The Post-American World

by Fareed Zakaria

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The Post-American World

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In 2003, a young British historian posed an impertinent question for Americans. In his cocktail-table book Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, Oxford’s Niall Ferguson, who is also Herzog Professor of Financial History at New York University, asks, “Hasn’t the time come for the U.S. to rethink its historic distaste for colonies and play an imperial role?” Less formally, Ferguson acts like the son-in-law from an eminent family who wishes to persuade his bride’s lately powerful family to follow the long out-of-fashion traditions of his own people.

In 2008 came another scholaran émigré to American shoresto answer the question in the emphatic negative. Writing in The Post-American World, India-born Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, columnist for its parent magazine, and CNN commentator, presents convincing evidence that any “imperial role” for America or any other country is anachronistic in today’s world; not even with its military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan ought the United States assume a presence like Great Britain’s in its “empire” days that ended with World War II.

Zakaria begins his survey of the multipolar world with the undisputed hegemony (“multipolar” is Zakaria’s favorite buzz word; “unipolar” and “hegemony” are his most pejorative words) that the United States enjoyed at the time of Soviet communism’s meltdown. Since then, there has occurred the phenomenon that provides the title of chapter 1: “The Rise of the Rest,” whose opening sentence is one Zakaria will never let readers forget: “This is a book not about the decline of America but rather the rise of everyone else.”

However, this is not essentially a book about “declinism,” whose heyday came about two decades ago with Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), which concluded that the United States’ dominance was fast eroding. A skilled journalist such as Zakaria has fascinating ways of raising the bars of distinction for emerging nations without explicitly lowering those of the United States. He notes the tallest building is now in Taipeh, the richest man is Mexican, the largest publicly traded corporation is Chinese, the biggest plane is built in Russia and Ukraine, the leading refinery is under construction in India, the largest factories are all in China, and the United Arab Emirates is home to the most richly endowed investment fund.

Often by deft positioning Zakaria will leave the reader applauding America after he seemingly has downgraded her. After devoting fifteen lines to Europe’s “significant challenge” to U.S. superiority in the economic line, he accords more than double to the United States as the first to create a “universal nation, made up of all colors, races, and creeds, living and working together in considerable harmony.”

In a previous book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (2003), Zakaria argued that too much democracy can be counterproductive. In his new book he is critical of the manner in which the Bush administration pushed its democracy agenda forward, relying on elections in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon as the solution to these countries’ problems and minimizing the building of the institutions of law, governance, and liberty. He bashes what he sees as Bush’s fear-based policies on terrorism, immigration, and trade, arguing that beyond Bush the world needs an open and confident United States.

Today he observes a move away from American dominance in every dimension with the exception of military power. He defines this post-American world as one shaped by many people in many placeshis prime mover, multipolarity, center stage, everywhere.

Zakaria finds success stories for...

(This entire section contains 1221 words.)

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globalized capitalism wherever he looks. In addition, he is at pains to add, this success is all the United States’ doing because for the last sixty years it has been urging the world to open up to free markets and develop new industries and technologies, training their best and brightest in U.S. universities: “The natives have gotten good at capitalism.” Rampant outsourcing, viewed as a plague by both of the most recent presidential hopefuls, is lightly mentioned in this book. Zakaria proudly notes that India has more billionaires than any other Asian country but does not mention the proportion of U.S.-trained Indian doctors who have become rich while remaining to practice medicine in the United States.

Zakaria concentrates on China and India as the world’s current success stories. While Indiahandicapped by “messy” democracywill have the third-largest economy by 2040, China’s astonishing rise is already here, having compressed two hundred years of Western industrial development into thirty and still growing faster than any major economy in recorded history. It makes two-thirds of the world’s photocopiers, microwave ovens, and shoes, with the average Chinese personal income rising 700 percent in the last thirty years. Thus has the world’s largest country also become its largest manufacturer, second-largest consumer, biggest saver, and, probably, second-largest military spender. Development on such a scale adds “a wholly new element to the international system,” he writes.

In outlining the rise of China, referred to as “the challenger,” and India, whom he proudly calls “the ally” to honor its democratic traditions, Zakaria marshals his facts scrupulously and to dramatic effect. Of China, the reader learns that it manufactured two hundred air conditioners in 1978 and forty-eight million in 2005; that its exports to the United States have zoomed 1,600 percent in the last fifteen years; and that it had twenty-eight billion square feet of space under construction in 2005, five times the figure for America in the same year. In India, the revenue from auto parts went from under six billion dollars in 2003 to more than fifteen billion dollars in 2007.

Zakaria has no fear that China’s challenge to the United States for world hegemony could lead to military aggression. He says that China, like India, wants “to gain power and status and respect, for sure, but by growing within the international system, not by overturning it. As long as these new countries feel they can be accommodated, they have every incentive to become ’responsible stakeholders’ in this system.” In a crucial dialectic, noted by Zakaria, the neoconservative writer Robert Kagan implicitly questions whether powerful autocratic regimes such as China’s can really be accommodated in global economic institutions without undermining either its own autocratic powers or the liberal democracies. The author, instead of heeding Russia’s recent incursions against several small democracies, takes refuge in such American efforts at international cooperation as the League of Nations, United Nations, and the Marshall Plan. “The chair of the board who can gently guide a group of independent directors is still a very powerful person,” Zakaria observes.

This prophetic scenario has been attacked by some as an attempt to darken the United States’ outlook for continuance as world leader. Nevertheless, a reader can only guess how much more dire Zakaria’s prospectus might have been had it been published after the worldwide financial crisis began in autumn of 2008, rather than six months before. While charting the economic and soft-power rise of the European Union, India, and China, he also marks the seemingly enduring American advantages in productivity, demographics, research and development, and overall economic and cultural vibrancy that will keep the other comers, with dismal problems of their own, just that for a good half century at least.

Bibliography

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Booklist 104, no. 18 (May 15, 2008): 10.

Business Week, May 19, 2008, p. 80.

Commentary 126, no. 2 (September, 2008): 64-68.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 5 (March 1, 2008): 241-242.

Library Journal 133, no. 7 (April 15, 2008): 99-100.

National Review 60, no. 14 (August 4, 2008): 47-48.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 16 (October 23, 2008): 59-62.

The New York Times Book Review, May 11, 2008, p. 31.

The New Yorker 84, no. 10 (April 21, 2008): 126-130.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 8 (February 25, 2008): 63.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 106 (May 6, 2008): A21.

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