Watching the Olympic Games, I find one phenomenon particularly striking. After an event, athletes who literally seconds before had been attempting to trounce one another in competition suddenly start hugging each other.
An outsider might wonder about this coexistence of competition and affection. As a former elite-level swimmer, I can tell you: While it's every athlete's goal to win, athletes realize that their competitors are largely responsible for pushing them to their best performances.
When someone like Michael Phelps comes along and blows everyone out of the pool, it forces the rest of the field to analyze his methods and techniques to see what can be appropriated. That's how sport evolves: Someone makes a breakthrough and everyone else clamors to reach that level.
The same phenomenon exists in world affairs, but often without the Olympic athlete mind-set that enables cooperation and competitiveness to not only coexist but to lead to greater enrichment for all parties.
As one example, European defense conglomerate EADS announced recently that it would be opening a new manufacturing plant in America. One might imagine that Europe would see the move as making the overall economic pie bigger for both America and Europe, but some of my European friends view it just as more outsourcing of European jobs.
Instead of complaining, maybe Europeans should study the reasons for the move so that they can increase their competitiveness. Doing otherwise would be like banning Michael Phelps from competition in London. If the French swim team didn't have Phelps lighting a fire under everyone's behinds during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, would they have been turning in the phenomenal medal-winning performances in London that have earned them the adulation of their countrymen?
China has been "winning" in world affairs and economics -- and on questionable footing, given its comparative lack of labor and environmental standards. It's clear that on the world stage, China is in competition with the West for economic survival and ideological dominance. Is it possible to compete cooperatively, Olympic-style, with the likes of China and Russia despite their ideological differences with the West?
I'd argue that it's not only possible but necessary if the West ever hopes to swing things back in its favor. The strategy of crushing China with capitalism won't work unless China is actually playing by the same rules as the West. The Olympic equivalent is trying to compete with the doping East Germans at the 1976 Games in Montreal.
America's engagement with post-WWII Japan provides something of a precedent, the difference being that it was much easier to influence a decimated society than it would be to influence a powerhouse like China. Allowing China to take non-controlling stakes in projects such as oil pipeline and energy ventures in Canada, as we've recently seen, draws it into the Western sphere of influence. While it's true that these investments ensure that as Canada gets richer, China also gets richer, the alternative is not to engage China at all and to never attempt to place it on a more level playing field. If there's any hope of influencing China to level the playing field, the impetus needs to be an economic one -- and it's not likely to happen overnight or at "social media speed."
The same is true for Russia, a country run by intelligent, highly educated people who lack international experience (aside from perhaps time abroad in the spy service) and aren't ever going to be open to changing their worldview based on blunt force or the threat thereof. That was attempted already -- and the former Soviet Union has since been economically reconstructed and rebranded as the Eurasian Union. The only lasting change is going to come from influential reasoning as a result of increased engagement.
Trying to convince a socialist or communist who's never been exposed to the alternative worldview of why capitalism is a preferable system -- especially when they mistakenly view the Wall Street meltdown as a failure of the capitalist system instead of a collection of mistakes by the actors involved -- is virtually impossible without greater interaction. And I'm not talking about token summits and yakfests -- which would be like Olympic athletes pushing one another by appearing together on a Wheaties box -- but rather meaningful opportunities to engage. The challenge is to identify and find those opportunities. Only then will the West be able to thrive in an environment of fair competition.