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U.S. vs. Asia: Culture as Diplomacy

December 29, 1996|Jacob Heilbrun | Jacob Heilbrun is an associate editor of the New Republic

WASHINGTON — In late November, Disney announced that, despite Chinese threats, the company would go ahead with plans to distribute Martin Scorcese's coming film on the Dalai Lama, titled "Kundun." Since then, Disney has earned kudos from the U.S. media for standing up to Beijing. By putting principle ahead of potential profits, the Magic Kingdom ended up triumphing over the Middle Kingdom.

In all the congratulations over Disney's actions, however, a more fundamental development is being overlooked: the collision between American culture and Asian culture. Though Disney managed to prevail, this recent spat was not over attempting to export U.S. culture to Asia. It was over American culture in America.

Beijing has become so emboldened by its growing military and economic strength that it attempted to prevent Disney from distributing inside the United States a film depicting the Tibetan cause in a sympathetic light. And when it does come to exporting American culture abroad, Asian regimes from China to Singapore to Malaysia to Vietnam have become overtly hostile.

This hostility is the most potent challenge the U.S. has faced since the collapse of communism. Like communism, the rise of "Asian values" contradicts the U.S. claim to be a unique nation that bases its identity on an idea: the idea of liberty.

America's culture has, in fact, been its foreign policy. Even if the U.S. has not always acted on its lofty rhetoric, America has always defined its culture on the basis of individual rights and democracy that exerted a universal appeal--on the belief that American democracy should serve as a model for the world.

Authoritarian Asian societies reject this model. They don't think democracy and human rights are universal. They see them as parochial, self-serving Western notions. They don't even believe capitalism has to lead to democracy, or that democracy is a desirable state of affairs. Quite the contrary. Countries such as China hope to adopt the American economic model, while rejecting the political and social freedoms that underpin it. They see American liberties and permissiveness as leading to high crime rates and poor education. Indeed, Asian societies such as Singapore and Malaysia now argue that their model is superior to the culturally degenerate American one precisely because they reject fundamental political liberties.

In a remarkable development, many in the U.S., including Clinton administration officials and conservative pundits have begun to accept this Asian version of progress. Conservatives such as Alexander M. Haig Jr., Brent Scowcroft and Henry A. Kissinger contend that America has no business inflicting democracy or human rights on Asia; its only business there is business. The Clinton administration agrees: It has jettisoned any emphasis on democracy and human rights, focusing solely on trade with Asia.

Alarm over the "Asianization" of American culture and foreign policy, however, is already discernible--evident among magazines as diverse as the American Prospect, the Weekly Standard and Washington Monthly. What the Disney episode showed is how desperate Americans have become for politicians and companies to defend U.S. values.

The danger that authoritarian regimes in Asia pose to the United States should not be pooh-poohed. Unlike the Soviet Union, these countries are flourishing economically, giving a veneer of plausibility to their claims that democracy is dispensable. Giving up on the universality of American culture, however, would amount to giving up on America itself.

Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, China and its neighbors are the primary holdouts against the Americanization of the world that took place after World War I. At the turn of the century, Americans already enjoyed the highest standard of living and were the envy of many nations. In 1914, the U.S. had a million automobiles and 10 million telephones. In the '20s, the radio, car and motion picture disseminated the American creed, beginning the homogenization of the world that would take off after World War II, when the U.S. controlled close to 50% of the world's gross national product.

By the 1980s, it was Lennon, not Lenin, who prevailed, as Western culture undermined communist societies from Budapest to Moscow. In 1989, American values seemed to have won out. When President George Bush declared a "new world order" after the Gulf War, it seemed based on American democracy.

Not for long. Not surprisingly, Beijing has warned that the world cannot become unipolar and that Washington threatens to gain "hegemony." Beijing is right. The U.S. model does have the potential to become the world model. Militarily, no other power comes close to challenging the U.S. And the dream of every U.S. corporation--understandably--is to have several billion Chinese contentedly sipping Cokes and Pepsis as they drive around Beijing in jeeps and convertibles. It looks like an unbeatable combination.

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