as almost like taking heroin. Once you’re on it, you never stop. I’m a collector. I collect everything.  

If I am not wrong, you even have a collection of telephones?  

Right. Exactly. A large collection of 30 or 40 telephones.   

What are you into right now? 

I’m into collecting Greek and Roman sculpture, ancient Greek helmets, things from the Middle Ages, from the Renaissance, Old Master paintings, and contemporary art.  

How can you know and love so many different things?  

With my eyes. In every catalogue that comes out I see things and I understand what’s good and what’s not good. I have three categories. “Oh”, “Oh my”, and “Oh My God!” I only buy “Oh My Gods”, and it’s been a very successful way of looking at things. Fortunately I have the ability to determine what is good, very good and great. I buy great.

Ronald Lauder

Estée Lauder with her sons Ronald and Leonard.

Ronald Lauder

Ronald Lauder is Chairman of Clinique Laboratories, one of the most important brands of the Estée Lauder Companies.

Ronald Lauder

Ronald Lauder calls the very famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt his Mona Lisa.

Ronald Lauder

Ronald Lauder gave the keynote speech on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2020.

Ronald Lauder

With President Donald Trump, an old friend with whom Ronald Lauder was at Wharton.

Ronald Lauder

Ronald Lauder and his brother Leonard founded the Alzheimer’s Drug Discover Foundation.

It’s one world and it’s time to learn how to read the future.

Ronald Lauder, has the coronavirus very much changed your way of life?  

I’m sitting here in Florida when I would normally be in New York City right now. I have not been able to travel to Europe. Italy for example is locked down, so I can’t land in Milano or in Rome. It’s a major problem. I have houses in Paris, in London, in Vienna.  I can’t go there.  

How do you organize your time? 

Thank God for Zoom. Yesterday I was on Zoom seven times. When people have a piece of art to show me, they sometimes will show it to me on Zoom, or I do my business on Zoom. I do my travel on Zoom.   

Do you find it frustrating to see objets d’art on Zoom without being able to touch them?  

I need to touch them, I need to see them. Often I have them sent to me.  

When you say you only buy “Oh My God” pieces, surely that was the case of the Gustav Klimt that you call your Mona Lisa, the Adele Bloch-Bauer painting?  

If you saw “The Woman in Gold” movie, you would realize how difficult it was to get it back to its rightful owners. It took me seven years of working with different people, different groups, and with the family, to finally get the picture. They were happy and so was I. 

Because the picture was stolen by the Nazis and had ended up in a museum.  

Finally, because Austria changed the laws and decided to do restitution, I was able to get it. And now Italy is particularly difficult for art, because a great deal of art is blocked by the government from leaving the country. It’s a shame, because these pieces are important for the world to understand what Italy has, but at the same time, I understand the desire to keep many things in Italy for the Italian people.  

You created your own museum, the Neue Galerie, and you, and also your brother, gave fantastic pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Are you very passionate about museums?  

I was the Chairman of the Museum of Modern Art and I’m on the board of the Getty, so I’m very involved in different museums. I love museums. I love to see things.  

Do you think some contemporary art prices are excessive?  

Every piece I bought in my life I paid too much for. And it turned out that in three or five years, I got a bargain. You never know. If you buy a great piece of art, be it modern or ancient, you never know what’s going to happen to its value 5 years and 10 years later. You can never tell.  

Is collecting very different from business?  

The difference between business and art valuation is that in the case of business you work on it every day. In the case of art, when you buy a piece, there’s nothing you can do but just wait to see what happens, sometimes years. You can’t promote or market the piece, you can’t do anything like that. But also, when I buy art I buy it only because I love it. I think “that’s a great piece of art”, and never think of its future value.  

Why did you and your brother start the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation? 

As we get older the risk of Alzheimer’s grows and we are doing everything we can to prevent this tragedy for the entire world. I think we are the second largest charity in Alzheimer’s. We now have things called biomarkers, where we can determine when someone is younger if they could get Alzheimer’s and what can be done. There’s no certainty, but it’s pretty accurate. We also have drugs now that will slow it down. There are many different things we can do and new things are coming along all the time.  

What do you feel about the technological world with its artificial intelligence on the one hand and the green movement that fights for the environment on the other? 

They’re all tied together. Technology will be something that may save this earth. Technology is something that’s changing man, and we are also learning a lot about health with technology. It’s one world and it’s time to learn how to read the future.  

How do you read it?  

The world is constantly changing. We have limited resources and we must do everything we can to use them wisely. We must change, and solve global warming. We can affect it, but it requires a great deal of effort. We have to stop coal mines. We have to stop different things we’ve grown used to. You don’t change it in one day to the next, it’s a 5 or 10 year effort, perhaps longer. Unfortunately, we are not putting enough time into the effort. People are thinking too much about today and tomorrow, not about what could be. In politics people don’t think about the future, all they think about is what can they do to get re-elected.  

What do you think about how they handle things in Europe?  

They did the stupidest thing you could possibly do on this vaccine, and tried to get the prices down and things like that. When you’re dealing with a pandemic you don’t worry about prices, you worry about just getting the vaccine to people. It’s been a disaster.  

In America, it wasn’t so good at the beginning?  

No, but we got it right after time. Europe has not gotten it right yet.  

In London Boris Johnson made a good choice to decide to vaccinate everyone.  

He did it because he was not in the European Union.  

In Italy the first priority of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government is to find a way to fight very strongly against Covid.

The new Prime Minister of Italy is an excellent person. Italy lost some very good people. What a shame compared to what could have been done.  

Nevertheless, are you still positive?  

We have no choice. You have to be positive or you don’t sleep and you die. If you’re positive and you have feelings of optimism, your chances of living longer are much better.  

Once the pandemic is over what is the first thing you want to do? 

I’ll be on the first plane to Europe.