Barack Obama casually carries The Post American World.

The Post American World

Fareed Zakaria

2008
ISBN-13: 978-0393062359

Fareed Zakaria provocatively titled his book “The Post American World,” but the title masks the true nature of the book. The premise of the book is that since the end of the Cold War, the United State has enjoyed a long period as the lone superpower in the world. She was involved in decisions that really didn’t affect her, by default, because what other country could. Now with the rise of China, and the RBIC countries, America status as the lone superpower is changing. The future will be led by a coalition of countries. It will be a period post-American dominance, but not post-America. America will still have the major part in the world; she just won’t have it alone.

It’s difficult to understand who this book is for. It’s clear and well written, it can appeal to everyone. Zakaria makes some mistakes. The first is the title, a post-American world. The book, in it’s essence, is a forward looking historically based analysis. The sleep giant — China — is now awake, and we’re not sure what will happen. Something will happen, but what is the question. What will happen when China becomes the dominant economy in the world. In addition to those seeking to understand China, American Exceptionalists and Neo-conservatives would seemed the target audience. But by titling the book as such, he immediately turns these readers off.  If you judge a book by its cover title, then this book must talk about the decline of America. In fact there’s even an Internet meme (http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/postamerican.asp) describing it as “a Muslim’s view of a defeated America.” A less provocative and more accurate title would help dilute these claims.

The book is well written and easy to digest. In fact, most reviews mention this.(Amazon Reviews) Fareed Zakaria divides his book into seven parts, but it has four main themes: the history of China, the rise of China, what about India and what can and should America do?

The first main segment about the history of China, is very readable. It’s a great introduction to China for the Anglophile. By using comparisons between Western history and Chinese history, Zakaria carries the reader through an enlightening past. Like the early European explorers, there were great Chinese fleets that explored the eastern world. I found this section the most poignant.

Using facts and figures, Zakaria largely skips over the rise of China, he talks about GDP and the cost of living, but he does not address the cultural changes happening in detail. The failure of the great leap forward scarcely mentioned. He does not go into the logic behind China’s five year plans or the impact of the one child per family rule. He never mentions that China has yet to have their successful worker rebellion, like most western countries. His discussion begins and ends with numbers. China has $2 trillion in foreign reserves (Post American World, forward, page xviii) and the largest population in the world, therefore their a world power. The rest is fluffy numbers that reinforce this. A more nuanced discussion would have been more enlightening.

The longest chapter in book is about India, America’s natural ally. Zakaria does a fine job of comparing and contrasting India versus China, and why he believes China will dominate. India is a much poorer country, and China’s growth rates are already larger than India’s. It would take exceptional growth for India to overtake China. It’s my personal feeling that India’s story will be told in another book by Zakaria.

The final section of the book concerns what America should do, going forward. Zakaria lays out a coherent plan for the superpower(pages 235-250) America should (1) Choose what it’s priorities are on the world stage, going forward. She should (2) Build broad rules, not narrow interests with her foreign policy. (3) Be Bismarck no Britain. The United States should engage with all the great powers of the world, and be better friends with them then they are to each other. (4) She should embrace ad-hoc multilateral negotiations and order the a la carte, per se. (5) The United Sates needs to think asymmetrically when it comes to the use of it’s military. As Iraq proved, being the biggest does not always equate to success. And lastly, being (6) Legitimate is power. Going alone will not by wise in a multipolar world. Compare the success in Libya vs the failure in Iraq. The US needs allies and cohorts when it uses military might.

Zakaria constrains this analysis with a discussion of the current state of political system in America. He describes it as broken and do nothing. It has only gotten worse since the book was published. If America cannot fix this, then truly a post-American world is inevitable.

I also have a few complaints with the book: First, Zakaria completely fails to see an view of the world except free market democracy. American style business enterprise. and his view is still largely America-centric. Secondly, natural disasters are not mention. The looming threat of famine doesn’t appear, despite the important historical perspective to China. And third, he completely glossy over the concept of war.

Free Market Only

The Post American World overall is a disucssion of what the future will look like. “The issue that non-Western reformers were struggling with in the twentieth century has returned as a central quesion for the future: Can you be modern without being Western?” (p73)  Zarakia cites many examples of non-westerners adopting western styles and cultural elements as they become more modern, even “dispensing with formal dress altogether [and] adopting a casual jeans and T-shirt style.” (p77)

If Zarakia did not view the world through his western lens, he may have come to a different conclusion. For example, in China, guanxi, (關係)or “connections” is central to doing business. As China becomes the largest economy in the world, it’s natural that their economic customs will become much more common. Guanxi exists because China has a flawed legal system. “In a nation that has traditionally had little use for laws, personal power has always been the key to getting things accomplished.”#Furthermore, “even when they live in countries where the legal system is well developed and the law impartially enforced, Chinese still rely heavily on their guanxi networks.” (Scott Seligman, Chinese Business Ettiquette, p185)

Forgetting Famine

During the Great Leap Forward, Chinese farmers followed Mao’s direction for their crops. Plow very deep and bury the top soil. Plant seedlings very close together and you’ll get a higher yield. The pseudo-sceince techniques led to wide spread famine. During this man-made catastrophy from 1958-1961, though estimates vary, between 15 and 45 million Chinese starved to death. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/opinion/16iht-eddikotter16.html)  Zakaria touches on this, but he doesn’t mention that it can happen again. All of the RBIC countries have growing populations. During the past few years, we witnessed food riots in Africa and rice rationing in Asia. The threat of famine is really. Going forward, China and India are growing on the world stage at the same time the world is growing from 7 to 8 billion people. The earth only has so much aridable-land. A some point we may meet the carrying capacity of the earth. Some say we are already there. (http://dieoff.org/page28.htm)  Though people have been making this claim for over 200 years. (http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/earth-carrying-capacity.htm)

What about War

With hardship and unrest comes war. Should the Chinese suffer a terrible famine, the chances for conflict increase. Zakaria has a state-centric view. Because China, Russia and the United States have nuclear weapons, Zakaria spends some time discussion India’s lack of nuclear weapons. He believes they deserve them. Under the guise that nuclear-armed countries do not fight wars, Zakaria rules out war in the post-american world. He states that the world is getting safer all the time. Early in the book, he states “It feels like a dangerous world but it isn’t. Your chances of dying as a consequence of organized violence of any kind are low and getting lower.”# Going further, he adds “I don’t believe that war has become obsolete or any such fooliness. Human nature remains what it is and international politics what it is…Still, if we are to understand the times we are living in, we must first accurately describe them. And they are, for now, in historical context, unusually calm.”

Since the American hedgemony began, most world conflict has been regional in nature. Zakaria does not address this. Backlash in China may develop against this new multipolar world. Zakaria does not even mention the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the last century. Tiennamen Square is not in his book. By neglecting this, Zakaria fails to complete his analysis of the post-American world.

Even though they are nuclear powers, the United States and Russia fought proxy wars against each other from the 1960s, until the 1990s. First in Vietnam, then Afghanistan. Likewise, the Iran-Iraq war of the 1970s and 1980s took the place of American involvement in the middle east during this period. Zakaria does think this will happen going forward. He thinks “we’ll all just get along.” I believe he is naïve.

Advertisements