INTERVIEW: CMC Alumnus David Dreier and “Better Angels”

Last week, the Claremont Independent had the distinct opportunity of interviewing Claremont McKenna College (CMC) alumnus and former Congressman David Dreier at the screening of Better Angels—a documentary examining how rivals United States and China can benefit from increased economic and cultural exchange—in Los Angeles. Dreier is a co-executive producer of Better Angels and a trustee of both CMC and the California Institute of Technology, as well as a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Space Innovation Council. As one of the youngest Congressmen elected, Dreier won the Republican nomination while he was still attending CMC. Among his plethora of honors and distinctions, Dreier founded the bipartisan Congressional Trade Working Group.

At CMC, Dreier founded the Dreier RoundTable, a public policy program meant to attract CMC students to public service through internships, scholarships, and fellowships. The Dreier RoundTable also includes the Annenberg-Dreier Commission, a program focusing on strengthening the free flow of goods, services, capital, information, ideas, and people throughout the Pacific Rim.

The Claremont Independent was able to ask Dreier his thoughts on his CMC education, the importance of the US-China bilateral relationship, and why college students should care about this relationship and its economic impact. Dreier also plans to screen Better Angels at CMC next semester. Below are the questions posed to Dreier and his answers, edited for concision and clarity.

CI: As an alumnus of CMC, how did your education prepare you for your future?

DD: My education played a huge role in shaping basically everything. We are a product of economic education that we are known for, and my training was also in government. My study of James Madison and the role that government should play, these are really, really, really important things that emerged from that education.

I’m so appreciative of my father who encouraged me to go to CMC. My grandfather was a Princeton alumnus, so CMC and Princeton were the institutions I was looking at. My father said to me that he really hopes that I go to his alma mater, CMC, and I didn’t want to at first, but I did. Getting there with the classes that I took and the people with whom I interacted with is in a large part responsible for much of what shaped my career.  

CI: So tell us more about Better Angels, and how did you get involved and become part of the production of this film?

DD: Well, if you follow James Madison’s directive to go home and live after the laws have passed, I’m searching for it here. I left Congress and now I make movies in Hollywood, so that’s sort of a natural progression. Mundell asked me to join as the co-executive producer and we spent six years filming on four continents.

The issue of Better Angels is an issue that is very near and dear to me because I got involved in it in the mid 1980s when I met up with Richard Milhous Nixon and he introduced me to Henry Kissinger, so I spent a great deal of time with them. In the late 1980’s we were talking about the importance of the US-China relationship and at my very core, I believe in the interdependence of economic and political liberalization; I believe that more economic engagement and greater trade will help us deal with the very serious concerns that some might have. We’re not focusing on this movie, and we don’t spend a lot of time on the movie, but they’re very important.

CI: What would you like to see higher education prioritize regarding better preparation for public service/international relations?

DD: The Great Recession from 2007-2008 created a scenario where many, many people lost jobs, and lost homes; it was tough. But it also inspired a lot of young people to go into more practical fields; I mean at my alma mater in particular, and at other schools the focus is to get into venture capital and private equity and less, fewer people getting into public service.

That’s what really what led to the creation of the Dreier RoundTable at CMC. I wanted to provide scholarships, fellowships, and internships for people to be inspired into public service. I spend a lot of time thinking about exactly the question that you raised here, and that is how to encourage smart, well-educated, honest, ethical, hard-working people into public service.

CI: How well do you see college graduates fairing in the current economy? In the future?

DD: Students should be interested in what’s happening, and better prepared. I’m very troubled with the developments that we’ve seen in the last 24 hours. The announcement was made yesterday. The 14,000 General Motors workers are going to be laid off and I think that while the President will not acknowledge it, I believe that the imposition of tariffs has played a big role in this and increasing costs. I believe in the elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers for the free flow of goods, services, capital, information, ideas, and people.

Young people today should look at economic policy and figure out how they’re going to impact it. The reason for the Dreier RoundTable is to encourage young people to think about pursuit of public service as part of their career. I spent my life doing it until just a few years ago, but I think that people should think about public service.

Obviously if they’re going to look at public service, the international relationships and the relationship with the most populous country in the world and being in California, the gateway to the Pacific Rim is very important early on.

CI: How do you think the US and China should deal with each other on non economic issues?

DD: The human rights issues, espionage, intellectual property theft, and the developments of the South China Sea, every one of these issues, continue to be very high priority. The question is how do we most effectively deal with them, and I argue that a greater level of engagement, a greater exposure of the Chinese people to what I describe as Western values—political pluralism, the rule of law, the development democratic institutions, and self-determination. Those are things that I hold near and dear and I make no bones about the fact that aspirationally, I believe that those four principles are universal. It’s obviously not happening overnight.

We know that, but is the alternative getting into a shooting war with China? That’s why I’ve embraced this notion of we have the ability to embrace what we describe today as realpolitik—which is that you can focus on your interests as well as your values. They are not mutually exclusive. And Thucydides wrote about this was one of the things that he really underscored and Thucydides actually is responsible for the development of, again, what is today described as realpolitik.

CI: Why should college students care about this issue?

DD: Well, first of all, if they care about, again, human rights apply to their fellow human beings, they should spend time thinking about the way forward. I mean, we have the most powerful nation in the world and the most populous nation in the world. And by virtue of that, it is; it’s the single most important and complex bilateral relationship in the world today. If you look at that and if you talk about college students that are Claremont—we are literally the gateway to the Pacific Rim here in California—I like to describe southern California as the Silk Road of the third millennium. That is why I think young people should spend time and effort thinking about China.

CI: Why do you think Americans should try to gain a better understanding of China?

DD: The one American industry that has a trade surplus with every one of the 194 nations in the world is the entertainment industry—Hollywood. The people in China have a better understanding of the United States than the people United States have of China because they’re more exposed. So in Better Angels you see Mata and his move to China. We really try to underscore the the importance of Americans spending time in China and understanding China.

CI: Do you think it’s important for college communities to also discuss what are the most pressing issues in the US China relationship?

DD: I think at all the Claremont Colleges, on all campuses it should be a discussion. The thing about the bilateral relationship that really strikes me is that today we should strive to again work to expose more college students to Asia and China in particular. And it’s one of the things that we have done with the Dreier RoundTable. The discussion of the challenges of that China has been a big topic.

I think Better Angels really takes this head-on with a unique perspective. I liked it when a reviewer said Better Angels is to the US-China relationship as Inconvenient Truthis to the issue of climate change.

We’re planning to do a screening on campus at CMC next semester. All the students of the Claremont Colleges will be invited and it’s up to them whether Better Angels gins up more interest in this bilateral relationship.

CI: We’ve noticed a lot of international students on campus talk about the US relationships with other countries a lot, including the US-China relationship, but domestic students do so less. Why do you think this discrepancy exists?

DD: This is not unique to China. I’ve been to over 100 countries in the world and I was just doing a big program in Bogota, Colombia, and there was just this exposure to the United States; the motion picture industry is the only US industry that has a trade surplus with every single country in the face of the earth. It’s the only industry where we actually sell them more than we buy from them in the entertainment industry, and that contributes to the exposure and interest to America.

CI: In the end, do you see pro-business policies persevering?

DD: I don’t consider it pro-business; I consider it to be a passionate commitment to the free market and freedom. I’m a Republican because I believe in a free economy; I believe in less government control and regulation. Obviously we need to have safety regulation dealing with environmental issues and other things.

There are some things that the Trump administration has done, of which I’m supportive; the idea of reducing the size and scope of government is important. I wish that there were a little more focused on fiscal responsibility because of the magnitude of the national debt; I don’t think that the debt clearly has ruined our country—people have been saying for 50 years. But I think that it can be. I think that having some debt is not a bad thing, but it just continues to grow exponentially. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Again, that’s been traditionally a core public service issue of trying to focus on reigning in the size and scope of the government.

One of the examples in Better Angels is that Donald Trump goes around and regularly says the United States of America is victimized by the Chinese because the Chinese are planning to steal all of our jobs when in fact the Chinese have been victims of globalization just as the United States has and as other countries are. The example that we have in the movie is—and not many people are aware of this—a shoe factory in China where there were protests that took place because the shoe-manufacturing plant moved to Ethiopia because of lower wage rates. China is also victimized by globalization as opposed to being the culprit.

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