The Post-American World—Fareed Zakaria
Book Reivew-Amy McDougall
Fareed Zakaria, and Indian native and American scholar, utilizes his unique background and multi-cultural perspective to write his book The Post-American World, providing a fresh perspective on changing international norms and the overall power balance on the world stage. Contrary to the conventional fear that had previously stated that America was in decline, Zakaria instead proposes that a “rise of the rest” philosophy more accurately describes the changing international sphere (Page 1). He outlines three tectonic shifts that have occurred over the last five hundred years including the “Rise of the West,” the “Rise of the U.S.,” and now the “Rise of the Rest,” and claims that even though the U.S. has still maintained its hegemonic position on the world stage, its portion of the metaphorical “pie” of power has relatively diminished (Pages 1-5).
He claims that a long time period of stability and U.S. dominance led to outstanding growth on behalf of the rest. Nations had no choice but to converge on the U.S. political and economic system and in the words of Margaret Thatcher, “There [was] no alternative” to the American model (Page 22). The American option however, proved to be a successful option that pulled millions out of poverty and led to one of the most politically secure time periods in history. This led many international relations theorists to develop the Hegemonic Stability Theory. However, now that more states have become empowered, Zakaria makes an argument for how the international dynamic is shifting once again, and what the world must expect in the 21st Century.
The Relevance of The Post-American World:
The world has been playing by American rules since the U.S. came out on top after WWII and prevailed through the Cold War to become the leading economic and political power. Today a small spat between two nations cannot go unnoticed by the U.S. and always requires some sort of action on behalf of the U.S. Like a parent though, whose teenagers are going through puberty, the U.S. has now realized that nations are no longer taking the ideals and norms of the U.S. without question. Its teenagers have gotten old enough to realize they have their own opinions and want to have their own say on their affairs. This has caused an identity crisis on the part of the U.S. A superpower who has grown so used to continual sacrifice in order to maintain order on the international sphere, the U.S. is now realizing that it has neglected its own needs for too long and needs to re-evaluate and re-assess its role on the international sphere.
At the end of his book, Zakaria proposes six strategies for the U.S. to envelop in order to re-define and re-strengthen its role in the world: 1. Choose (Re-prioritize instead of trying to take on everything) 2. Build broad rules, not narrow interests (“create a structure of rules, practices, and values by which the world will be bound”) 3. Be Bismark not Britain (Engage with all of the great powers and have better relations with all of them than they have with each other) 4. Order a la Carte (A hammer is not the answer to every problem. Different situations require different tools) 5. Think asymmetrically (Embody its power and not let other rising power psyche itself out) 6. Legitimacy is power (re-establish legitimacy by using respect to project norms). By focusing on these six goals, Zakaria believes that the United States will be able to create and effective plan for the 21st century that is not only prepared for international shifts, but also maintains US strengths.
The importance of Fareed Zakaria’s book is not only to draw attention to a 21st Century phenomenon, but also to give a practical guidebook for the US so that the US can maintain its power position and continue to be a leader throughout the 21st Century.
Where Zakaria Excels:
Zakaria’s fresh perspective on international relations, not only highlights important truths about the 21st Century that must be addressed, but also he is not afraid to challenge the world’s superpower and encourage them to look at the world through an entirely different perspective. In the mind of most Americans, hegemonic power has largely been taken for granted. Americans have consistently used their past successes as reasons to now legitimate all actions. Zakaria is not afraid to point out the recent downfalls of America and given Americans a wake-up call. The Post American World is a very clear and accurate portrayal of current international dynamics and he engages his audience by not only drawing upon the historical context of today’s existing structure, but also lays out a clear vision of the 21st century that requires his readers to re-examine conventional wisdom.
He also makes a strong parallel between the reign o f the United States and Britain. Britain, who maintained one of the longest and strongest empires in history, is now is but a compilation of a few islands in comparison to the size and strength of the US. However, Britain, through smart politics has managed to maintain its powerful position on the world stage. In reference to the Yalta Conference, Zakaria states, “There was no ‘big three’ at Yalta. There was a ‘big two’ plus one brilliant political entrepreneur [Winston Churchill] who was able to keep himself and his country in the game, so that Britain maintained many elements of great powerdom well into the late twentieth century (Page 179). Zakria then compares the decisions and strategy Britain had to make, to what the US has to face now with the rise of India and China, who both have populations almost double that to the US. Zakaria makes a strong case for why the United States should become more limber in its international affairs.
His chapters on the “Aly” and the “Challenger”, India and China respectively, were also strong descriptions of the growing trends in the major players of international politics. For a group of MBA students going to India on an International Business Tour, his chapter particularly on India was a great presentation of India and the United States’ partnership and how relations between India and the US will be extremely important in the 21st Century, especially since today, India is probably the most “pro-American country in the world” (Page 150). Although very different culturally, partnerships between India and the United States are becoming more common. Zakaria states that “The most striking characteristic of India today is its human capital—a vast and growing population of entrepreneurs, managers, and business savvy individuals” (Page 135). Despite America’s persistence in thought that America always has the best to offer, it is important to recognize how much Americans can learn, particularly in business, from the rest of the world. Especially because of his Indian heritage, Zakaria’s chapter on India, “The Aly” is particularly compelling, and really enhances the optimism in the book.
Where Zakaria Falls Short:
Zakaria’s book is clearly written for Americans and it prescribes a spelled out solution for the U.S. to take on in order to maintain its superpower position on the world stage in the midst of the rise of the rest. The final sentence is Zakaria’s book writes “For America to thrive in this new and challenging era, for it to succeed amid the rise of the rest, it need fulfill only one test. It should be a place that is as inviting and exciting to the young student who enters the country today as it was for this awkward eighteen-year old a generation ago” (Page 259). It is true that the United States will no doubtedly continue to be even among growing powers, the number one superpower for the foreseeable future; however Zakaria does not adequately address what will happen if the U.S. does not make adjustments to its domestic and international policy. What would a world look like if America does not adequately take steps to maintain its position? Zakaria makes the assumption that America will be able to bounce back and still maintain hegemony despite the rise in the rest, and if someone outside of America read this book, I think that they might be offended by the not so subtle theme of American Exceptionalism that runs in and out of the book.
Zakaria also states that “now everyone is playing America’s game, and is playing to win” (Page 206). The rise in prosperity of the rest has also resulted in a rise of nationalism. Strong nationalism (or patriotism as America would like to refer to it as) was a powerful element that enhanced the American narrative that they were different than the rest of the world and were destined to be great and powerful. With the rise of “patriotism” in other nations, it is clear that the world’s desire to accept the American narrative has become diminished. Globalization has fostered the spread of narratives, cultures and ways of thinking and technology has flattened international politics and culture. Today, China is Africa’s leading trade partner, and the largest sums of international investment in Africa are coming from China. African perspectives on Chinese investment are also far more favorable and positive in comparison to their opinions on US investment and involvement. At this time, Americans are not equipped to understand the rest of the world’s cultures. Americans typically are not well-travelled, they only speak one language, and they have a very narrow perspective on the world. Although Zakaria briefly addresses the issue, he does not spend an adequate enough time or energy giving Americans a call to action that encourages them to become more cosmopolitan in nature. If America wants to continue to be a leading power, they must have an exceptional understanding of how the rules of the game have changed, even on a civilian and cultural level. For America to continue to excel, it must understand that the world is becoming less receptive to the demands of just one dominant power. In order to not convey that image, it is not just policy makers that need to have an attitude shift, but all levels of society need to change.
My Recommendations and Closing Thoughts
Overall, I think that The Post American World is a fantastic book and should be required reading for all high school or college students. It is in my opinion an extremely accurate portrayal of the shifts occurring across the world and it represents a paradigm shift that needs to occur in the minds of all Americans. Since the book was written in 2008, it definitely could use some updating. The Arab Spring, death of Sadaam Hussein, heightened relations between Israel and Palestine, splitting of Sudan, Obama’s reelection, and continued troubles at home in America are all relevant events that should be contextualized with Zakaria’s thesis; however, Zakaria really was a pioneer who made great strides in the conventional wisdom in America.
Although a bit too optimistic for my taste, I think that Zakaria’s final few sentences in his preface really capture the importance of his book. He writes “People are doing amazing things every day in every place on earth, Now it’s time for their governments to match this human ingenuity with their own innovation and create new forms of cooperation…This is the great project of the twenty-first century: a new architecture that ensures peace, growth, and freedom for the world” (Page xxx). It is true that the world is changing, and unless the structures and systems in place can adapt to these changes, there are going to be more losers than there are winners. With our increased connectivity throughout the world, our well-being is more tied to one another, and social engineers are going to have a hefty task in from of them to cater to these rising trends. America can no longer be the sole foundation for world order, and so America needs to learn how to make room for other powers or else it will topple with the weight of the expanding world on its shoulders.