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September 12, 2008

Fareed Zakaria is a journalist not a guru - argues Richard D. North: The Post-American World - Fareed Zakaria

Posted by Richard D. North

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

This is not a book about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else.
So says our engaging author in his opening words. Damn, and there we were hoping he'd be telling us about an unprecedented eclipse and, oh, whatever. And then he blew it altogether by going on Newsnight and saying his bet was that the US would be "top dog" for a long while yet.

Sweeping, and over-reaching
His book sweeps us along alright, in quite a good way, but he fails his title, says rather little that matters, and much else that doesn't bear inspection. Hang in to the end and you'll especially like this book if you think Bush Jnr wasted his years. You will have a further instalment of Mr Zakaria's anxieties about the American polity (an emerging illiberalism in its democracy) as charted in his The Future of Freedom.

But to get there, you have first to read Mr Zakaria's thesis and it seems wobbly. Surely for us to have a Post-American World, we must have or have had an American one? That case isn't made here.

The puny US hegemony
It seems Mr Zakaria believes that America has been the world leader since the end of the nineteenth century and that

for the last twenty years, that dominance has been unrivalled, a phenomenon unprecedented in modern history.
He calls the recent "unipolar" years an "imperium".

Let's pause there for a moment and wonder whether we agree. Wouldn't we suggest that Germany, China, Japan and Russia - to say nothing of Great Britain, France and India, were all quite big autonomous players in the last hundred-odd years? America leant a mighty helping hand on the mainland of Europe and elsewhere when other very powerful players got out of hand.

Later, it threw its weight around to some effect in Japan, South America and South-east Asia, but hardly conclusively and never imperially. Its adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan (which may yet turn out valuable) reminded us that it was never committed or cruel enough to match a proper imperium, say Britain's Pax Britannica, let alone Rome's empire.

So part of Mr Zakaria's problem is that America has always been a rich and well-armed country in a vibrant world. He is on safer ground when he says that'll be the picture in the future. So this is a book about what won't change.

Beyond that, this book doesn't help us predict the history which is unfolding. Mr Zakaria says China will get richer and remain very hard to second guess. Will it become nationalistic, imperialistic and bossy? Or will its Confucian genes dominate, and have a state which satisfies itself with being useful to its citizens? I'm glad Mr Zakaria doesn't say, because it seems obvious that no-one knows. And that presumably includes the Chinese.

Likewise, Zakaria says India will get richer and stay democratic. But he is ambivalent - rightly, surely - as to whether India's democracy contributes more to the stability in its chaos or to the chaos in its stability. He likes the vibrancy in India's culture, and thinks America has something similar. Come to that, he is ambivalent as to whether the liveliness in India's culture and democracy will more show themselves in accelerating the country's increase in wealth or in the failure of its economic growth to be even more stellar. Quite.

Tell us more about the rest of the world
Mr Zakaria is strikingly deficient on the rest of the rest. We get bits and pieces on other countries, but really it's as though only the US and China and India were of interest. This is odd since our interest is piqued by the idea that in the new world it may be that nearly everyone is of interest. Globalization may mean that a big handful of players command a smaller percentage of the world's attention. "The rest" may be much more reckonable. Just because the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation don't seem to be having a very wonderful time these days, or even this decade, doesn't mean that they won't be much more important.

Mr Zakaria does almost say as much. He seems to be the kind of American who likes Europe and wishes the US had been more multilateral and less ideological over the Bush years. It's hardly an original thought, though I suppose it's consonant with the idea that "the rest" will matter more. The Americans will have to talk with them. Indeed, the author thinks that the US should adopt the Bismarckian strategy of getting on better with each of the countries of the world than they do with anyone else.

But whether multilateralism is what we need of the US is not so sure. We can easily imagine that America will become more modest, but if that amounted to isolationism we might rue the development. A modest and multilateral US could shelter behind the failures of the UN and WTO and wash its hands of leadership in rather a bad way.

A journalist not a guru
Mr Zakaria is a very attractive guide. He is not faux-Olympian. He reads widely and courteously acknowledges those who impress him. He is more a journalist than a guru. Thus we learn that President Bush has a 2,000-strong entourage when he travels. And that, contrary to canard, the US trains more engineers per capita than either China or India.

Maybe I'd been lax, but it took Mr Zakaria to tell me that Albert Speer Jnr did for the Chinese Olympics the same sort of triumphalist town-planning that his father did for Hitler's Nuremburg. I don't suppose it means anything, but it is fascinating to hear that the son disavows the comparison:

This is bigger, much bigger.
I was fascinated to learn that the Moguls built the Taj Mahal with primitive energy:
They built a ramp ten miles long just to move materials up to the 187-foot-high dome.
The point being that extravagance of effort can disguise lack of ingenuity.

Mr Zakaria does have one big message. It is that the US is a strong society but a poor state. Actually, he doesn't seem all that clear on this point either, since he mourns the vibrancy he met as a young immigrant from India a generation ago. Anyway, he thinks the US's politics is flighty and its bureaucracy clunky.

I am inclined to think that Mr Zakaria may be overdoing the gloom. Surely the foreign affairs and military establishments of the US are now populated with more experienced, case-hardened people than for years? They will be matched by a similar generation in the foreign ministries and armies of the rest, and not least the UK. There's no reason to suppose that these people will repeat whatever mistakes were made by the Blair and Bush governments. Mr Zakaria gives them food for thought, but if they listen too hard to him, they may make some new ones of his devising.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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

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