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“This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else.” So begins Fareed Zakaria’s latest effort, an engrossing, provocative, and largely persuasive examination of the “post-Americanism”, that increasingly characterizes our 21st century world. Though America’s military might remains unchecked, various economies around the globe are increasing their power. Likewise, by nearly every measure commonly used to ascertain economic competitiveness, the US is in decline.


Zakaria is careful to recognize that this shift is not necessarily a bad thing. As the global economy decentralizes, more and more people are lifted out of poverty. In the zero sum game of political power, however, things are not so simple. The manner in which the coming realignment of global strength plays out will largely depend on how the sole remaining superpower chooses to comport itself.
 
At the center of Zakaria’s book are case studies examining the two most heralded emerging economic powers, China and India. Communist nations have notoriously suffered under abject economic conditions. The irony is that China’s recent leap forward, if one might pardon the phrase, is as much a result of autocratic rule as in spite of it. Not having to answer to political opponents, an independent media, or voters allows the Chinese government to enact large-scale reforms and development projects that would be hindered in a less autocratic system.


cover art

The Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria

(W. W. Norton)

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The Future of Freedom

Fareed Zakaria

Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad

(W. W. Norton)

As an Indian government official notes, “We have to do many things that are politically popular but are foolish…China can take the long view. And while it doesn’t do everything right, it makes many decisions that are smart and far-sighted.” These projects aren’t always to the benefit of individual Chinese – forced relocation is a regular facet of China’s modernization plans – but the result is a nation that has learned from the disastrous policies of Mao and effectively abandoned its adherence to The Little Red Book.


Zakaria deftly illustrated the liberalizing effect of capitalism in his previous book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, and in many ways his arguments are borne out in China. For an ostensibly Communist regime, the Chinese government is remarkably open about its acceptance of capitalism. As a Chinese official states, “We have to let markets work. They draw people off the land and into industry, out of farms and into cities. Historically that has been the only answer to rural poverty.”


China has not accepted the “Washington consensus” of simultaneous reforms on all fronts, nor has it adopted Boris Yeltsin’s shock therapy solution. Instead, Beijing has taken an incremental approach that has had its share of successes (the size of China’s economy has amazingly doubled every eight years for the past three decades, for one).


But capitalism alone won’t transform China into a liberal democracy, and though Zakaria never fully loses sight of this reality, there are times when his enthusiasm for China’s economic successes appears to overshadow his concern over China’s domestic and foreign policy conduct. Nevertheless, he devotes several pages to cataloging many of China’s worst sins, be they the treatment of domestic democratic movements, Beijing’s policy towards Tibet and Taiwan, or China’s many troubling relationships with African nations.


Zakaria’s treatment of India is more balanced, both because of India’s more modest successes, and perhaps because he knows the nation firsthand from his formative years. The last decade has been an exciting time in India, with more people moving out of poverty than in the previous 50 years, but there is still a long way to go, an impression one doesn’t always get in the glowing reports from Bangalore in the New York Times. “The country might have several Silicon Valleys,” writes Zakaria, “but it also has three Nigerias within it – that is, more than 300 million people living on less than a dollar a day.”


Zakaria still occasionally falls prey to unconvincing assertions like “there really isn’t a Third World anymore.” The world isn’t flat, and suggesting that it is promotes a counterproductive fiction. Still, the larger trends are generally positive, and though New Delhi’s democracy cannot compete with Beijing’s autocracy when it comes to mass industrialization and even incremental economic reforms, it has its own built-in advantages for competing in the global marketplace.


Zakaria writes convincingly of the “special affinity” between Indian culture and the United States, fostered by both nations being English-speaking democracies, and by the very successful Indian-American immigrant community. In recent worldwide polling, Indians were second only to Americans in their positive view of the United States, and though there are 150 million Muslims in India who witnessed the rise of Islamic extremism in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan, not a single Indian Muslim has been linked to Al Qaeda. These are major developments in a nation whose position throughout the Cold War was nonalignment, and whose antipathy towards America-backed Pakistan often led to greater sympathy for the Soviet Union.


As fascinating as these case studies are, The Post-American World is at its best when Zakaria offers his prescriptions for American policy, both at home and abroad. What makes his recommendations so compelling is that they’re backed by a clear understanding of how other nations view American, and more broadly Western, conduct.


Zakaria is highly critical of the concentration of power even within international organizations: the UN Security Council fails to represent modern day power configurations, focusing instead on “the victors of a war that ended sixty years ago”; the G-8 excludes such powerful economies as China, India, and South Korea; the IMF is always headed by a European and the World Bank by an American. On the latter point, he pulls no punches, arguing that “this ‘tradition,’ like the customs of an old segregated country club, may be charming and amusing to insiders, but to outsiders it is bigoted and outrageous.”


Zakaria also effectively illustrates the negative effects of American hypocrisy on the global stage. The Bush administration’s emphasis on democracy promotion lacks legitimacy not only because of unilateralism in Iraq, but because of American policy on Taiwan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. While Washington quite fairly criticizes Chinese and Indian policy towards Burma, it’s not without its own humanitarian blind spots.
Zakaria wisely argues that Washington must either recognize that every country has its exceptions, or else jettison its own. “But to do neither, and preach one thing and practice another, is hypocrisy, which is both ineffective and undermining of American credibility.”


He also chastises Washington’s double standards regarding the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, arguing that “when the United States tells countries that to build a single nuclear weapon is a moral, political, and strategic abomination while maintaining an arsenal of thousands of missiles and building and testing new ones, the condemnation rings hollow.” Perhaps most important is his account of Washington’s flawed approach to rogue nations:


If you threaten a country with regime change, it only makes more urgent that government’s desire for nuclear weapons…Consider what the world looks like to Iran. It is surrounded by nuclear powers (Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel), and across two of its borders sit tens of thousands of U.S. troops (in Iraq and Afghanistan). The president of the United States has repeatedly made clear that he regards the regime in Tehran as illegitimate, wishes to overthrow it, and funds various groups whose aims are similar. If you were in Tehran, would this make you feel like giving up your nuclear program? Insisting on both policy change and regime change, we have gotten neither.


Zakaria isn’t playing Devil’s Advocate. These concerns aren’t important merely because they’re perceived by America’s rivals, but because they are legitimate. He’s no less forthright on the domestic front.


Phrases like “Washington is broken” get a lot of mileage in the current electoral climate, both by Democrats seeking to run against the Bush legacy and from Republicans desperate to escape it. Zakaria has his own admirably non-partisan, yet refreshingly direct role to play in these conversations. On the subject of immigration, he has harsh words for the nativism and xenophobic demagogy that too often characterize the debate. The irony, of course, is that one of America’s greatest advantages is its ability to attract and assimilate immigrants:


America’s edge in innovation is overwhelmingly a product of immigration…Immigration also gives America a quality rare for a rich country—hunger and energy. As countries become wealthy, the drive to move up and succeed weakens. But America has found a way to keep itself constantly revitalized by streams of people who are looking to make a new life in a new world.


Zakaria knows this firsthand, but it should be apparent to all. Likewise, his contention that the only way for Europe to avert its own demographic decline is to take in more immigrants should hardly be controversial, but it’s exactly the sort of argument alarmists like Mark Steyn and Melanie Phillips point to as evidence of the supposed weakening of Western civilization. Europe and Asia do have far greater trouble assimilating immigrants than the United States, but that’s more an indictment of those societies than of immigration itself. For America to cripple this very real advantage would be to vastly limit itself in the evolving global economy.


Clearly chastened by his early support for the Iraq War, Zakaria also rightly levels harsh criticism at the “chest-thumping machismo” of the Republicans, whose “competition to be the tough guy has produced new policy ideas – ones that range from bad to insane.” Among these, he lists Mitt Romney’s call on mosques to be wiretapped and Tom Tancredo’s suggestion that the United States “take out” Mecca. Which isn’t to suggest that Democrats are free of such faults, for though Zakaria finds them “more sensible on most of these issues, the party remains consumed by the fear that it will not come across as tough.”


One need only remember how quickly leading Democrats also lined up to support the Iraq War or, more recently, Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that she would “obliterate” Iran in the event of a nuclear strike on Israel to get a sense of what he means. His own example involves last year’s South Carolina presidential debate, where the candidates were asked how they’d respond to another terrorist attack and “promptly vowed to attack, retaliate, and blast the hell out of, well, somebody.” Only Barack Obama responded differently, and he quickly amended his answer upon realizing his political vulnerability. “In fact,” argues Zakaria,


Obama’s initial response was the right one. He said that the first thing he would do was make certain that the emergency response was effective, then ensure we had the best intelligence possible to figure out who had caused the attack, and then move with allies to dismantle the network responsible.


Zakaria couldn’t be more right about this. A political culture that deems such sensible responses gaffes and mistakes hawkish grandstanding for strength not only corrodes domestic support for rational approaches to these very serious problems, but both alienates allies and further inflames rivals in the process. They get CNN in London and Tehran, too.


What, then, will be America’s role in an increasingly multi-polar world? Zakaria cites two historical examples that offer very different visions: Britain during the waning years of its Empire, and Otto von Bismarck’s Germany. Whereas Britain tried to economically and militarily balance itself against rising European powers, Bismarck chose to engage his rivals. “His goal was to have better relations with all of them than any of them had with each other – to be the pivot of Europe’s international system.” Zakaria believes that America must play the role of honest broker, building broad international rules instead of merely serving its own narrow interests, and working hard to restore its former legitimacy.


This legitimacy won’t be easily regained, but it is the central necessity as America shifts its policies to compete in the changing world. Zakaria notes that the Clinton administration exercised military force on three significant occasions – Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo – without once going to the UN Security Council. It didn’t need to. Clinton “was able to get away with this partly because of a basic sense of trust,” one that has been woefully compromised by the Bush administration.


Zakaria is quick to note that American ideas and ideals remain central to international arguments over genocide in Darfur, nuclear weapons in Iran, and the junta in Burma, but that “Washington needs to understand that generating international public support for its view of the world is a core element of power, not merely an exercise in public relations.” In the coming decades, America’s soft power will have to suffice where its hard power cannot. Zakaria writes movingly on this last point:


Some of foreign policy is what we do, but some of it is also who we are. Hubert Humphrey reputedly said that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was one of the most important foreign policies of that decade. America the place has often been the great antidote to U.S. foreign policy. When American actions across the world have seemed harsh, misguided, or unfair, America itself has always been open, welcoming and tolerant. I remember visiting the United States as a kid in the 1970s, at a time when, as a country, India was officially anti-American. The reality of the America that I experienced was a powerful refutation of the propaganda and caricatures of its enemies. But today, through inattention, fear, and bureaucratic cowardice, the caricatures threatens to become a reality.


Photo of Fareed Zakaria by Sigrid Estrada

Photo of Fareed Zakaria by Sigrid Estrada


Throughout his career, Zakaria has used his knack for acute observation to draw compelling, and largely reliable, conclusions. The Post-American World is no different. This is a thoughtful book about serious issues by a very intelligent writer. Barack Obama was recently spotted reading a copy, and one hopes John McCain will do the same. No one book will make all the difference, but familiarity with this particular volume would go a ways towards ensuring that the 44th President of the United States is better equipped to deal with America’s changing role than the 43rd.


Writing out of Toronto, in addition to his reviews and features on PopMatters, Nav Purewal's work has previously appeared on McXweeneys.net and StylusMagazine.com. He currently maintains a blog at InventedReactions.blogspot.com.


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