The truth about our post-American world

Fareed Zakaria, author of the hot political book of the moment, is like a weather vane for America’s foreign policy establishment: his own twists and turns expose the deep disarray running through elite circles in the US.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World is the hot political book of the moment in the US.

After its publication last month, it immediately shot to the top of the bestseller lists (it will be out in the UK next week). It became downright trendy after Barack Obama was photographed carrying a copy while travelling on the campaign trail; maybe, the pundits speculated, this book will be a major influence on the next president’s thinking.

Zakaria is a well-established figure in the US media and international relations scene. He is editor of Newsweek International and host of a programme on CNN. In fact, Zakaria is a more than a standard journalist – with a PhD from Harvard, and being the former managing editor of the influential journal Foreign Affairs, he moves comfortably within American foreign policy circles. Indeed, two months after the 9/11 attacks, he was invited by then deputy secretary of state Paul Wolfowitz to join a meeting of Middle East experts and analysts at the White House to discuss possible intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

By ‘post-American world’, Zakaria refers to the erosion of US pre-eminence as the sole superpower. The end of the Cold War and the ‘bipolar duopoly’ of the US and the Soviet Union led to an ‘American imperium, a unique unipolar world’. However, with the recent emergence of China, India and others – what Zakaria calls ‘the rise of the rest’ – the situation is now changing: ‘At the politico-military level, we remain in a single-superpower world. But in every other dimension – industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural – the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.’

A sign of declining American influence, he writes, is how the rising countries pay less attention to the US: ‘The world is moving from anger to indifference, from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism.’

Zakaria argues that US foreign policy has been too focused on Iraq and the ‘war on terror’. In contrast to many other commentators, he makes a number of valid points about how the so-called ‘Islamic threat’ is overblown. He makes the obvious (yet often unstated) point that Islamic terror isn’t in the same league as Germany in the first half of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union in the postwar era, or Mao’s influence in the 1950s and 1960s. These were all challenges backed by powerful countries and coherent ideologies, unlike the challenge posed by today’s jihadists. If we are facing another 1938, as some argue, Iran – with military spending less than one per cent of the Pentagon’s – is Romania, not Germany. He criticises Western leaders who speak of a single worldwide Islamist movement, lumping together a variety of different groups with hardly anything in common. And he ridicules Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda Central, which has not launched a major attack since 9/11, writing ‘It was a terrorist organization; it has become a communications company, producing the occasional videotape rather than actual terrorism.’

Zakaria believes the news of terrorism and Iraq dominates the headlines because we are fearful. He writes of a ‘cottage industry of scaremongering’ that has flourished in the US and the West generally since 9/11. He also blames the media technology that spreads news – especially violent images – around the world immediately. Unfortunately, Zakaria cannot explain the focus on terror and Americans’ sense of vulnerability; he does not make an effort to explore this issue in any depth (1).

Instead, he moves on to his central point: that a focus on conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere has meant we have missed the real story – the economic rise of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and other emerging markets. These countries now account for more than half of the world’s economic growth since 1990, and represent over 40 per cent of the world economy (measured at purchasing power parity). In 2006 and 2007, 124 countries grew at a rate of four per cent or more, including more than 30 countries in Africa.

Zakaria is right to highlight that recent global economic growth is a remarkable development. However, he does not stop at simply noting this important trend; he goes on to claim that this is the third of ‘three tectonic power shifts’ over the past 500 years. According to Zakaria, the first was the rise of the Western world, from the fifteenth century to the late eighteenth century; the second was the rise of the US, from the late nineteenth century until about 1990; and the third is the ‘rise of the rest’ over the past two decades. But formulations such as these (like the ‘internet revolution’ or Thomas Friedman’s ‘flat world’) are just gimmicks. Zakaria does not really undertake a systematic historical analysis, and two decades is far too short to determine an era’s place in history.

Zakaria points out that economic prosperity has brought real benefits. For example, in China alone growth has lifted more than 400 million people out of poverty. But he is quick to point out that this growth is also problematic. One expression is how increased demand from China and India has increased oil prices generally. This price rise has also filled the coffers of America’s oil-state foes, such as Iran and Venezuela. But, as Zakaria notes, ‘the most acute problem of plenty is the impact of global growth on natural resources and the environment’. He cites water shortages and climate change, among other issues.

In viewing growth as problematic and potentially destructive, Zakaria raises a common theme of our time. Rather than celebrate the benefits of growth, such as a reduction in poverty, Zakaria and others emphasise the downsides that accompany development. This gloomy outlook reveals more about the commentator than the reality on the ground. Zakaria refers to the predicted increase in the number of cars in China from 26million to 120million in 2020 as an environmental problem rather than a cause of celebration, as the Chinese people gain greater freedom of movement. In doing so, Zakaria joins in with today’s growing China-bashing chorus (2).

If Zakaria is concerned that growth causes immediate problems like oil price increases and environmental damage, he is even more worried about the longer-term consequences of economic growth upon geopolitical stability. Not only do we have a diffusion of economic power today – Zakaria believes that these economic trends will ultimately lead to political change, in particular the growth of nationalism within the emerging countries.

Here again, he presents China as the central strategic challenge facing the US. Some pressures are pushing China towards cooperative integration; others are leading the country to be more assertive globally. ‘The stability and peace of the post-American world will depend, in large measure, on the balance China strikes between these forces of integration and disintegration’, Zakaria writes. He doesn’t think China is about to replace the US as the world’s superpower in the near future, but he believes that it will be the second-most important nation and that change in itself will be disruptive.

While reading Zakaria’s discussion of the importance of China, it becomes clear that he is aligned with those in the American foreign policy establishment who would like to shift attention away from the Middle East towards China and other issues. This appears to be a displacement activity. Zakaria and others prefer to talk about potential future political conflicts, rather than focus on the hard decisions facing them today in the Middle East. Of course, a world power like the US cannot exclusively focus on just one region of the world, but whether the foreign policy elite like it or not, the fallout from the Bush administration’s war in Iraq has made the Middle East America’s primary foreign policy issue. Zakaria’s focus on China is an attempt to avoid all that.

In the final two chapters of The Post-American World, Zakaria discusses how the US might respond to these new challenges. First of all, he finds that the US has substantial strengths to fall back on. In particular, he argues that the US will not face economic decline, as did Britain in the early twentieth century. Zakaria objects to those who claim the US is losing its technological edge; he claims that the US education system is still the most advanced in the world. Moreover, immigration provides the US with a great advantage relative to other major nations: not only does the influx of immigrants keep the US demographically younger (unlike Western Europe, with its declining population), but American universities still attract the best and brightest technical minds, who then stay and develop their ideas in the US.

Zakaria’s take on the US economy’s challenges is somewhat confusing. On one hand, he is confident that the economy will remain vibrant, because dysfunctions, he argues, are the consequences of specific government policies rather than fundamental barriers: ‘Different policies could quickly and relatively easily move the US on to a far more stable footing.’ On the other hand, he considers the political system – which he expects will ‘relatively easily’ make ‘sensible reforms’ – ‘antiquated and overly rigid’, because it has been ‘captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media and ideological attack groups’. In his criticism of ‘hyper-partisanship’, Zakaria wheels out what has now become a common refrain made by many, including the two presidential candidates (3). Moreover, given that Zakaria’s book was written before the credit crisis and economic slowdown in the US, one wonders if he would be so confident about the US economy’s prospects today.

The true challenges America will encounter are not economic in nature, but rather political, according to Zakaria. He calls on the US to move from being a hegemon to an ‘honest broker’. The US would recognise that its power is more limited, but wrap the rising powers in various international institutions and agreements. The US would be the pivotal player, but its approach would be less unilateral, and more ‘consultation, cooperation and compromise.’ In doing so, the US would address the criticisms from the non-Americans who believe the US, led by George W Bush, acts in an arrogant, go-it-alone, cowboy style.

Zakaria worries, however, that the US may not be up to the task. He believes the US needs to build on its heritage of openness, but finds the country today is inwardly-focused: ‘America has become a nation consumed by anxiety, worried about terrorists and rogue nations, Muslims and Mexicans, foreign companies and free trade, immigrants and international organizations.’ The political dynamic, he says, is to ‘hunker down’.

Again, Zakaria avoids the hard realities. His call for a more multilateral approach is not a strategy; it is a tactic. Focusing on a foreign relations style avoids having to define what America’s true interests are.

Zakaria’s final chapter is entitled ‘American Purpose’, and instead of speculating about great power games of the future, it would have been worthwhile for him to ask why the US today feels it needs to discover a sense of purpose by means of foreign interventions. Zakaria is concerned that the US will not have control over world affairs in the future, but that is actually happening now. And America’s lack of moral authority in world affairs today is not the result of the rise of emerging nations – it has come about from self-inflicted wounds, such as the misadventure in Iraq, and from a deeper sense of disarray and malaise within Washington.

Zakaria has changed his views over recent years. In 2001, he wrote the article ‘The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?’ in Newsweek, which summarised a common outlook in America. In 2003, in another Newsweek article, he wrote: ‘It is now clear that the current era can really have only one name, the unipolar world – an age with only one global power.’ This was shortly before the invasion of Iraq, which he supported. Now, as he publishes this latest book, he states (in a small footnote on page 223) that he is opposed to the Iraq war; he calls for the US to focus on areas other than the Middle East and issues other than terrorism; and argues (only five years later) that we live in a ‘post-American world’ rather than a ‘unipolar’ one. Moreover, as China-bashing heats up in the US, the UK and elsewhere in the West over a slew of issues (toys with lead paint, Tibet protests, Darfur support, the Olympics), Zakaria now finds China to be the key strategic issue facing the US.

It is perhaps best to understand Zakaria as a kind of weather vane for the US foreign policy establishment. The twists and turns in his views are indicative of the confusion and indecisiveness that prevails among members of this group.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) For a detailed examination of the underpinnings of the war on terror, see Frank Furedi, Invitation to Terror, Continuum, 2007.

(2) See The Chinese: from yellow peril to green peril?, by Daniel Ben-Ami, as well as his blog, Ferraris for all.

(3) See Is ‘hyper-partisanship’ paralysing American politics?, by Sean Collins.

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