Angela Hayes | December 19, 2022
A Shared Sense of Responsibility to Others
I was extremely honored to have the opportunity to engage in discussion with fellow students from Peking University during a period when the U.S.-China relationship is encountering more scrutiny than it has within perhaps the past few decades. In discussing with other students, I think we as students not only had the opportunity to further explore the concept of development but also to examine conceptions that undergird the present relationship between the two countries and their appropriate position in leading international joint efforts.
The students seemed to anticipate that we would defend the U.S. vision of international development aid under Trump and his “new sovereigntist” political view, including decisions to leave agreements like the Paris Accords and Global Compact on Migration under the premise that the interests of international organizations should be subordinate to those of individual nations–as if the two could be fundamentally isolated. A reoccurring question seemed to be: “Given that a president like Trump could come into office briefly and reverse fundamental U.S. commitments, how can we rely on the United States to honor their commitments?” In this sense, we seemed to be speaking not only about the United States’ reliability in honoring its commitments to development–since the amount of disbursement to groups like USAID remained roughly equivalent to previous years–but about the recognizable flaws within our present democratic system of selecting leaders.
One element of the dialogue that surprised me was that it placed us as participants in circumstances where we felt that we needed to represent or defend the actions of our respective country, on principle. As a student who is often critical of the extent to which the United States dominates and utilizes its extensive military and economic power to shape international aid projects, it surprised me how often I had the impulse to justify the involvement of the United States alongside Chinese and other foreign partners in aid–perhaps motivated by the comparison to China-centered aid systems, which was emphasized through the separate discussions of the UN, USAID, and China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI). Having mainly examined the election of Trump and the resurgence of conservatism through a lens of intense domestic polarization, it also felt appropriately corrective to realize the significance of the office of president in representing and signalling to Chinese citizens and all non-Americans the nature and interests of the American people—with a negative perception lasting well into following administrations.
The students from Peking University also seemed to be most interested in determining how much citizen sentiment was in support of or critical of prior government action. One question one of our colleagues presented was on whether nativist perceptions of foreign aid as an inappropriate appropriation of funds that should be used to address domestic issues significantly influences present discussions of USAID among the U.S. populace. A participant from Georgetown stated that while the perception of foreign aid is that it is a top-enacted responsibility of the U.S. government, in practice we devote very little time and resources to it. An example of this is the study done by the Brookings Institution that demonstrates that while the average U.S. resident thinks 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, the real statistic is less than 1 percent. However, nativist politicians may utilize the term "foreign aid over-spending" in order to exploit citizen dissatisfaction with incumbent politicians. One element that we acknowledged is that our positionality as Georgetown students influences us to be more likely to perceive foreign aid and support foreign aid than perhaps the average American. In response to a similar question about Chinese foreign aid, the Peking University students expressed sentiments about foreign aid being perceived somewhat as a burden but ostensibly as a government responsibility; they seemed to have no similar qualms about their position as political science students at a Beijing-based university influencing their likelihood of supporting increased international involvement.
The large focus within our discussion on developing countries within the Asian region, similarly to China’s preference to participate in forums like the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, seemed to indicate the extent to which public perception of Chinese foreign aid is centered around its historic role as a regional power. The clear sense of responsibility to others that all of us participating in the conference expressed personally reassured me of the potential of resolving the present divide within international aid that has led to, for example, the perception that developing countries’ choice to accept needed aid inherently demonstrates a form of loyalty to one or the other constructed side.
Margaret Lin (C'23) is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences double majoring in government and mathematics with a certificate in Asian Studies.
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