Book Review: The Post-American World

I just finished Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and heartily recommend it to people across the political spectrum.

From the title and sound of the author’s name and yes, from reading my blog you might have the impression that this is the story of the imperial disintegration of the United States written by an embittered, America-hating foreigner.

Neither assumption is true. Fareed Zakaria is unabashedly pro-American and believes most of America’s fundamentals are sound. The book itself isn’t about America’s absolute decline, but what he refers to as the “rise of the rest.” Because China, India and other nations are finally hitting their stride economically, the US’s overall share of the world economy will shrink. This brings up new challenges. But challenges that Mr. Zakaria believes that American society is well equipped to handle, if only we will acknowledge the challenges and stop being terrified.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each of which taught me something new. Chapter 3, “A non-Western world” documents how we’ve been living in a western-world for well over 500 years. Western domination did not begin with 18th century imperialism, but with 14th century growth in economic activity. Mr. Zakaria shows this by inviting us to discard overall economy size and think of estimated GDP per capita:

Western European GDP per capita was higher than that both China and India by 1500; by 1600, it was 50 percent higher than China’s. From the gap kept growing. Between 1350 and 1950 –six hundred years–GDP per capita remained roughly constant in China and India (hovering around $600 for China and $550 for India). In the same period, Western European GDP per capita went from $662 to $4,594, a 594 percent increase.

Zakaria acknowledges the difficulties in estimating historical GDP, but this is still interesting and explains a lot about relative power.

The chapter on economic history is followed by profiles of modern India and China, which make for good informative reading. The book’s last two chapters are called American Power and American Purpose. American Power examines the new American imperium in light of Britain’s experience of imperial decline. Mr. Zakaria doesn’t see the two situations as parallel. In Britain’s case they played politics well but had a crumbling economy. With America, Zakaria believes that our economy is fundamentally sound (but does need fixing), but that our bipartisan foreign policy consensus (America, the eternal superpower) has greatly undermined our effectiveness.

In the last chapter, American Purpose, Zakaria turns from diagnosis to treatment. This in itself makes the book head and shoulders above works like Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, which document America’s problems in excruciating details and then offers little in the way of ideas to solve them.

The chapter starts off with a set of policy prescriptions/guidelines:

  1. Choose – What are our policy aims? What are our priorities? We can’t have everything from everybody.
  2. Build broad rules, not narrow interests — In a world with multiple powers, it is important for all nations to agree to the same set of rules. We cannot afford American exceptionalism unless we’re willing to tolerate Chinese, Indian, [Rising power here] exceptionalism.
  3. Be Bismark not Britain — Be the pivot of the emerging global system by having better relations with all major powers that are better than their relationships with each other.
  4. Order a la carte — Be willing to work with different organizations/nations on different issues. [Daniel: I’m not sure I agree with this one and it seems to already be standard policy in the Bush Administration]
  5. Think asymmetrically — Big powers have proven unable to handle smaller groups with usual tools — Think terrorism, drug cartels, money-laundering syndicates, and migrant workers. Not everything is amenable to a militry solution.
  6. Legitimacy is power — Where one is seen as legitmate, it is easier to use power. Contrast Iraq with Kosovo — both can be seen as violations of the UN Charter, but Kosovo met with international approval that allowed us to avoid a long and costly occupation.

Don’t make a judgment on this list without reading the last chapter. This listing actually takes close to a dozen pages in the book.

I’ve talked about the need for America to follow the rules it sets for others for years now. I find it interesting that I get there from morality and Zakaria gets there from geopolitics but both find it an essential idea. Perhaps it’s worth the consideration of Obama and McCain as well.

Zakaria concludes his book with an exhortation to stop being afraid. To stop listening to the voices on both sides of the aisle who have concluded that America faces an existential threat from terrorism and illegal immigration.  Amen. The strongest country in the world should not be the most terrified.

The book is well documented and has a good index. I hope you’ll consider reading it. If you have read it, drop me a note about what you think. It left me more hopeful about the future.

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