Okay, class, here is your test problem: You are the most powerful nation on Earth and you'd like to stay that way, because you believe you represent the world's best hope for freedom and democracy. But a rival nation, rapidly growing in economic strength, makes an offer to buy one of your own biggest energy-supplying companies. Should you let them? If they offer more money than anyone else, shouldn’t they have the right to make the purchase? Or is it better to protect your financial preeminence and perhaps restrain that other nation from gaining on you in military power as well?__________________________
What is your answer? You have ten minutes. Please begin.
That is how the question of China's proposed purchase of Unocal has been presented by U.S. politicians and mainstream media.
But to us, this situation raises a much bigger question: Will the nations of the world continue to compete for non-renewable and dwindling energy sources? Or can they learn to cooperate in developing sustainable, clean, responsible energy solutions?
It may seem obvious to most observers that pursuing the present course of relentless competition is little less than insanity. Already China's rapid industrial expansion and economic growth are inflicting catastrophic damage to the environment. Yet, how can the United States -- the world's leading energy glutton -- criticize the Chinese for this with a straight face?
Instead of admitting that we have a problem and working together to find an answer, Washington and Beijing both pretend that business as usual is the only option. Debate in the U.S. rages over whether China's offer for Unocal is a free trade issue, an economic superiority issue, or a national security issue. In limiting all their talk to varieties of competition, the major players (Japan, India, Russia, the EU, and others are equally guilty) neglect to even consider the possibility of peaceful cooperation.
Perhaps the U.S. and China (like the old Soviet Union) must act in ways that are non-rational because mega-nations are, by construction, pathologically addicted to power. (Blog reader Michael Vassar first suggested something like this analysis.) Or perhaps they just can't take seriously the idea of transformative technological change.
CRN is not in the business of providing detailed answers for free trade questions, large-scale environmental questions, or even geopolitical balance of power questions. Our work is focused on identifying the issues most pertinent to the safe development and responsible use of advanced nanotechnology. But the China/Unocal dilemma does have serious relevance for CRN, because it highlights the danger of limiting the terms of debate. In addition to the risks, molecular manufacturing will have many benefits -- including the rapid creation of a sustainable energy infrastructure. And the cost to develop this solution may turn out to be less than the price China wants to pay for Unocal.
By casting this issue only as a competitive struggle, and not seeing a broader perspective that takes in the possibility of cooperation, the Unocal debate presents an ominous precedent. Will the debate over molecular manufacturing, when it takes the world stage in a few years, be only about international competition? Will positive possibilities be overlooked in a purely Guardian-style drive to control negatives that could be made obsolete instead? If so, we fear that the consequences could be disastrous.