Book Review


by Lynn McKeown


Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World, W. W. Norton & Company, $25.95.


Sunday morning talk-show watchers will be aware of the highly articulate and knowledgeable Fareed Zakaria. After a number of years as a regular on George Stephanopoulos’ Sunday morning show on ABC, Zakaria now has his own Sunday talk show focusing on international affairs, “Fareed Zakaria GPS (Global Public Square),” at noon our time on CNN. He has a weekday job as editor of Newsweek International. Zakaria, 44, was born in Mumbai, India in a Muslim family (though he says he is “not a religious guy”), son of a father who was a scholar and leader in India’s Congress Party and a mother who was, for a time, editor of the Sunday Times of India. Zakaria came to the U.S. in 1982 for a college education at Yale and later earned a Ph.D. in government at Harvard. He now lives with his wife and three children in New York City. Zakaria published the best-selling Future of Freedom in 2003 and now has published The Post-American World (also currently on the N.Y. Times Best Seller list).

The first chapter of the new book is “The Rise of the Rest.” Its first sentence gives a good summary of the book’s subject: “This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else.” He continues: “It is about the great transformation taking place around the world, a transformation that, though often discussed, remains poorly understood.” Zakaria then presents a picture of the world, as he sees it, in which the U.S. is the dominant power – militarily, economically and culturally – but in which other nations are rising up and achieving greater power of many kinds, but especially economic. He sees the great economic developments in the world as mainly a positive change. He says that, though there is still much poverty in the world, poverty “is falling in countries housing 80 percent of the world’s population…. For the first time ever, we are witnessing genuinely global growth…. It is the birth of a truly global order.” (p. 3)

Zakaria devotes whole chapters to two nations – China, “The Challenger,” and India, “The Ally,” both of which have had dramatic economic growth, though also serious problems.  He notes that “China has grown over 9 percent a year for almost thirty years” and in that period, “has moved around 400 million people out of poverty, the largest reduction that has taken place anywhere, anytime.” He says that the size of China’s economy “has doubled (author’s italics) every eight years for three decades” and notes, “In 1978, the country made 200 air conditioners a year; in 2005, it made 48 million.” (p. 89) India and some other countries have also had phenomenal economic growth, though not quite so dramatic as China.

 Zakaria sees the rise of formerly poor countries – including Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey, Kenya and South Africa – as the “third great power shift,” of the modern era, after the rise of western civilization and the rise of the U.S. He notes that, “The tallest building in the world is now in Taipei.... The world’s richest man is Mexican, and its largest publicly traded corporation is Chinese…. Its leading refinery is under construction in India, and its largest factories are all in China. By many measures, London is becoming the leading financial center….” (p. 2-3) But Zakaria sees hopeful signs in the development of formerly “backward” countries, something the U.S. has encouraged for many years. He subscribes to the theory that “a market-based economy that achieves middle-income status tends, over the long run, toward liberal democracy.” (p. 102)

The author doesn’t see the U.S. as necessarily deeply threatened by this rise of foreign countries, though he is aware of the painful changes being brought by “globalization.” (He mentions favorably Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, which describes the economic development going on in India and elsewhere; the latter book is a reporter’s view of the phenomena that Zakaria deals with at a more historical and theoretical level.) Zakaria feels the U.S. will continue to be a great economic power for years to come, in competition with other countries, especially China. But he does see a weakness in the American political sphere, where he feels there is a paralysis through polarization and a lack of intelligent foreign policy. (Zakaria initially supported the invasion of Iraq but was critical of its handling from the beginning and now seems to feel it was a “strategic blunder” – see his column in the June 23rd Washington Post.) He is generally critical of George W. Bush’s overall foreign policy. Zakaria has written elsewhere about the causes of Islamic terrorism; in this book he states that Islamic radicalism such as al Qaeda is losing ground worldwide, a point where there is some disagreement.

The author does some comparing of the present position of the U.S. in the world with the position of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, when the latter also had dominant, worldwide power. He notes that Britain was wise in its earlier relinquishing of attempts to subdue the United States but weakened itself later by attempting to subdue its rebellious colony South Africa in the Boer War. The U.S., he suggests, is weakening itself in many ways now by its attempt to control the Middle East and by a foreign policy that has been unilateral and arrogant. This can be changed, Zakaria believes, by a policy that is more sophisticated. He suggests that U.S. foreign policy be more willing to prioritize, “build broad rule, not narrow interests,” follow the example of Bismarck in “engaging” with other countries, embrace what former State Department official Richard Haass has called “a la carte Multilateralism,” think creatively and “asymmetrically” about policy toward other countries (not launching into military adventures that only help our enemies), and recapture the U.S. legitimacy which has been lost. (pp. 231-50)

Zakaria also calls for less “fear and loathing” toward others. “America has become a nation consumed by anxiety,” he says, “worried about terrorists and rogue nations, Muslims and Mexicans, foreign companies and free trade, immigrants and international organizations.” (p. 251) And he has some criticism of both U.S. political parties in this respect, as well as the media. (Lou Dobbs, who appears on the same network as Zakaria, is called “the spokesman of a paranoid and angry segment of the country, railing against the sinister forces that are overwhelming us.” – p.256)

Zakaria ends his book with the wish that America might return to the “strikingly open and expansive country” he felt it to be when he first came as a student in 1982. He praises Republican Ronald Reagan as an embodiment of that expansiveness and Democrat Tip O’Neill as a personification of liberal “generosity and tolerance.” If these qualities prevail, Zakaria says, America will “thrive in this new and challenging era.” This is a thoughtful book, by an author with a broad historical and cultural perspective, and written with the directness one would expect from a good journalist. We can only hope the upcoming presidential debates will exhibit the kind of thoughtful, knowledgeable discussion of foreign policy found in this book.