Global economic collapse.
The quagmire in Iraq.
China, the sleeping dragon, asserting itself.
There are so many geopolitical reasons to be anxious, afraid and pessimistic. Like many Americans, I’ve been feeling a foreboding sense of decline. In The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria* argues that America will not be the same kind of lone superpower it has been, but we have many reasons to be optimistic. Indeed, he posits that if the US faces the coming challenges with cooperation and adaptability, we can help shape a secure, prosperous post-American world.
The post-American world is “not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else,” Zakaria writes. Globalization and rising economic powers means that past paradigms (“integrate with the Western order, or reject it”) no longer apply. As he puts it, “The world is moving from anger to indifference, from Anti-Americanism to post-Americanism.” China and India are becoming major players. They will work to secure their interests and expand their influence. It’s not that the American share of the pie will get smaller, but the pie itself will get bigger.
After all of the boosterism, accusations, and cynical “othering” around the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I found Zakaria’s perspectives on China quite refreshing. China’s rapid growth has caused some Americans to fear China as an evil, inscrutable state. But Zakaria argues that the Chinese government is not intentionally malicious — its major priority has been non-confrontational economic growth, which has lifted millions out of poverty in the past 30 years. Furthermore, Chinese manufacturing flourishes, but it’s not a threat to America yet, as Americans are good at innovation and adding value. We benefit from the high profit areas of development and retail/marketing.
Innovation, of course, is key to growth, and growth is more critical for future success than wealth. For example, when Europe was reeling from the Black Plague, China could have led the world in discovery and innovation. Instead, it closed itself off, and disregarded new technologies.
Another country that paid a dear price for failing to innovate is Great Britain. It was known as the world’s workshop in the 19th century, but failed to compete against U.S. innovation in the 20th century.
But America is different; our economy demonstrates unique advantages. Even though “The Post-American World” was published before the mortgage crisis led to bank collapses, I suspect that the author would still maintain his optimistic views. Despite all our problems, the U.S. economy — however weakened — is still the largest in the world (comprising a quarter of the world’s G.D.P.).
There’s our “demographic vibrance.” As Zakaria points out, “Europe presents the most significant short-term challenge to the U.S. in the economic realm,” but Europe’s population is declining, and unlike the US, it is reluctant to allow and assimilate immigrants. Zakaria asserts, “America’s edge in innovation is overwhelmingly a product of immigration” and “this is what sets this country apart from the experience of Britain and all other historical examples of great powers.”
Then there’s our technology and innovation. Zakaria dispels the myth that our students are outperformed by foreign counterparts. The averaged statistics mislead (or rather, they reveal the inequality in our schools). Still, many of the top universities are located in the U.S., which attract top talents from around the world. We should retain them, too, instead of implement regressive immigration policies.
Unlike Great Britain, whose biggest challenge in maintaining its superpower was economic, Zakaria argues that America’s biggest challenge is political. He says that the post-American world will be multi-polar world. America can help this world be prosperous and stable by taking an active role, guided by principles of cooperation, consultation and compromise. The U.S. can’t make exceptions for itself when it comes to rules like nuclear weapons. The U.S. can’t solve all the world’s problems, but some larger problems, like climate change, require an organizer, and only if the U.S. maintains great relationships with all countries, can it be a successful facilitator. The U.S. must stop cowering in fear from terrorists (and overreacting to them), asserting its military might when diplomacy would do, re-gain its confidence, become open and inviting again, and re-gain legitimacy.
I think Zakaria is saying: It’s not only possible, but necessary, to approach the future with optimism.
Will America be optimistic, and take these steps towards mutual respect and collaboration? I hope so. Next on my optimism/pessimism reading list: Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father.
*A note about ideology: I think Zakaria makes many valid points grounded in research, reason and pragmatism. This should be adequate grounds for discussing his ideas; I hope ideology doesn’t get in the way of discourse. Some progressives may not find Zakaria sufficiently leftist, but I think that’s a poor reason for discrediting his work. I value his rigor in making clear, persuasive arguments. For example, when John McCain threw a Hail Mary and nominated Sarah Palin (and successfully galvanized the right), it seemed like lefties couldn’t recover from the sheer audacity. They hysterically bashed Palin amongst themselves, instead of responding productively and bringing the conversation back to real issues. So when Fareed Zakaria published an editorial articulating why Palin is bad for America, I took note.]
Book Review by Josef Joffe, NYTimes