The outlook on a triple-superpower world

It's time for Russia, China, and the US to work together.

By Helena Cobban©
from the August 22, 2008 edition of the Christian Science Monitor.

The tectonic plates of world politics have been shifting for several years now, and on Aug. 8 the extent of this shift became plain. In Beijing, China held a stunning coming-out party as a world power. Meanwhile, 4,000 miles away, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia, signaling loud and clear that it would no longer be taken for granted.

Russia is back. China has emerged. Suddenly, the United States isn't the world's only superpower.

How will these three big powers interact in the years ahead, and what does that mean for all of humanity?

The global architecture that's emerging will be very different from the cold war. That was a contest between two big powers with clashing visions of how the whole world should be organized, and it centered on a very costly – and risky – nuclear arms race. The emerging framework will probably be anchored by the three large powers and by four others (Europe, Japan, India, and Brazil). And in today's more globalized world, raw military power has become much less important; economic and "soft" power, more so.

Here's the good news: The interests of the world's leading powers are deeply entwined. China and Japan hold large amounts of US debt; Russia supplies much of Europe's energy needs; markets, investments, and production systems criss-cross national boundaries.

This interdependence makes open warfare among them less likely. A war would be devastating for the whole system – especially for the US, whose military is stretched very thin and whose economy relies on overseas oil and loans.

From the beginning of the crisis in Georgia, President Bush has recognized these facts. He has wisely refrained from doing anything there that might lead to a shooting war with Russia. That might not seem "right" to many Americans. But Georgia was certainly not blameless. Now Washington should work hard for a settlement – possibly a broad demilitarization – that can protect both Georgia's borders and minority rights.

But our strong concern over Georgia shouldn't distract Americans from doing some hard thinking about how to work with both Russia and China – and other governments – to address even bigger global challenges: nuclear proliferation (especially in Iran), violent transnational Islamism, and climate change – not to mention the continuing challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the new Big Three work together on these issues, each will bring to the table distinctive strengths, vulnerabilities, and national aspirations.

The US brings its record as a longstanding (if now troubled) economic powerhouse, its role in creating and sustaining the present world system, and its advocacy – some would say hypocritical advocacy – of human rights, freedoms, and democratic government. Many Americans still feel the US is, in Abraham Lincoln's words, "the last best hope of earth."

Russia comes as a country that, having shed an empire along with the communist ideas that underlay it, has found a new internal balance – fueled by energy wealth – and restored its national pride. For many Russians, the 1990s were a time of social upheaval and humiliation at the hands of foreigners. Now their main impetus is one of prickly self-assertion: "Don't take us for granted again!"

And China comes as a behemoth that has emerged quietly. For all its repressive internal policies, Beijing has generally played a softer hand externally, relying much more on building economic and cultural ties than on military expansion. Many Chinese are proud that their rulers have brought their country out of centuries of warlordism, poverty, and subjugation by foreigners to its presently powerful position. They recognize that this was achieved through engagement with other world powers, not open confrontation, and that trend looks set to continue.

Is the United Nations strong and flexible enough to host the kinds of globe-girdling discussions that now need to be held – among these three, but also including the rest of the world's peoples? I believe so, though Big Three policymakers will also need to find quieter places where they can brainstorm different options, probe one another's reactions, and build decent working relationships away from the public spotlight.

The UN Security Council will be one key forum where a durable settlement for Georgia gets hammered out. Both the US and Russia have veto power there, so the focus needs to be on negotiating a consensus text that both governments – as well as the people of Georgia – can live with. Consensus is also the working rule at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a 56-nation body that will probably also have a key role in midwifing and monitoring the peace accords for Georgia.

Do Russia's leaders care much whether they get kicked out of the "G-8" or denied entry to the World Trade Organization, as Bush administration officials have threatened? I doubt it. But they – and the rest of us – should care deeply about finding a way to deal with all the issues on today's global agenda without getting into a shooting war that would inflict unimaginable harm on us all.

Helena Cobban, a former Monitor correspondent, is a "Friend in Washington" with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Her latest book is "Re-engage! America and the World after Bush."