Introducing the winners of our 2019 Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest

A photo of the 2019 John Quincy Adams Society Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest winners.

The John Quincy Adams Society is pleased to announce the winners of its third annual Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest with The National Interest. This year’s contest saw a record number of entries (more than 180) from one hundred and eleven universities across the United States. The contest asked college students to respond to the following prompt: Are the United States and China on a path to conflict? This question has been a subject of intense debate both among scholars and in Washington policy circles. For these future foreign policy leaders, the answer is not only an intellectual exercise, but also likely to be the defining feature of the international power structure across their careers. The stakes are high, and the Society is heartened to see the rising generation taking up the challenge.


First Prize
Nicholas Grandpre, University of Notre Dame

Claire Walters, Washington State University-Vancouver
Eric Asen, Vanderbilt University

Honorable Mentions
Ken Lohatepanont, University of California, Berkeley
Sam Seitz, Georgetown University
Jenny W. Xiao, University of Chicago
Timothy Yin, Columbia University

Excerpts from the winners (click names to read more):

Nicholas Grandpre: “For the foreseeable future, China will have enough on its plate in its own backyard. Japan, South Korea, India, Vietnam, and Australia all have an interest in preventing Chinese dominance in Asia. America shares that interest, but reaching a balance of power in East Asia does not necessitate extensive security guarantees, nuclear umbrellas, and bellicose rhetoric focused on containing China at every point.”

Claire Walters: “The theory of power transition that [Graham] Allison’s argument rests upon seems compelling when viewed through the prism of European history. This clarity is quickly muddled when we widen our scope to include non-Western and especially Eastern history in the equation. For example, David Kang and Xinru Ma have argued that non-Western countries often take a different approach to power transitions. Looking at past history and power struggle, just as Allison chose to do with mostly European countries, East Asian countries’ power dynamic is different. Kang found that ‘only three out of eighteen dynastic transitions that occurred prior to the nineteenth century came as a result of external war.’ Rather than a focus on becoming the most powerful as Western states do, East Asian history points at a desire to maintain power.”

Eric Asen: “China will try to avoid any war with the United States, as its cornerstone policy of maintaining domestic stability would otherwise be placed in jeopardy. Chinese leaders are ‘obsessed’ with social stability, since social unrest threatens the survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). […] Since [Tiananmen], many CCP leaders, including Xi Jinping, have believed that “social stability overrides all other considerations.” In order to ensure stability, China has implemented a social credit system that punishes or rewards certain behavior, transformed the nation into a surveillance state, and even created mass detention camps to ‘deradicalize’ alleged extremists. In ‘both foreign and domestic policy’ the CCP is forced to preemptively consider how new policy would affect social stability with the knowledge that ‘foreign aggression sparks domestic upheavals.’ The mechanism for this is simple: a war between the United States and China would disrupt Chinese domestic stability by damaging the Chinese economy. […] The United States has strong domestic incentives to avoid a war, too. For more than fifteen years, the U.S. public has almost always placed the economy as its top priority in polls.”

Ken Lohatepanont: “The overlapping nature of hierarchy means that where the security dilemma is low, nations can exist in both the Chinese and American camps simultaneously. Hierarchical orders are fluid and porous; they can overlap and states can exist to multiple hierarchies at the same time. One example historically is the Southeast Asian mandala system, where states pledged themselves as tributaries to greater empires, but often existed in multiple overlapping circles at once and paid tribute to more than one hegemon at a time. This demonstrates that two hierarchies can coexist, and that the rise of a Chinese hierarchy will not necessarily displace the American one. A modern mandala system might see Asian countries that are not conflict hotspots able to hedge and exist in both the Chinese and American orbits. Thailand, for example, continues to be hailed as America’s oldest ally in Asia while also declaring that China is “Thailand’s number one partner.” The likelihood of conflict is low if both powers can accept that their allies will belong to both camps; as the Chinese maxim goes, smaller Asian powers can attempt to ‘have a thousand friends and no enemies.'”

Sam Seitz: “The primary reason for optimism is the reordered nature of the international system, which is more durable than during any other period of power transition. This is a consequence of America’s post-1945 institution-building – organizations like the World Bank, IMF, and United Nations have helped to foster and entrench open, liberal preferences and norms throughout the international system. Indeed, China has itself benefited from these institutions as well as others, such as the WTO, which have helped to create and sustain a multitude of stable and open markets into which China can expand to grow its export-oriented economy. Certainly, these institutions are not immutable, and they face challenges both from within – via the Trump administration’s refusal to appoint judges to the WTO appellate body, for example – and without, such as Chinese efforts to forge alternative institutions, like the AIIB, in which Beijing, not Washington, enjoys preeminence. Despite these challenges, most major actors appear to have no desire to seriously alter the current international order. The raft of new trade agreements passed over the past few years – TPP-11, CETA, and the E.U.-Japan EPA – is just one example of the open, market-based system pushing forward despite the current headwinds.”

Jenny W. Xiao: “War between the two countries is extremely unlikely. Looking forward and reasoning backward, there are essentially two scenarios—either power transition occurs, or it does not. Upon closer examination, neither scenario allows much possibility for war. Not only is there a large chance that China will not become sufficiently strong to challenge the U.S., nuclear weapons also keep armed conflict in check. Hawks on both sides that advocate for war preparation are simply too alarmist and learned the wrong lesson from the Peloponnesian War.”

Timothy Yin: “It would be imprudent to predict collapse or significant downturn for China, nor should America root for such an outcome. In its current position China already poses challenges to American preferences. But it is alarmist to assume that China’s plans to become a techno-superpower and overtake the US in technological innovation will work. Misguided notions that the US is falling behind and assorted myths of impending decline could justify policy choices that are overly bellicose and raise the risk of conflict.”

You may read winning entries previous contests for 2018 and 2017. You may find the original contest announcement here.