No matter what Obama and Xi Jingping came away with in the Annenberg Summit these two days, the reality of the world’s power configuration will remain what it has been since the past few years — that of polycentrism.
Going into the 21st century, people were not generally familiar with the notion of a polycentric reality, after having survived half a century under a polarized world manifested in a bipolar, ideological schism between the West and the Communist Bloc, balanced at the top with the threat of mutual nuclear destruction. Indeed, the monopolistic hegemony of the US after the fall of the USSR in 1991 would prevail for almost another decade, until the financial damage from “having to police the world” finally tolled the beginning of the end of the era of polarity and the emergence of centrism in global politics.
During a polycentric era, alliances do not work strongly, if at all. Nations tend to operate in relatively one-on-one bilateral basis with each other, and form functional groupings to deal with common issues and interests, without asserting absolute ranking, seniority or exclusivity. One nation may be on the opposite side of an issue relative to another nation, but on the same side on some other issue. Therefore, the world has a strong non-alignment tendency. Self-interest and influence dictate foreign policies. Diplomatic visions and skills become strategic strength. Wielding a big stick and talking loud could back-fire. It is an environment that favors the Machiavellian realists and punishes the Bible-thumping crusaders.
One of the best historical example of a polycentric universe would be the Spring & Autumn period in China (722-480 B.C.) , approximately 2730 to 2500 years ago. Not surprisingly, it was during that period that the great philosophies in China started, including the art of war and diplomatic strategem, and rapid progress in technology and social institutions.
I am not sure if a polaristic or a centristic world is better. At the moment, it would seem to me that it is vital for the two largest economies and military powers to cooperate in order to promote relative stability and an environment for socio-economic development and progress. A polycentric world would be very unstable if the major nations are arching to undermine one another or shirking the responsibility (jointly if necessary) to maintain an ordinate degree of order among the nations of the world. Many seem to agree with me on this.
China appears to be quite adept at the crafts required in today’s polycentric reality. Non- alignment and mutual respect for sovereignty among nations (big or small) have long been preached by the PRC since 1949. The continuity and step-by-step approach to building cooperative and mutually beneficial relations with every nation in the world on a bilateral as well as multilateral basis is working exceedingly well. Non-interference in each other’s domestic politics and willingness to help weaker nations develop have also reaped benefits in terms of influence.
Being at the polar supremacy during the two world wars, the bipolar Cold War and subsequent monopolar decades, the US has much to adapt to both psychologically and behaviorally as the world enters the new polycentric reality. Actually, we have significant comparative advantages in a polycentric world. It is good for us, especially during a period when we have a lot of domestic structural issues to address. But we have to learn to be realistic and opportunistic without being obnoxious. After all, we have unrivalled technology and centers of learning, safe borders cushioned by two oceans, abundant and self-sufficient natural resources, a complete blend of the world’s ethnic mix, and developed institutions (albeit the last two may need some major fixes). There is no reason that we will not thrive. It is only when we fear too much about “not being number one” and needing to “win, win, win” that we will continue to not be able to operate realistically and maturely. In fact, we should learn to reap the huge benefits inherent in a cooperative and non-judgmental relationship with an emergent China.
Hopefully, the Xi visit with Obama will see them emerge as leaders, learning to agree as well as disagree, as frank and responsible partners if not friends, with each knowing the stakes otherwise.