Today's date:
Winter 2012

The G20 Is the Key Forum for Adjusting Global Power Shift

Henry Kissinger is a former U.S. secretary of state. His most recent book is On China. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels on November 3.

NPQ | Senior Chinese strategist Zheng Bijian has recently moved on from his doctrine of “peaceful rise”—a defensive posture which he proposed as a way of saying China is not a threat to the world—to a doctrine of global engagement: “expanding the convergence of interests to build a community of interests.”

Do you see this convergence of interests between China and the West? What are some examples of where this convergence is taking place?

Henry Kissinger | There are trends in both China and the United States and the rest of the West that support engagement around converging interests. And there are trends that run counter to it.

The obvious places where there is a need for cooperation are in the new areas of global concern that have appeared: the environment, energy and nuclear proliferation. There is also the need to coordinate the international economic system and join together to settle conflicts without resorting to war.

NPQ | China is the world’s largest creditor, just as Great Britain and the US once were. Isn’t China obliged by its own interests, as the Western powers once were, to become more engaged in the coming decades in shaping the world order?

Kissinger | In the past, Westerners have talked about Chinese participation as “responsible stakeholders” in the international system. The implication was that China should participate in a system we designed according to our interests at the end of World War II.

China is of the view that a new international system is emerging. That is a reality. The Chinese want to play a founding role in constructing this new system in all respects, and not just in the financial management of the world economy.

NPQ | The advanced economies organized around the US and the G7 are increasingly unable to provide global public goods—stable financial flows, a reserve currency, security, fighting climate change—yet the emerging economies led by China are not yet able to do so.

Is the G20 the mechanism of adjustment of this shifting world order since it contains both the advanced and emerging economies? Can it collectively provide the global public goods neither can on their own?

Kissinger | Yes, the G20 is the forum for this adjustment. But it will be a big and difficult effort for it to do so. There is no certainty of success, but the effort is critical if we want a stable world.

NPQ | Has there been any case in history where such a body can provide collective leadership? Or is the world destined to return to the kind of alliances and competitive blocs reminiscent of 1910, when no one power dominated and it all collapsed into protectionism and war?

Kissinger | There has not been a truly global system before. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Europeans tried to build an international system for Europe. But there is no precedent for a truly global system that has tried to relate both political and economic order on a global scale in the same organization. There has never been that need before.

The alternative, as you suggest, would be regional blocs and competing alliances. That is a dangerous outcome because when there are so few players, the system loses flexibility and is more prone to conflict instead of compromise and stable relations.

So, making the G20 work is as essential as it is unprecedented and difficult.