Book Review: The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

I’m reading this book for a couple of reasons.  One is because I’m getting more politically involved and so I want to keep up with the political situation and see what other commentators are saying.  So I decided on this one because I hear it’s really good, pretty fair, and nonpartisan (and I would say that about 95% of the book is fair).  At the same time, I like Fareed Zakaria.  I find is approach to the world fresh and illuminating while not sounding preachy.  He simply brings out the facts and states that because of that, it would be practical to do this.  At the same time, Zakaria is a realist when it comes to global politics.

I’ve read Zakaria in Newsweek and I find his views very similar with mine so that may be why I decided upon this book.

Just to start off, the title The Post-American World sounds so ominous and fearful, as if he’s saying that America is going to end, right?  Well, that’s not what Zakaria is about.  I see the title as two interpretations: (1) if we don’t change the situation, then America, as we know it, will end.  Thus, we must do something; (2) America right now isn’t functioning in the 21st century.  We must become more practical if we want to continue having global influence and have a bright future.  But in order for that to happen, we must change our policies and our economic structure and not force the world to accord with our standards (because that cannot happen), but rather, set an example so that the world will follow ours.  Just to say what tone the book is, it’s part history, sociology, economics, policy issues, and cultural history.  Surprisingly, Zakaria doesn’t really mention politics at all (except what politicians did in history).

What’s the second reason?  Check out the photo on the right:

That’s right, it’s Obama and you can plainly see that he’s reading the book.  Now there’s a good chance he may become president, so I thought it’d be best to see what he’s reading and see if that reading material is actually good for the nation.  Overall, I think Obama made a wise choice reading it.

So what is it about?  Zakaria starts by saying that in the Industrialized West, there were two huge moments.

  1. The Rise of the British Empire.  This started around the beginning of the 1800’s and it was the superpower of the world.  If there was trouble somewhere in the globe, Britain would step in and help out with the dilemma.  So what happened?  Well, it took too much.  It had most of Asia, a lot of Africa, and then after WWI and WWII, getting involved in the Middle East, and especially the Boer War really stretched the Empire thin and so it had two options: (1) keep going and stay strong, but that’s what the Roman Empire did and look what happened; (2) slowly but surely decline and let another ally take over much of the conflicts of the world.  Guess who the British gave this priveledge to?
  2. The Rise of America.  We mainly gained some overarching power in the 1950’s but we really didn’t gain superpower status until the Gulf War.  Imagine that, the Soviet Union has collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell, and it seemed that freedom, liberty and Western Values would soon be spreading all over the world.  Then 9/11 happened. . .
  3. The “Rise of the Rest.”  Now this third phase hasn’t happened, but Zakaria predicts that this is going to happen.  What is the “rest?”  It’s China, India, South Africa, South Korea, Brazil, and many others.  We have had a great economy and the world was using us as the standard.  But now, the world is catching up, and they may not use us as a standard anymore.

There were some statistics that really surprised me: global warfare is now at an all-time low in recorded history.  You may think about the situations in Iraq, Afghanistan and even other places that aren’t dealing with us.  But the statistics bear out, this moment is actually the most peaceful we’ve been in.

Now, with the “rise of the rest.”  As more players enter into the economic arena, they have more influence and control over global affairs.  Thus, as countries become more active, America’s influence will diminish.  So how can we still have a slice of the influential pie?  Washington must show that other countries can have other stakeholders in this new system.  How do we do this?  We must open up the market, allow more free trade.  Interestingly, out of the 47 countries that said they would allow free trade, United States came in dead last.  What’s special about free trade in terms of global markets?  Well, for one, it allows peace.  If you have a free market with another country, you have peace.  Now peace does not mean free love and everything is great and there are no problems.  Let’s get realistic here.  Peace just simply means that you’re not killing each other.  So for example, if my family and I just simply hate each other, but we still exchange gifts, well we’re still being peaceful.  We’re not at war with each other.  That’s what peace means.

The next few chapters deals with the history and the rise of China and India respectively.  They’re interesting to read, but the real meat of the argument comes towards the end of the book.

Here’s a question: how come America is at the top of the game while other countries are lagging?  It’s because our demographics are extremely diverse.  Our population is growing enormously while other places like Europe and Asia are virtually stagnant.  Because these places are having fewer children, these children are going to have to take care of these seniors.  But this puts a huge burden on the next generation because there’s so few of them to take care of a lot of the older people.  There are only three possibilities: (1) have more children (which seems unlikely, after all.  How do you force people to have children?); (2) increase the death rate (again, not a viable option); or (3) increase more people coming into the country so that these new folks can help shoulder the burden–that’s right immigration, and the US is good at doing that.  When it comes to fertility rates, we’re exactly the same as Europes, but without immigration, our GDP over the last 25 years would’ve been the same as Europe’s.  Look how many foreign exchange students we have.  In fact that account for 50% of our science researchers.  In 2006, of the people who received a doctorate in computer science 65% were immigrants and foreign students.  By 2010, 50% of immigrants will receive a Ph. D.  Thus, America stays on top because of the innovations that we have.  As Zakaria puts it:

If America can keep the people it educates in the country, the innovation will happen here.  If they go back home, the innovation will travel with them.

Any downsides?  Yes, we only know one language.  Now that may not seem so bad, after all, English is virtually spoken everywhere.  But I’ll let Zakaria answer:

We have not had to reciprocate by learning foreign languages, cultures, and markets.  Now that could leave America at a competitive disadvantage.  Take the spread of English worldwide as a metaphor.  Americans have delighted in this process because it makes it so much easier for them to travel and do business abroad.  But for the locals, it gives them an understanding of and access to two markets and cultures.  They can speak English but also Mandarin or Hindi or Portuguese.  They can penetrate the American market but also the internal Chinese, Indian, or Brazilian one.  (And in all these countries, the non-English-speaking markets remain the largest ones.)  Americans, by contrast, can swim in only one sea.

In other apsects, the “rest” is catching up.  Most of the industrialized world (and some of the nonindustrialized world) has better cell phone service than we do.  Internet broadband is faster and cheaper in other places.  We place sixteenth.

So what should we do?  Zakaria indirectly states that we shouldn’t view econimies in terms of capital and labor because this is too old fashioned.  People in the ninteenth century did that.  Because we’re working under the models of consumption and commodities, we should base our economies off of ideas and energy.  The United States has been very high in both of those, but others are catching up.  One way to stay ahead is to look at how other countries do politics.  You might ask, “what’s wrong with ours?”  Ours has become dysfunctional, whereas other countries have at least a system that works.  Look at our debates (and the media that presents it) as opposed to, say Britain.  This has been taken over by special interests, ideologies, bureaucracies, and sensationalism.  In other words, politics has lost substance and it’s all theatrical.  If we keep this up, we’ll lose the momentum and the “rise of the rest” won’t be too far behind.  We’re losing action, compromise, and simply worry about trivia.  Indeed, Zakaria says that we’ve lost our political process since the 70’s.  As Zakaria says:

We believe that individuals, groups, and corporations perform better when they are in a competititve environment.  When it comes to the international arena, we have forgotten this fact.  Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has walked the world like a colossus, unrivaled and unchecked.  This has had its benefits, but it has made Washington arrogant, careless, and lazy.

It’s time to not only see what kind of power America can have, but what purpose America should have in the future.  Zakaria offers six guidelines to help us out for a better future for America.  They are:

1.  Don’t spread yourself so thin.  America has great ambitions to help out the world, but when we declare to help countries, take care of our energy crisis, look at our economics, make sure other countries are getting involved, etc. we wear ourselves out.  But more importantly, we can’t simply say one thing and then say another totally opposite thing and expect the other country to do both.  In the book:

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 sits 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 thi smake you feel like giving up your nuclear power?  Insisting on both policy change and regime change, we have gotten neither.

In other words, choose something and be consistent with it.

2. Don’t be hypocritial.  We have been trying to spread democracy for the last five decades and we try to make sure that democracy is everywhere.  Yet when democracies in Taiwan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are shut down, Washington says that these are “special cases.”  Well, when we tell India and China to be tougher on North Korea, China and India usually say that North Korea is a “special case” for them.  Since we set up this example, other countries are using this to their advantage.  “If America can do it, and they’re the most powerful nation on earth, then we can too.”  This is undermining our credibility.

3.  Comply with all Nations, not just Allies.  Britain in the 1700’s tried to buddy up with friends and denounce enemies.  Bismark, on the other hand, choose to have greater relations with all of them than any of them had with each other.  It’s so that someone can be a pivot point for international systems instead of two of them.  Right now, we should be like Bismark.  We can’t have this “friend” and “enemy” category anymore.  The world is too complex and too interconnected.  The Bush administration had done well by having good ties with Japan, Australia, and India.  We should do the same with Russia and China.  By doing this, it gives the United States better leverage.

4.  Bargain and Compromise. Because the world is more complex, we must not look at the world as a unilateral approach, nor even bilateral.  The world is going to be multilateral and we should prepare ourselves for this.

5.  Different problems don’t require the same solution.  In Africa, we want to spread our humanitarian goodness.  So what do we do?  We send our military.  This doesn’t work.  This sends the message that the only way we know how to respond to crisis in the world is through military means.  We should open up other options that the US has.

6.  Legitimacy is Power. Finally, we should be consistent with our approach to the world.  When we do something, we seem to go overboard which scares the rest of the world and makes the world think of us negatively.  We want to scare the enemies, not scare the rest of the world.

Overall, it’s a great book.  I think I may read his one that he wrote previously.  For those that care about the future of America, about where it’s going, what it’s going to do, and perhaps more importantly, what it should do, this book is for you.  Check it out.  You’ll learn a lot and hopefully, the future will like bright as Zakaria says it will, but only if we change our policies for the better.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Culture, Economics, Experts, Government, Health, Law, News, Politics, Race, Values. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

  1. sittingpugs says:

    Nice summary. I like Zakaria as well. I’ve seen him on Bill Maher’s show “Real Time.”

  2. Pingback: Relooking at The Post-American World « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Cultivating Humanity by Martha C. Nussbaum « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

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