Fareed Zakaria's sobering book analyzes the changes afoot as rising global players challenge U.S. dominance
The Post-American WorldBy Fareed ZakariaNorton; 292pp; $25.95
Once again, it seems, we're living through interesting times. There have been "three tectonic power shifts over the last 500 years," says Fareed Zakaria, and we are in the midst of the third. The current profound global change, he believes, is due to the rise of a dozen or so nations, including China and India, that are beginning to challenge the U.S. in terms of prosperity and prestige—and threaten what he sees as America's Roman Empire-style world dominance. The earlier game-board changers, in Zakaria's view, were the rise of the West during the Renaissance and, of course, the era, now fading, of American suzerainty that began with World War I.
Zakaria's analysis is contained in his sharply observed and sobering The Post-American World. The author's concepts are a bit grandiose, and his thinking is overly influenced by the so-far disastrous U.S. foray into Iraq. But there is no doubt that he is onto important stuff.
Zakaria notes that China, India, Brazil, Turkey, and even Saudi Arabia are growing faster economically than the U.S. They are developing elites and big corporations that soon will be able to hold their own against American competitors. Their peoples are gaining access to quality education. In the coming years these countries will demand a greater say in how the world is run. Already, they can hamstring U.S. projects when they wish. The Saudis and other Arabs, for instance, have made the U.S. task in Iraq much more expensive and complicated by refusing to help out. Some of their citizens are even supporting insurgents' activities.
Zakaria, a native of India and the editor of Newsweek International, argues that the U.S. has squandered opportunities in the past few years. "[It] has had an extraordinary hand to play in global politics—the best of any country in history. Yet by almost any measure—problems solved, success achieved, institutions built, reputation enhanced—Washington has played this hand badly." As a result, he argues, the U.S. is now an enfeebled superpower, and anti-American sentiment is high "everywhere from Great Britain to Malaysia."
What went wrong? Zakaria says the preeminence of the U.S. following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has "made Washington careless, arrogant, and lazy." He compares U.S. foreign policy to General Motors' (GM) 1970s business strategy, "an approach driven by internal factors with little sense of the broader environment in which it was operating." But, Zakaria says, it's far from certain that the U.S. will suffer from what he calls "the rise of the rest." In fact, America may well profit from the change if it plays its cards right. "The world is going America's way," he says. "Countries are becoming more open, market-friendly, and democratic." Even most of Africa, considered hopeless not long ago, is making major strides, he says.
But to thrive in the new global order, the U.S. will have to change its behavior substantially, becoming more of a "global broker," he argues, than an all-powerful boss whose diktats must be obeyed. "This new role...involves consultation, cooperation, and even compromise," he writes. "It is not a top-down hierarchy in which the U.S. makes its decisions and then informs a grateful (or silent) world."
Can the U.S. adjust? It has great strengths, Zakaria notes, including a nonpareil higher-education system, which is even better than we give it credit for being. U.S. multinationals such as General Electric (GE) have also learned to partner with companies in countries they want to penetrate, Zakaria says. But he worries that the dysfunctional politics of Washington is turning Americans against the ideas they have been preaching to the rest of the world for 60 years. "[W]e are becoming suspicious of the very things we have long celebrated—free markets, trade, immigration, and technological change."
Zakaria frets that the U.S. will go the way of the British Empire. He fears historians will someday dwell on the great irony that the rise of other powers was a result of U.S. actions. "The United States succeeded in its great and historic mission—it globalized the world. But along the way, they might write, it forgot to globalize itself." With the rest of the world opening up, America, he believes, must not close down.