Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.
Leland Lazarus is the associate director of research at Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute of Public Policy. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of Florida International University.
You have spent time in China, Panama, and Barbados, among other places. What have you learned from living, working, and researching overseas?
In the first 10 years of my career, I’ve learned just how intertwined China, Latin America, and the Caribbean have become. In college, I researched the Chinese diaspora in Panama, dating back two centuries. While a U.S. diplomat in China, I ran into my Panamanian friend at a crowded Beijing metro station; he was part of a growing number of Latin American experts on China. Years later, while serving in the Caribbean, I met a Chinese-Barbadian who advocated for closer ties between his country and China. I became good friends with the Panamanian and Barbadian, even though our views on China’s overall goals in the region differed.
These personal stories reflect a profound global trend. The United States and China are engaged in strategic competition around the globe, and Latin American and Caribbean countries are finding innovative ways to maximize their relationship with the two superpowers.
Ultimately, it’s up to the individual actors on the ground who will decide this “decisive decade.” They include Chinese officials continuing to offer Belt and Road projects, U.S. and Western officials providing better development alternatives to their partners, and the regional experts helping their countries navigate this uncertain era of strategic competition.
What have you gained from your involvement in organizations like the Black China Caucus and programs like CNAS’ Next Gen Fellowship?
For years, whether in the classroom or around the meeting room, I was often one of the “only” China watchers of color. But after joining the Black China Caucus, the National Association for Black Engagement in Asia, the African American China Leaders Fellowship, and the Latinx China Network, I found inspiring communities of color. I found friends who were farther ahead in their career, some just starting out, and some facing similar struggles. But most of all, I found a professional home, brothers and sisters united by our insatiable curiosity for China and steadfast commitment to making our mark on U.S.-China relations.
It’s also been a real blessing to meet and get to know my CNAS Next Gen colleagues! They’re all superheroes, incredible people with experience across government, the private sector, and NGOs, all of us helping each other develop our own unique leadership styles throughout the year. We’ve had the privilege to meet some of the nation’s foremost leaders and debated important international issues like Russia’s war in Ukraine and the future of U.S.-China relations. But we’ve also enjoyed happy hours around D.C. and karaoked together in Seoul during our international trip. We CNAS Next Gen fellows didn’t just build professional partnerships; we’ve forged friendships for a lifetime.
What advice do you have for people early in their careers?
I wish I’d known about all the international opportunities available to young people just starting their career! For college students and recent graduates, consider applying for the Fulbright Scholarship, the Boren Fellowship, the Peace Corps, and the Critical Language Scholarship. If you want to serve in government, apply for the Pickering, Rangel, or Payne Fellowships, which cover your graduate degree and train you to become a U.S. diplomat for the State Department or USAID. Finally, join diverse professional networks and fellowships as early as possible. Here are 10 you could look into:
- Fulbright Affinity Groups like Noir (for African Americans), HBCU, Latinx, Prism (LGBTQ), and Lotus (Asian Americans)
- American Mandarin Society’s African-American China Leadership Fellows
- Black Professionals in International Affairs
- National Association for Black Engagement in Asia
- Black China Caucus
- The Latinx China Network
- Speechwriters of Color
- Truman National Security Project
- Leadership Council for Women in National Security
- Girl Security
These networks will help you accelerate your career, meet inspiring mentors or mentees, and develop lifelong friendships in this endlessly fascinating world.
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