The World Affairs Councils of America, an umbrella organization of groups that work at the grassroots level to raise U.S. awareness of international affairs, is focusing on what it has dubbed the world's rising powers -- China, India, Brazil and Russia.
Jerry Leach, World Affairs Councils of America president, said the purpose of this year's conference is to try to get a better sense of the role of the United States in what he called the emerging and ever-changing new world order.
"So, we're part of a re-conceptualization process of the new world order, as we move into it," he said. "And also, because there has been in the previous conferences, significant interest expressed ... in China and India, in particular."
In his remarks, Leach mentioned the rising importance of Brazil, India and Russia. But he focused mostly on China, which has emerged as one of the world's largest economies and is still rapidly growing.
Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar acknowledged China's looming presence on the global stage. But he added that he believes China needs to move toward a democratic system of government if it wants respect from the outside world.
"But the problem is, how do you get from here, [Communist] Party dictatorship -- much lighter than under Mao, but still party dictatorship -- to a democratic system, in which citizens have a voice, a pluralistic system of some kind," he said.
Professor MacFarquhar said getting there, though, will not be easy for China. He made comparisons to other vigorous, but ultimately disastrous, movements in recent Chinese history, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
"Shock therapy has been what has propelled China forward over the last couple of hundred years, into where she is today," he added. "And I suspect, and I fear it, because the Chinese people had to endure too many shocks, that the stage of movement, from the present system to a more pluralist system, which may not be an American-style democracy, but would be describable as democratic, that will require another shock."
Meanwhile, other speakers at the World Affairs Council conference spoke of the importance of Americans being prepared for an increasingly global world.
Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said promoting interest in foreign affairs among the American public is a high priority for the U.S. government.
"I think we've got to also make efforts to encourage more language study within the population of the United States as a whole," he said. "And, in that vein, I'm pleased to announce to you that just recently, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense and myself jointly launched an initiative to promote greater study in K through 12 schools, in the United States, of foreign languages."
Negroponte's comments came in a speech at a special conference dinner Wednesday night, where he was awarded the second annual World Affairs Councils of America's lifetime achievement award for foreign service.