Sunday, August 10, 2008

The American Renaissance

The timing is pretty good. John McCain can't possibly be as bad as George Bush has been, and for purposes of presenting an image of a new American, Barack Obama will likely be much better. Especially in the President Obama scenario, we may now be entering into an age where the United States comes to look increasingly attractive. One reason for saying so is the general investing principle that, when things look too ugly to believe, they probably are not really that ugly. The Bush/Cheney administration has done so very much to depress the stock of America. It is realistic to expect that any next president would cast the nation in a better light. Obama certainly seems capable of doing so; and there is some chance that McCain, if elected, will prove to be much less regrettable than some of his campaign tactics and statements might suggest. Both are, in any event, talented and experienced individuals. Another reason to expect a change in America's global reputation is that the rise of China seems likely to provoke considerable anxiety around the world. It is true that much of the American effort and attention abroad has been steered by people of money and power, as distinct from people of principle. Even at their worst, however, American abusers of power and wealth have had to consider the possibility of lawsuits and investigations -- civil, criminal, and journalistic -- that, sooner or later, might expose their misdeeds and undermine or taint their legacies. This is not yet the case in China. To compare recent examples, the Bush administration faced many hurdles in its efforts to commit human rights abuses in places like the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the pendulum is now swinging back. There will be innumerable investigations, articles, interviews, and tell-all books in response to such abuses. In China, meanwhile, the collapse of poorly constructed schools during a recent major earthquake appears to be attributable to massive corruption on the part of local officials and construction enterprises; yet China's response to this is not to learn from it, much less to air its dirty laundry in public. The school collapses join the Tienanmen Square massacre as major catastrophes that will simply fade away into the past, if the Chinese government has its way. Ideally, Americans would not commit horrible atrocities or exploit other peoples. As a dim second-best, one can at least hope and expect that there will remain a belief in justice, and a number of ways to pursue it, within the American culture and government. Whatever tales may have been told about American soldiers to Japanese soldiers and civilians during World War II, when it came to the end, the decision was clear: surrender to the Americans, not to the Russians. The brief American occupation of Japan compared quite favorably to the postwar Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. America was, and remains, the kind of occupier from which an occupied land could expect some openness and respect. Again, notwithstanding the atrocities, American ambitions in Iraq do compare favorably against Chinese ambitions in Tibet or Sudan. The United States also appears likely to retain a relative attractiveness, compared to China, in terms of its natural environment. There has been a long-term American commitment to the outdoors, one that has cost a great deal of money that could have been pocketed by people who would have liked to cash in on real estate values and mineral rights in national parks and other preserved lands. Even a bankrupt municipality rarely thinks seriously about selling off the city park. China has a nearly permanent disability in this regard. It has too many people. Those people want food, shelter, and ultimately a middle-class (or better) lifestyle. Unless environmental conditions deteriorate to such a gross extreme as to enforce other values upon those individuals, the present course suggests that the average Chinese person is going to focus on lifestyle and childbearing, rather than the environment, for the foreseeable future. Tourists will still want to see China. But it is not likely to be considered one of the world's most attractive travel destinations. The Bush/Cheney administration has given the world's people many incentives to want China to replace or counterbalance the U.S. China, as the new kid on the block, has been positioned to gain much attention and prestige from the present state of affairs. When the dust settles on the 2008 Olympics and the Bush/Cheney administration, however, some of China's novelty is going to begin to wear off, and there is apt to be a positive reappraisal of the U.S. contribution to the world's welfare. The United States is the sort of nation whose culture gives rise to a Peace Corps and to robber barons, from the 19th century to Bill Gates, who ultimately devote their fortunes to charity. It is not that every robber baron followed such a path, nor that every college student longs to join the Peace Corps. It is that such orientations do endure and are respected. We actually believe in soldiers giving candy to kids in occupied lands. Despite our leaders' macho denials of interest in "armed social work" or "nationbuilding," circa 2003, that is exactly the kind of commitment to which we have proved capable of allowing ourselves to be yoked. For all our arrogance and exploitation over the past half-century, we do not have a 2,000-year history of considering ourselves the center of the world. As China becomes stronger, people everywhere are going to become more concerned about that difference. In financial and, eventually, military terms, China will increasingly become a rival of the United States. In doing so, China will be following the path of the Ugly American who threw his money and weight around, starting especially in the 1950s. Thus, at the very time when China is making itself more of a challenger to the U.S. in those regards, it will ironically be making itself less competitive against the U.S. in terms of values and ideals. The land that could learn from (and become famous for) its Buddhist and Taoist heritage will instead become the latest incarnation of an exploitative and corrupt capitalist model -- just when the likes of Obama may be swinging America back toward its best values. At such a time, it may appear that the true deficit of a nondemocratic regime lies not in its capacity to manage, but rather in its difficulty in inspiring its subjects with a vision. A generation from now, China will have developed into a somewhat more mature capitalist society. Its people will have more of a say in things. There will be greater awareness of environmental and spiritual matters. China, too, may be approaching its own low point in the next few years. What remains unclear is whether China will recover from that sort of low point with imagination and creativity, or will instead continue to follow examples borrowed from other countries -- previously, the U.S.S.R., and more recently the U.S. At present, it seems that China will not be a leader in the competition for the best ideals of humanity. If the U.S. is in that race, its competitors will most likely be in Europe or, perhaps, India.