Commentary Magazine

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

Big Think

The Post-American World
by Fareed Zakaria
Norton. 288 pp. $25.95

Since the end of the cold war, historians, economists, and political scientists have undertaken a feverish quest to define the global dynamic. In 1992, perceiving no world view to challenge Western-style liberal democracy, Francis Fukuyama wondered whether the end of history might be in sight. By 1996, conversely, Samuel P. Huntington thought an imminent clash of civilizations would soon return states to their traditional condition of active rivalry. Since then, a stream of books has described the end, or the beginning, or the restoration of economic and foreign-policy challenges to the West in general and to the United States in particular—with, most recently, a sub-genre of titles suggesting nothing less than the demise of America itself as a civilization.

It is into this environment that Fareed Zakaria has stepped with his best-selling book, The Post-American World. For a decade or more, the forty-four-year-old Zakaria has been establishing himself as his generation’s foreign-policy celebrity. Born in Mumbai, he moved to the United States to attend college at Yale. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1993, he rapidly became the managing editor of Foreign Affairs and published several well-regarded books before ascending to his current lofty perch as international editor of Newsweek. Flattering profiles of him, which have abounded over the years, suggest he is certain one day to serve as Secretary of State.



How, then, does the nation’s second most popular foreign-policy pundit (after Thomas Friedman) address the most popular line of foreign-policy argument in the post-cold-war period—namely, American decline?

To Zakaria, the globe is now experiencing its third “tectonic power shift” in 500 years. The first came in the 15th century, with the creation of the West as we know it. The second occurred in the 20th century, when the United States became a superpower. Today, Zakaria writes, we are living through “the rise of the rest,” with the nations of the non-Western world now asserting themselves as rivals to and potential replacements of the American superpower. The world, Zakaria says, is moving “from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism.”

The engine of post-Americanism, in Zakaria’s view, is swift economic progress in places other than the U.S.:

Over the past few decades, countries all over the world have been experiencing rates of economic growth that were once unthinkable. . . . This growth has been most visible in Asia, but is no longer confined to it. . . . In 2006 and 2007, 124 countries grew at a rate of 4 percent or more.

As these sentences suggest, Zakaria’s sweep is global; but his primary focus is on the rise of China and India. In the former, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms have led to an unchecked hyper-growth that threatens to take up larger and larger shares of global GDP while cutting the United States out of important markets. Easing China’s rise in this respect has been the fact that, unlike the U.S., it is not hampered by humanitarian concerns. Beijing’s apolitical approach to international relations has facilitated lucrative business partnerships with non-democratic states, like Sudan, that are only too happy to be relieved of the human-rights and anti-corruption restrictions attached to offers from more scrupulous powers.

If China is, in Zakaria’s term, “the challenger” to American dominance, India is “the ally.” A deliriously pro-American country, India has succeeded in revolutionizing the arts of managerial strategy and entrepreneurship. Now an outsourcing behemoth, it is, second only to China, the world’s fastest-growing economy. If there is a hitch in this success story, it is, writes Zakaria, that “India’s growth is taking place not because of the government but despite it.” The country’s ethnic and cultural diversity keeps national mandates bogged down in conflict, with the result that Delhi approaches its looming large-scale problems at a snail’s pace. Still, there is no gainsaying the capitalist dynamo that is the country’s private sector, or the challenge that it, too, presents to American dominance.



In outlining the rise of “the challenger” and “the ally,” Zakaria employs his facts meticulously and to illuminating effect. Of China, for example, we learn that it manufactured 200 air conditioners in 1978 and 48 million in 2005; that its exports to the U.S. have shot up 1,600 percent in the last fifteen years; and that it had 28 billion square feet of space under construction in 2005, five times the figure for America in the same year. Of India, we learn that revenue from the auto-parts business went from under $6 billion in 2003 to over $15 billion in 2007, and that, uniquely among developing nations, a full half of India’s GDP comes from services.

When, however, he comes to asking how the United States has responded or should respond to these developments, Zakaria’s analytical demeanor deserts him. Tacked on to his scrupulously fact-based survey is a kind of pamphlet retailing a litany of charges, some of them Zakaria’s own, against American arrogance and unilateralism.

Thus, of the current U.S. President we are told:

For several years, the Bush administration practically boasted of its disdain for treaties, multilateral organizations, international public opinions, and anything that suggested a conciliatory approach to world politics.

We are also treated to a confirming quotation from Christopher Patten, the European Union’s former commissioner for external affairs:

Attending any conference abroad, American Cabinet officers arrive with the sort of entourage that would have done Darius proud. Hotels are commandeered, cities are brought to a halt; men with bits of plastic hanging out of their ears. It is not a spectacle that wins hearts and minds.

Unfortunately, Zakaria declines to offer a single supporting reference to a treaty scorned or multilateral body disdained. Nor is he any more forthcoming in his characterizations of non-official American attitudes. He declares, for example, that “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.” Really? Americans, awash in pluralism and cultural relativism, are startled to discover that other nations prize their indigenous cultures? In the 21st century?



As curious as all this is, it becomes downright mysterious when Zakaria brings himself to discuss America’s actual economic performance. In his introduction he asserts flatly that although, “at the politico-military level, we remain in a single-superpower world, . . . in every other dimension . . . distribution of power is shifting.” And yet, whenever specific data about America appear in The Post-American World, they tell a very different tale.

The World Economic Forum, Zakaria notes, ranks the U.S. as the most competitive economy on the planet. In demographic terms, America is ahead of other Western states and even ahead of China, its population remaining at replacement level while the others are running out of the human capital needed to support their aged and retired. Our universities are strong: “With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States absolutely dominates higher education.” In the hottest new industries—nanotechnology and biotechnology—the U.S. is far ahead of everyone else. And so forth.

True, as Zakaria points out, America has fallen behind in the yearly global percentage of major IPO’s, those lucrative conversions of private businesses into publicly traded corporations. But even here he gamely acknowledges that a fair portion of the shift can be explained by the one-time privatization of state-owned companies in Europe and China. Indeed, after all the data stacked in the U.S.’s favor, the only two palpable examples of the edge achieved by “the rest” are that citizens of other countries are conversant in more languages than we, and enjoy better cell-phone service.

So toothless does the existential threat suggested in the book’s title become with each passing page that Zakaria himself is compelled to warn the reader against seeing the threat as imminent. China, he rather startlingly pronounces at one juncture, “is unlikely to surpass [the U.S.] on any dimension—military, political, or economic—for decades, let alone have dominance in all areas.”

Is it this conclusion, so at odds with his stated thesis, that drives Zakaria to take refuge in snobbery and Bush-bashing? At the end of this volume, after hectoring us to desist from our unlettered and aggressive ways, he reverses gears yet again, advising us to face the future calmly and to “stop cowering in fear.”

Thanks; we needed that.


About the Author

Abe Greenwald is the senior editor of COMMENTARY and writes regularly for our blog.

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