The Post-American World

by Fareed Zakaria

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1692

Fareed Zakaria analyzes the nature of what he calls The Post-American World, a title and phrase whose meaning is not as provocative as some readers might expect. When Zakaria discusses the post-American world, he does not mean that America has become irrelevant, that it has been overtaken, or that it has gone into cultural decline. Instead, Zakaria discusses what he calls “the rise of the rest.” It is not that America has become less competitive but rather that other countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China have developed and become more independent. Therefore, America will remain the most powerful country in the world, but it will exercise less power relative to these emerging powers.

In Zakaria’s analysis, America’s political, economic, and military powers have been beneficial to the world. Although newspapers feature headlines about terrorism and people might think these are violent times, Zakaria notes that the economy rapidly bounces back after terrorist attacks, sometimes in the space of a day. There may be political strife, but the economy has grown, which suggests stability. In fact, during recent decades, the economy has grown into an interconnected global network. However, with that growth and that interconnectedness have come great risks. Now that everything is integrated, problems often require international responses. A pandemic flu is more likely today than it was in the past, and the bankruptcy of one nation will affect the economies of more than one nation.

America must harness its remaining power to provide stability for this interconnected world. However, it should not use “hard power” to achieve this goal. The rise of the rest means that America’s diplomacy must be more sophisticated. Among other things, it must recognize the diversity of the world. Zakaria warns against considering the modern world a Western world. He points out that the culture, ideals, and philosophy of the West have existed for thousands of years. The modern world has only existed for a few centuries. Industrialization belongs to modernity, not the West. This distinction may be difficult for American diplomats to accept, considering that they are used to having their way and that they often consider modernity as having a “Western face.” Furthermore, Zakaria notes that Americans have long been isolated from other countries and are often unprepared to deal with the world’s diversity of language, culture, and politics.

To illustrate the variety of growth seen in the rise of the rest, Zakaria contrasts the rise of China with the rise of India. Both countries have seen phenomenal economic growth over a short period of time, but they are still quite different. Politically, China has an authoritarian central authority whereas India has a diverse democratic government. Furthermore, the political goals of the two countries are quite different. China’s goals are focused on growth but also involve sovereignty issues revolving around Taiwan and Tibet. Meanwhile, India’s status as a comparatively recent nuclear power makes it politically distinct from China. Zakaria warns that America must be careful in how it responds to both countries, though it should not necessarily consider either a rival. While both could become superpowers, neither will immediately become a power on the same order of magnitude as America. Although both are growing quickly, America retains many advantages that should not be overlooked.

In particular, Zakaria suggests that America’s greatest strengths rest in its ability to generate ideas. He notes that many of the best universities in the world are found in America. He further suggests that American public education at the high-school level is actually more competitive than many realize, particularly with its focus on critical and independent...

(This entire section contains 1692 words.)

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thinking. Consequently, America has the ability to not only research and develop ideas but also commercialize those ideas. This ability to commercialize research speaks to another of America’s traditional strengths: its flexible economy. This economic strength invites the best minds in the world come to America, which highlights another of America’s great strengths: immigration.

However, Zakaria points out, there are trends against both economic flexibility and immigration in American politics. He notes that many Republicans are hostile toward immigration. Meanwhile, the Democrats often support regulations that hamper free trade. Zakaria suggests that what America must do is focus on remaining a country that is open to new ideas, technologies, and economic strategies. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to this is America’s political atmosphere, which is often shortsighted and has been extremely partisan during the start of the twenty-first century. Although America is set to remain a superpower for the foreseeable future, there are certainly mistakes it can make that will hasten the end of its dominance.

Zakaria contrasts the threats to America’s dominance with the decline of British power. He suggests that the British bankrupted themselves during the First World War and were unable to capitalize on their naval power and their colonies afterward. By the end of the Second World War, America and Russia were the new global powers. Britain only retained power and influence because it had shrewd politicians, particularly Winston Churchill. However, during the post-war years, Britain’s economy struggled while America’s boomed. Today, America faces the opposite challenge: its economy is flexible but its politicians are deadlocked.

However, during the reign of both powers, the world enjoyed general peace and prosperity. According to Zakaria, this should highlight America’s emerging role in the post-American world. Even as other countries gain more power, America will remain the world’s most powerful country for the foreseeable future. However, other countries have become more independent of America’s diplomacy. Meanwhile, the problems the world faces today are often of a global nature. There is a danger that the rise of the rest will lead to great instability. America’s role should be to monitor and build collaboration in the coming decades. Zakaria closes his study with six guidelines for America to follow as it enters the post-American world.

His first suggestion is to “choose.” Zakaria suggests that America has grown accustomed to its place as the only remaining super power, which has led it to believe that it can get anything and everything it wants. When America calls for nuclear disarmament as well as regime change in a country like Iran, it is only natural that both demands should be rejected. Why would a regime reduce its nuclear program if America is calling upon it to be removed, possibly by force? Given the rise of the rest, it is important for America to realize that these countries will increasingly have their own agendas. As such, America needs to be more specific in its goals, choosing one over another. In particular, it must come up with clear approaches in its relationships with China and Russia.

Zakaria next suggests that America attempt to “build broad rules, not narrow interests.” Here, Zakaria discusses the American war on terror. Military conflicts may provide short-term gains, but the real key is creating stability. Zakaria suggests that America would be better served by investing in efforts that provide regional stability. The focus should be on sacrificing direct power to international bodies. Therefore, in situations where the broad rules come at the cost of America’s narrow interests, Zakaria suggests that the broad rules and long-term gains be given priority.

“Be Bismarck, not Britain” is Zakaria’s third point. Here, Zakaria discusses how the waning British Empire attempted to become as strong as, or provide balances against, each of its rivals. Meanwhile, Bismarck strived to be a diplomatic hub for Europe. Given the rise of the rest and the need for peace and stability, Zakaria suggests that America not focus on becoming more powerful militarily than everyone else. Instead, it should focus on being an arbitrator for international disputes.

“Order a la carte” is the fourth suggestion. Zakaria suggests that the rise of the rest creates new opportunities to bring stability to the world. There are not only more developed, responsibly run countries than ever before; there are also more international and nongovernmental bodies than ever before. Zakaria suggests that America attempt to use these bodies to solve international problems. The United Nations may be suited for one problem and NATO better suited for another. The variety of independent bodies makes for a flexible array of stability-sustaining solutions.

Zakaria calls on America to “think asymmetrically.” He returns to the war on terror and highlights that in spite of America’s incredibly powerful military, it is expending too much energy on finding, investigating, and containing terror cells. Zakaria suggests that this focus on military response is not only expensive but also exactly what Osama Bin Laden wants. Al Qaeda can start a cell with a few people, which will draw the resources of an army. Instead, Zakaria suggests, it is time for America to start harnessing new approaches, such as the power of its civil society.

“Legitimacy is power.” America has been the only remaining super power in the world for some time, a situation that was acceptable for most of the world until recently. Although America has had the ability to act unilaterally, as most of the world would suggest it did during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, its failure to gather international support robbed it of its legitimacy. However, America’s ideals are still important, and they often serve as the ideals that guide other countries through their own conflicts. When America’s actions fail to represent those ideals, it loses legitimacy and the acceptance of its status as the only remaining super power. When it has legitimacy, it can set the agenda to respond to problems.

In his conclusion, Zakaria shares the excitement he felt when he first began studying in America at the age of eighteen. He notes how welcomed he felt at all times and emphasizes how unusual this acceptance and assimilation of immigrants is. Today, Zakaria notes, Americans often view outsiders with fear. They have begun to pursue more close-minded policies. Zakaria suggests that America must remain an open and flexible country that is open to the future if it is to retain its influence and to promote a more peaceful and prosperous world.