Book Review: The Post-American World

The Post-American World
By Fareed Zakaria
W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2008

Despite its apocalyptic-sounding title, Fareed Zakaria’s latest book, The Post-American World, is actually quite optimistic.

Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International, and former managing editor of Foreign Affairs. He has written numerous columns and cover stories for Newsweek including a 2001 essay Why Do They Hate Us.

In The Post-American World, Zakaria looks at the impact of globalization from an economic and political perspective. He concludes that globalization is leading to the “rise of the rest”, that is of large numbers of developing economies. This in turn means that relatively speaking the United States will be less powerful economically and politically than it has been in the past. Nevertheless, Zakaria is at pains to repeat that the US will remain the dominant world economic and political power for decades to come.

Zakaria starts by laying out three major shifts in power that have occurred in the modern world:

  • First, during the 15th century, the rise of Western Europe, brought about by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. 
  • Second, starting at the end of the 19th century, the rise of the United States as the dominant economic, political, military and cultural power in the world.
  • Third, what we are now living through, the "rise of the rest."  

Globalization is lifting many nations out of poverty and diffusing power up (to regional and international bodies), down (to sub-national, and local bodies, as well as individuals), and sideways (to non-state actors). In fact, Zakaria says we’re now experiencing something unprecedented: synchronous global growth.

“In 2006 and 2007, 124 countries grew at a rate of 4 percent or more. This includes 30 countries in Africa.”

The rise of the rest, indeed.

This growth is steady, and far less visible than spectacular, though increasingly less relevant, violence.

This is a world in which the US, relatively speaking, is less dominant. It’s a world the US needs to learn to navigate. Ironically, it’s a world largely created by the US and the post-World War II global framework it put in place. In other words, the loss of relative power is evidence of American success at shaping today’s world.

In the middle chapters of the book, Zakaria take us on a world tour, looking at Europe, India and China and their strengths and weaknesses relative to the US. Demographics favor the US over Europe whose birth rate is already below replacement levels. Immigration is America’s secret weapon, prolonging its vibrancy longer than expected for a country of its wealth and development. America’s universities, he says, are still the best in the world. China’s and India’s are over-rated. The real problem is the disparities in education within the US which are greater than any disparities between the US and other countries. However, Zakaria doesn’t mention the percent of foreign students enrolled in US universities, nor how many of them are now returning to their home countries rather than staying in the US. Our secret weapon may be blunted if, as a result of rising prosperity back home, and decreasing openness to immigration here, the US becomes less attractive to these highly trained immigrants.

Zakaria believes the rise of the rest is driving a long term secular trend from a unipolar to a multipolar world. That said, the world still wants American influence. There is no desire in Asia, for example, to live in a Chinese-dominated world.

Zakaria offers some guidelines for operating in this new post-American world such as: making choices and setting priorities because the US cannot be everywhere nor achieve everything; building and abiding by broad rules rather than following narrow interests; and resorting legitimacy.

Above all, America needs to stop fearing.

“To recover its place in the world, America first has to recover its confidence.”

It is refreshing to read an optimistic view of globalization. It’s clear that the US faces many tough challenges, but fundamentally it has helped to establish the world order which is now evolving. Here’s hoping the US adapts from dominant hegemon to a more nuanced player on the multipolar stage and avoids the cataclysmic fate of previous empires.

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