Richter Scale

America’s G2 Obsession

Is a “G2” consisting of China and the United States really a wise strategy for America?

Takeaways


  • To be sure, the United States and China will matter a great deal in the global concert — but so will other nations and regions, which are not mere pawns on a U.S.-Chinese chess board.
  • Proponents of a new G2, featuring the United States and China, hold that there is little in world affairs that can be accomplished if these two behemoths don't agree.
  • For all their inherent pride, the Chinese have a clear understanding that any presumable G2 arrangement is a complex, multi-level chess game involving a great many players.

First, in the 1980s, there was the suggestion that the United States should organize a condominium with Japan to run world affairs, at least in the economic realm. These calls ceased in short order once Japan's economy foundered.

Next, there was a brief period when observers suggested the United States should really make the EU its preferred partner. Soon enough, such a turn to the "old world" was replaced by the conviction that what lay ahead was really the Pacific century, featuring the United States and the nations of Asia as the new dynamic duo.

Those ideas took a back seat when the Asian financial crisis hit in the late 1990s. Since then, the merry carousel of "G2ism" has swung around two more times.

Under the Bush Administration, marked and marred by a great deal of contentiousness surrounding the Iraq invasion, some folks called for a return to the glorious 1940s, presuming that the United States and the United Kingdom were really all the world needed for proper management.

In the meantime, that idea has faded as well — and now there have been calls for some years favoring a new G2, featuring the United States and China. Proponents of that view — often the same people who previously made a career advancing a G2 with Japan and/or Europe — hold that there is little in world affairs that can be accomplished if these two behemoths don't agree.

Conversely, they say, there are few limits if the United States and China are pulling in the same direction. This pairing certainly sounds more on target and more probable in the bigger scheme of things than its various predecessors. So what's wrong with this picture?

One, the Chinese would never volunteer to limit themselves in such a manner. They have a crystal clear understanding of the fact that, in diplomacy, one always wants to maximize one's opportunities — by maintaining constructive relations with a broad set of nations.

Two, with the myriad of issues that are dealt with on the global stage at all times, the array of issue-based coalitions is mind-numbingly complex — and, by definition, shifting across the areas.

Three, the whole notion of a two-nation condominium that lies behind the concept of the G2 offers an entirely false comfort level. While the promise is that it just takes these two nations to agree in order to solve the world's problems, it really masks a competition for who is top dog.

And in that race, the Chinese will certainly not want to limit themselves to talking to the United States to resolve matters. For all their inherent pride, the Chinese have a clear understanding that any presumable G2 arrangement is a complex, multi-level chess game involving a great many players.

So do the Europeans — because, like the Chinese, they too have engaged in these shifting coalitions for centuries, as have the Turks, as have many nations in Asia, and so on.

What Chinese strategists come away with when they hear American calls for a G2 is a great deal of pleasure — about what they consider an astonishing degree of naïveté on the part of the Americans.

They realize full well that the only time when the G2 really was a realistic proposition was the period of the bipolar world order, when the United States and the Soviet Union did have something of a chokehold on the rest of the world owing to their nuclear weapons.

But today's global agenda is far more multi-faceted than in the nuclear age. That also applies to environmental issues, where there are suggestions of a G2-style grand bargain.

While it is certainly true that, on this especially crucial issue, it is pivotal for the United States and China to do their respective parts, the idea of a grand bargain is misleading.

Why? First, all nations will have to swallow hard to enable the world community to come up with an effective outcome.

And second, many of the eventual compromises — depending on the specific items to be resolved — will break various ways. Some will find the United States and China on the same side, others on opposite sides.

To be sure, the United States and China will matter a great deal in the global concert — but so will other nations and regions, which are not mere pawns on a U.S.-Chinese chess board.

The basic idea of a G2 betrays a yearning for simplification that will prove ill-advised in a contemporary world characterized by rapidly increasing levels of complexity in issues of management and diplomacy.

That is why the Chinese, the only nation in the world with personnel resources across that entire set of issues that are much deeper than those of the United States, feel good every time they hear Americans invoking the G2.

To Chinese ears, it sounds less like flattery (which is the principal effect intended by the Americans) than an unintended concession speech from the United States about the superiority of China's personnel and intellectual resources.

On personnel resources, by the way, the Chinese government's bench is as deep as is the U.S. one when compared to the governments of large European countries. It will soon become a humbling experience, if decades of European envy about U.S. staffing levels is any guide.

The ultimate irony, of course, is this: The Americans believe that the Chinese are the upstarts — and want to create long-term goodwill by offering an inclusive partnership to the Chinese in the management of world affairs.

Meanwhile, the Chinese — proud of their traditions, their history and their powerful return to global affairs — believe the Americans base their offer on the wrong premise. To the Chinese, with thousands of years of history in the management of, and involvement in, world affairs, it is decidedly the Americans who are the upstarts.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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