The Law Professor as Goodwill Ambassador: Richard Gardner in China


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New York, Dec. 15, 2009 -- When Professor Richard Gardner went to China earlier this month for a series of speeches, he had a tough act to follow: President Obama.
Fortunately, Obama, who had been in China about two weeks earlier, had gotten good reviews.
“Wherever I went, they felt that President Obama handled himself very well and that the trip was a success from the point of view of both countries,” said Gardner, a Professor of Law and International Organization.
If Gardner’s trip to five Chinese cities on the mainland as well as Hong Kong sounds like a diplomatic mission, it’s a role that suits him, having served as a U.S. ambassador to Italy from 1977-81 and Spain from 1993-97 during leaves from the Law School . Indeed, his trip was sponsored by the State Department, which runs a program to send speakers abroad to talk about foreign policy issues.
And in China, there is much to talk about.
Gardner’s speeches dealt with the responsibilities the U.S. and China share when it comes to the world economy and international security. Audiences, at major universities and government-affiliated think tanks, were polite but at the same time not shy about providing contrasting views to U.S. positions, he said.
“I came away cautiously optimistic that the Chinese-U.S. relationship is on a good track and both sides have an enormous stake in each other’s successes,” Gardner said. “They’re our leading creditor. We are in a mutually interdependent relationship that would make conflict an act of folly on both sides.”
A thorny economic issue has been how the U.S. can narrow its trade deficit with China, which grew to $22.7 billion in October, aggravated by what Washington views as protectionist measures and an under-valued currency that makes exports cheaper.
Gardner said he expects some “movement” on the currency in the next year, but for now Chinese audiences “took the position that the imbalance was basically our fault because of our failure to live within our means.”
Throughout his trip, Gardner encountered a variation on that theme. The Chinese are very friendly and receptive to dialogue on vital issues, he said. Just “don’t ask us to do too much,” sums up the response Gardner often got.
For example, Gardner spoke about how China could aid in reducing nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, and how it could help combat terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“They feel threatened by terrorism too and that instability in those countries is viewed as a threat to them,” Gardner said, while also noting that audiences “had a great deal of difficulty in accepting that China had equivalent responsibilities to the U.S.” when it came to security.
And despite differences that have emerged at the U.N. Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, Gardner sensed the Chinese are committed to fighting global warming, but also cite the need to continue growing their economy and blame the U.S. for most industrial pollution.
Gardner, who has been on the faculty since 1957, and will next semester teach a seminar on Legal Aspects of U.S. Foreign Economic Policy, also had dinners with alumni in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong. “For me, it was an inspiring experience,” Gardner said. “Many of the alumni I had taught personally.”
They included Wang Gui-Guo ’82 LL.M, the dean of City University of Hong Kong Law School, and Hanqin Xue ’95 JSD, the Chinese ambassador to the countries in the ASEAN alliance.
“It’s extraordinary what they have achieved,” Gardner said. “It is very moving when they regard the experience at Columbia as the turning point in their lives.”
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