CARLOS Fuentes is an optimist. That much comes through in his vigorous tone of voice, in his animated gestures, in his love of humanity - and even in the relish with which he approaches an elegant English breakfast at a London hotel. But he is an optimist standing on a precipice. Ahead of him, stretching into the 21st century, lie two great fears with which, he says, humanity must come to terms. The first is fear of nuclear annihilation. The second is fear that the developing nations will either be crushed out or swallowed up by the developed world.
And behind him, where he turns for explanations of how the world came to its present state, lies the wreckage of what he calls ``the philosophies that have guided the Western world at least since the 18th century.''
What characterizes those philosophies is ``the basic belief in happiness - that happiness is attainable on earth, that humanity and its institutions are infinitely perfectible.''
``I think this is what has come crumbling down,'' Mr. Fuentes says. ``In the midst of the greatest material progress, of the greatest technical progress [ever] achieved, we have seen all its limitations.''
This particular view, he says with a ready smile, is ``the response of all those who see the big holes in the Gruy`ere cheese of progress.''
Fuentes notes that the past several centuries have seen ``a great addiction to materialism'' and an unthinking willingness to define progress in material terms. ``This is what has failed.''
``The material rewards of progress are as nothing compared to what are supposed to be the moral rewards of progress,'' he notes. ``I am not against material progress. I am against the consciousness that [material] progress will solve our problems.''
What are those problems? The foremost is the fear that a ``nuclear winter'' could engulf a planet ``devoured by catastrophe.'' Throughout history, he says, ``we've always known that man and woman can destroy themselves. But we have always known, throughout the ages, that nature would remain while we disappeared ... if only to bear witness to our folly and our pride.
``Today I think for the first time in history we have the consciousness that nature can disappear along with us,'' he says, and ``it really shakes your soul.'' The Greek playwright Sophocles, for all his tragic vision, ``could not imagine this,'' Fuentes says, adding that nowadays ``we can.''
``It unites us as human beings through fear as we have never been united before,'' he says. Unity of fear - or hope? THAT very unity, he feels, ``is one of the great strengths of the approaching century.''
``So many barriers that used to keep us apart now have disappeared,'' he adds, ``and we are more and more united.''
That unity, however, is ``a condition born of fear. I hope that in the 21st century it will be transformed into a condition made of hope.''
The second problem on Fuentes's agenda concerns what he describes as ``the enormous gap'' between the political, economic, social, and technological conditions of industrial nations and those of developing nations. As a result, he says, the latter will face in the 21st century a clash between what he calls ``the project of independence'' - their ongoing efforts to shed what was once a colonial status - and ``the project of interdependence'' that increasingly makes the world's nations reliant on one another.
``We have this socioeconomic or political fear that our national projects will be swallowed up by transnational companies,'' he explains, ``and that we will have little say in our own destiny.''
``No matter how far we have gone in certain cases,'' he observes, ``[the developing world] has been totally outstripped by the incredible development of modern technology and concentration of power on the international scene.''
It is this concentration of power in the hands of the two superpowers that Fuentes sees as particularly damaging to the developing nations. In the 21st century, he hopes to see ``the disintegration of bipolar politics as the dominating factor'' in world affairs. He hopes for ``a multipolar politics in which there are many centers of power.''
For that reason, Fuentes is particularly eager to see an end to the arms race. ``Without the arms race,'' he says, ``the United States is much less of a power - and the Soviet Union is no power at all.''
Fuentes, who expresses an ardent belief in democracy and has great affection for the United States, acknowledges that the end of the arms race would leave each superpower facing ``an incredible conundrum.''
``The conundrum'' for the Soviet Union, he says, centers upon the fact that its armaments alone confer upon it ``a big-power status'' - since it lacks the ``technologies of information and the access to them by [the] people'' that could make it a genuinely ``modern society.''
That being the case, says Fuentes, the present arms race simply has the effect of ``furthering the anachronism of the Soviet Union'' in its efforts to ``be a strong society merely on military terms.''
The very different conundrum facing the United States, he says, is also related to the arms race - and to the baffling (from a developing-nations perspective) foreign policy that results from it.
``Can the United States,'' he asks, ``go on forever being a democracy inside and an empire abroad? Can it keep this juggling act up for long?''
Fuentes worries that, if this conundrum persists for much longer, it will create ``a pattern in which eventually it will be impossible for the internal democracy [of the United States] to respond to the external [US] empire.''
``My great hope as a friend of the United States,'' he says, is that ``the democracy [will] coincide inside and out. And then the power of the United States in the Western Hemisphere will be such as it has never imagined.''
Driving the US toward what Fuentes calls its ``empire abroad'' is its concern over communism, especially in Central America. That problem, for Fuentes, does not represent a significant threat to the 21st century.
``There is no communist threat in Central America,'' he says. In the first place, the history of the countries there makes a communist form of government ``culturally impossible,'' given ``the extremely strong Catholic component'' in the politics and culture of the region. For example, Fuentes notes that ``the whole concept of St. Thomas's [Thomas Aquinas's] politics of the common good is finally the center of politics in Nicaragua'' - and is a far cry from the materialism of communism.
In the second place, he says, the Soviet Union cannot logistically sustain an operation in Nicaragua, given the long distance between the two countries and the state of the Soviet economy.
Even Cuba, where such an operation has been sustained, does not represent in Fuentes's mind a long-term problem: He predicts, before the end of the 21st century, some kind of ``arrangement with Cuba'' that brings it back into much closer contact with the United States.
But the heart of Fuentes's concerns about the United States' relationship to the developing world seems to have less to do with politics than with culture. What intrigues him about a ``multipolar'' world in which the superpowers were less dominant is that it would also be ``a multiracial world and a multicultural world.'' Hamburger, no; `mole,' yes `IF there is not the understanding that cultures are different,'' he says, ``and that people have different ways of responding to the basic realities of life and economics and politics and love and eating and a million things because of what their cultures have been, then we can't understand each other.''
The US, he says, ``may think that the solution for the United States, the culture of the United States, is the universal culture and should benefit everyone. Well, no! No! I will not change a wonderful mole from Oaxaca [in Mexico] for a hamburger - I will not. And my politics will respond to the mole.''
``This has to be understood by the United States, which has a democratic culture,'' he insists. ``I don't expect Moscow to understand that the Czechs have their own culture.''
For Fuentes, the culture of a nation resides not in its institutions but in its people - in what he calls its ``society.'' The problem of the developing world, he says, has been the failure of institutions to come to grips with the problems facing society - especially in Latin America. That has led, in his view, to oppressive forms of government and a ``history of unpunished violence'' in the region.
The result for the next century could be ``a big, big struggle between the democratic tendencies and the authoritarian tendencies.'' But it could also be a time of promise. ``I hope now that we can enter the 21st century in Latin America with an agenda in which [the three main institutions of] church, army, and state are finally less important than the society.
``During the 20th century,'' he says, ``we searched for a state that would control the church and the army'' - a search that, in his view, failed. ``I hope we can enter the 21st century with a society that can control the church, the army, and the state as well. It's called democracy - not perhaps Anglo-Saxon democracy but some extension of Thomistic democracy'' as in St. Thomas's ``politics of the common good.'' Democracy the remedy `WE have to find our own Hispanic democratic solution,'' he says, adding that ``what we cannot accept is the United States imposing its political solutions, its brand of democracy.''
On two other points, too, Fuentes hopes for progress. One is population control, which he finds especially important in his own land. ``I don't think there can be a really developing society - [one] that takes into account the village life, the life of the majority of the Mexican people - without some kind of family planning.''
Another is the environment. He faults developing-nation policies for much of the degradation - citing a willingness of some governments to overlook industrial pollution to attract lucrative investments from abroad.
He sees a remedy in more democratization of the developing world - under the direction not of ``state'' but of ``society.''
Why, in Fuentes's view, does the United States - whose democracy he so clearly admires - seem so bent on ``imposing'' its own solutions to the problems in the developing world?
``We tend to think in Latin America that we have memory and [the US has] the media, and that's the big difference,'' he says.
``The role of Latin America,'' he explains, ``is to make the United States understand that memory counts - that there is history, and that it does not renew itself every 24 hours when [TV news anchor] Dan Rather appears on the set and defines the history of the day, which will be renewed the next day so that the memory of the previous day can be thrown into the garbage can.''
For Fuentes the novelist, the artist has a crucial role to play in providing a proper sense of this ``memory.''
``High on the agenda for the 21st century,'' he says, ``will be the need to restore some kind of tragic consciousness.'' A view of the world reflected in ``the most ancient wisdom of the West'': that ``progress does not assure happiness'' and the world is ``not divided into good guys and bad guys.''
``The world is made of grace,'' Fuentes says, ``and the important thing is to understand that ... we are all struggling between values.''
``Could we restore a perspective,'' he asks, ``in which values are in conflict, and not good and evil - which is simply melodrama?''
Next: Abdus Salam, physicist, Dec. 9.