Before the COVID-19 crisis, there were good reasons to believe that the major powers—the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the leading European states—would put aside their growing geopolitical rivalry to manage shared global threats, and that cooperation would leaven their rivalry and create ballast against otherwise escalating tensions. As the scale of damage from the pandemic and accumulating costs of climate change have become clear, progressive American voices have taken the argument further and argued that cooperation with countries such as China and Russia to tackle shared challenges should displace geopolitical competition altogether.
These positions assume that cooperation on global issues will endure because of deep common interests, and that tackling shared problems can forge a degree of trust among rivals. They also assume that domestic politics in the United States and Europe can sustain a strategy that incorporates cooperation with China and Russia, even though public opinion increasingly views both countries—whose leaders continue to tighten their internal controls and expand their international ambitions—with concern.
At the other end of the spectrum, the tragedy of great power politics—or the rise of tensions even when interests could be shared—could impede efforts to make serious progress on climate change or prevent the next financial crisis or pandemic. This credible prospect demands hard thinking about how to structure negotiations on global issues during periods of sustained distrust.
Unfortunately, the history of cooperation among great powers on global issues and major power interests does not suggest that working together will lessen tensions. Even when great powers share interests on issues such as transnational threats and nuclear proliferation in the abstract, their actual policy responses are closely linked to specific and underlying territorial and security dynamics. What’s more, on climate change, while general interests in avoiding climate catastrophe overlap, more specific and immediate interests in adaption and the development of markets for energy transitions diverge sharply.
Global issues are too important to be left to the dynamics of great power rivalry. They should not be thought of in terms of cooperation, but instead should be approached as matters of collective negotiation in which distrust is the baseline condition. This would entail independent verification of commitments and drawing from the psychology of negotiating arms control agreements during the Cold War. Closer collaboration among Western powers, though hard, will increase leverage. Working with mistrusted adversaries to avoid disastrous outcomes is not as attractive as cooperation, but it is a more viable pathway to sustained policy results.
This is the seventh Discussion Paper in the Managing Global Disorder series, which explores how to promote a stable and mutually beneficial relationship among the major powers that can in turn provide the essential foundation for greater cooperation on pressing global and regional challenges.
This Discussion Paper was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
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