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Of course he does, but does he know what he wants?

Steven Weber, professor of political science and at the School of Information, faculty director of the Center for Long-term Cybersecurity | November 17, 2009

Climate, trade, human rights.  Are these really the most important issues in the Sino-American relationship today?  I don’t think so, and I don’t think the White House should act as if they are.

The Obama Administration might as well come out and say it:  The single most important relationship in international politics and economics today, is that between Washington and Beijing.  That won’t be well received.  The Europeans will hate to hear it.  The Russians will be annoyed.  The Japanese will worry.  But to acknowledge this reality makes it possible to upgrade our thinking about prioritization of the issues on the table.  And to stop mucking around in last decade’s agenda as if nothing has changed.

Our disagreements over climate, trade, and human rights are symptoms of a broader problem.  The US government does not right now have a coherent vision of what a constructive, mutually beneficial Sino-American relationship would look like in 2012.  The best we can do without that, is to ‘bully’ or try to persuade the Chinese to do more of what we want them to do.  But we don’t have much leverage at the end of the day.  What exactly are we going to withhold from China if they don’t do as we wish?

The three most important issues in the Sino-American relationship right now — as they have been for the last several years — are currency, energy, and intellectual property.  The first subsumes the trade issues.  The second subsumes the climate issues.  And the third lies at the heart of how these two economies propose to create and exchange value over the next decade.

All of these are joint dilemmas that require first principles rethink.  And that means acknowledging the reality of G-2 — not G-7, G-20, or G-anything else.  A post global financial crisis global currency scheme can’t be built unless Beijing and Washington do it together.  A realistic transition away from carbon-intensive energy systems can’t happen unless Beijing and Washington do it together.  And there’s no patchwork solution to the trade fights unless these two players have a foundational agreement about how value is created, protected, and priced in markets.

Why is this so hard to imagine?  I think the answer is simply that Americans aren’t yet ready to admit that we’re in a bipolar world.  Bipolarity is simply a statement about the distribution of power, not a statement that we’re going to have a cold war or any other kind of war.  What we are going to have, or should have, is a shared system of responsibility for decision.  But that means giving up American pretensions to setting the agenda for everyone else.

We want the Chinese to share the costs of global governance and we’re even willing to let them share some of the benefits.  But we can’t quite imagine fully sharing decision rights.  That’s the problem Obama has to solve.

Maybe it’s because we don’t want to share decision rights with a non-democracy.  Maybe it’s because we can’t quite come to grips with the fact that the Chinese deserve an equal decision role.  Maybe it’s because we never actually shared decision rights in anything like an equal relationship with our European allies or our Soviet adversaries during the last period of geopolitical bipolarity.  Whatever the reasons are, it’s time to get over them.

Robert Zoellick (now President of the World Bank) gave a great speech about US-Chinese relationships in 2005 when he was in the Bush Administration State Department.  He coined the phrase “responsible stakeholder” as a statement about what America wanted from China in its international role.

But let’s be clear about what that phrase means in practice – -because Zoellick didn’t go all the way and neither has the Obama administration.  A responsible stakeholder is not just someone who helps pay the bills for policies decided upon by others.  It means joint decision rights.

The Chinese ultimately won’t agree to have it any other way.  Nor should they.


Comments to “Of course he does, but does he know what he wants?

  1. I am hoping Obama or his think tank will read your article. I have been watching his visit to China and think he was doing much better than his predecessors. He certainly has a lot of room for further adjustment along your line of reasoning and insights.

  2. Professor,

    Isn’t an analysis based on a bipolar world overly simplistic? Even if we just look at the international economic situation, the EU bloc and Brazil are both major players (with the former possibly in decline and the latter on the tentative rise).

    The current situation may be largely bipolar, but to ignore and ostracize these other players would be to weaken our position down the line.

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