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History Marches On

Beijing Opening CeremoniesOut of a kind of knee-jerk duty, I have always taken exception to Francis Fukuyama’s infamous “end of history” thesis—the idea that democratic capitalism is the final step of human political development and that all we are waiting for is the world to catch up (even Fukuyama has distanced himself from it). But a recent New York Times article, combined with reading through last week’s Economist, has struck me with the extent to which, unconsciously, I really believed history was little more than the world catching up to where we almost already are.

Between China’s Olympic display and Russia’s invasion of Georgia, 8/8/08 may become a day the future will remember. While President Bush (with Putin with him) attended the Beijing opening ceremonies despite China’s refusal to bend on human rights, Russia reasserted its stature as a world power by striking an American ally petitioning for entry into NATO. Unlike recent American military adventures, Russia’s army accomplished its mission—Georgia cried uncle. They did unilateralism right. And back in Beijing, spectacular mass performances of coordination and conformity amazed us because we know we cowboy individualists wouldn’t dream of conjuring such a thing. Though no weapons were brandished (save the anti-aircraft battery stationed outside the arena), the display’s effect was little different than tanks parading through Tiananmen Square. “History, it seems, is back,” writes Bill Keller in the Times, “and not so obviously on our side.”

Since the end of the Cold War, and probably decades before that, the military and economic success of the United States and Western Europe was enough to tacitly confirm the intrinsic superiority of our way of life and system of government. With it came cultural dominance. Even those of us taught to question such self-certainty with the rituals of political correctness, belief in this overwhelming superiority was hard to resist. As we travel far and wide in search of diverse perspectives, everywhere we find people learning English in order to make it in the world. We devote ourselves to “development”—helping others so that they might become more like us, or at least more like our ideals. It has seemed a happy circumstance, lately, that economic wealth accompanies a relatively benevolent political system—to the point that democratic capitalism looks eerily like a fact of natural law: freer people = stronger people.

But what if that geopolitical situation changes, as appears to be happening? What if basically authoritarian regimes are able to build bigger economies than ours, and what if their language and values become the global culture of power? That idea of natural law falls apart. The cosmos no longer seems calibrated toward human freedom when deeply repressive regimes flourish more than the chaos of free speech democracy. This is a real possibility, and it exposes the naive confidence that has carried our politics in recent times.

Not to give the impression that I only read the New York Times (I work there for heaven’s sake), but last week Nicholas Kristof had a very fine piece about coping with China’s cultural ascendence. Thankfully, and refreshingly, it takes a positive approach, a dialogical one. Just because China is getting big, we’re not automatically required to go to war. But if conflict is to be avoided, we must take interest. Just as we are protected by the economic ties between our countries, exchanges of culture can help keep the peace as well. Chinese culture is basically unknown in the U.S., though our culture makes its way there. Before any war has the chance to get either cold or hot, we need to reach out preemptively. Send scholars to China, as they send their best and brightest here. Translate Chinese literature and films. The same, too, goes for Russia; the second half of the twentieth century need not be rehearsed again.

Treating the rise of new powers as an opportunity—both economic and cultural—will save us all the trouble of reacting to it as a threat.