Angela Hayes | December 19, 2022
Moving Among Giants
How do you maneuver around battling behemoths? When the ground shakes and the very earth cracks beneath you, do you run? Stopping them may seem like lunacy, the very nature of your size imbalance making your voice too faint amid their roars. But while they remain locked in their quarrelsome embrace, it is you who, from your perspective closer to the ground, can see the effects of their struggle. The land lies broken, their footprints everywhere. Others have run to hide behind one contestant or the other, while many remain in the middle, skirting and ducking. As the struggle rages on, what would you do?
The battle for influence that the U.S.-China relationship has devolved into presents a similar question to those smaller nations who stand around the embittered superpowers. Should they run into isolation? Should they pick a side? Or should they maneuver around the middle, hoping to stay equidistantly clear from their blows? Countries such as my native Argentina have been trying to pursue the latter, and that was the spirit I tried to bring into our conversations with our friends from Peking University.
Not that our dialogues descended into destructive battling. Quite on the contrary, the friendly smiles, jokes, and mutual understanding of every participant often made me wonder why leaders in Washington and Beijing are so embittered with one another. In fact, the spirit of the encounters brought me back to my time as a graduate student at Peking University’s Yenching Academy, where students from the United States, China, and beyond constantly spoke and debated about these issues. Yet as we conversed about the future of global development, I tried to take the ground level approach, mindful of giant footprints.
Despite the constructive nature of the debates, there remained those renowned tensions and grievances between both sides. That was how I encountered a recurrent theme throughout our three-day discussions: the need for a third perspective in these two-way dialogues. That is why I found that reminding students about their mutual agreements was just as important as pointing out to them the effects, on the ground, of their countries’ squabbles. The importance of the battle against climate change, the significance of sustainable global development, the opportunities for cooperation in natural disaster response…these were all areas in which the students professed their will for cooperation. At the same time, the securitization of global development and the forcing of nations to choose one superpower over the other were some of the negative consequences which I sought to remind them of. And they listened, just as they did to the perspectives of other third-country students from Thailand and beyond.
It is always an interesting exercise to participate in these conversations, and I believe that the results were very significant in building a more constructive relationship for the future. But the lesson that I took from it all is that small players can still play a decisive role if they show the giants the effects of their blows.
Ignacio Albe (MSFS'24) is an international student from Argentina currently pursuing a graduate degree at Georgetown School of Foreign Service, concentrating in Science, Technology and International Affairs.
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