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As I made my way from one national-security discussion to another, the conversation never strayed far from an imposing topic: the 21st century's emerging or renascent powers. Whether Americans like it or not, they must share influence with several countries that have risen in prominence, notably China, India and Russia.
The incoming Obama administration should think expansively and deeply about long-term, proactive, multilateral strategies that emphasize creative engagement with those nations. Yes, it is possible to accomplish that goal without slighting traditional priorities in Asia, such as the special U.S. relationship with Japan, or elsewhere. As President-elect Barack Obama's team contemplates official visits during the early part of his term, they should include stops in Beijing, New Delhi and Moscow.
For more detailed ideas on how the Obama administration should begin dealing with emerging or renascent powers, I turned to veteran strategic studies and arms-control specialist Jack Mendelsohn. He offered the following:
China. Beijing was the first to reach emerging-power status as a result of its sweeping economic reforms. Will this result in a push for the superpower realm and world domination? Mendelsohn thinks not, especially if the United States remains constructively engaged. We basically have two sticking points with China, he contends. One is Taiwan. There is nothing to gain from focusing on issues that divide Beijing and Taipei. We ought to support 100 percent the position of the new leadership in Taiwan, which is pursuing improved relations. Forget about directly or indirectly encouraging separatist impulses. The other sticking point is the issue of China's military intentions. Mendelsohn does not believe that the Chinese have territorial ambitions beyond their borders. He is attentive to, but not necessarily concerned about, China's military modernization. They are not exactly surrounded by friends, he notes, and they have internal challenges.
India. New Delhi's decision to open its economy early in the 1990s placed it on the fast track to success, especially in the high-technology and service sectors. All of that should be welcomed, Mendelsohn explains. Like China, India shows no signs of global designs in the sense of superpower ambitions. New Delhi is following a largely economic agenda, although it inevitably will gather political influence along the way. India wants to be seen as a major player and feels as if it has been denied this in the past. Mendelsohn worries, though, about nuclear weapons in India and neighboring Pakistan. He urges the Obama administration to tackle the admittedly difficult task of bringing them into the nuclear-regulatory system. He also points out that the United States has a significant interest in moderating historical tensions in South Asia. Terrorism of the kind that we have seen lately in India is a cause for tensions, he says, but tensions can also lead to terrorism. The Obama administration should coordinate much more closely with both countries against terrorist threats.
Russia. Here, Mendelsohn says, we have more of a renascent power than an emerging one. Russia, once the world's second most important country, understandably dreams about recapturing the glory days. Despite Russia's oil boom in recent years, Mendelsohn cannot see a resurgence through economics, especially in light of unstable prices. So, the next best approach is for Moscow to re-exert political influence on events and security matters in Europe and other places. In truth, he argues, the Russians face a lousy set of policy options; witness their heavy-handed (but not unprovoked) action in Georgia. He urges the United States to sit down with its allies, especially the Europeans, who often do not share our dismissive attitude toward Russian anxiety. We need to figure out how to work with a Russia that has genuine interests that do not necessarily coincide with our views. We cannot simply keep expanding NATO; it will just alienate Russia.
Clearly, these are the kinds of ideas that should infuse the Obama administration's thought process as it considers expansively and deeply long-term, proactive, multilateral strategies that emphasize creative engagement with China, India and Russia.
John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida. Readers may send him e-mail at johncbersiamsn.com.