Last summer, a Chinese businessman snapped a photo in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport of former Washington State Governor and current U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke humbly purchasing his own cup of coffee with a backpack slung over his shoulder and his daughter at his side. The photo sparked chatter in China, a country rife with local leader corruption and government privilege, about the unnecessary level of self-important and often unethical behavior in their leaders. Almost before he stepped foot on Chinese soil, Gary Locke was somewhat of a rock star in China. In the United States, we are also contemplating increasingly each year the real practical impact of poor leadership in our own country. In just one example of many, the downgrading of the U.S. credit rating was based on a lack of confidence in our representatives specifically and government leaders in general.
Two great nations. Two very different situations. Yet, one future. In the 21st century, the U.S.-China relationship will be the most influential relationship in the world. We have to generate confidence that Chinese and American leaders can, and will, generate the political will necessary to ensure our bilateral relationship will be a force for good in the world. Despite the current lack of confidence, I nevertheless see the potential for an inspiring relationship to grow; one that solves problems and provides hope. I believe we can lead our peers and our authorities in shaping such an outcome.
I recommend three efforts. Our first should be to start trying to see ourselves not as two nations, but as two civilizations. China is the oldest remaining civilization on the surface of the earth; America is the newest. China is greater than its national government, just as America is greater than its national government. What do I mean by this? When we first started, we were thirteen states in a common union. We split up and fought bitterly years later. Yet, as deeply divided as the citizens of the United States of America and the Confederate States of America were, we all nevertheless saw ourselves as members of something called “America”. I think that “something” is now recognizable as a distinct civilization, new on the face of the Earth, and today Americans are still unified in our divisions among one another, and still strong despite all this current fretting about our weaknesses.
Similarly, China, in its more than three thousand years of history, has had dozens of governments and fought itself several times over. It has been a world leader, and will be again someday. We should encourage China to be a great leader, giving the world the best its civilization has to offer, and mentoring us along the way to also be a great civilization. Seeing ourselves as civilizations, we can more easily envision the greatness we could achieve together for the good of humanity.
Secondly, the communication problems we face at the national level can be aided – even solved – at the subnational level. Using subnational level communication to help the national level relationship is at the heart of the Memorandum of Understanding Concerning the Establishment of a U.S.-China Governors Forum to Promote Subnational Cooperation, a bilateral agreement signed by Secretary of State Clinton and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in January 2011. Upon signing the memorandum, the U.S. Department of State delegated the task of implementing the U.S.-China Governor’s Forum to the National Governor’s Association; the central government of China handed responsibility to the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.
These institutions organized three groups of meetings between Chinese provincial governors and U.S. state governors by the end of 2011. Now in 2012, both sides are pausing in the midst of budget and leadership transition challenges to consider what initial lessons have been learned and what best plans to pursue in the year 2013 and beyond.
The initiative is worth pursuing. Over the past 30 years and more, Americans and Chinese have formed hundreds, even thousands, of positive relationships resulting in practical, productive developments in dozens of fields. The strength of Arizona State University’s connection to Sichuan University and Chongqing’s connection to Seattle are two good examples. I invite you to join me in encouraging our regional and community leaders to take opportunities to recognize and promote the excellent subnational cooperation achieved between our two countries. Healthy examples of such strong institutions could help save the future of the overall national relationship from the twin specters of miscommunication and nationalism.
Finally, for both America and China to address the future, we need leaders; leaders of character. Leaders with vision, the ability to listen and speak clearly, and demonstrating a tendency to value others more than they value themselves. Our community leaders, be they in commerce, education, finance, industry, services or the state, should proactively engage in shaping, not merely observing, the future of our two civilizations. Many feel they can’t do very much but, as Edmund Burke put it, “nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Let’s not make another huge mistake by letting the U.S.-China relationship fall into ruin by thinking its Washington D.C.’s or Beijing’s job to save it. Let’s encourage Ambassador Locke, the National Governor’s Association and our regional and community leaders to support subnational cooperation. Locke’s humble personal example is a great leadership image for many – including ourselves – to follow, and I’m certain that following his and other such examples will help both nations develop the ethical leadership they desperately need.
Two great civilizations. Two very different sets of advantages and characteristics. And one great future.