WASHINGTON -- Especially since 9/11, with the American administration's obsessive focus on democracy as the panacea for all of a suffering world's ills, it has seemed to many that that was the only way for peoples to develop.
Intellectuals such as Francis Fukuyama wrote glowingly, and incredibly, of humankind approaching an "end of history" -- i.e., the world now knew that there were no other models for development except ours. The Bush people, sometimes covering up their sheer will to power with ideological sweet-talk, spoke succinctly of "freedom" solving every problem.
But now, three years after 9/11 and almost two years from the beginning of the Iraq war, a fascinating new process is under way. As the United States grows increasingly trapped in the Iraqi quagmire, other international players in the eternal game of nations are systematically gaining strength and influence.
One is the European Union, with its plan of bringing one borderland state after anoother into the European institutional (and thus, moral) fold. But the other is China, which is rapidly forsaking its historical isolation in the world and reaching out everywhere, often to replace American influence and hegemony.
Apropos, for instance, I recently had a revealing conversation with the respected outgoing ambassador to the United States from the Dominican Republic, Hugo M. Guiliani Cury, about Chinese attempts to expand into the region once considered "America's back yard." Chinese president Hu Jintao had just visited Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Cuba, and the emotion surrounding his first trip to the hemisphere was reverberating.
"About 20 years ago I went to China, and it was a totally undeveloped country," the ambassador said. "When I went back a month ago, it was simply astonishing.
"Now, we have a large textile export to the U.S., and at the same time, the U.S. wants to protect its textiles from China. So we are saying, why not attract textile factories from China? Then those textiles could enter free of duty to the U.S. -- the Dominican Republic could play the role as a center, as a kind of road between South America and the U.S.; it could become a hub for China's airlines in the hemisphere.
"China needs to open new relations," he summed up, "to establish factories -- that is why the Chinese president was here and why China recently invited 10 Dominican senators to visit."
The palpable outcome of the Hu Jintao trip? Reportedly, tens of billions of dollars in investments, including long-term supply contracts for fuel to feed China's insatiable appetite for oil; $300 million in the Dominican Falconbridge Ltd.; major amounts into Cuban nickel; $10 billion to Panama to expand the canal; and perhaps most interesting of all, observer status in the Organization of American States (always considered to be an American-dominated club).
China is now Brazil's second-largest trading partner (iron ore, bauxite and soybeans) and the leading purchaser of Chilean copper (replacing the United States).
If the story of Chinese expansion in the world were only economic (and I use "only" advisedly, it is so important), still it would be manageable. The fact that the U.S. trade deficit, much of it due to China, rose to $55.5 billion in October, or that investment in China now surpasses that in the United States, is bad enough.
But China -- no democracy, but rather an authoritarian, Communist Party-dominated state with wide forms of free enterprise and an increasingly open social class system -- is moving in cultural influence to be accepted as the new country to emulate. At exactly the same time, because of the Iraq war and because of the execrable behavior toward other nations by the Bush administration, hating America has become a top sport.
Take only broadcasting, a key tool in the game of nations, and educational exchange, a crucial way to influence the futures of other peoples. Some examples: China Radio International now broadcasts in English 24 hours a day, while Voice of America will soon be cut back to 14 hours, and American information services libraries barely exist anymore. Then consider Indonesia: Last year 2,563 Indonesian students received visas to go to China for study, while the numbers receiving visas for study in the United States in 2003 dropped, from 6,250 student visas issued in 2000 to 1,333. (In Washington, D.C., the number of foreign students attending American colleges has declined overall by 10 percent, and in some schools, like American University, by 40 percent.)
President Hu Jintao made it clear in Australia before his Latin American trip that China, which historically stayed within its own borders after centuries of attacks from without, is ready to be of the world -- and leading that world -- even going so far as to say that the very different Chinese culture is actually world culture.
"The Chinese culture belongs not only to the Chinese but to the whole world," Hu said grandly. "We stand ready to step up cultural exchanges with the rest of the world in a joint promotion of cultural prosperity."
And -- oh yes! -- China now harbors in excess of $500 billion in reserves, while the United States has roughly the same in deficits, with large percentages of American debt held by the Chinese and Japanese.
Remember Vice President Dick Cheney and his grandiose theories. In 1992, he put forth a paper, eschewed by the senior President Bush, arguing how the United States must be so powerful that no one nation or grouping of nations could ever threaten its Napoleonic military and political potency.
My, how far we've come.
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