This week will mark the most important period for great power diplomacy since the Cold War. Chinese leader Hu Jintao will visit Washington D.C. for a set of intense discussions with President Barack Obama. The meetings will combine the displays of courtesy and power that made similar events so eye-catching during the heyday of U.S.-Soviet summitry. Hu and Obama will meet as the two most important men in the world. Although they both face many constraints at home, they have the ability to mobilize people and resources on an unmatched scale. Their words and actions will move markets, militaries, and millions of minds. An uncertain and anxious world is watching them as it has not watched two men since Mikhail Gorbachev visited Ronald Reagan in New York more than twenty years ago.
I must say that it feels good to uncork a little vintage diplomacy from the recent past. Summit meetings are often filled with empty rhetoric and misleading imagery, but they do serve a vital purpose. Most of all, they provide a sense of order to the world. The leaders of the two most powerful countries come together, they discuss their concerns in a civil manner, and they pledge to work together. That sets a tone for politics far from the sites of the state dinners. It also reminds onlookers that the world is not chaotic. A few powerful people can combine forces to control, or at least manage, change. Larger meetings like the G-8 or G-20 also provide some sense of global order, but in a way that is much more diffuse and fragmented. It matters enormously to see the two top dogs meeting for a peaceful and extended tete-a-tete.
Great power summits are ordering events. They are times to assess common problems and forge cooperative policies among the most powerful countries. Summits should produce ideas for joint management of problems, not radical or risky proposals. The latter will always come from below the highest peaks of power.
With this global management mission in mind, there are three big things that Hu and Obama can accomplish this week. First, they can affirm a commitment to open and expanding international trade. This requires a strong joint statement and much more. The two leaders should agree that they will work together to open their respective economies. This means a market appreciation of the Chinese currency and a fiscal reduction in American deficit spending, particularly on domestic agricultural and industrial subsidies. To date, currency controls in China and domestic subsidies in the United States have had the effect of restricting trade and raising animosities. Open trade is not a sure-fire source of international peace and growth, but it is a necessary condition for stable mutual relations among the most powerful societies. The scholarship on the topic offers overwhelming evidence for that proposition. Hu and Obama must make that a clear priority.
Second, the time has come to discuss arms control between the United States and China. Summits between American and Soviet leaders often focused on this issue, to very good effect. Washington and Beijing have huge conventional arsenals deployed in and around Northeast and Southeast Asia. In recent years, both countries have increased their naval presence in the Pacific, with more aggressive forward postures. Hu and Obama must open a dialogue about managing potential crises – like the recent events around North Korea, the seizure of a Chinese fishing boat by Japan, and the downing of an American spy plane in early 2001. A commitment to limits on aggressive behavior by both sides would send an important message to regional partners, as well as military figures within both countries.
Third, and perhaps most important, the leaders of the United States and China must make their meetings a regular occurrence. This was the great innovation of superpower detente in the 1970s. It helped to stabilize international relations for the last two decades of the Cold War. It created many openings for long-term political change. Again, the scholarship on this topic is very revealing. By committing to high-level cooperation, even friendship, Obama and Hu will encourage more of the same across business, academic, and cultural communities. They will visibly help to demystify false images of a threatening adversary. Competition will remain a major element of the U.S.-China relationship – and Washington should not apologize or ignore Chinese human rights violations and other misdeeds – but high-level relationship-building will encourage more connections for mutual benefit.
China remains an authoritarian society and a potential threat to the United States. From Beijing’s point of view, Washington remains an overgrown and self-centered bully. Great power diplomacy does not eliminate conflicts of interest and perception. It does, however, encourage a stable framework for broader and more sustained relations between big societies. In the long run, more dialogue and cooperation is in the interests of both nations – especially the one with the more open, democratic system. Ronald Reagan proved that point in his efforts to work with Mikhail Gorbachev. Barack Obama should do the same with Hu Jintao.
This blog post originally appeared at http://globalbrief.ca