When Life Should Imitate Art

Meryl Streep in St-Petersburg, Russia
Image via Wikipedia
In the Hutong
Mahndei, Mahndei
0815 hrs.


In a brilliant essay in The Atlantic by Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, the venerable China scholar captures a spontaneous moment in a performance in Beijing by Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma and turns it into the best deconstruction of Chinese international relations that I have read in a very long time.

Every paragraph in the essay is a gem, but my favorite by far is this one, which elegantly encapsulates the conundrum of international relations in the 21st century:

From here on, as China’s wealth and power increases, its national challenge will be to start letting itself feel sufficiently reinstated in the congress of great nations that it does not need to wallow in narratives of victimization, or be so militant about grasping symbolic demonstrations of its equality or superiority. The highest stage of evolution for any truly great power is to reach that point where it is possible to transcend the notion of both inferior and superior, the better to cultivate a self-confidence that leads to modesty. This is a lot to ask of China, or any country. Even the United States, the strongest nation on the globe today, has only rarely demonstrated such national maturity.

Without descending too deeply into moral equivalence, Schell has taken both China and the U.S. to task for their failings in international relations: America, the global power made insecure by the Cassandras of national decline; and China, the emerging global power made insecure by its own, lovingly nurtured national inferiority complex. In one paragraph, Schell tells both countries to get over it, to accept their station, and to begin behaving like mature adults.

The Meryl Streep/Yo-Yo Ma performance that Schell refers to was intended as a piece of privately-funded public diplomacy organized by the Asia Society and the Aspen Center. It succeeded better than its organizers could have hoped, and captured the potential for public diplomacy to accomplish a very great deal. In a single moment, two artists offered proof that if China and America would just grow up, that new-found maturity would go over as well at home as abroad.