Worldviews

The Christian Century, March 24, 2009 | Go to article overview

Worldviews


THE NEW YORK TIMES has called Walter Russell Mead one of the "country's liveliest thinkers about America's role in the world." A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, he writes widely on international affairs and is the author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001); Power, Terror, Peace and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk (2005); and God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World (2007).

You argue in God and Gold that liberal democratic institutions and free trade are keys to a nation's success in the modern world. What does this perspective tell us about the future of development and about how U.S. foreign policy should be shaped?

Being able to adapt to change and being able to succeed in a capitalist environment--and do so in a way that a country doesn't feel it's losing its own identity of betraying its deep values--will be a major key toward predicting how countries fare. In the 19th century, China really wasn't able to modernize, whereas Japan was quite successful at it. Late in the 20th century, the Chinese seemed to have figured this issue out, and China's outlook today is much brighter than it was 100 years ago.

So this tells us, first of all, that a nation's ability to handle change is very important, and second, that one can't be deterministic about who is and who isn't able to change. Look at Russia: in some ways it is still struggling with the basic issues about liberal democratic capitalism that it was struggling with 100 years ago, before the Soviet takeover.

How should this insight shape U.S. foreign policy? One of the best things the U.S. has been doing since about the 1850s is offer educational opportunities to people from other countries. This is actually something that missionaries and missionary colleges started, and it has had a profound impact on the development of a lot of countries. It's the least coercive and possibly most effective form of foreign aid.

It's interesting that some of the countries where we ate having some of the most serious foreign-policy problems are places where we seem to be doing a bit better job of promoting exchange programs. Pakistan is one of the countries now sending a large number of Fulbright scholars to America. People who come here don't always love us. But over time this kind of exposure is very important. And obviously it also helps educate Americans about other societies.

You mentioned China. What do you see as the likely opportunities and challenges arising as this major country integrates itself into the world system?

The rise of China is one of the most dramatic events in all of human history--maybe even bigger than the rise of Europe. It's certainly a bigger event than the Industrial Revolution in Europe, judging by the number of Chinese lives being changed.

The fact that scores of millions of people in China ate going to have greater access to education and more control over what they do, the kind of work they do and where they live is a good thing. And so is their having much more freedom than the previous generation of Chinese did--religious freedom, political freedom and lifestyle freedom.

On the other hand, as with the Industrial Revolution, the rapid transformation of Chinese society is testing and in some cases overstretching what that society is capable of dealing with. Industrialization in the U.S. meant that whereas in 1800 upward of 80 percent of Americans lived on farms, today only about 6 percent do. China is moving through that kind of social transformation much more quickly than the U.S. did.

In China the corruption of local governments and the nation's failure to deliver services is causing all kinds of new injustices and strains. These and other stresses could culminate in political disorder or in a radical Chinese nationalism. Those possibilities are grim. …

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