Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: The Post-American World

The Post American World

Author: Fareed Zakaria

ISBN: 9780393334807

By: W.W Norton & Company Inc.

Copyright 2009, 2008 Fareed Zakaria


The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria is a book which attempts to illustrate what the world will look like in the future now that America is seceding some of its former dominance in the political, economic, and military realms. He argues that this power shift is not so much of a loss or downgrade for America, but instead it is the “rise of the rest.” It is natural however, given a finite amount of power in every sector, that as some rise, it will cause a shift away from the currently established powers; most notably America. Zakaria starts with an overview of his argument, and a detailed description of why his argument needs to be made. He segues into an explanation (in the chapter titled: The Cup Runneth Over) of what mistakes America has made in their constant pursuit of excess and overconsumption, and how in part that has led to the current situation. He specifically highlights the delicate economic situation that exists between America and China, as China needs to continue to lend money to America so that they will continue to purchase Chinese products, further stimulating their economy. He then gives a long background about what the world would be like were it not “Westernized.” He argues that some subtle policy changes, and cultural mindset transformations could have made the world a very different place than it is today. He is also careful to make the distinction between economic principals like Capitalism and political principals like Democracy. He seems to believe that they are fundamentally unconnected.

Next, Zakaria moves the discussion entirely to the Chinese; however the discussion of the Chinese and others is always characterized by specific comparisons to America. The Sino-American relationship is placed under the microscope in context of the history of China. It is interesting to note that he titles this discussion The Challenger, which points to his view of a strained relationship between America and China. Indeed, the relationship will always have an air of suspicion and caution on both sides. The nature of this relationship, culturally, will have a long term impact on the economic symbiosis which both countries keep in a careful balance.

Zakaria continues by talking about India in: The Ally. He provides a similar analysis as he gave previously with China, only this time highlighting how starkly different the Indo-American, and Indo-Chinese relationships are when compared to the Sino-American relationship. It seems that he believes that the average Indian is a friend of the American, even if (or perhaps because) the government has not always been so. The Indians, Zakaria believes, always view themselves as the small dogs in the fight. Despite their huge numbers, growingly successful middle class, and democratic (if fragmented) leadership, the culture is such that they do not feel the need to be a relevant force outside of their own borders. The lack of foreign policy ambition assures that India will perhaps never be the world’s superpower, but if they continue their current economic growth, they will have to be considered when people discuss the top two or three most prosperous countries. Both the chapter on China, as well as India, seek to make the case for “the rise of the rest.”

Zakaria wraps up the book by discussing Britain’s unusual surge to power, and then its fall, and the ways that this gave way to America’s rise to power. Britain, in seceding power to its former colony (surely a humbling experience), allowed it to maintain some status of power and success, although in a much diminished role. Zakaria argues that America must do something similar in the coming years, by giving way to the rest, in order to stay powerful.

The Relevance

This book is extremely relevant to current times. Every day on the news we are seeing news of more and more financial collapse, as well as news of new problems and challenges of developing countries. America went through its industrial revolution during a time when it was a relatively small country. It allowed them to be very prosperous as time went along. China and India have been in the process of a similar expansion; however, it is unprecedented to see growth on this scale simultaneously amongst two different countries. The environmental impact alone has been cause for concern amongst the countries of the world. Ironically many countries want the United States to pay the majority of the burden to “fix” the environmental problems without counting for the enormous impact that their own manufacturing and out of control growth is having, and will continue to have for many years to come.

With a new administration entering the White House, it will be interesting to see how America will react to the growing issues of globalization. Zakaria appears to have written a manual describing the current situation, how the world got to where it is today, and where things are headed. Even if some of the content is debatable, now more than ever is a time to recognize that a debate needs to happen, and as Americans we cannot discount the growing issues at hand. We need to look back, analyze the present, and plan for the future. Zakaria makes a case for the way forward.

Where Zakaria Falls Short:

The biggest problem with Zakaria’s book is that he hurts his own credibility when he puts a spin on his portrayal of past events. When you are presenting history for histories sake, it is important to highlight exactly what happened, not to judge the outcome, or the path to which it was reached. Clearly a book of this nature is all about the opinion of the author, but when some parts (especially recounting of recent events) are told through a clearly liberal slant, it calls into question his otherwise solid reporting of events from earlier history. Zakaria has clearly written this book from an American’s perspective as well (although he is not one natively) and makes many assumptions about them as a people. Most notably, the style in which he lays out his argument is sure to be an effective one with many non-critical readers, but it often feels disingenuous. He will often concede small points about Americans to make them feel better about themselves or their country, and then follow it up with a harsh reality for the future or harsh criticism.

Additionally, Zakaria rarely presents hard evidence for the side of the argument which he does not espouse. The exception that proves the rule in this case is his inclusion of a letter from a native Indian to the British government complaining that the new schools established by the British did not teach English, or other western ideas or tactics. This letter is a strong argument for the fact that Westernization wasn’t always forced down people’s throats as many often make it out to be. The problem however, is that this letter is a rare instance of fairness throughout the book. More counterexamples like this would have improved the validity of the book and allowed the reader to make up his own mind. Surely this book is akin to an argumentative essay on the failings of America, but if his case is as strong as he makes it out to be, he should have provided more consistent examples on both sides of the argument, and allowed the reader to decide going forward.

Where Zakaria Excels:

Although I have been tough on the author, he does excel at making solid arguments. He managed to make me see China and their secretive government in a completely different light. I can almost respect their audaciousness and success despite fundamentally disagreeing with many of their policies. This is no easy feat. He lays out a very compelling argument for the chicken and the egg relationship that the Chinese and Americans have. Would America exist and be as powerful as they are despite their overconsumption if China did not constantly finance their spending? Would China be thriving how it is now, having moved many of its people out of poverty, and having become a manufacturing juggernaut if it weren’t for American’s willingness to buy Chinese goods? These are questions which I would have never considered if it weren’t for Zakaria’s well reasoned arguments.

Another place where he excels is in describing the newfound nationalistic tendencies of the two developing powers. This is something that I have personally witnessed often in the past few years, but the author provides solid background as to where these tendencies come from, why they are somewhat warranted, and how people’s devotion to their country and culture will allow them to continue to grow long into the future.

My Recommendations and Closing Thoughts:

This book is incredibly important to read for any modern American. Despite its slants, and failings, it lays down several solid arguments, and brings a general awareness to cultures and countries which Americans traditionally know nothing about. I think that it is important to keep an open mind while reading it, and as with anything of this nature, read it with a critical eye for detail and reason. Don’t be swept up by sound arguments and allow yourself to agree to questionable ones. However, the message is clear; the world is changing at a rapid place. The world that my kids will live in will be vastly different than the one I grew up in. New challenges which have never been faced before will be presented to the worldwide community, and a thorough understanding of all of the players, and all of the relationships between players is the only way that we will be able to deal with the unprecedented challenges ahead.