Monday, May 4, 2009

Books: The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria

In the introductory pages of this book, published one year ago, just months before the onset of the “Financial Crisis,” Zakaria outlines various contemporary political crises and asks whether it is strange that the economy is so robust in spite this turmoil. He then explains that this is not strange at all, that the economy has often before charged forward in spite of political strife, citing World War II and Cold War as examples.

While recent history has revealed Zakaria’s crystal ball to be cloudy, it certainly has not rendered the main thrust of his argument—that America is no longer the “center” of the world—moot. Indeed, the title, however catchy, reads a bit more dramatically than the actual book; Zakaria is not writing about a world without America, merely one in which the American economy is no longer the only driving economy. Our singular, monopolistic power is being decentralized by the rising economic powers of China and India.

Zakaria is not the first to make this argument; in fact, it is a truth that seems to be as plain as day to a person at all engaged in current events. Like many political science hard covers, The Post-American World is a quick, easy read filled with easily digested bite-sized morsels of fact. That said, a number of sound-bites are valid arguments, especially when he wanders into more academic territory and acknowledges that a unified “Asia,” as the West understands it, is a construct. (I found this particularly vindicating given my recent experience at the Guggenheim.)

Perhaps as an Indian, or perhaps as an American, Zakaria is far more forgiving in his descriptions of India than of China (he suggests that growth in India is slower than in China because it is more organic; in China, decisions are made from the top down, and implemented based on efficiency and profit maximization, whether or not hundreds of people lose their homes in the process. This is not the case in democratic India.)

Ultimately, the “American way of life” is not in any particular danger; if we are losing economic hegemony, we continue to maintain firm cultural hegemony, so that progress to China and India means making those countries look more like our own. Frankly, I find the so-called “aspirational” tendencies of contemporary “emerging” nations rather tragic, but from a strictly protectionist, American standpoint, it is something over which to gloat, or in which to simply take comfort. In the Post-American World, strangely enough, more of the world looks like America—for better or for worse.

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