By James Walker – Editor in Chief
Last week the Burkle Center for International Relations hosted the annual Bernard Brodie Distinguished Lecture on the Conditions of Peace. This year’s speaker was Jon Huntsman, two-term Republican governor of Utah, and former U.S. Ambassador to China. The former GOP presidential candidate was on campus ostensibly to talk about “U.S.-China Relations, Challenges and Opportunities,” and while the audience was treated to an engaging discussion on the bilateral relations between those two states, it was clear that Huntsman had a lot to say about both the domestic and the international arenas.
The former Utah governor began by urging UCLA students to move beyond “reading blogs and posting on social media” and actively engage in the political process. Couching his appeal in terms reminiscent of the republican virtue model of civic engagement, Huntsman challenged the younger members of the audience to answer the age-old question, “If not you, then who?” This call for a greater number of young Americans to actively participate in the democratic process was both heartfelt and insistent, and was reaffirmed by the former Democratic Governor of California, Gray Davis, who introduced Huntsman as his longtime friend and colleague.
In particular, Huntsman talked about the ways in which the American political system had seized into gridlock, not because the issues involved were too difficult to solve, but because of “human failure” at the highest levels of government and opposition. Drawing upon his close involvement with the No Labels organization, a bipartisan political reform movement, the former governor insisted that there were innovative ways to fix the issues afflicting the political process such as campaign finance reform, but that nothing could be achieved without the involvement of more people as direct participants in the process.
The importance placed on domestic politics was also clearly present in the interview granted to The Generation editorial team before Huntsman’s speech. When asked about transnational issues, including the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” policy, heightening tensions in the South and East China Seas, and the crisis in the Ukraine, time and again Huntsman came back to the issue of how domestic political considerations often serve to dictate elements of foreign policy.A good example of this was the recently released IPCC report on the impact and future vulnerabilities attributable to global warming. A well-known climate change advocate, Huntsman has been described as the “GOP’s lonely climate hawk.” Some commentators suggest that this was a major reason for his eventual withdrawal from the 2011 GOP presidential primary race. That may be true, but Huntsman suggested that it was better to “go down not winning an election, than losing your integrity.”
When asked to comment specifically on the challenges posed for the US and China (the two largest producers of CO2 gases), the former governor was quick to point to the different domestic considerations faced by the two states. Huntsman argued that the the U.S. held a critical leadership role in affecting global attitudes towards climate change policies, while admitting there was limited hope of movement from our end. He ascribed much of the reluctance from U.S. legislators to the ongoing unemployment crisis. The political cost of enacting new laws and standards in the face of unemployment numbers that stretch to double figures in some places, was simply too hard a sell. Huntsman noted that when the unemployment rate was down at the 3% or 4% mark, he was surrounded by members of Congress and the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, who were willing to work on climate proposals.
By contrast, while issues with constant election cycles are not a factor for the Chinese government, growing dissent within large urban population centers over air-quality and respiratory health are. Looking at the ever increasing impact of social media and the internet on Chinese political commentary – a “genie that cannot be put back into the bottle,” even by the Chinese censors – Huntsman pointed to the impact that China’s youth are having on environmental policy. Even though the state faces competing interests from the industrial and manufacturing sectors, the Chinese Communist Party has understood that air-quality issues are a key concern for modern Chinese urbanites, and that they pose a significant threat to the stability of the system. As such, China has taken a more proactive stance on climate change, even as the U.S. lags behind.
What remains to be accomplished is for both the U.S. and China to begin to liaise, perhaps initially on a scientific level, in order to work on the problem in a cohesive manner, Huntsman claimed. However, while the politics of unemployment prevent greater U.S. leadership over the environment, in China the issue is being advanced by the people. This notion of civic engagement, while very different in context from the perspective of young people in China and the United States, is nonetheless an important take away idea from the former governor’s speech.
When asked what political actors must do to appeal to young voters such as the UCLA student body, Huntsman suggested that research showed our generation was drawn to “conservative economic policy, progressive social policy and pragmatic global policy” – what he termed the “Millennial Sweet-Spot.” The No Labels campaign would appear to be Huntsman’s attempt to reach out and engage us in the political process. For our part, if we want to see the world change for the better, then it is incumbent upon us to become part of the solution, rather than just complain about the problem. As Huntsman made clear in his impassioned speech, if not us, then who?
長江後浪推前浪: This Chinese proverb reads “The Changjiang River waves behind drive the waves ahead,” which roughly translates to “The energy of the new generation inspires the old.”