The Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World is almost superfluous: its arguments about the rise of other nations and how the United States should respond can be found, implicitly and explicitly, in The Atlantic, The Economist, Foreign Affairs, and other magazines. Most of its analysis is not particularly deep and didn’t reorient my worldview. But at the same time, I’ve not seen the whole package regarding how the world is changing through the growth of non-Western countries from a single source before, and if nothing else The Post-American World is a handy to have as a pointer—don’t follow my argument regarding the importance of international humility? Read The Post-American World!

Many of the book’s subsidiary claims are disputable—is geography really responsible for the imbalances of world power? How much of China’s lagging after the 17th century is due to its government?—but The Post-American World‘s central thesis concerning the almost inevitable rise of other countries in the political, economic, and social spheres is accurate and worth pondering, especially by the very politicians who seem most likely to ignore it. Indeed, its discussion of the problems of current U.S. politics is coherent and useful, and I observe some small manifestations of those problems on Grant Writing Confidential.

Zakaria stays admirably focused on the big themes, even as he tries to put the fear of Islamic-inspired terror in its place, which is a much smaller one than it currently occupies. He even cites James Fallows’ “Declaring Victory” on this subject. He also effectively ties together two seemingly opposite trends, one toward globalization, heterogeneity, and internationalism, and the other towards renewed nationalism: “But while economics, information, and even culture might have become globalized, formal political power remains firmly tethered to the nation-state, even as the nation-state has become less able to solve most of these problems unilaterally.” To what extent this reflects a minor and odd issue and to what extent it is a damning, fundamental problem is unclear, but raising it as an issue is worth doing and will perhaps curtail it.

Perhaps most refreshingly, Zakaria tries and succeeds at remaining neutral as he discusses the positive, negative, and descriptive attributes of the big three: China, India, and the United States. For example, although the United States comes under justifiable criticism for a wide array of offenses and blunders, including Iraq, Zakaria also points out that “For all its abuses of power, the United States has been the creator and sustainer of the current order of open trade and democratic government—an order that has been benign and beneficial for the vast majority of human kind.” Reconciling these two features—abuse like Abu Ghraib—with the overall positive effect—an increase in worldwide liberty—is too often lost in partisan debate, with the left focuses on abuse and the right on a rah-rah America orientation. It’s also worth noting that a book like this probably couldn’t be published in China.

This is particularly important because one point Zakaria makes and doesn’t emphasize as much as he perhaps should have is that, to a steadily larger extent, the new world demands “the growth of new narratives.” His is one. He also sees cable news stations and other outlets that focus on narrower market segments as examples of this, and to me this profusion of new frameworks for looking at the world, which vary by country, region, and individual, are a powerful subject that is hard to comprehend. Still, American business seems better at responding than government, As Zakaria says, American companies have done better in adapting to the new world than American politicians. To him, “Washington, which faces no market test, has not yet figured out that diplomatic imperialism is a luxury that the United States can no longer afford.”

Still, an examination of new narratives might be an entire book in and of itself just for one country; in China, for instance, the number of new narratives just over the course of the 20th Century seems staggering in how radical the breaks appear to an outsider and non-expert like me, ranging from the imperial domination of others in the early part of the century to Communism beginning in 1949 to the ironically named Great Leap Forward that destroyed much of China’s professional classes to the capitalist reorientation that began in 1979, and those are just examples at the broadest levels. And understanding China and India is going to become more important as time goes on; as Zakaria says, “China operates on so large a scale that it can’t help changing the nature of the game,” much as the United States changed the nature of the European game beginning in the early 20th Century.

So what can be done, or, to put it in less confrontational terms, how should America respond to this world? Zakaria argues that we should focus on our strengths in openness and education. He draws parallels between Britain and the U.S., saying that wealthier countries can lose their competitive edge in technology: “A wealthier Britain was losing its focus on practical education. Science and geography were subordinated to literature and philosophy.” But he doesn’t give convincing, non-anecdotal evidence to support this assertion, and I’m not sure its true, though it is certainly plausible. What he does convincingly show, however, is that immigrants have fueled America’s cultural and scientific achievements, and immigrants continue to be major players in post-graduate degrees, especially in science. “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.” This problem is real and has been observed elsewhere, but Zakaria underlines how poor a job we’ve done evaluating trade-offs. In a similar area, “The visa system, which has become restrictive and forbidding, will get more so every time one thug is let in. None of these procedures is designed with any consideration of striking a balance between the need for security and the need for openness and hospitality.” Once again, terrorism unhinges us and a do-something syndrome sets in. Getting this issue wrong isn’t as spectacular as terrorist attacks, and yet in the long term might do far more damage to the United States than 9/11. But that hidden damage isn’t easy to cover by TV news and so goes mostly unheeded. Zakaria says that “[The United States] needs to stop cowering in fear. It is fear that has created a climate or paranoia and panic in the United States and fear that has enabled our strategic missteps.”

When friends ask why I don’t feel any affinity for either major American political party, I now have a good recommendation for an explanation other Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a book that studies the inherent problems with power seekers and their minions. Zakaria argues that today “A ‘can-do’ country is now saddled with a ‘do-nothing’ political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving.” Still, I’m not sure this is any different from normal politics, and Zakaria’s evidence isn’t enough to prove his point. Yet I can’t help but agreeing with his larger thesis regarding the United States’ dysfunctional politics, and I’m not optimistic that a fix will be forthcoming, or, if it is, that it won’t be worse than the disease. At least a do-nothing government will first do no harm, which seems like an improvement on the last eight years, but for the next eighty, we need something better, and someone is at least framing the issues in a positive way.

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