Disputing Conventional Wisdom on the 21st Century
A New Time for Mexico
By Carlos Fuentes
Marina Gutman Castaneda
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
216 pp., $22.
The twenty-first century will be American
By Alfredo G.A. Vallado
Translated by John Howe
Verso, 221 pp., $25
In November 1992, a young Algerian waiter serving me dinner in an Algiers hotel broke his respectful silence to ask if I was American. When I answered that I was, his face brightened.
"I would like to congratulate you on the election of your new young president," he said, taking me by surprise (this was, after all, an Arab country, not too long after the Gulf war). "I very much appreciate American democracy," he continued, "I think it is an example for us in Algeria, and for the whole world."
I didn't realize it at the time, but what I was experiencing as I savored a fine lamb couscous was the dissemination of the American democratic empire - what Brazilian diplomatic academic and journalist Alfredo G. A. Vallado calls "the transformation of the planet into a World-America."
With countries around the world (including Algeria) pushing toward democratization, and with economies, security systems, and cultural ideals being globalized, the young Algerian was signaling his own paltry participation in the election of this new world's only true global leader.
It's hardly news to the Dakota wheat farmer or the Detroit auto assembly-line worker - or even the Mexican Indian peasant or the Malaysian rain forest dweller - that the world is undergoing a dizzying transformation to a global economy and culture. What Vallado argues persuasively and with considerable insight in The Twenty-First Century Will Be American is that historic factors reaching as far back as the American colonial founders and continuing in crucial decisions by leaders - such as Franklin Roosevelt, George Bush, and Bill Clinton - make the American political, economic, and cultural model the only one for an integrating and increasingly individualistic world.
At first the American reader picking up Vallado's book, recently translated from the French original text, might ask, why am I reading a foreigner's condensed version of my country's history? But soon his reasoning becomes clear: He's backing up his thesis of Manifest Destiny gone global.
What about last year's dark but fashionable predictions of the "closing of the American century"? Forget it, Vallado says. America's tradition of immigration and its ability to absorb and adapt to new cultures, its democratic political system, its embodiment of an economic system enshrining the individual and his aspirations, and its dominance of mass telecommunications and mass culture, all make America both mirror and model for a world experiencing rapid change after the collapse of communism and the Soviet empire.
In some instances, Vallado's thesis can seem a little forced, particularly in this election year when the US is raising the anti-immigration flag, turning away from its southern neighbors (which the Brazilian writer argues will be crucial to the success of World-America), and slowing the pursuit of global trade for the provincial electoral interests offered by the likes of the Florida tomato.
The world's security system also seems far from the functioning product of successful US designing he depicts.
And lest the flag-waving American reader think this book is about a world just like the United States, Vallado, who teaches at Paris's prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques, emphasizes that he is not just talking about the Americanization of the world, but the internationalization of the US.
The world in the next century will not be a pyramid with the US at the top, he says, but rather a wheel with Washington - and New York and Los Angeles, for the economic and cultural sectors they dominate - as its hub. That world's leader will be the American president.
Vallado quotes extensively both George Bush and Bill Clinton to anchor his argument that American leaders are particularly attuned since the fall of the Berlin Wall to their role not just as the president of one nation-state, but as the founders and guiding forces of the first global civilization arising even as the nation-state diminishes.
Vallado's is not a book that would be to Carlos Fuentes's liking, since the renowned Mexican writer argues in his recently translated work, A New Time for Mexico, that the salvation of his beloved but perennially unfulfilled homeland will come when Mexico throws off its historical shackles to achieve its potential as a democratic and independent nation-state.
With the phrasing and referencing of the grand intellectual he is, Fuentes develops the not-new idea that Mexico must leave behind the exploitation and unfulfilled promises that have left it a beautiful but torn world of few haves and many have-nots, to finally reach its potential as a just, multicultural, democratic society.
This is the "new time" Fuentes argues for, divorced from the traditional Mexican "time," which is really a dwelling on the painful past.
Early in the book, Fuentes hits a bulls-eye that reverberates through the remaining pages. "We turn on the television sets of the Mexican mind, and every night we hear the same evening news," he writes. "Top of the news: The Spanish have conquered Mexico. Second item: The Gringos have stolen half our territory."
How sadly true that is, when the Mayan Indian uprising in Chiapas is simply an extension of that first item, while resistance to American investment in the country's petrochemical industry or fury over the sovereignty implications of recent US law targeting some foreign (including Mexican) investors in Cuba, is really a descendant of the second.
Fuentes is not a Mexican isolationist. He notes his own support, opposite from the position of many other Mexican intellectuals, for Mexico's entry into NAFTA and the world economy generally.
Democratic institutions and a just legal system underpinning the country's glorious culture will give Mexico the independence it needs to remain Mexico, he says.
But he also calls for closer ties to Europe and especially to Spain, an eloquent argument drawing on Fuentes's family roots but one which seems unrealistic in today's context.
Much of the reasoning underlying "A New Time for Mexico" is not new, but it is the way a great writer puts his ideas that makes this book worthwhile, especially for those, like Fuentes himself, with a passion for Mexico.
*Howard LaFranchi is the Monitor's Mexico City correspondent.