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July 22, 2008

Fareed Zakaria's latest book illustrates why it is so difficult to write intelligently about the future, argues Jeremy Black: The Post-American World - Fareed Zakaria

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Post-American World
by Fareed Zakaria
Pp. 292. London: Allen Lane, 2008
Hardback, 20

Writing about the future is scarcely easy, but the particular exigencies of publishing, especially trade publishing and journalism, make it far more difficult. Judicious reflection requires the exercise of caution, and, when looking at the past, this caution is accentuated by the need to understand the surviving sources and to consider their nature and limitations.

This disciplinary restraint is not present when assessing the future, and, instead, the publishing and journalistic pressures for clear answers and bold assertions reign largely unchallenged. This situation is particularly the case when dealing with power shifts as the field is a very crowded one and, in order to be heard, many writers seem to imagine that they have to be even bolder.

Thus, for example:

If there ever was a race between India and China, it's over. China's economy is three times the size of India's The law of compounding tells us that India can overtake China economically only if there are drastic and sustained shifts in both countries' trajectories that last for decades.
Indeed, but the revenge of the particular on the general is that drastic shifts do occur. India and China face multiple political uncertainties. The relationship between them and economic trends is unclear. Or again,
foreign policy is a matter of costs and benefits, not theology.
Really? What I assume Zakaria means is that it should be, which is a different proposition.

Turning from tone to content leaves a more positive impression. Zakaria writes ever-fluently, his subject is interesting and he adds a useful perspective to the familiar argument about relative American decline in a more multi-centred world, a process of course that has been continuous from the 1960s.

There is much of interest on India and China, and the reflections on American developments are thoughtful. The advice is for the soft-power of guiding consultation and co-operation, and for a need for prioritisation guided by broad rules not narrow interests.

President Bush is criticised for squandering legitimacy which is somewhat harsh given the nature of Russian, Chinese, Indian and European Union politics, and there is a clear preference for the mood-music of the Clinton administration.

Possibly this cosmopolitan, New York-based account of how America should-be lacks an understanding of Zakaria's adopted country, but it makes for a relaxed summer read.

Jeremy Black is author of Altered States: America Since the Sixties and Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony.

To read Richard D. North's take on The Post-American World, see: Fareed Zakaria is a journalist not a guru - argues Richard D. North: The Post-American World - Fareed Zakaria.

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