It took me longer than it should have but I’ve just finished Fareed Zakaria’s book, The Post-American World. I’m pretty late to this review, as I missed the book in May, when it was published, and while I was given it in the beginning of August, I’ve been distracted by other things in the meantime. It’s an interesting, but somewhat flawed look at both the history of America’s global position and its current state, relative to other world actors.
Zakaria’s thesis is that the project that America has been engaged in since World War II, the exportation of free market economics and democratic ideals around the world, has largely been a success. As a result, a great number of the economies whose growth we have actively fostered in that period are now beginning to gain significant power in relation to our own (which he refers to as “the rise of the rest”).
That rise has begun to dismantle the American dominance that characterized the international scene for the last century, and particularly for the last 60 years, and drives the need for a more nuanced and deft foreign policy than we have needed to exercise for much of that time, as well as a more competitive economic picture and a more open and curious society than we have had recently.
The book starts with a broad rendering of recent economic and political history of the two primary examples of emerging economies, China and India, and Zakaria (who is Indian himself) gives a very compelling and hopeful picture of the rise of both of those countries. He points out that both have become more open as they have become more market oriented and more powerful.
The book has two main flaws, and both are in some measure understandable. First, even though some would have taken issue with his thesis before now, when viewed from the perspective of our current experience with the global financial meltdown, the book has in some senses been overtaken by events. Zakaria is an unabashed cheerleader for free-trade, free market capitalism, and that paradigm has lost a lot of luster in the last eight weeks.
While there is an undeniable benefit to the movement away from centralized economies in both India and China, it’s less clear that it’s an unqualified blessing to get governments out of regulating their markets, or that there should be no international effort to regulate an international market. Both of these success stories have taken tremendous beatings in the last month or so, just as we have, and it remains to be seen if the benefits of deregulation still outweigh the costs, either here or in the countries Zakaria points to.
The second flaw is less readily explainable by bad publication timing, though it’s certainly shared by many recent writers about global political and economic questions. That flaw is the almost complete lack of attention paid to the impacts of global warming and oil depletion on the economies of and interrelationships between the growing numbers of countries that Zakaria highlights as players on the world stage. Both China and India have huge problems in this regard, both regarding the pollution problems in both countries and regarding the impact that increased transportation and production costs will have on their burgeoning economies. A large percentage of both countries’ growth has been in producing consumer goods for western markets, and that gravy train may well be running on a siding for some time, if not permanently. It will take some time for the markets they sell into to recover from the recession they are headed into now, and that recovery may well involve market restructuring that leaves conditions much less friendly to producing traditional consumer goods and shipping them halfway around the world. In an age of much higher energy costs for transportation, it may no longer be worth it to save small percentages of production cost by producing goods great distances from where they are used.
Some of the conflicts Zakaria paints will likely be made less relevant by the increasing presence of the two meta-challenges he has missed, and some will be made more pressing, as competition for increasingly scarce resources to fuel global production becomes ever more acute. I haven’t yet read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded, but I expect that this book and Friedman’s will make interesting companion pieces (there is an interview between Friedman and Zakaria on Amazon’s page for Zakaria’s book that’s worth the time).
Despite these weaknesses, though, Zakaria’s book is a good look at both many of the challenges and some of the potential present in the changing circumstances we find ourselves in as a nation. Much of the analysis of the changing relationships the US has around the world is unaffected by the two flaws I mentioned, and even where those relationships are changed by the presence of those two problems, the prescriptions Zakaria produces are still worth reading. His case for a politics and a society more open to information about how the rest of the world works, and for a more nuanced and more cooperative foreign policy are incredibly important, and the need for them is incredibly urgent.
Zakaria makes the case that we can no longer afford to ignore or dictate to the rest of the world, or expect it to just figure out how to please us, whichever way our whims lead us. Equally importantly, he notes that even when we could make those sorts of demands on the rest of the world, our foreign policy was much more successful for us when we didn’t. Maybe that means that our circumstances haven’t really changed all that much as a practical matter.