Beijing closing ceremony opens new era of international multi-polarity

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 The Olympics closing ceremony. Photo courtesy of rich115 under a Creative Commons license.
The closing ceremony for the Beijing Olympics was as impressive as the opening.  In between, China put on an amazingly well-organized set of games.  China also won the greatest number of gold medals and came in second behind the USA in total medal count.  This splashy performance definitely caught the attention of people in the West and set off a lot of speculation in the press about what it all means.  Robert Samuelson discusses in a recent column the Beijing Olympics as a metaphor for China overtaking the U.S. as the world's biggest economy.

What struck me most during the last week of events and at the closing ceremony is that we really are living in a new, multi-polar era without one single dominant country.  I was fortunate to see Guo Jingjing win her springboard diving gold; Russia-USA men’s volleyball semifinal; Argentina-Nigeria soccer gold medal game; Jamaican runners dominate the sprints; Ethiopian and Kenyan runners dominate the long distances; and American runners sweep a couple of middle distance events. And while the Americans and Chinese can be justifiably proud of their medal totals, don’t forget that the member states of the EU won vastly more medals and gold medals than either of those countries.  (My informal count as of mid-day Friday was that EU states had won 234 medals including 74 gold.)

Political scientists tend to assume that eras with multiple centers of power are prone to conflict, which is certainly possible as new powers emerge today.  Economists (despite the unfair rap as the “dismal science”) tend to be more optimistic.  Global economics is not a zero-sum game, so there can be important new entrants – whose arrival requires adjustment all around – but at the same time net gains for everyone.  What is needed to bring us to a win-win result?

Argentina takes a free kick against Nigeria in the gold medal soccer game.

First, people in the USA and other Western countries need to understand that China and other emerging powers want respect and to be treated equally in international affairs.  What I hear from Chinese friends is that the most important outcome of the Beijing games was earning international respect as a major power.  The Chinese also want to have a say in the rules of the game.  The institutions that govern global commerce and discourse – the UN, WTO, IMF, World Bank – are constantly evolving.  Emerging powers want a say in the management of these institutions commensurate with their growing weight in the world economy.  

Second, the emergence of new powers is more likely to go smoothly if there is ever-greater economic integration among nations.  The prosperity of recent decades has been driven by Imagetrade integration, direct investment, and a significant amount of international migration.  These flows create prosperity, inter-connectedness, and mutual understanding.  While some Western audiences are busy soul-searching about what China’s rise means, Western companies are busy making money here.  If you look on the back of any Olympic ticket, you see the logos of 12 big corporate sponsors – only one is Chinese, the others are all from developed countries.  The Western companies understand that the emerging markets are where their business is going to be growing.  The big danger is that the process of integration will stagnate and reverse – the kind of scenario that led to the Great Depression and World War Two.   

Russia and USA in men's volleyball semi-final.

Third, Chinese people need to be aware that, in the wake of these Olympics, populations in the West are going to expect China to play an ever-greater role in solving global problems.  The trade imbalances that exist in the world are unsustainable and China needs to play a leading role in resolving them.  China has supplanted the USA as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and will itself be a big loser from global warming.  Hence China needs to play a leading role in negotiating a post-Kyoto regime to reduce emissions.  China is also one of the two or three largest trading nations and could be key to resolving the impasse in the Doha trade negotiations. China alone cannot solve any of these problems, but as the second biggest economy in the world in PPP terms China has to be one of the key participants along with the USA, EU, Japan, and the other big emerging economies.  

Some pundits speculate that this will be the “Asian century” or “Chinese century.”  In a recent paper I argue that it is more likely to be a multi-polar century and that with good communication and cooperation this could work out well all around.


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