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IS AMERICAN CULTURE CONQUERING THE WORLD?

When 300 million Chinese watch the Super Bowl and San Francisco 49ers caps are de rigueur in Europe and Fidel Castro is seen doing The Wave, the evidence is strong that American popular culture has conquered the world.

Scholars gathered here Tuesday to assess the universal impact of Madonna - and the implications of an ever-growing cultural revolution wrought by American ideas and entertainment.Invited to take part in an American Enterprise Institute conference were a wide array of figures - from former judge Robert Bork to professor Reinhold Wagnleittner of the University of Salzburg, Austria, who wrote "The Coca-Colonisation of the World," and Steven Greenberg, director of Big Beat Records.

With the Cold War ended, American values are on the march - via the movie theater, the VCR, Reader's Digest and MTV videos - to the point that it is fair to ask, "Is the world Americanizing?" said Ben J. Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the institute.

His answer, in a paper prepared for the meeting, was an unqualified yes. And that, he argued, is good for America and good for the world because more than at any time in history, people have a choice.

The TV remote control, he said, "may be the most democratic market-oriented instrument in history."

American cultural dominance, Wattenberg added, proves that America is not in decline.

"Over the centuries, great global powers have been great because they have influenced the world," he said. "National greatness is about influence. We don't recall Rome because it had a positive merchandise balance of trade. We remember Rome because two millennia later we speak its language and follow its law."

Stephen E. Siwek, a Washington economist, ticked off evidence of the pervasiveness of American pop culture:

-In 1990, "Pretty Woman" was the No. 1 film in Germany, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Australia and Denmark.

-U.S. television accounts for almost half of the 50 highest-rated shows in Italy and Spain.

-CNN is watched in 122 countries.

-Mary Higgins Clark, Danielle Steel and Stephen King recently made the best-seller list in France. King made it twice.

Pico Iyer, author of "Video Night in Katmandu," added further evidence.

Last year, he said, he watched the video "Jaws" in Tibet, listened to the Village People in Pyongyang, North Korea, and found that in Bhutan - "perhaps the most tightly closed country in the world" - a pirated version of Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America" was on sale even before the video reached American stores.

He said Saddam Hussein followed the gulf war on CNN, Castro imitated Atlanta Braves fans in doing The Wave and Vietnamese crowd waterside cafes in the old imperial capital of Hue for a video glimpse on Meryl Streep.

Added Joseph S. Nye Jr. of Harvard University: "Nicaraguan television played American shows even while the government fought American-backed guerrillas."

Not everyone was without misgivings about the spread of American cultural influence, which also includes the popularity of Hula-Hoops in Beijing.

Conservative scholar Irving Kristol made it clear he is no fan of pop culture but said nonetheless that it helped defeat communism because it has a "corrosive effect" on authoritarian systems.

But while mass culture can debase, he contended, it cannot elevate. So "I am not happy that the United States even has this popular culture to export."

Joseph Duffey, president of American University, cautionedagainst hubris - overweening pride - in America's cultural dominance.

"From Luciano Pavarotti to Wynton Marsalis, from Olympia Dukakis to Paula Abdul, from Woody Allen to John Updike, from Gloria Estefan to Phil Donahue, and from Garrison Keillor to Yo Yo Ma, our American culture is bone and blood of the songs and sagas and dance and dramas of every people on Earth. . . . We are bringing people around the world a distant but familiar echo of the music that was played at their great-grandparents' weddings."