Zhihang Du | August 16, 2017
Relationships: The Universal Language
Put together a group of smart people with strong convictions. This could manifest in form of a university, an executive cabinet, or a combination thereof: Georgetown University’s U.S.- China Student Fellows Program. Add in dimensions of cultures, countries, and disciplines, and the story gets complicated.
But it can also be quite simple. Rather than the lofty concept of “international relations,” what if we inverted the phrase into “relationships across nations”?
The past year highlighted three key paradigms of cross-border relationships: culture-to-culture, public-to-private, and individual-to-world. Understanding how these relational frameworks guide our interactions should transform the trajectory of this generation’s future studies, professions, and endeavors.
Intercultural understanding forms the basis of international relations. To those with greater exposure comes greater duty to facilitate, as exemplified by a simple exchange:
The four female students—three Chinese and one Chinese American—entered the elevator of the Beijing Marriott. Following hours of involved discussion, personas softened and the welcome topic of dinner emerged (in Chinese, of course). Yet the playful repartee contained a dynamic our white male colleagues would possibly never fully grasp. It reflected a warmth of the Chinese identity often hidden at the discussion and dinner tables.
Both cultures are often unaware of what they’re missing in the differences—most notably in communication. To Chinese citizens, the American frankness is uncomfortably blunt; to Americans, the Chinese indirectness is unnecessarily abstract.
"We’re the host, but we’re using your language”—stated the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) counselor. "The Chinese government is good at explaining its position but bad at the why." "It’s easier to write more empathetically regarding EU officials because journalists have free access to them” shared Bloomberg news political reporter Peter Martin.
Contextual interpretation was never an easy task. It’s not surprising that the Chinese MFA shared crafted statements while the U.S. Embassy and British correspondent spilled straightforward opinions. However, if the government could explain better, foreigners could likewise dig deeper.
This is where the strength of the fellows program can be applied outwards. The intentional interspersion of culture, upbringing, ethics, and religion in between policy debates laid a holistic undertone to discussion. It made room for the revelation that the Chinese translation of Airbnb is a laughingstock. It upheld that understanding cultures requires engaging all parts, not singular disciplines.
Public policy and private commerce are two mutually inclusive worlds, but they don’t always act like it. Synergy between the two is abundant yet elusive. The former moves like a cruise liner; the latter glides like a submarine.
Commercial firms blazing past rules and roadblocks may expedite international interaction but often at the vexation of public priorities, as readily affirmed by the U.S. Embassy trade representative. In reality, international expansion failures in part reflect a flawed domestic private-public relationship.
Future leaders must incorporate policy voices in the boardroom and corporate voices in the policy chamber, early and often. The calculated bravado of speed and innovation has its place in public policy just as much as in forward-thinking commercial sectors. The constraints and thoughtfulness of diplomacy have use in breeding creativity in commerce. Amidst changing rules of the game, we must adapt, fast and together.
Moreover, the worlds of policy and commerce command ironic parallels. Both sides take up arms in defense of platform stances or investment strategies yet hardly take time to understand the high and mighty priorities of the other. All the while, large masses of the population are really only thinking about dinner: either the struggle of putting food on the table, or the optimal angle to capture for their digital lives.
Taking into account this disconnect, what common values drive both public and private sectors? The answers reveal themselves in moral dilemmas underlying decision-making. Georgetown University Professor John Kline’s seminars on international business ethics echoed the standard international business curriculum, but they were surprisingly foreign to fellows immersed in foreign policy. This educational gap must be bridged, as the public-private paths will invariably cross. Whether lifting countries out of debt or committing to humanitarian aid, public-private partnerships executed well provide a model for sustaining relationships that target true priorities of the people.
What do the farmer in Myanmar, student in Mexico, and oil tycoon in Moscow have in common? They all impact each other. Whether a tree falls in the forest of Nigeria or a tsunami crashes on the coast of Indonesia, the world hears. A Dutch oil company likely felled that tree, and the Malaysian tourism board stands ready to capitalize on diverted travelers.
Professor Wilder pointed out the striking idiosyncrasy of our generation: we are natural born global citizens. We are accustomed to rapidly-shifting rules of the game within our hyper digital era—or perhaps more accurately, the global framework is evolving at such a pace that the rules are scrambling to keep up.
Moving forward, we need humble leaders quick to listen, sensitive to culture, and novel in boldness. With wisdom comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes sacrifice—ultimately leading to meaningful impact. When the voices of others are so easily accessible in our digital age, there’s no excuse not to listen.
The implications of the individual-to-world perspective extend far in its application. Acknowledging our global identity shapes our intrinsic motivations in our work and relationships to be inherently cross-cultural. New ground is waiting to be broken through the lens of seeing each person, business, institution, and society as a microcosm of international relations.
Vicky Gu is a senior at Georgetown University studying finance and international business.
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