Last Friday, the world changed. With two very different coming-out parties — the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and the invasion of Georgia — China and Russia put everyone on notice that formidable new powers are challenging the established order.
I don't mean to equate Friday's two events, of course. The invasion of Georgia was a chilling display of Russia's brute force. The Olympics' opening ceremonies were a breathtaking display of China's wealth, power, creativity and vision. Yet, it was the opening ceremonies, more than the Georgian invasion, that announced the greater challenge to democratic values.
These events did not occur in a vacuum. Just a few weeks earlier, global trade talks collapsed because China and India believed the proposed regulations would imperil their farmers. When these deliberations began in 2001, it was inconceivable that they would be derailed by non-Western powers. By the summer of 2008, however, China and India had attained so much economic clout that they were perfectly capable of bringing the negotiations to a halt.
The summer of '08, historians will most likely tell us, signaled the rise of a multi-power, non-Western-dominated planet. It also was the time when it became clear that the American Century would not lap over from the 20th into the 21st.
Russia's invasion is surely the most shocking of these developments but also the least groundbreaking. It fits into that most ancient of great-power traditions — asserting semisovereignty over its immediate neighbors.
The United States even has a name for its right to intervene in its neighbors' affairs: the Monroe Doctrine. And just as Russia moved to undermine a militantly pro-American government on its borders, so the United States moved to overthrow Castro at the Bay of Pigs and depose the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. None of these interventions brought any credit to either the United States or Russia, but neither were they something new under the sun.
Russia today is a mix of neoczarist authoritarianism domestically and pan-Slavic belligerence internationally. Its clout resides not in its political beliefs and practices or in its economic model, but in its reserves of oil and natural gas, on which Europe in particular is dependent. It is not our proto-democratic buddy, but neither is it the kind of threat that requires ginning up the Cold War again, as John McCain and his neoconservative brethren seem to believe.
China is something else again. If ever there was a display of affable collectivism, it was filmmaker Zhang Yimou's opening ceremonies, which in their reduction of humans to a mass precision abstraction seemed to derive in equal measure from Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl. Its masterstroke, however, wasn't its brilliant design but the decision, during the parade of the athletes, to have Chinese flag-bearer Yao Ming accompanied by an adorable 9-year-old boy who survived the recent catastrophic earthquake that killed many of his classmates, and who returned, after he had extricated himself from the rubble, to save two of his classmates. When asked why he went back, the NBC broadcaster told us, the boy said that he was a hall monitor and that it was his job to take care of his schoolmates.
That answer may tell us more than we want to know. He could have gone back because his friends were still inside. Instead, he went back because he was a responsible little part of a well-ordered hierarchy. For all we know, he might well have gone back even if he weren't a hall monitor, but his answer — whether spontaneously his own or one that some grown-up concocted for him — works brilliantly as an advertisement for an authoritarian power bent on convincing the world that its social and political model is as benign as any democracy's.
What Russia did last Friday was appalling, but it ultimately poses no systematic challenge to the world's democracies. What China did last Friday was entrancing, but its cuddly capitalist-Leninism poses a genuine economic challenge to the messier, unsynchronized workings of democracies. A nation that can assemble 2,000 perfectly synchronized drummers has clearly staked its claim as the world's assembly line.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of American Prospect and the L.A. Weekly.