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Pivotal Power

July 23, 2009
Great power overdrive, from Beijing to Moscow to Delhi

Secretary of Clinton rounded out the emerging power circuit with a trip to India this week.

The Obama administration has been in overdrive building America’s pivotal power relationships with China, Russia and now India. For reasons Mona Sutphen and I describe in our book, this is the right approach to big powers in the current era. A central rationale is that “strategic collaboration” will focus major power assets on transnational threats, which America cannot successfully battle alone.

A lot of legwork goes into building a working relationship, Obama officials have wasted no time. Presidents Hu and Obama have met twice, and every week seems to find another high level U.S. official in Beijing. Secretary of State Clinton was the first in history to go to China before Europe. Next week, the first Strategic & Economic Dialogue, an intense two-day conference co-chaired by Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Treasury Geitner and their Chinese counterparts, will be held in D.C.

President Obama and presidents Medvedev met and issued a comprehensive joint statement not even three months into his term, after Secretary of State Clinton had already hit the “reset” button with her counterpart.   Next came a full fledged summit in Moscow two weeks ago at which the U.S. and Russia agreed to resume arms control talks and to reinvigorate the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

Secretary of Clinton rounded out the emerging power circuit with a trip to India this week. She inaugurated a “strategic dialogue,” with Delhi and blessed deepening civilian nuclear cooperation. But she came away empty handed on climate, as Delhi refused to commit to any binding targets under a new climate treaty.

It’s one thing to build these working relationships. And it is another for them to work. While we’ve realized some important gains from these rising power relationships already, many others are elusive. The coming years will be filled with frustration as our officials invest countless hours consulting and negotiating — yet we don’t get the kind of help we want from China on North Korea or climate, from Russia on Iran, and from India on Pakistan, to name a few. But at least we will increasingly understand their perspectives, and that will lead to either more policy success or more realistic expectations.

– Nina Hachigian

Photo courtesy of Flickr user u.s. department of state under a Creative Commons license.

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Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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