College Quarterly
Winter 2008 - Volume 11 Number 1
Reviews The Post-American World
Fareed Zakaria
New York: W. W. Norton, 2008

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

After even a cursory examination of its economy in horrific debt, its lopsided negative balance of trade, its declining manufacturing sector, its crime and incarceration rates, its bungled foreign policy and its military-industrial-congressional commitment to a state of permanent war, its unwinnable pseudo-wars on terrorism, drugs, poverty and disease and its unconscionable record as a polluter of earth, wind and water, a person can be forgiven for imagining that the United States of America is doomed. A nation described by Oscar Wilde as having gone from barbarism to decadence without an intervening period of civilization (and this was before television and text messaging), the United States seems perched shakily upon the edge of an economic, political, ecological and cultural abyss.

Apart from objective indices of decline, there is no dearth of imaginative writers, thoughtful commentators and pessimistic prognosticators who proclaim loudly that the end of American hegemony is near, and who lament that the world will be the worse when the light is snuffed out where once the beacon on the hill shone brightly as a guide to all mankind. Peace, prosperity and democracy were said to be America’s unique gifts to the world – if only the ingrates of the world would be willing to accept them. Perversely unappreciative, the world has fed off American largesse and, when satiated, has spit in Uncle Sam’s face.

To some, therefore, the title of Fareed Zakaria’s new book conjures up an impression of yet another jeremiad. It betokens a now familiar essay in pathology, with the prognosis pre-ordained. The United States – like colonialism, industrialism, modernism, Marxism, Freudianism, civility and literacy – has seen its best of times, and is now in a state of irredeemable deterioration and degradation, or not. Sometimes you can’t tell a book by its title.

In point of fact, Zakaria is not at all downbeat. Indeed, his analysis of the fate of the States could be read as a testament to the success of the US in fulfilling at least some of its promise to the rest of the world. True, all the portents of difficulty are evident in the pages of the Nation and the Wall Street Journal. Innumerable alternative media regularly post messages that seem like invitations to drink hemlock or Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Yet, a sober assessment of the realities that Americans must confront are far more nuanced and, in some cases, the future looks ever so slightly promising.

Zakaria does not shy away from the relative weakening of American prestige, wealth and power, but he emphasized the word “relative.” The opening line of his book explains it all: “This is not a book about the decline of America but about the rise of everyone else.” Of course, the word “everyone” is problematic, as is the term “rise.”

Zakaria pays attention to the rapidly developing parts of the world including India, Brazil, Russia and, especially, China. Sub-Saharan Africa and the half of the world’s population which earns less than two dollars a day will have to wait. The eighty percent of the world’s population that lives in countries where the gap between rich and poor is increasing will have to delay their dreams of equity. The billion or more people who cannot write their names will have to endure illiteracy for a little while, despite the fact that one-half of one percent of the world’s budget for weapons would be plenty to allow every child to go to school.

Zakaria explains that globalization is working. While the immediate result is that the US cannot continue to exercise dominance over the whole world not only as the only surviving military superpower, but also as the unchallenged economic success, the growth of other nations and other regions offers potential benefits for the USA as well as the rest of the world. For one thing, the USA may soon be relieved of its burden as the international policeman. With Russia, China, the European Union and potentially South America coming into their own, an America willing to cease being a bully and ready to embrace multilateralism could well profit from increasing international stability. Behemoths are inherently unstable, but a multipolar world – especially one in which the United Nations might emerge as a genuine global authority – could bring to Americans the long-delayed peace dividend that was supposed to follow the implosion of the Soviet Union. To believe that such developments are possible is, of course, an act of faith, but the international system has seen such shake-ups before.

What is more, the dire circumstances in which the United States finds itself may not be so dire after all. Zakaria points out that the US currently has a gross domestic product almost five times that of China. So, while it is true that the Chinese economy is growing at a phenomenal rate, even minimal growth in the American economy will ensure that China does not catch up for decades. As far as softer measures of prosperity and well-being are concerned, the United States retains the world’s finest postsecondary educational system – both qualitatively and quantitatively. Though unfairly distributed in terms of the provision of health care to its citizens, American medicine is unparalleled. Moreover, despite the Patriot Act and the general undermining of civil liberties and legal rights, Americans continue to live in one of the more open societies on Earth (though, of course, bluster about America’s unrivalled freedoms is no longer to be taken seriously).

Zakaria’s point is that the United States may be a faltering Goliath surrounded by any number of aspirant Davids, but it still carries the mightiest weapons (paid for by about one-half of the world’s military budget). It has also taught the world the virtues of market economies and the advantages of technology let loose upon the land. If some have learned well from the American master, their growth (at the expense of well-paid domestic jobs) should paradoxically be a source of some pride.

As for the immediate future, Americans may continue to experience a decline in average wages (though the wealth of the superrich is unlikely to be adversely affected by global positioning), but their cultural infrastructure (unlike their bridges and highways) is still relatively sound. Moreover, as Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg, Germany and a senior fellow at Stanford University in California, has recently pointed out, the United States has a “secret weapon.” Nativistic paranoia about illegal Latino immigration notwithstanding, America’s sustaining advantage is continued immigration. No longer much interested in Emma Lazarus’ iconic “tired,” “poor,” “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and, of course, to get hold of decent acreage in Wisconsin or Nebraska or a steady job in the mines and mills and factories of Pennsylvania or Ohio, the United States remains the destination of choice for a large portion of the fluid demographic that includes software wizards and chemical engineers. Conversely, comparatively few ambitious, entrepreneurial and scientifically adept young folk are desperately trying to get into China and India … so far.

At the risk of seeming to mimic Barack Obama, America will have to change. It will have to swallow a measure of pride and come grudgingly to understand that it is no longer an unchallenged hegemonic colossus inflicting a new world order and standing astride the global economy with weapons at the ready. America will have to change fundamentally, but, in the interest of its own survival, Fareed Zakaria seems to think that it has the capacity to do so. If it does, Americans may live to enjoy measured prosperity and the world may be a safer place for some decades to come.

Zakaria is, of course, a living example of America’s best possible future. No “tempest-tossed” bit of “wretched refuse” from the “teeming shore” of Asia, no “homeless,” faceless immigrant grateful for a minimum wage job, he was educated at Yale (BA) and Harvard (Ph.D.). He quickly rose to the position of international editor at Newsweek magazine and is also the newly established host of his own television show on CNN. Fareed Zakaria is widely praised as a lucid, insightful and imaginative interpreter of America and of the world. Born in Mumbai, India, his father is a former deputy leader of the Congress Party and his mother has been editor of the Sunday edition of the Times of India. A brother, Arshad is a former head of investment banking at Merrill Lynch, and now leads the largest hedge fund investing in India. Fareed Zakaria is also the subject of a 2008 Playboy interview. What could be more hopeful than that.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2008 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology