On the far side of the world, the bear and the dragon are flexing their muscles in different ways — Russian bombs crashing on apartments in Georgia; Chinese architectural wonders amid tightly controlled environments in Beijing — while Olympic television displayed the somewhat odd sight of the President of the United States hamming it up with the barely-clad beach volleyball women. All is not fun and games for President Bush in Beijing, however; while sitting in the Olympic stands with Russia’s Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin during Friday night’s opening ceremonies, the U.S. President clearly took the time to do some important business with his old friend on the issue of Russia’s military action in Georgia. (Back at the White House this afternoon, he condemned the Russian action and called for immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from the region.) And on Sunday he scored some important points of his own about religious freedom in China when he attended a state-sponsored church service and then told the Chinese President that he should not fear religous freedom.
Russia and China are large enigmas to most Americans. In the lifetime of most of the older folks around here — that is, those of us born before 1989 — Russia was the leading force in the Soviet Union, the home of the Communist Party, the dreaded antagonist of the United States in the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the wreckage of its brand of Communism strewn across the Eurasian landscape; but while Communism may have fallen victim to its own excesses, the inclination to totalitarianism in Russia remains strong in spite of the appearance of democracy. The Georgian nation split from Russian dominance after the Soviet breakup, but it’s been an uneasy freedom for the Georgians. The long rumbles of conflict burst into open warfare this past weekend, triggered by a conflict between Georgia and the province of South Ossetia that wants to return to Russian rule. (Confused? James Traub wrote a good piece in the Sunday New York Times summarizing the situation. I recommend this article for a quick analysis of what’s happening.)
Meanwhile, China has opened its gates and put on a show for the world to marvel at its industrial and technological savvy, and its athletic prowess. The world’s largest nation has been a complete mystery to most westerners for generations, a vast society known for most of the 20th Century for the repressive brand of Communism practiced through the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao (Mao Zedong). Today’s Chinese government has worked for years to turn-around that antiquated view of China, but just like the modern Putin-esq approach to Russian governance, China’s President Hu Jintao and his colleagues are not about to let this freedom thing get too far. Many human rights organizations protested the decision of the International Olympic Committee to give the games to Beijing because of the abysmal human rights record of the Chinese government. Even as the games got underway, journalists from many international news organizations complained of the tight controls imposed by China on their ability to use the Internet, to move around the country, to report freely and without restraint.
Do we care about any of this while we’re cheering for Michael Phelps and our other favorite American athletes? We sure must care. The Olympics are wonderful pageantry and symbolism, and for these young athletes they are the work of a lifetime. Good for them, and may they succeed. But when the medals are hung on the walls and the uniforms retired, Russia and China will still be world powers to reckon with — perhaps even more so than today. In the last eight years, since September 11, 2001, there’s been much talk of the decline of nation-states and the rise of the rogue terrorist as the most powerful force in international peace and security. That’s too facile; nation-states remain the most powerful forces for peace and prosperity, or repression and war. Let’s also not confuse industrial and technological advances, and the appearance of embracing contemporary culture, with real freedom. The fact that the President of the United States can play beach volleyball in Beijing is fascinating, but not necessarily a sign of true progress for human rights and world peace. The games go on…