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January 16, 2022

Responding To: Georgetown Students Share Thoughts on Exchange with Peking University

Becoming Responsible Stakeholders

Alex Lin

Former Deputy Secretary of State Bob Zoellick famously coined the term “responsible stakeholder.” Interestingly, the underlying message of this phrase bears some resemblance to the mantra of high-schooler Peter Parker (whose films have recently sent the world of cinema reeling): “with great power comes great responsibility.” Throughout our incredibly enriching discussions about global governance with Peking University peers, my mind kept jumping to that sweeping vision shared by statesmen and comic-book superheroes alike. I wondered whether the two states across the Pacific can shed a bit of their antagonism and ego, embrace overlapping interests, and act responsibly to keep the crisis-ridden fabric of international norms and institutions intact.

The three PKU-Georgetown dialogues made me feel optimistic and broadened my horizons. From our discussions about Chinese investments in the Mekong and Myanmar, to our parallel commentary on how global governance should engage “middle powers,” to our debates on how UNFCCC frameworks should address the sharp economic divide bifurcating the world stage, I realized that my peers from both schools cared deeply about the shared responsibility of great powers to bring development and security to their smaller counterparts.

Particularly, I appreciated the dose of nuance that the PKU students added to our conversations. They showed me that well-intentioned investments can have troubling spillovers, and that economic models creating miracles in one region might not work in another. Our discussions–so cosmopolitan in scope–helped me recognize with even greater clarity that the U.S.-China relationship isn’t just about the United States and China. Rather, it charts the development trajectory of so many parts of the world.

Beyond our shared interests in development, responsibility, and cosmopolitan perspectives, these enriching dialogues also taught me that many of our underlying assumptions and knowledge about each other don’t intersect. This became the most salient during the climate change session. Notably, I remember our group asking each other what made domestic climate action so difficult (in order to clear up confusions and fill in the gaps in our knowledge about each other). The PKU students explained that the uneven development landscape across China makes it hard for the country to emerge as a front runner in slashing emissions, whereas I explained how polarization and misinformation in the United States produce a troubling recipe for indifference.

In some ways, that session’s closing remarks–during which Professor Wang Dong brought up a European study on how individual actions can reduce GHG emissions–also highlighted the differences in our worldviews. At first, I was confused about how paltry efforts from run-of-the-mill individuals can make up for the destructive externalities created by large-scale industrial processes, but then I remembered my elementary school experiences in Shanghai. Nearly a decade ago, my teachers were already discussing our responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint one step, one tree, or one bike-ride at a time. After drawing the parallel between our dialogue and an episode from my early education, I realized that perhaps my initial confusion (which was shared by some of my peers) represented a disconnect between American and Chinese perspectives on what climate action means. Whereas the dominant narrative in the United States places substantial weight on corporate accountability and ambitious governmental initiatives, China might be drawing from its robust savings culture while placing the onus of climate action on every tier of society.

Thus, until we sift through our respective assumptions, iron out the creases and disconnects, and align our vision on what it means to be a “responsible stakeholder” in an increasingly integrated global community, any attempts at constructive dialogue might be overshadowed by murky communication and non-intersecting talking points. This not only goes for climate, but also the other hundreds of contentious topics that make up the American and Chinese foreign policy agenda.

Alex Lin (SFS'23) is a junior in the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service majoring international politics and minoring in statistics.

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