Monday, 22 June 2009

“The Post-American World”, by Fareed Zakaria (Penguin)


The Rise of the Rest, and what it means for America and the World

“This is a book not about the decline of America but rather the rise of everyone else.” This is a pretty interesting statement, especially for foreign policy realists, who consider a gain in power by one necessitates a decline for another. But, Zakaria is not attempting to prove Chalmers Johnson and Niall Fergusson’s “blowback” theory, rather he offers a mostly hopeful sketch of global politics in the 21st Century: “the rise of the rest need not be destabilizing. America is not sinking fast, about to be replaced by a single country.”

In The Post-American World, Zakaria (international editor of Newsweek and a host on CNN) considers what the world might look like when the United States no longer holds its clear position of dominance. This post-American environment will be “one defined and directed from many places and by many people.” While this process has clearly begun, with the 2008 Economic Crisis and its global shockwaves, the United States still holds a unique position in the world, and remains a template for modernism and development (with undoubted cracks in the facade starting to show). Its ‘hard power’ (military might) remains unquestioned, but the reality is that across the world, “economics is trumping politics”, and the United States has recently not been doing too well, economically.

The author provides in-depth examinations of how the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) might affect the world system as they grow their power and influence – whether at the expense of the US or not. He identifies this as just the latest in a string of three major “tectonic power shifts” – the first was the rise of the Western World; the second was the Rise of the United States; and now we are seeing the Rise of the Rest. The best parts are when Zakaria discusses the rise and development of modern China.

Zakaria also looks at the state of the world as it is, stripping it of the media-inflated sense of insecurity and imbalance, and also addressing anti-American sentiment (“Everywhere you go, people angrily denounce American foreign policy. But where is the actual evidence of regional instability? Most Middle Eastern countries… are booming”). It’s refreshing for a journalist to write about the shortcomings and faults of the media, and Zakaria argues that “war and organized violence have declined dramatically over the last two decades”, but “the immediacy of the [TV] images and the intensity of the twenty-four-hour news cycle combine to produce constant hyperbole.”

Ultimately, Zakaria argues, the United States and the rising powers will all need to work together: “we now live in a world i which common action is not just desirable, but vital… International cooperation is a tricky animal. Even where there’s a will, there is often no clear way” to proceed. The author argues that the US is still needed to provide “rules, institutions, and services that help solve the world’s major problems, while giving other countries – crucially, the emerging powers – a stake in the system.” Unfortunately, the United States has not been doing this of late – but neither has any other country.

Zakaria is a shrewd observer of the global stage. The Post-American World is an excellently written and argued book, and one that should be read by all who have an interest in how the future of international politics might look. However, there are a couple of shortcomings here. Firstly, I spent a long time waiting for that “eureka” moment – a concept that would (re-)define how I looked at the world. Perhaps this is down to timing (I didn’t read the hardback edition, so I’m a year behind, I guess); as books of a similar theme start to overflow the shelves, it’s possible that the book’s content has just become too familiar.

This is not to say that one should ignore the book. From not seeing international affairs as a zero-sum game, the book gets its greatest strength. It is a popular feature of many books looking to the future to see the US in an unstoppable downward spiral. Zakaria does recognize that there are plenty of examples that might suggest a decline (the state of the dollar, the troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan), but it is not the end. While China’s rise is nothing less than spectacular, it brings with it considerable potential for disaster and/or disruption: it’s growing too fast, and environmental issues are acute.

Despite this, though, it is an excellent introduction to the changing nature of global politics and economics – accessible and well written by an intelligent, gifted journalist. I would recommend this before many, if not all, of the other books of a similar theme and topic.

Highly recommended among an increasingly-crowded field.

Also try: Bill Emmott, Rivals (2008); Parag Khanna, The Second World (2008); Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere (2008)

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