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China's war against Harry Potter

Chinese President Hu Jintao waded into the culture wars yesterday, but not the same culture war that has distorted American politics. No, Hu's worried that Western powers are waging a cultural war against China, and that advanced Western weaponry like Lady Gaga, Harry Potter, and the Transformers franchise are eating away at the cultural foundations of Chinese unity. According to various news sources, he has called upon Communist Party leaders to expand China's own cultural output and achieve a global cultural influence "commensurate with its international status."

Forgive me, but China's leader sounds a lot like a stodgy high school principal trying to stop teenagers from wearing gangsta rap T-shirts, and telling the Music Department to get more kids into the marching band instead. More importantly, this campaign is a losing game. It's not that I think the Chinese people couldn't cast a larger cultural shadow both at home and abroad, it's that this goal is not something that a bunch of middle-aged Communist Party (CCP) bureaucrats can mandate and control, especially in an era where culture spreads via decentralized mechanisms like YouTube and file-sharing software.   Government leaders don't create new and innovative art; it springs up from unfettered human beings, and often from fringe elements in society. And as Hu surely knows, some of the most creative artists are dissidents. Oops.

What Hu doesn't understand is that you can't just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech. Nobody in Washington told Louis Armstrong to redefine the art of jazz solos, a government official didn't order Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to invent be-bop in order to increase America's global influence, and the Beatles didn't spend all those hours in the Cavern Club or in Hamburg because somebody at the BBC had been told to create a "British invasion."  Instead, these things happened because these various individuals were free to assimilate influences from all over, and to work on their art for essentially selfish reasons.

Other authoritarian bureaucracies offer similar lessons. Stalinist Russia produced "socialist realism" (not to be confused with realist IR theory!) and a lot of clunky middle-brow fiction, but hardly any lasting cultural products. There were great artists in the Soviet Union, to be sure, but the best (Shostakovich, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) fell afoul of the authorities at one time or another and those who retained official favor didn't exactly set the world on fire. Soviet efforts to insulate themselves from outside cultural products backfired completely, as Western jazz, rock and roll, and other forms of contemporary art became clandestine objects of desire and emulation, all the more desired for being taboo.

Similarly, the Nazis attempts to stamp out "degenerate art" and to impose a uniform Nazi culture produced a predictable cultural wasteland. Adolf Hitler may have fancied himself an artist, but his tyrannical regime produced virtually no works of lasting cultural significance and mostly a lot of trashy kitsch. 

Hu's attempt to order up cultural influence by directive faces another problem. Innovative cultural products usually draws on diverse influences: artists borrow ideas and inspiration from various sources and combine them in new ways, adding their own genius to the mix. That's what Picasso did, and every other major artist, writer, or composer I can think of.  True of movie-makers, playwrights, and poets too. But as Hu's warning suggests, China's leaders are leery of opening their society completely to outside influences and unwilling to permit a completely free exchange of ideas inside China itself. By stifling creativity, these restrictions will inevitably inhibit the ability of Chinese artists to reach the cutting edge of global culture or to devise artistic products that will cast as long a shadow as open societies do.  

Ironically, if Hu really wants to win a culture war, he'd have to abandon some of the other social control mechanisms upon which CCP rule now depends. So if he wants to launch a culture war, I'd say "bring it on." Even a Rick Santorum presidency wouldn't eliminate our many advantages on that front. Heck, it might even enhance them, at least in the areas of comedy and satire. 

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Stephen M. Walt

What Iraq can teach us about Iran

Former Iraqi minister of trade and defense Ali A. Allawi has an interesting op-ed in today's New York Times, where he outlines the main challenges in post-occupation Iraq and maps out a broad approach for dealing with them. Not surprisingly, he is better at identifying the problems Iraq confronts than in providing ready solutions, for the simple reason that there aren't any easy answers to Iraq's current plight.

Saddam Hussein's brutalities notwithstanding, that is one reason why some of us thought invading Iraq was a foolish idea back in 2002-2003. Iraq's military power had been largely defanged by defeat in the 1990-91 Gulf War and by ten years of punishing sanctions, so it was no longer a serious threat to vital U.S. interests. Equally important, no one ever gave a plausible account of how a post-Saddam social and political order would be established, especially in light of what was known about Iraq's fractious and violent history and deep internal divisions. We had no plausible "exit strategy" going in, and it is no surprise that we are leaving a broken country behind. (That's not an argument for staying longer, by the way, because we don't know how to fix it and most Iraqis want us out).

In any case, a passage in Allawi's piece caught my eye and bears further scrutiny. Here it is:

"Iraq must reimagine the Middle East, creating new economic, security and political structures that weave Middle Eastern countries closer together while peacefully accommodating the region's ethnic and religious diversity.

In the American-Iranian cold war, Iraq must resist being dragged into a confrontation. We have real interests on both sides and can play an important role in mediating and even defusing that conflict."

In essence, Allawi is saying that Iraq should strive to play a balance of power game in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, seeking good relations with all its neighbors, and adopt a creative and flexible approach to dealing with the diverse social and religious forces in the region. Such a strategy would not preclude Iraq tilting one way or the other as currents of power and interest shift, but it implies not allowing Iraq to get drawn into rigid alignments or permanent commitments that harden animosities or limit its diplomatic flexibility.

What struck me, however, was how Allawi's blueprint applies even more strongly to the United States. The United States is not a Persian Gulf state, and we have no interest in trying to run these countries. Instead, the United States has only three overriding strategic interests in the Gulf region: 1) make sure that Gulf oil and gas keeps flowing to world markets (even though the U.S. gets very little of its own energy from this region, a reduction in the global supply would send energy prices soaring), 2) discourage the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and 3) reduce the danger from anti-American terrorism.  The best way to pursue these three objectives is to play balance-of-power politics ourselves: minimizing our military footprint in the region while striving to make sure that no single power dominates it and reducing incentives for anti-American terrorism or WMD proliferation.

It follows that the United States should be seeking to have good relations with as many states as possible -- so as to maximize its diplomatic options and resulting leverage -- and to do what it can to dampen regional tensions. (Note: this is also what Allawi advises Iraqis to do). From this perspective, a prolonged Cold War with Iran is in fact a policy failure (or at least not an achievement), even though avoiding one may be difficult given all that has already occurred. Our various "special relationships" in the region should be rethought as well, especially in light of the political upheavals that have been sweeping the region and rendering the future more difficult to forecast. In such circumstances, a smart great power would seek to maximize its options going forward, instead of being permanently and visibly committed to a status quo that is visibly shifting before our eyes.

And above all, the United States needs to start thinking about an approach to the region that is at least somewhat mindful of the opinions of most of its residents. We still don't know exactly how the Arab revolts of 2011 will turn out (and I'm guessing we won't know for some time), but one likely consequence will be the eventual consolidation of Arab governments that pay considerably more attention to popular sentiment than their predecessors did. Even if these regimes fall short of full democracy, their leaders can see what is happening within their societies and they are going to try to cater to public opinion to the extent that they can. Unfortunately for us, popular sentiment in much of the Arab world is decidedly hostile to the main thrust of American Middle East policy. So if the United States wants to preserve its influence in the region over the longer term, it is going to have to devise a strategy for the areathat is more congenial to Arab publics, and not just a handful of ruling elites. This doesn't mean abandoning important U.S. interests, pandering to popular opinion, or giving more meaningless speeches, but it does mean thinking strategically about our long-term interests, and not just about the next election.

In short, Mr. Allawi has some sensible ideas for how Iraq should behave in the months andyears ahead, but his advice may be even more applicable to Iraq's former occupier. 

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)