This interview is adapted from a segment in the Brookings Cafeteria podcast called “Coffee Break,” where a scholar introduces their background, research interests, and offers book recommendations. The transcript has been slightly edited from the audio recording.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in a small town in northwest Washington called Bellingham. It’s a town that’s most famous for Western Washington University. I was the son of a golf professional that managed a golf course. I spent my summers hanging around the golf course and my winters in the cold of Northwest Washington dreaming of becoming the next Jack Nicklaus.
Q: What inspired you to become a scholar?
A: When I was growing up becoming a scholar wasn’t really on my radar. The spark initially was lit in college when I was trying to make sense of what was going on in the world around me. I found that many of the writings by think tank scholars were the most accessible and illuminating for my understanding of what was happening.
And after school, I had a chance to enter the State Department—the Foreign Service—where I served for 15 years and during that process I had an opportunity to meet some of the people whose writing I had most admired: Jeff Bader, Richard Bush and others. And when the opportunity arose for me to join Brookings, I jumped at it. It really is a privilege to get paid to think and speak and write about things that I’m passionate about.
Q: How do you relate your scholarship at Brookings to your experience at the White House?
A: The time that I had working at the White House gave me an appreciation for how all of the pieces of the U.S.-China relationship fit together. When I was at the White House, I was the China director for President Obama for four years. And it gave me an opportunity to see how the relationship works at the highest level. I had an opportunity to accompany President Obama to multiple meetings in China and the United States and elsewhere with Chinese leaders. And I think that it really has grounded my appreciation both of the complexity, but also the significance of the U.S.-China relationship.
Q: What do you think is the most important issue we’re facing today?
A: We live in the age of Trump, and so it’s easy to get sideswiped by the issue of the day or the latest twist and turn in our political setting. But if you’re able to step back and sort of look past the noise, I think there are a couple of profound things that are happening right now. I’ll put three on the table and I’m sure others have more that could add to this list. But the first is I think we’re on the cusp of a wave of societal change with the adoption of artificial intelligence technology. Anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of the current jobs in the United States could be wiped out in the course of our lifetime. So that’s the first significant event.
The second is that the benefits of artificial intelligence technology are going to disproportionately benefit the United States and China. It’s going to cause our two countries to surge further ahead from the rest of the pack in the international community and create this dynamic that I call asymmetric bipolarity, where these two big powerful countries stand as poles in the international system with different governance systems, different economic systems, neither can dominate the other, but neither is satisfied with the way the other organizes itself. And so one of the great questions of our time is how our two countries are going to manage this tension.
And then the third big issue is climate change. It’s becoming more and more acute, and the effects are being felt more rapidly by more people around the world. Unless the United States and China can find a way to come together on this issue, it’s going to be nearly impossible to bend the curve.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m working on two projects. In the short-term, I’m trying to take a look at how artificial intelligence technology is going to affect the U.S.-China relationship. What is it going to do to the United States and China interact with each other, view each other, and treat each other and the international system? Over the longer term I’m trying to work on a book project that looks at how the United States could and should adapt its strategy to deal with the effects of a rising China.
Q: You mentioned the U.S. and China are in a high-stakes, race-to-the-top competition in the AI field, like a Cold War arms race. Can you talk more about that?
A: It’s become very popular to think of competition between the United States and China in artificial intelligence technology issues in Cold War terms. Whether it be an arms race, or a Sputnik moment, or some of these other evocative terms that bring us back to the competition that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
I’m actually not terribly comfortable with that framing because I think that it colors the way that our two countries will interact with each other on this issue. It cuts both ways. It certainly will create intensifying competition in the technology sphere, but at the same time the United States and China both are navigating the frontier of technology, and we can do it alone or we can do it together. We can learn from each other or we can learn our own lessons apart from each other. My view is that by using Cold War terminology to describe the dynamic that’s at play between the United States and China in artificial intelligence technology, it complicates the ability of our two countries to sort this out together.
Q: If you could recommend any book to our listeners, what would it be?
A: First of all, it depends on whether we’re looking forward or backward. If we’re looking backward, there’s an author named Jonathan Spence who has written some of the most profound things about the history of China. And there’s no one better on the subject. If we’re looking forward, I would recommend a book by Kai-Fu Lee, who is a world-renowned technologist, who recently published a book called “AI Superpowers.” It looks at how the United States and China together will deal with artificial intelligence.
Megan Drake contributed to this post.