The G-2 Paradox

Future historians will view the Bush administration’s assertion of unilateral U.S. power and authority as the last gasp of the American empire. The imperial overstretch that historian Paul Kennedy diagnosed near the end of the Cold War is finally hitting us: the banking crisis, the recession, the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ever-increasing Pentagon budget.

Another sign of waning U.S. power is all the talk of a new partnership between the United States and China. Never before in history have two adversaries been so linked economically. Even as the Pentagon touts China’s growing military as a rationale for continued Cold War levels of spending, the Treasury Department is desperate to retain Chinese investments in the U.S. economy. As of the end of March, China is the leading holder of U.S. Treasury securities: $767.9 billion. The United States has become increasingly dependent on its communist creditor.

The great tacticians of geopolitics, who love an orderly and predictable world above all, once touted a condominium of power between the United States and Soviet Union to deal with nuclear weapons and sort out proxy wars in the Third World. Today, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have updated that approach for the 21st century. With China creeping up on the king of the hill, they recommend that Washington establish a Group of Two (G-2) with Beijing to tackle the major global issues: climate change, economic crisis, nonproliferation, and so on. It’s a sign of an age of diminished expectations, however, when the United States considers partnering with a country that has a per-capita income that hovers below El Salvador’s.

Don’t get me wrong: Greater cooperation between the United States and China is certainly welcome. The two countries have much in the way of common interest, and the more they talk, the less likely that the growing military budgets in both countries will translate into heightened conflict. And I don’t agree with the critique of the G-2 from Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal. In their cautionary essay in the latest Foreign Affairs, they write that “Obama should continue to work with China in order to address global problems, but he also needs to enlist the world to deal with the problems created by the rise of China.” In their view, China is the chief problem, from its carbon emissions and human rights situation to its foreign and military relations with other countries.

The G-2 is indeed a problematic proposal, but not because of China’s continued military relationship with the junta in Myanmar or its continued arms sales to despotic regimes around the world, as Economy and Segal argue. China could reasonably counter that it needs to enlist the world to deal with the problems created by U.S. dominance: U.S. military relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s position as the world’s largest arms exporter, or its production of approximately a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions.

The problem with the G-2 concept stems not so much from “mismatched interests, values, and capabilities,” as Economy and Segal argue. Instead, the G-2 concept suffers from a central illusion: that two countries, any two countries, can solve the world’s problems.

The Bush administration attempted a unilateral remaking of the world’s map. The alternative to this failed vision isn’t simply to invite one more country to the table to craft a new world order. The billions of people around the world who recoiled from the imposition of a U.S. agenda aren’t suddenly going to accept a fiat with two signatures on the bottom. The G-2 has the advantage of expediency. But truly global problems require truly global mechanisms to resolve them.

The second problem with the G-2 is what’s missing from the agenda. Both China and the United States are locked in an arms-spending spiral. The United States is responsible for nearly half of all global military spending. The 70% increase in military spending under the Bush administration helped to fuel the 45% increase in global spending over the last decade. The Obama administration, in its first military budget, is only adding fuel to the fire by proposing an additional 4% increase.

China, meanwhile, is responsible for a considerably smaller share of world military expenditures — only 8%. But its budget is rising. Beijing has announced a 14.9% increase in spending for 2009. Although China’s military budget is still only about one-tenth the size of the U.S. budget, it’s now the second largest military spender in the world.

Even if China and the United States make nice in bilateral meetings, they are spending as if a new Cold War is just around the corner. It’s time for the rest of the world to demand that Beijing and Washington take leadership on this issue. The United States and Russia should lead the way on nuclear arms reductions. And the United States and China should lead the way on restraining global military spending. That should be the focus of the G-2.

If they don’t address this fundamental question, all the talk of cooperation on energy, environment, and economics will go nowhere. There won’t be enough money to fund all the pretty projects. The G-2 will go the way of the U.S.-Soviet condominium: a casualty, like détente in the 1970s, of the larger Cold War cycles of fear and deterrence. And we’ll find ourselves suddenly back in the middle of the 20th century. China and the United States will be joined at the hip economically. But on military matters they’ll still be spending like its 1959.

John Feffer is co-director of the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies.