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The outlook on a triple-superpower world

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

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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."

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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."