Safaris and geopolitics: What a week in the Serengeti taught me about America's role in the world and China's…

Making government work better.
July 1 2011 12:41 PM

China's a Lion. Is the United States a Gazelle?

What a week in the Serengeti taught me about America's role in the world.

Is China the lion of the global economy? Click to expand image.
Is China the lion of the global economy?

The cheetah lunged and clamped its jaws around the neck of a fleeing gazelle—the quick resolution of a 15-second chase at 50 miles per hour—and bought the limp victim back to her six cubs for lunch. Watching from 30 feet away, I was reminded of the brutality of the law of the jungle, and the fact that nature doesn't leave much room for second place. Despite the Serengeti's Garden of Eden quality, there is a clear and brutal hierarchy that dictates survival. Within a pride of lions or a herd of elephants, new leaders are chosen on a regular basis. Predictable measures of strength determine who rules: speed, power, ability to provide food, even popularity.

And so what does this have to do with geopolitics, you ask?

In conversations with an array of folks in Kenya and Tanzania, a major concern was China's increasing role in funding, buying, developing, building, and usurping. Who was funding the infrastructure project in downtown Nairobi? China. Who was entering long-term contracts to buy natural resources throughout Kenya and Tanzania? China. Who was funding the luxury resort on the coast of Zanzibar? China. The Chinese were ubiquitous—or, at least, their money was.

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And yet I was also told over and over that there was no emotional, philosophical, or cultural connection to the Chinese. Maybe this was simply the polite veneer of my hosts, but I heard it often enough that I think it's an important point—one that is critical to understand if the United States is to maintain its place in the world.

In East Africa, the rise and decline of empire is a well-studied concept: The British, Germans, and French are not so long gone. The notion that the United States may be waning as the only global superpower is not a surprise to Kenyans and Tanzanians. Yet there is a clear emotional connection to what America represents—a deeper appeal that can compete with, if not always surpass, the luster of Chinese gold. In an era when the flattening of the earth is about not just economics but social, political, and cultural connections, the appeal of America still reaches almost everyone in the world. I saw it in the T-shirts worn—even now bearing Michael Jordan's No. 23, or New York Yankees insignias, or President Obama's face—in the music listened to, in the DVDs for sale. I heard it from the kids I spoke to about our free press and religious liberties.

Despite the Chinese cash flowing in and the visits of their plenipotentiaries, nobody in Kenya wants to grow up to be Chinese. Indeed, one of our guides commented, caustically, that the Chinese didn't even care about the beauty of the Serengeti. All they wanted were the resources and the market.

So is there any way for this deeper connection to be useful at a moment when we are the largest debtor nation and Congress is cutting the types of foreign aid that actually help build civil societies and encourage freedom? Is this "soft power," as Joe Nye so aptly defined it, something that can be captured in a more specific way? How do we project it and use new media, the technology that can circumvent elites, as a way to build bonds across the world? That is the challenge we face. But it is also the enormous comparative advantage we have. The Chinese cannot and will not compete in this way. Nor will the Russians, the Indians, or Brazilians. We still stand alone as an emotional reference point.

Perhaps our "exceptionalism" really does manifest itself most vitally in this cultural connection. Now we must try to make that soft power harder. We shouldn't stick with leaders of nations who provided us with stability in return for our agreement to overlook their abusive behavior. Our connection with real people is the much more enduring and meaningful asset that we cannot afford to lose. Let the Mubaraks slip into the history books; do not come to their defense when a new generation desires freedom, unruly and uncomfortable as the transition to this freedom may at times be.

None of this will help us if we are a gazelle to China's lion. But if we are among the lions vying for supremacy in the pride, then having the cultural and emotional support of the others may matter an awful lot.

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