The Post-American World -- Review

THE POST AMERICAN WORLD. By Fareed Zakaria. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 292 pp.

America is the lone superpower in the world, its influence touching just about every corner of the world and beyond. America alone has been to the moon, after all. A book with the title The Post-American World seems strangely out of place. Surely this is premature? Yes, America is bogged down in a costly and unpopular war in Iraq and its stature around the world is diminished, but still there’s no nation that can measure up with this one.

Appearances can be deceiving, or at least that’s the message of Fareed Zakaria’s insightful book – a book that Barack Obama has been pictured holding as he boarded a plane. Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and has a CNN show of his own. There are similarities in style and perspective here to the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, but there are also differences as well – just in case you’re not a Friedman fan. Zakaria comes at his subject with his own unique vantage point. He’s a Muslim Indian-American with a Harvard degree. He writes as one who appreciates the values of his adopted country, but also understands the world as it is.

Even if you don’t agree with everything he writes (he was, for instance, supportive of the Iraq invasion, though he admits underestimating the problems inherent in this task – in this he shares much with Friedman), I believe you’ll find this book both intriguing and enlightening.

Why “Post-America?” We’re moving into a Post-American world not because America has diminished in any real way, but rather because the world is catching up. The “Third World” as a definable entity is passing away and new alliances and expressions of world life are emerging. His two primary examples here are China and India – each of which have become powers in their own right in recent years. They may not challenge America militarily, but in many other ways are closing the gap quickly.

Choosing India and China as examples is important, because while both are Asian nations they don’t approach their task in the same way. One is autocratic and the other democratic; one is fairly orderly and the other can be quite messy. China can do some things that aren’t possible in India – like moving whole populations to build cities and infrastructure. But India has freedom of communication that China doesn’t. Besides that, because of its colonial heritage, India provides a nation full of English speakers – fluent in the language of commerce and world politics.

What Zakaria wants to do is free us from fear of the other. America’s future isn’t threatened by the rest of the world, unless we let that happen through isolationism or through trying to impose our views on the world. He calls on us to look at the world realistically. For instance – Iran is a threat to some degree, but not really.
The challenges from rogue states are also real, but we should consider them in context. The GDP of Iran is 1/68 that of the United States, its military spending 1/110 that of the Pentagon. If this is 1938, as many conservatives argue, then Iran is Romania, not Germany. North Korea is even more bankrupt and dysfunctional. Its chief threat – the one that keeps the Chinese government awake at night – is that it will implode, flooding the region with refugees. That’s power? (p. 17).

If we are to live in the world that stands before us, we need to see things as they really are and then act appropriately.

There are, the author suggests, three forces at work in the world – politics, economics, and technology. Old style Soviet communism is largely discredited and discarded. The alliances have changed, and technology is allowing nations to jump forward faster than ever before. Along with these tools of expansion there is the growth of nationalism. And it’s nationalism that is driving politics. Nationalism – as we’ve seen in places like Russia and Georgia can lead to conflict. The Chinese, whether they’re Communist or not, take great pride in their nation – just as much as American’s do. Zakaria writes:
Nationalism has always perplexed Americans. When the United States involves itself abroad, it always believes that it is genuinely trying to help other countries better themselves. From the Philippines and Haiti to Vietnam and Iraq, the native’s reaction to U.S. efforts has taken Americans by surprise. Americans take justified pride in their own country – we call it patriotism – and yet are genuinely startled when other people are proud and possessive of theirs. (P. 33).

The West has dominated the world for generations, and the U.S. has been the leading economic power in the world since the end of the 19th century. Yes, Britain had the Empire, but it lacked the economic dynamism that it former colony had. But in many ways Western domination is rather recent – and we tend to forget this fact. What happened was in many ways a turning inward by China and Japan several centuries back that diminished their power. But for now, the West – especially America – remains dominant, especially in regards to things like education and popular culture. Modernization is also inextricably linked to Western influence. But in time that will change, especially as China and India continue their march forward.

Consider the economic changes in China – its economy is doubling every eight years. Zakaria points out that in 1978 it made 200 air conditioners and in 2005 48 million. It exports more in a single day now than in an entire year in 1978. Its exports to the U.S. have increased 1600% in the past 15 years. They do all of this with very centralized planning. India is growing at a strong pace, similar to that of China, but without the centralized planning of its northern neighbor.

So, what of the future? America’s days as the sole superpower may be waning. No nation is ready or able to challenge the U.S. militarily, but things are changing. Like the British Empire in the years prior to its demise, America is no longer the economic dynamo that it once was. This doesn’t mean that it has no future, but it must rethink how it exists in this new globalized world. What America can do, if it chooses, is be the innovator it has always been. It still has a university system that has no peers – of course the vast majority of our science and engineering students come from over seas. But, while once they stayed here, now many are returning home. Still, Zakaria says that “higher education is America’s best industry” (p. 190) The problem, is that our schools feeding these universities are not standing up to the test.

So, what must we do? If we are to remain a power then we must regain our reputation in the world. Instead of hailing our status as the unipower, we must take a more humble path. Military might may be ours in abundance, but it has its limits. Soft power is the key to success. To remain strong, America must do six things: 1. It must get its priorities straight – meaning one must choose between regime change and policy change. You can’t try to do both – as in Iran. Every time, for instance, that America threatens Iran with regime change, the more likely it is to pursue nuclear weaponry. 2. “Build broad rules, not narrow interests.” We must choose between our own narrow interests and setting the broad rules in which the world conducts itself. 3. “Be Bismark not Britain.” This is key – Britain, he says, tried to keep a balance against rising powers – keep them at bay, while Bismark tried to engage them and have better relations with them so as to be a bridge. 4. “Order a la carte.” What this means is that the nation operates multilaterally – in other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. We need to be “accommodating, flexible, and adaptable” rather than insist on a pure approach. 5. “Think asymmetrically.” Traditional military power isn’t always the best approach. 6. “Legitimacy is power.” In other words, how the world views us determines how we work in it. Here is the problem of anti-Americanism, which is on the rise.

The book’s closing paragraph offers a way forward:
For America to thrive in this new and challenging era, for it to succeed amid the rise of the rest, it need fulfill only one test. It should be a place that is as inviting and exciting to the young student who enters the country today as it was for this awkward eighteen-year-old a generation ago. (p. 259).

The future depends not on our military power, or even our economics, but on the way we conduct ourselves on the world stage. Bellicosity won’t do the job. That we’re entering the Post-American era doesn’t signal the decline of America, only that the playing field is leveling out – what Friedman calls the flattening of the world. If we operate as if we’re still in charge we will face a dangerous future, but if we can embrace our new role, then we can do well.

This is a book worth delving into, and considering its message. As an Obama supporter, I’m hoping he took seriously what he was reading!


Brad Hart said…
This sounds like an excellent book! Thanks for mentioning it here and providing such an excellent review. It is not on my "to read" list.
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