I had the pleasure from Monday through Wednesday to spend a goodly number of hours with colleagues from China, Harvard and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars especially a number from the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. The day and half day conference at the magnificent Wilson Center was identified as: “The Long Term Future of US-Chinese Relations: Economic, Political, and Historical Aspects.” 

The invitees included many scholars from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Harvard University, including its Director Graham Allison, Joe Nye, Charlie Maier, Ezra Vogel and the organizer of the conference Richard Rosecrance.  From the China side we had Jia Qingguo, the Associate Director of the School of International Studies and Peking University, Lu Mai the Secretary-General of the China Development Research Foundation and other colleagues from the Foundation. Other experts from the Cambridge and Washington area, Cheng Li of Brookings, David Lampton and Peter Bottelier of SAIS, Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute and Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats joined us for various panels and meals.

The subject matter is of course one of the primary issues of international relations and in particular of global governance.  Not surprisingly, Fred Bergsten spoke at some length on the value of his preferred institutional vehicle the G2.  But overall experts from both China and the United States struggled to frame a positive direction for long-term China-US relations.  Many raised concern over the growing apparent assertiveness of China in the context of US economic troubles at home and in the global financial system.  A number of the historians reflected darkly on the prospect of a rising China in the context of a still hegemonic US sole superpower.  Jia Qingguo suggested even that such a structure was the most unstable power arrangement for a power transition of any possible distribution of power.

I found myself in the odd position of in between – though I supposed not so odd being the Canadian in the crowd – of reflecting favorably – though with a number of pointed comments - on both China and the United States.   I found a rather sympathetic view from our China experts on my notion of China as a part-time global leader.  I think it is fair to say that most experts sense or identify that China – and the current leadership - is not ready to take on much global leadership.

What was interesting to me – though I suppose not surprising – was the silence that greeted me when I argued that the current US administration showed a rather “quixotic hegemony” in its global governance dealings.  That is, the leadership, including the President, had been calling for greater global engagement by the enlarged leadership of say the G20 but remains suspiciously wedded to a “we lead – you follow” leadership of old.  Apparently the President who pressed for a leadership reorganization after the Italian G8 meeting – where he was noticeably unhappy with the variable geometry of the Italians – has now turned glum over the G20s Toronto performance.  It has been suggested that the President was highly displeased with the G20 leaders – including no doubt the host Canada – for their dismissal of his letter urging leaders to continue to focus on stimulus rather than on fiscal consolidation and even austerity.  It now appears that the US administration is smiling rather more benignly on ad hoc institutional arrangements and meetings. 

If the Administration has soured on the G20 – this view is so premature.  The G20 is currently so stuck in transition.  And the US is already focused elsewhere.  This can’t be good for global governance.  More equal less hierarchical leadership but follow me.    

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.