Monday, July 21, 2008


The Post-American World

By Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria’s The Post American World is an easy to read analysis of the world order today, in the style of Friedman’s The World is Flat. As in the latter, it coins some buzz phrases that are sure to join the general lexicon of everyday speech. Does it have startlingly new analysis? No. Does it abound in debatable generalisations? Yes. Yet it is an interesting read, one that holds your attention in a very pop-pol-science kind of way.

Zakaria is an Indian-born American who writes a column in Newsweek and is also the editor of its international edition. His contention is that the world is moving away from a uni-polar world (with the US as its only superpower) to a world that is seeing ‘the rise of the rest’, from the obvious China, India, Russia and Brazil to even countries like Kenya and Tanzania and Chile and Vietnam. Increasingly economics is trumping politics and countries that are showing dynamism in their economies are showing a surge in power. “This hybrid international system – more democratic, more dynamic, more open, more connected – is one we are likely to live with for several decades….”, he says. And the challenge for his home country America is exactly this - dealing with the rise in confidence and power of nations that have so far been relegated to the third world.

The gap between the cosmopolitan and business elite and the common majority of the American people in the understanding of this changing world worries Zakaria. And the irony is that it is America’s ideas and actions – its push for free trade, markets and currencies and development of new technologies and industries – that has resulted in the rise of the rest. And while the rest of the world has gotten good at capitalism, the Americans themselves are getting suspicious of these very things that they have always celebrated; thus now witnessing political rhetoric against immigration, free trade and technological change.

The rise of the rest also means a heightened confidence and pride in their own countries and a resurgence of nationalism that sometimes proves worrying to Americans. Yet, as Zakaria says, “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.”

He devotes 2 chapters to China and India, the examples in his book of ‘the rest’. China is the bigger challenge for America. Its sheer size and scale awe Americans, who revere size. And its growth story is almost a replica of the American growth story when it began to challenge the British empire. The China challenge is a new one, one America has not tackled before and one in which it is not very prepared. Zakaria’s prescription is co-option, rather than confrontation and choosing the battles to fight with China - the way Britain let America flourish, made it its ally rather than foe. It is an easy prescription to write about, but when you have two societies that have so very differing moral standpoints about so many issues, it is rather difficult to see them as allies. The India chapter is pretty standard – he sees the India growth story as a bottom-up one rather than top-down like China; the government being a hurdle to growth rather than a catalyst; the democratic factor likely to make India an ally rather than a foe; and the need to keep India’s aspirations in mind when dealing with it – give it its Security Council seat and bring it into the nuclear club.

Zakaria is optimistic about America’s ability to deal with this changing world. In a typical immigrant-with-an-American-dream sort of way, he writes - “American culture celebrates and re-enforces problem solving, questioning authority, and thinking heretically. It allows people to fail and then gives them a second and third chance. It rewards self-starters and oddballs. These are all bottom-up forces that cannot be produced by government fiat”. To him, the challenge lies in Washington – will the politicians be able to rise above narrow lobbying and special interest groups to cement America’s place in this changing world.

Zakaria’s prescription to America to deal with this changing world is to see itself as a moderator, an organizer and a leader, rather than an autocratic dictator. “The chair of the board who can gently guide a group of independent directors is still a very powerful person.” He recommends it choose its battles and engagements well; think asymmetrically and laterally (diplomatic corps, nation-building capabilities, technical assistance teams rather than a military command centre like AFRICOM); and most important, seek the legitimacy it so critically lacks in the world’s eyes today and constantly seek international public support for its view of the world. Rather a simplistic and obvious way forward I thought. But then, maybe there aren’t enough people saying these things in America today.

“America’s image may not be as benign as Americans think, but it is, in the end, better than the alternatives. That is what has made its immense power tolerable to the world for so long”, says Zakaria. That is the truth. And therefore, for whatever it is worth, it is as important for the rest of the world to see how America adapts as it is for America itself.


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