Sep 26th 2008

Fareed Zakaria: The Post-American World – A Book Review

Above there is an interview with Fareed Zakaria by the New Perspectives Quarterly about his book "The Post-American World". Below there is a summary of the book as for a background for the interview.

Zakaria argues that America's relative weight in the world is in decline. It is not a question of America's decline as such, but about the rise of everybody else, which will end the Western world's hegemony in world affairs.

The rise of the West started in Italy in the fifteenth century during the period called, maybe misleadingly, the Renaissance. Men like Copernicus and Galileo gave birth to modern science. The years between 1450 and 1550 marked, according to Zakaria "the most significant break in human history - between faith, ritual, and dogma, on the one hand, and observation, experimentation, and critical thought, on the other"; and produced modernity in form of science and technology, commerce and capitalism. Europe was followed by the rise of the United States in the closing years of the nineteenth century, when the industrialized United Sates became the most powerful nation since the imperial Rome.

Zakaria argues that we are now living a power shift, which he calls "the rise of the rest", as countries all over the world have adopted originally Western modern thinking with the result that they are experiencing unprecedented economic growth. The growth has taken place almost throughout the world, i.e. not only in Asia. In 2006 and in 2007, 124 countries grew at a rate of 4% or more. The West's share of the total diminishes, while the less developed countries are catching up after having adopted Western economic principles. The West's relative decline is therefore a result of its success of having exported its thinking.

The developing countries' adoption of the Western model of modernity has led to almost one-fourth of the world's population (1.5 billion people), speaking some level of functional English. Companies are run according to "standard" Western practices, starting from double-entry bookkeeping, which is of Italian origin. Government institutions have become more alike, encompassing parliaments, regulatory agencies, and independent central banks. Clothing has become similar from blue jeans to Western business suits. Books, movies, and television shows are becoming more standardized in order to attract the largest possible audiences.

The financial force that has powered the new era is the free movement of capital. Most Western countries removed controls in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, between 1990 and 2007, the global economy grew from 22.8 trillion to 53.3 trillion, and global trade increased 133 percent.

Zakaria sees many positive aspects in the rise of the rest, such as a decline in poverty and violence.

Poverty.During the past two decades, about two billion people have entered the world of markets and trade. This has reduced the number of poor dramatically. The share of people living on a dollar a day has decreased from 40% in 1981 to 18% in 2004 and is expected to decline to 12% by 2015.

Violence. Zakaria claims that war and organized violence has declined dramatically over the last two decades. We are today arguably living in the most peaceful time of the human history. The "war on terror" will persist, but it is the governments that have the upper hand. The Islamic terrorists do not, according to Zakaria, form a monolithic foe. Instead there are several terrorist groups with differing agendas, enemies, and friends. They are "small local gangs of misfits hoping to attract attention through nihilism and barbarism". They do not have the support of the main Islamic population. "On an ideological level, it presents no competition to the Western-originated model of modernity that countries across the world are embracing". (See also John Mueller's article "The US Terrorist Threat Is Overblown" on FACTS & ARTS.)

Global economic growth has produced its own problems, which Zakaria calls "the problems of plenty". Due to increased demand, the price of oil has risen. Commodity prices have been at a 200-year high. By 2015 the world population will be eight billion people, which will require crop yields to reach four tons per hectare, up from three today. There is also a scarcity of water. In the twentieth century, world population tripled, but the use of water increased sixfold. An average American uses 400 litres of water per day. In poor countries the figure is 40 litres per capita.

'Modernity' does not equal 'Western'. Zakaria quotes Samuel P. Huntington, who argues that becoming modern is about industrialization, urbanization, and rising levels of literacy, education, and wealth. The qualities for a Western society are, in contrast: classical legacy, Christianity, separation of church and state, the rule of law, civil society. Western civilization is not universal, it is unique. "The Rest" have different cultural backgrounds. The Rest are adopting modernity in ways that fit them and are adding their contribution to the concept of "modern". They are increasingly interested in themselves, their own economic development being their main goal. They form alliances that fit them and pay less attention to the only super power in the world the United States. The often-expressed hatred towards America is turning into indifference towards it. Thus the title of Zakaria's book "The post-American world".

State and the society. Economic development means also more pluralistic societies. The governments must yield part of the power to various players in a society, such as independent central banks, companies, multi-national companies, trade unions, various non-governmental organizations such as environmentalists; and in particular to the markets. The state and the society become distinctively separate concepts.

China. The central issue for the emerging new world order is how a stronger China will use its power. Zakaria searches for the answer in religious and philosophical backgrounds, which according to Zakaria have had implications for countries' foreign policies. "Historically, countries influenced by Christianity and Islam have developed an impulse to spread their views and convert people to their faith. That missionary spirit is evident in the foreign policy of countries as diverse as Britain, The United States, France, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. In case of Britain and the United States…. the Protestant sense of purpose at the core of their foreign policies has made a deep mark on global affairs."

China's cultural background is Confucianism. Confucius was a teacher, not a prophet. His writings are non-religious. He warns against thinking in divine terms and instead sets out rules for acquiring knowledge, behaving ethically, maintaining social stability, and creating a well-ordered civilization. Zakaria draws the bold conclusion that: "Simply being China, and becoming a world power, in a sense fulfils its historical purpose."

"Simply being China" might be smart for China, but challenging for the West. Zakaria: "Were China to push its weight around, anger its neighbours, and frighten the world, Washington would be able to respond with a set of effective policies" … "But … what if China gradually expands its economic ties, acts calmly and moderately, and slowly enlarges its sphere of influence, seeking only greater weight, friendship, and influence….. slowly pushing Washington onto the sidelines in Asia."

India. Zakaria, who was born in India and moved to the United States at the age of 18, sees India as America's natural ally in spite of their clear differences.

India's main religion is Hinduism, which according to Zakaria is not a "religion" in the Abrahamic sense, rather a loose philosophy that has no answers but merely questions. Its guiding principle is ambiguity. Zakaria quotes the "Creation Hymn" in Hinduism's most central text, the Rig Ved and compares it with the certainties of the Book of Genesis:

"Who really knows, and who can swear,

How creation came, when or where!

Even gods came after creation's day,

Who really knows, who can truly say

When and how did creation start?

Did He do it? Or did He not?

Only He, up there, knows, maybe;

Or perhaps, not even He."

Zakaria writes that in Hinduism there is no core set of beliefs, no doctrine, no commandments. Nothing is required, nothing is forbidden. You can respect some beliefs and not others. You can pray or not pray. You can be a vegetarian or eat meat. Zakaria adds that Hindus are deeply practical and their mind-set is to live and let live.

What makes India and the West similar is the English language. The British planted the language in India. It functions as the lingua franca of India, which has some 20 official languages. English is also the working language of the well educated. With the English language, India has the access to modernity.

Other similarities with the West are democracy, a genuine private sector, established rights of property and contract, independent courts, and the rule of law. Zakaria writes that "Indians are extremely comfortable with and well disposed toward America".

India's growth is taking place bottom-up rather than top-down - it is messy, chaotic, and largely unplanned. "It is as if hundreds of millions of people had suddenly discovered the keys to unlock their potential." The economic growth is taking place regardless of the government. There is, to a degree, a separation of the society and the state.

But the majority of Indians are still very poor and poorly educated. Female literacy, as an example, is only 48 percent. Corruption, India's main disease, is widespread.

Other countries. Zakaria does not write much about other countries. He seems to have a positive view about the European Union. Oil-based economies he considers to be artificial and unsustainable. South America, Africa and Russia he hardly mentions. This tells something about where he thinks the future will lies.

Below an interview of Zareed Zakaria by the BBC:


If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com. Please note that Facts & Arts shares its advertising revenue with those who have contributed material and have signed an agreement with us.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "