Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, Geneva, November 1985
On September 10, 2021, during an important diplomatic meeting that took place by telephone, US President Joseph Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping affirmed the need for a better relationship between their two nations. According to the Chinese official summary, Xi said that “when China and the United States cooperate, both countries and the world will benefit; when China and the United States clash, the two countries and the world will suffer. He added, “Establishing the relationship well, that is.” . . something we have to do and do well.
For now, however, the governments of the two nations appear far from a cooperative relationship. Indeed, intensely suspicious of each other, the United States and China are increasing their military spending, developing new nuclear weapons, engaging in heated quarrels over territorial matters, and intensifying their economic competition. Disputes over the status of Taiwan and the South China Sea are particularly likely to start a war.
But imagine the possibilities if the United States and China made cooperate. After all, these countries have the world’s two largest military budgets and the two largest economies, are the two largest consumers of energy, and have a combined population of nearly 1.8 billion people. By working together, they could exert enormous influence in world affairs.
Instead of bracing for a deadly military confrontation – which seemed dangerously close in late 2020 and early 2021 – the United States and China could hand over their conflicts to the United Nations or other neutral bodies like the Association of United Nations. ‘Southeast Asia for mediation and resolution. . As well as averting a potentially devastating war, perhaps even nuclear war, this policy would facilitate substantial cuts in military spending, with savings that could be spent on strengthening UN operations and funding their social programs. national.
Instead of the two countries obstructing UN action to protect international peace and security, they could fully support it, for example by ratifying the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Instead of remaining the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, these two economic giants could work together to fight the escalating climate catastrophe by reducing their carbon footprint and defending international agreements with other countries. to do the same.
Instead of blaming each other for the current pandemic, they could work cooperatively on global public health measures, including the mass production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and research into other potentially horrific diseases.
Instead of engaging in unnecessary economic competition and trade wars, they could pool their vast economic resources and skills to provide poorer countries with economic development programs and direct economic assistance.
Instead of denouncing each other for human rights violations, they could admit that they had both oppressed their racial minorities, announce plans to end such abuse and provide reparations to the victims.
While it may seem that such a turnaround is impossible, something roughly comparable happened in the 1980s, when the US-Soviet Cold War, long a staple of international affairs, suddenly came to an end and unexpectedly. Against the backdrop of a massive wave of popular protest against the intensification of the Cold War and, in particular, the growing danger of nuclear war, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had the wisdom to see that the two nations had nothing to gain and much to lose by continuing on the path of increasing military confrontation. And he even managed to convince US President Ronald Reagan, long an ardent hawk but besieged by popular pressure, of the value of cooperation between their two nations. In 1988, as the US-Soviet confrontation quickly collapsed, Reagan was taking a pleasant stroll with Gorbachev in Moscow’s Red Square, telling curious onlookers, “We decided to talk to each other rather than talk to each other. It works very well.
Sadly, in the decades that followed, the new rulers of both nations squandered the enormous opportunities for peace, economic security, and political freedom opened up by the end of the Cold War. But, at least for a while, the cooperative approach has worked very well.
And he can again.
Given the current icy state of relations between the governments of the United States and China, it appears that, despite the promising rhetoric at the recent Biden-Xi meeting, they are not yet ready for a cooperative relationship. .
But what the future holds is quite another matter, especially if, as in the case of the Cold War, the peoples of the world, daring to imagine a better way, decide that it is necessary to put the governments of the two most powerful nations on a new, more productive path.