For some reason, in today’s offering Tom Friedman decided to write a totally coherent argument and then just tack one of his signature baffling mixed metaphors on at the end, rather than weaving it through the whole story. Friedman’s main point is charmingly correct — a lot of the problems we’re grappling with would suddenly become much easier to solve if we were getting whole-hearted cooperation from China and Russia rather than extremely grudging semi-cooperation. Unfortunately, Friedman doesn’t provide much of a solution except for exhortation. He wants “China and Russia [to] get their act together and understand that [widespread nuclear proliferation] is a much bigger threat to their prosperity than a post-cold-war world in which U.S. power is pre-eminent” and for “Russia and China [to] get over their ambivalence about U.S. power.” Clearly, though, this isn’t going to happen merely from us asking them impolitely. After all, ambivalence about US power is a natural thing for Russia and China to feel.
We’re very powerful. And our basic story about why other countries shouldn’t worry that our massive power will imperil their interests is “trust us — we’re the good guys.” But the things we do don’t always seem good to other governments. And, indeed, “being good” is sometimes bad for other governments. If you were in charge of the Chinese Communist Party, you probably wouldn’t find talk about the United States spreading freedom and democracy around the world especially reassuring.
The upshot is that we’re bound to be more concerned about proliferation than the Russians or the Chinese are. For us, it’s an unambiguous bad. For them, it has its upsides and its downsides. But we could really use their cooperation. The question becomes what, in practice, would it take for us to get that cooperation and then are we willing to offer it? Importantly, it means we’re going to need to set priorities. How much do we care about Taiwan? How committed are we to keeping the door open to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. If giving up on those kind of things could genuinely secure Sino-Russian cooperation on Iran, North Korea, and al-Qaeda is that a good deal, or a bad one?