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The world’s having a polyphonic moment

For those who believe the world has descended into a battleground of competing nations serving nothing but their own self-interested ends, without common goals or leadership, this week must have been a disappointment.

Wednesday's handshake between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping did not signal anything new in relations between the United States and China, or in the way either country is organized or run. The two powers remain worlds apart, and in general more opposed to each other's approaches to domestic and world affairs than they have been for a long time.

Which is what made it even more significant. The world's two largest economies – and largest polluters, together representing more than half the world's carbon emissions – negotiated in secret for almost a year before announcing a mutually agreed emission-reduction targets for a global climate-change deal to be ratified in 2015, and their leaders shook on it.

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This is a big deal in many ways. Climate scientists have argued that just about the only thing that could prevent a climate catastrophe during the 21st century, at this point, would be a comprehensive China-U.S. pact to cut emissions – almost exactly what has just been announced. (Although they argue that it will need to become even more stringent.)

A few observers have seen this deal as the tentative beginning of warmer relations between China and the West. Mr. Xi was certainly eager to portray it that way: "A pool begins with many drops of water," he told reporters. And Mr. Obama's Republican opponents will be glad to describe it as such – a sellout to an authoritarian China that is cracking down on Hong Kong democracy protesters and has refused to budge on Taiwan, Tibet and broader human-rights issues.

But the most telling thing about it is that it's not actually part of any larger warming of relations. In fact, during the year in which it was negotiated, relations between China and the U.S. and its allies plunged, in most other spheres, to a new low. After Mr. Obama's earlier efforts at more open relations with China were rebuffed, his "pivot to Asia" has seen the United States increase its military presence in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia, take an active role in territorial disputes involving China and prepare military strategies for outright conflict. China's Communist leadership has become far more anti-Western and nationalistic in its messages, it's tested Japan, Korea and Taiwan with military feints, and it's expelled Western reporters.

There's a lot of hostility and resentment in the international system. At the same time, there are a lot of other things going on. This is a time of polyphonic nationalism. Although a small handful of states – Russia and North Korea, for example – are attempting to be one-note organs of self-assertion, rarely in recent memory have so many countries been willing to perform in multiple registers. Even supposed enemies are able to speak to one another, through various institutions, in multiple, contradictory voices.

We also saw that at work this week as the world's six largest economies got closer to a nuclear-program deal with Iran, with help from a secret letter from Mr. Obama to his Iranian counterpart. This is not part of any wider warming, but born from a willingness to work on a specific problem, regardless of other concerns.

What makes this a polyphonic moment, rather than mere self-interest or capitulation?

First, none of the leaders are being driven by domestic concerns. Mr. Obama, by sitting down and shaking hands with leaders of China and, potentially, Iran, has nothing to gain electorally. The climate deal won't produce tangible outcomes until long after he's gone from office. Likewise, Chinese and Iranian leaders have nothing to gain from seeming friendly with the United States. (In fact, the Chinese media tried to keep the handshake out of the picture.) Instead, there's a mutual recognition that the climate and nuclear weapons are larger concerns that transcend any term of office or international rivalry, and that there is a much broader self-interest in finding a path to resolve them.

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And second, this approach indicates a desire to play a longer game. Countries shouldn't be rewarded for autocracy, but isolating and shunning them has also never worked. The Cold War ended because the Warsaw Pact autocracies were drawn into international economic and institutional engagements, not turned away from them.

We're not going to change these countries through direct persuasion or force. A far better approach is to show our best side by working to solve problems that really matter to people. That, in the long run, may lead to something more harmonious.

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