Opportunity 08: Big Issues for America and Higher Education

Michael O’Hanlon

Opportunity 08, a Brookings Institution project in partnership with ABC News, aims to help presidential candidates and the public focus more on critical issues—and less on partisan politics—by providing ideas, policy forums, and information on a broad range of domestic and foreign policy questions. Brookings, one of the nation’s oldest think tanks, has contributed to public policy discussions for more than 90 years. Opportunity 08 continues that tradition with a new approach. Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Sydney Stein, Jr., chair and specializes in U.S. defense strategy and foreign policy, explains that in an effort to make its scholarship and ideas more widely accessible, Opportunity 08 policy papers are limited to 5,000 words—that is, they go into some depth but are designed to be read in one sitting. In a wide-ranging discussion, O’Hanlon presented themes from Opportunity 08 papers on a variety of topics related to higher education and foreign policy. Excerpts of his remarks are reprinted here.

On Higher Education

In their Opportunity 08 paper, “Pathways to the Middle Class: Ensuring Greater Upward Mobility for All Americans,” Amy Liu and her coauthors wrote about the college summit concept designed to help inner-city students get through the college applications process. Many of these students lack the role models and support networks necessary to successfully navigate everything from preparing for and taking the SAT to completing college applications and applying for financial aid. College summits have been very successful in encouraging students to continue on to college by making them feel like they’ve got some support from their community and from their elders. It’s an idea that has a lot to be said for it and could be expanded quite a bit.

Liu and her coauthors also discuss Pell Grants and other scholarships. In addition to the well-known fact that Pell Grants now cover a smaller fraction of total college costs than in the past, it is also true that they are not typically usable by students enrolled less than half-time. Liu says this may affect a relatively modest percentage of our population, but we should not be discouraging anyone trying to work through school part-time from doing so. So, why not relax some of the rules on Pell Grants and other scholarships to allow for this sort of thing?

Bruce Katz, the director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Study Center, has written about the idea of forming regional groupings of universities, wherein each member of the consortium would essentially agree to offer each other’s residents in-state tuition at their state universities. The consortium would give students more options and help ease the financial burden of attending out-of-state universities. Katz also has proposed a Passport for Higher Education Partnership Program, which would incentivize states to award more scholarships by matching increases in state grants with increases in federal grants.

Sean Maloney and Christopher Thomas of Intel Corporation wrote an Opportunity 08 paper, “Strengthening U.S. Information Technology: Keep America #1 on the Net,” outlining an ambitious agenda for science, math, and engineering research and education. They propose doubling federal funding of R&D in these fields within the next 10 years and spending billions more each year on training for math and science teachers and on scholarships for science and engineering students. The goals are to double the number of U.S. engineering graduates over the next decade and to recruit 1,000 more of the top U.S. engineering graduates each year to do doctoral work with scholarships, fellowships, and federal research funds. These proposals are part of a strategy that would allow U.S. companies to remain at the forefront of Internet technology development and help American workers reap the benefits of higher productivity and economic growth. Maloney and Thomas also recommend that the number of H1-B visas for highly skilled foreign workers be at least doubled to meet market demand.

On Foreign Policy


Many American colleges and universities have partnerships with Chinese institutions and have made an effort to increase Chinese language studies and exchange programs, and I hope all of this continues and accelerates. But a few basic facts and figures on China: China not only has a huge trade deficit with the United States, which is to some extent to our disadvantage, but it’s also become the largest market for our exports. It’s a vibrant two-way economic interchange, and it’s good and bad in terms of what it does for our economy. Probably more good than bad.

But China has remarkably big internal problems. Think about the One Child Policy, for example, and what that does, from the point of view of a university president, to the next generation. How is China, which already has decent health and life expectancy standards, possibly going to keep itself going in 20 years when all of these families are being supported by one child? Each child trying to take care of two aging adults in a place that’s using up all its water, has the worst air pollution in the world, and has huge internal problems of equity between the coastal cities on the one hand and the interior on the other.

China desperately needs to keep working with the United States because it can’t solve these problems on its own. I would much rather be an American in terms of looking out to the future. We have a gradually growing population and a lot of land—not all of which is overused. We have a lot of opportunities to use our land in different ways to approach different national challenges such as agriculture or energy. China has far more daunting challenges on almost all of these fronts and very much needs to stay engaged with the world community.

So, China is a mixed bag. The magnitude of what’s going on there is staggering. In 2004, for example, one-third of the world’s increase in energy usage happened in China. China is not responsible for that percentage of total usage, but somewhere between 20% and 40% of the increase in any given year is roughly attributable to China.

It is inevitable that the United States is going to be involved in a very complex interaction with China for the rest of our lifetimes. It can’t be called a strategic rivalry, which is what George W. Bush wanted to call it in his early days in office; that’s not an accurate statement of reality. But neither is it accurate to call it a strategic partnership, as Bill Clinton did in the late 1990s. The relationship is much more complicated than simply primarily confrontational or primarily cooperative. It’s going to be both, and the United States is going to have to use World Trade Organization mechanisms to ensure that China plays fair and respects the environment. We’re going to have to keep up the pressure on human rights. But we also have to realize that what China has done to bring people out of poverty and what it has done to help our economy is stunning by global standards. Certainly, China’s success at bringing a quarter billion people out of poverty in our lifetimes is the single greatest antipoverty accomplishment in the history of mankind. And so it’s inherently a complicated place and a complicated relationship.


Korea is an interesting place to consider because Korea is where the complexities of our relationship with China come to the fore. In some ways, Korea cannot afford to get along badly with China. But it also cannot afford to be all on its own right next to China. So Korea has this very complex relationship, even more so than ours, with China. And right in the middle of it is the U.S.–South Korea alliance.

Mike Green wrote an Opportunity 08 paper, “Constructing a Successful Chinese Strategy: Promote Balance and Democratic Ideals in Asia.” He pointed out that a couple of years ago the United States asked Korea for permission to use military bases on the Korean peninsula in the event that we fight against China in defense of Taiwan. Korean President Roh gave the right answer. He said, of course not. I can’t give you a carte blanche in advance. China is 1.3 billion people living right next to me. Even your commitment to Taiwan is conditional, based on who you think caused the crisis. So you, the United States, have preserved all of your autonomy and flexibility on this issue and you’re asking us to commit in advance to allow military bases on our territory to fight China? Over Taiwan? He said no and he was right. The United States was foolish to have asked.

We’ve gotten a little smarter since then and realized that it was a mistake to have asked our ally to take such a public stand, and that we shouldn’t do that again. Clearly, the United States has to work hard at its relationship with South Korea, in regard to both China and North Korea.

On Nuclear Proliferation

I coauthored with Steve Cohen an Opportunity 08 paper, “Stemming Nuclear Proliferation: Prevent and Manage the Rise of New Nuclear Powers,” that describes the great conundrum we face in dealing with India and Pakistan, two very different countries that present very different situations. India is a democracy. They have a lot to be proud of. They’re making great strides in economics now. India has been the largest democracy in the world for a number of decades. And Indians don’t like to have other countries act as if they’re bigger, better, stronger, more authentic democracies. And they especially don’t like preachy Americans—those of you who have been at fora or debates with Indians know what I mean.

Indians have a point when they say, you want us to sign the nonproliferation treaty and agree not to have nuclear weapons when you’ve got 20,000 of them? And the reason is because you got them first? Maybe we can understand a little bit about why you don’t want the North Koreans to have nuclear weapons, but we’re a democracy. And we’re a proud democracy. And we’ve got some security issues in our neighborhood, too. And so India detonated nuclear weapons in the late 1990s, as did Pakistan. The Pakistan situation is far more fragile and presents a very different kind of problem.

Now that they have nuclear weapons, neither country is going to dismantle them just to comply with U.S. requests to focus on the nonproliferation agenda. They’re going to keep their nuclear weapons, and so we are going to have to try to rebuild a global nonproliferation framework with that reality in mind. How do we do that?

I think we need to ask the Indians to commit to not testing any more nuclear weapons and to not producing any more fissile material for nuclear weapons. And the United States should promise to do the same. Maybe we need to create a tacit deal with India, not so much based on formal treaties but rather stemming from an acknowledgment on the part of these two great democracies that proliferation is a big challenge and an agreement to find ways to together reinforce the message of nonproliferation. And if we can do that, then we will have much less worry about nuclear cooperation in the energy sphere with them.

On Relations with the Islamic World

Much of the long-term solution to the problem of relations with the Islamic world is in higher education’s hands rather than in our hands in Washington.

Much of the long-term solution to the problem of relations with the Islamic world is in higher education’s hands rather than in our hands in Washington. Americans need to learn the languages spoken in the broader Islamic world. We need far more people who are knowledgeable in the politics and history of this part of the world and who are well versed in the issues there. By “this part of the world,” I mean even more people than live in China. There are roughly 1.4 billion Muslims around the world, more than half of whom are to the east of the Indo-Pakistani border. Therefore, to focus on this as primarily an Arab problem is really not correct, although of course that is where many of our problems have arisen.

In their Opportunity 08 paper, “Engaging the Muslim World: A Communication Strategy to Win the War of Ideas,” Peter Singer and Hady Amr propose, in addition to more language and area studies, the idea of summits between university presidents or university professors. I imagine that the tone that can be created in an academic environment may be just what is necessary to make some headway. If the summits were televised and translated, colleges and universities could start to bridge the divide between the United States and the broader Islamic world. American academics are more inclined to acknowledge flaws in U.S. foreign policy and are more willing to take more criticism than government officials, so some of these kinds of summits might accomplish a great deal.

Another contribution academia could make to increasing understanding across cultures would be to encourage more translation of American literature into Arabic and other important languages in the Islamic world. Universities could undertake initiatives to translate each other’s documents and read each other’s literature, targeting the general population that doesn’t learn English in their part of the world or Arabic or Urdu and other languages in ours.

On Globalization

Economics may be the most salient aspect of globalization for higher education leaders to consider. Global trade may mean less expensive goods, but that doesn’t much help someone who’s unemployed. We need to find a way, starting with our own country and political situation, to keep the globalization of the economy sustainable. If large swaths of our economy and our society are suffering from globalization and the flat-world dynamic, it won’t be sustainable at home.

Global trade may mean less expensive goods, but that doesn’t much help someone who’s unemployed. We need to find a way, starting with our own country and political situation, to keep the globalization of the economy sustainable.

Further, if we can’t make the global economy work well for most major blocs of countries around the world, all the other problems we have to worry about are going to be hard to resolve, and all the opportunities globalization presents are going to be hard to take advantage of. For example, if we can’t help the Islamic world do better economically, not just in terms of GDP driven up by oil but in terms of giving its middle classes employment opportunities, we’re not going to solve the terrorism problem. And if we can’t help Africa do better economically, we’re not going to be able to address the globalization of health problems.

So, higher education leaders need to think hard about the skills that students are gaining while enrolled at their institutions. All of them will need to function in the globalized economy upon graduation.


The Opportunity 08 papers offer a good model for higher education’s leaders to contribute to the public discourse. If a group of university presidents and other officials wrote a white paper to the presidential candidates outlining the 10 issues they care most about, for example, and it was a digestible amount of material, the candidates would be forced to take note of that paper. You may think that this vehicle has already been tried or isn’t necessarily very effective, but I believe that if you pool your resources, reach a consensus, and produce something that’s substantive yet brief, there’s a good chance that you could get the candidates’ attention—and the general public’s—and influence their thinking about issues important to American higher education.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Sydney Stein, Jr. chair, and is a visiting lecturer at Princeton University. He is the author of several books and has appeared on major and cable television networks nearly 500 times since September 11, 2001. O’Hanlon can be reached at mohanlon@brookings.edu.