America needs a new Nixon, and the current generation of young foreign policy leaders is well positioned to produce him (or her). Today’s rising leaders – Millennials in their 20s and early 30s – have never known a time when China has not been a core player in global affairs. Young people actively reject the "us-versus-them" mentality of the Cold War — even though much of its rhetoric continues to litter the foreign policy discourse — so have less inclination to reduce today’s complex international system to “America versus China.” This generation’s formative experience of a rising China will produce the next masterstroke. Absent their leadership, Nixon’s legacy of stable U.S.-China relations could be squandered.
Three guiding principles will help the next generation of foreign policy leaders shift the contours of how America thinks and talks about China.
The first is recognition that China seeks prestige above other geopolitical goals, whether in pursuit of aircraft carriers, influence in the UN, or the accumulation of gold medals in the 2008 Olympics.
The second is an approach to policy that forces China into the game, rather than trying to keep it out. This generation tends to be more favorably inclined toward engagement, and we are less likely to react with fear or suspicion when discovering that our interests are not perfectly concomitant with other countries. As young people inherit a battered American economy and a profusion of military commitments, the American tendency to micro-manage every potential crisis will fade. The next generation of foreign policy professionals will be happy to hand off problems to Beijing, ensuring that they shoulder new responsibility in constructing a more stable, secure world.
Finally, with the experience of September 11th seared into the nation’s collective memory, our generation is far more attuned to the risks posed by weak and fragile states. Our vision for China acknowledges that a strong China is better than a weak China. Beijing faces long-term trends that should send a shiver down the spine of strategists. China will get old before it gets rich. The pressures of urbanization and resource demand threaten to stretch the capacity of the government to provide for its citizens. And it exists in a geopolitical tinderbox where its massive size and relative power has not historically translated into ensuring regional stability. The threat from a strong China active in the world is infinitesimally less than a weak or fragmenting China that is unable to prevent chaos in East Asia.
We need the next China masterstroke. Nixon jumpstarted the engine. That was the easy part. The next generation of foreign policy leaders will have to steer U.S.-China relations along a no less uncertain road, but guided by a radically different set of political instincts.
Gary Barnabo is the Senior Vice President of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a global nonprofit that fosters the next generation of foreign policy leaders.