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Biden, Xi, and the Evolution of Cooperation

The only way to prevent Sino-American relations from deteriorating further is for either US President Joe Biden or Chinese President Xi Jinping to offer a goodwill gesture, and then respond in kind to the other’s subsequent moves. And Xi appears better positioned to take the initiative.

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – I don’t know whether US President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and their foreign-policy advisers have read Robert Axelrod’s classic  book on international relations,The Evolution of Cooperation. But they should heed Axelrod’s central insight about how countries can benefit from cooperation and punish cheating.

Through countless simulations, Axelrod – now a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan – found that the most beneficial long-term strategy for an actor such as a nation-state is to cooperate first and then play tit-for-tat. In other words, a country will gain in the long run if it offers a goodwill gesture and then responds in kind to its opponent’s subsequent moves.

This insight is especially applicable to today’s US-China stalemate. Although both Biden and Xi know that their countries are in an open-ended geopolitical rivalry, they also want to put guardrails around it in order to avert potential catastrophes, such as a runaway arms race or a direct military conflict.

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