Will global cooperation improve in 2013? Susan Glasser is Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Policy Magazine and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the United States.

Optimism, it seems, is lost on the strong. That at least is the interesting finding in the Global Agenda Outlook 2013, which surveys experts on the question of whether global cooperation in the world is rising or falling. Ask the Americans, struggling with the burdens of global leadership after some two decades as the world’s preeminent power, and the answer is a decided “no”. Ask the Chinese, with their fast-rising economy and with it, expectations about their own enhanced place in the world order, and the somewhat surprising answer is an equally emphatic “yes”.

As the editor of Washington-based Foreign Policy Magazine, the US numbers may be alarming, but they are by no means unexpected. Despite the election-year rhetoric in the United States, when Barack Obama and his Republican challenger competed to outdo each other in claims for America’s continued greatness on the world stage, the American conversation about the global order is very much in a funk.

 

5The truth is, we’re weary not only of a decade of waging war in far-off places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but of the draining financial burden of playing the world’s cop. It’s why I’m invited to a seemingly endless series of discussions these days in Washington about things like the American security “umbrella” and how long the rest of the world can keep standing under it. This is code for: “we’re paying for global security, people, and you (whether Europeans or Chinese or whoever) are free riders”.

Given the state of American finances these days, there’s an awful lot of Washington politicians in both parties wondering not whether the US can boost its defence spending to 4% – as Republican Mitt Romney insisted he would do in last year’s election – but how come our European allies can get away with spending just 1% or so of their GDPs on defence, and are perfectly content to piggyback off American security commitments and capabilities.

And of course, never mind about the other frustrating issues on which we’d like global cooperation – Middle East peace, anyone? Nuclear non-proliferation? – and see only an endlessly frustrating set of negotiations that don’t seem to lead anywhere. It’s hard being the world’s tough guy if no one will do what you want. Heck, we can’t even get the Pakistanis to stop facilitating the war in Afghanistan – and that’s after we’ve given them more than $10 billion. So, no surprise. Americans are not cockeyed optimists these days when it comes to the prospects for global cooperation.

I’m less able to explain the remarkable bullishness, on the other hand, of our Chinese colleagues. Perhaps it really is a zero-sum world, and they view the relative decline of American power – see the frustrations above – as of such benefit to them that it colours their overall view of the global commons.

Perhaps it’s as simple as life in a fast-rising economy; trajectory and momentum matter an awful lot in the world – and relative improvement may count for a lot more from the Chinese point of view if they’re looking at the world in the context of their own dramatic shifts of the last decade. Either way, I’d say this: I’m glad somebody’s still got the rose-coloured glasses on.

 Image: A flag on the New York Stock Exchange building REUTERS/Chip East