Carlos Fuentes is an accomplished Mexican novelist, journalist and essayist. He has spent many years in Europe, serving as Mexico's ambassador to France from 1974 to 1977. He's also been a teacher and fellow at various universities in the United States, including Columbia, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. NEWSWEEK's Scott Johnson spoke with Fuentes about the impact of the American presidential election. Excerpts:

JOHNSON: Given the violence and turmoil in Iraq, the military option doesn't look like a feasible way to reform the Middle East. What should the United States and Europe do to promote reform?

FUENTES: Go back to the Clinton priorities. Clinton had a very clear priority--first, the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Go to the heart of that problem because that is the biggest problem in the Middle East. The second priority [must be] terrorism and Al Qaeda. Bush shunned the real priorities and went to a nonissue, which was Saddam, Iraq, overthrowing a dictatorship, weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. How many dictatorships can you overthrow? Then, the third priority [must be] bringing democracy to the Middle East. In Mexico, we had 70 years of a one-party, one-power system. The United States lived with that system very comfortably. It took us 70 years to reach democracy. How long is it going to take the countries of the Middle East, with their own traditions, their own ethnic and religious conflicts, to achieve democratic status? It will have to be up to them. It cannot be imposed on them from abroad.

Can Iraq be fixed?

The U.S. should gather the international community at a table and find a way of extricating itself from Iraq without losing face--or else stay in Iraq, but with the cooperation of the international community and the United Nations. [That might] create possibilities for development and democracy in Iraq, which the present situation of insurgency against the foreign occupation will not assure.

The United States and some of Europe's major powers have had a falling out over America's unilateralist foreign policy. Does U.S. credibility depend on things like the Kyoto accords or the World Court?

It does. The United States, in spite of differences that have arisen from time to time with the Atlantic community, has always adhered to the principle of multilateralism. Truman, Kennedy and Clinton all proclaimed the adherence of the United States to it. This community of interests is there. There are differen-ces between friends and allies, but that's normal.

In Latin America, people are turning back to leftist political movements because of frustration with what they see as imposed economic and political systems.

I'm not alarmed by that as long as all these movements remain within the framework of democratic procedure. And that is also the responsibility of the right wing in Latin America. The right is having the effect, through its attacks on the left, of sending the left back to the hills. We are on the verge of violence in Mexico. Something very terrible is happening here. We have to go back to democratic measures and a sense of confidence in democratic procedure, and this is the responsibility of the right and the left.

How will China's economic might change global dynamics over the next four years?

There are two things there. It amuses me very much that while Cuba is sanctioned as a totalitarian regime, which it is, China, which is also a totalitarian regime, is l'enfant cheri of the United States. China is so powerful that [everybody] has to trade with them. The other issue is that between 4 million new graduates in science and technology will come out of China and India next year. Latin America, by contrast, is providing 1 percent of the students in science and technology. This is a tremendous imbalance for us--and tremendous challenge for the United States. For the first time since the Roman Empire, there is a very powerful country that has no visible enemy facing it. One day or another, China will break the lock on unilateral power that the U.S. now has. That poses a tremendous problem for the whole equilibrium of world power in the 21st century.

So, how should the United States deal with that?

The best way to defeat totalitarianism is through free trade, not only in things, but in people, in ideas. Cuba will start to change from within because Fidel Castro will no longer have the bogeyman of American imperialism to invoke. The same thing will happen in China. China is moving very rapidly. Eventually the [economic] growth of China will [lead to] the growth of democracy, a demand for human rights, free speech, by the Chinese people themselves. What you cannot do is impose democracy on other people. Every nation has its own culture, its own rhythm, its own antecedents, its own ways of reaching democracy. You can never impose it from abroad.