John Kerry + Guitar + China's Great Hall of the People = Smart Diplomacy

"Guitar skills a little rusty, but couldn't turn down Vice Premier Liu Yandong's invitation to join in at Great Hall!" — @JohnKerry/Twitter

Have you ever wished that the U.S. would prioritize education as much as it does defense? Ever wondered what diplomacy would be like if there were an equal emphasis placed on deeper connections between people as there is on geopolitical prowess? If so, you might be very keen to learn about last week’s major milestone, when the U.S. and China held their annual high-level Consultation on People-to-people Exchange (CPE) in concert with the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). Now in its fifth iteration, this merger is what I call smart diplomacy.

The CPE was launched five years ago to encourage innovative collaboration in the fields of education, culture, entrepreneurship, women’s issues, and sports, while the S&ED dates back to Hank Paulsen’s tenure as treasury secretary, and aims to improve communication and understanding on economic and security concerns.

On July 9–10, Secretary of State John Kerry led a U.S. delegation including five cabinet-level officials to these dialogues held in Beijing. The secretary's visit to China was sandwiched between his travels to the Middle East and Afghanistan. The CPE amounted to a brilliant oasis for Kerry — aside from discussions around thorny issues such as cyber security, bilateral trade and investment, and stability in international waters, the CPE proceedings and outcomes reminded the secretary and his Chinese counterparts that individuals and civil entities of the two countries are both the foundation and multipliers of the diplomatic efforts to bring about peace and prosperity.

Hundreds of thousands of young people are studying in one another’s country; the NCAA, MLB, and the like are introducing American pastimes to China; organizations advocating for female entrepreneurship are sharing best practices; museums and concert halls are bringing hundreds of exhibits and performances to audiences across the Pacific. Secretary Kerry’s gesture said it best when he picked up a guitar and rocked out with the Chinese students originally there to perform for him.

In the most basic and immediate sense, the CPE highlights and promotes exchanges that encourage a sense of common pursuit between two people. Equally significant is for policymakers to visualize these efforts, to cultivate their sense of perspective, and to give real meaning to their own work in the diplomatic arena. Combining political, economic, and security discussions with those pertaining to people-to-people exchange should be the new benchmark for conducting diplomacy. This way, we have a shot at making real human connections part of any conflict resolution.

At the CPE I had the honor of sharing my thoughts and Asia Society's efforts, which include creating opportunities for American students to learn Chinese, connecting them with peers in China, and convening individuals and institutions in education, business, policy, and the arts, inspiring and empowering them to contribute to this comprehensive relationship. However, I voiced my concern that international surveys by Pew and Gallup have shown growing mutual mistrust between people of our two countries. This is unacceptable and incompatible with the challenges of our times.

There is one silver lining: There are signs that young people have the most positive attitudes toward one another in these studies. It is incumbent upon us to double down on our investment to ensure this positive momentum between future generations continues to flourish.

About the Author

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Jeff Wang is the director for Education and Chinese Language Initiatives. He focuses on increasing awareness and capacity among educators and policymakers to create and advocate for language learning, partnerships, and exchanges.