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Opinion

The outlook on a triple-superpower world

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

By Helena Cobban / August 22, 2008



Washington

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.

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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.

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