The Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria.

Reviewed by Amitrajeet A. Batabyal

Since the conclusion of World War II, the
United States has periodically been fearful about losing its exalted status on the world stage. The first time was in the 1950s when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite. However, this fear turned out to have been unfounded. Next, high oil prices and slow growth within the United States in the 1970s led many experts to forecast the imminent rise of both Western Europe and Saudi Arabia and the demise of the United States. Again, these forecasts turned out to be largely erroneous. Finally, events occurring in the 1980s led many pundits to predict that Japan and not the United States was going to be the economic and technological superpower of the future. Once again, the predicted future did not coincide with actual events.

Given this state of affairs, yet another clarion call proclaiming the impending demise of the
United States would normally be cause for a yawn but, on this occasion, things are a little different. In this book, the author Fareed Zakaria is not predicting the downfall of the United States. Instead, he says clearly at the outset that this “is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else” (p. 1). More specifically, Zakaria’s central thesis is this: As far as military and political affairs are concerned, we live in a unipolar world in which the United States is the sole superpower. However, in every other dimension, the distribution of power is slowly but surely moving away from a position of American dominance. Put differently, we are moving away from an American dominated world to what Zakaria calls a “post-American world.” How should the United States conduct itself in this post-American world? Second, who are likely to be the key players in this new post-American world? These are the two key questions that are addressed by Zakaria in this book.

Let me take up the second question first. According to Zakaria, although several nations will play a role in a post-American world,
China and India will almost certainly play very dominant roles. To help the reader grasp this basic and yet very important point, Zakaria provides detailed commentary on where each of these two countries has been in the recent past, where they are now, and where they are likely to be in the future. With regard to China, he says unequivocally that China will not surpass the United States as the world’s only superpower. Even so, it is salient to keep in mind that “on issue after issue, [China] has become the second-most important country in the world, adding a wholly new element to the international system” (p. 93). Therefore, the United States needs to comprehend that the goal for China is not conflict but the avoidance of conflict. This discussion of China is eminently readable but there are a few quixotic aspects. On p. 98, without any corroborating evidence, Zakaria says that India is set to overtake China in growth. Second, on p. 115, he makes reference to a market in which companies are trying to maximize profits by raising prices. In this regard, it is useful to note that in modern economics, even in imperfectly competitive settings, companies are typically assumed to control quantity and not price. Further, even if they did control prices, it is certainly not obvious that raising prices will have a salutary impact on company profits.

Moving on to
India, Zakaria says that a central paradox confronts this nation today. Specifically, although its society is open and ready to take on the world, “its state---its ruling class---is hesitant, cautious, and suspicious of the changing realities around it” (p. 146). This has interesting implications for the future. On the one hand, India will have a larger role in international affairs than ever before and it will clearly dominate South Asia. On the other hand, notes Zakaria, “it may not become the global power that some hope for and others fear” (p. 165). Relative to the discussion on China, it is easier to poke holes in Zakaria’s analysis of India. For instance, on p. 143, he asserts that the principal reason for the emergence of the Manmohan Singh led secular government in India in 2004 was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) “incitement of hatred and violence.” This is untrue. The principal reason was the BJP’s orotund election campaign in which it repeatedly claimed that India was shining. The BJP’s claims notwithstanding, the fact of the matter is that India was shining for a relatively small minority of the population. To large segments of the rural population, India was either flickering or not shining at all. 

With regard to the conduct of the United States in this new era, Zakaria says that the outstanding task now “is to construct a new approach…that responds to a global system in which power is far more diffuse than ever before and in which everyone feels empowered” (p. 231). This can be done by following six tenets. These include selecting its priorities, working closely with allies, and agreeing on international rules of interaction. Perhaps most importantly, the
United States must work to bring its legitimacy back to the level it enjoyed before the presidency of George W. Bush.

Let me conclude this review with the following five observations. First, readers who are familiar with contemporary academic and popular writings on international affairs such as the writings of the
Yale University historian Paul Kennedy and the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman will not find a whole lot here that is new. Second, Zakaria exaggerates the virtues of the American educational system as far as its ability to train students to think is concerned. Third, on more than one occasion, the author’s referencing is sloppy and, in addition, this book has a fair number of typos in it. Fourth, one can certainly quibble with specific aspects of the analysis that is undertaken in this book. Finally, the above caveats notwithstanding, this is a very readable book that generally does a good job of predicting what a future multipolar world might look like. Therefore, I recommend this book to all those who wish to learn why, when confronted with new challenges, the United States ought not to “hunker down” but instead remain “a strikingly open and expansive country” (p. 258).

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