TOPICS:Outlook on a triple-superpower world

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 US 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 organised, 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 globalised 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 recognised these facts. 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. When the new Big Three work together on these issues, each will bring to the table distinctive strengths, vulnerabilities, and national aspirations.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 Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a 56-nation body that will probably also have a key role in mid-wifing 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 WTO, 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 global agenda without getting into a shooting war that would inflict unimaginable harm on us all. — The Christian Science Monitor