Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: The Post-American World

Book Review: The Post-American World

Author: Fareed Zakaria

Are new countries emerging to challenge the United States as the world’s leader?

By Bryan deRegt

“This is not a book about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else.” This is Zakaria’s opening line of The Post-American World and a point he has continued to make as he discusses his book. However, not everyone agrees with his assertion that he is not writing about the decline of the United States. Republicans made attacks on President Obama when he was photographed walking with the book during his first presidential campaign. The argument was that President Obama believes in this post-American world and that the US will fall from the elite. Mitt Romney said, “This is a president who fundamentally believes that this next century is the post-American century.” (Zakaria, 2012) These attacks have been rebuffed by most critics but it did draw attention to Zakaria’s book. Zakaria himself even wrote a rebuttal to Romney in the Washington Post explaining that his book is not about the decline of the United States. Ultimately, if anything, the publicity helped Zakaria as his book became a part of national media. Not all press is good press though for Zakaria. In August 2012, Zakaria was suspended from both Time magazine and CNN because he was found to have plagiarized several paragraphs from another author in one of his Time columns. This has no effect on his book but does change the credibility of the author a little bit. However, when reviewing the book, the key question comes back to whether the book predicts the fall of America or the rise of other nations. My question is whether there is really a difference and if it matters?

Before getting into why America may decline or where emerging countries might have an edge over the United States in the future, it is important to look at where the US has advantages. Zakaria gives his point of view but it is not clear that he is correct. He lays out some clear advantages and others have their own as well. Two such American advantages are demographics and innovation.

In the short-term, the biggest threat to the US is Europe. Europe is strongly developed and has the only financial centers that can rival America. In fact, London is probably the dominant financial center in the world right now although an argument can be made for New York. However, future demographics for the United States and Europe show a clear American advantage. The US population is predicted to increase by 65 million by 2030 while Europe is predicted to remain relatively stagnant. More importantly, while the US population increases, the amount of children will continue to outnumber the elderly. Europe is predicted to be the opposite with the amount of elderly doubling the amount of children. This is a problem for countries because if a country gets too old then the working class will begin to shrink while having to support a larger elderly population. This puts a large strain on the economy unless the elderly continue to work until a later age. The elderly tend to also consume less. Economic growth is driven by consumption. Therefore, these demographics give America a clear advantage over Europe.

Innovation is an American advantage demonstrated best by the quality of US universities. People from all over the world come to America because they can get the best higher education. Even public high schools in the US are stronger than many think as they are good at encouraging critical thinking. This education system leads to innovation in the economy. The US has an elite ability to create new ideas and in some ways more importantly, has the ability to commercialize these ideas. This innovation will help America remain an economic superpower.

Not everything makes the future look as bright for the United States. There are also many disadvantages which help form the basis for Zakaria predicting the rise of other nations and a post-American world. The two disadvantages that I will focus on are America’s political landscape and America isolation.

Politics in the United States have become dominated by extremists on both sides of the aisle. It is difficult for any politician to get elected out of the Democratic or Republican primaries while being moderate. This creates candidates who are unlikely to reach across the aisle and work with the other party on an issue. Additionally, if a politician does decide he disagrees with his party on a major issue, he is unlikely to be supported by the party base when he runs for re-election. This is an issue because as the saying goes, “A politician’s first job is to get re-elected.” This focus leads to very short sighted politics. Zakaria discusses the political landscape by comparing to the British Empire. The British had bankrupted themselves following World War I and the economy did not recover and missed out on the boom the US economy received following World War II. Britain was able to stay a strong power because of their political leaders like Winston Churchill. America is facing the opposite problem of having a strong economy but weak political leaders that is a disadvantage for America.

Isolation is the other major disadvantage facing the United States. America tends to equate the modern world with the western world while feeling that the American way is the best for all countries. Zakaria argues that America especially the politicians needs to be more open to other cultures and allow for diversity in the way situations are handled. Along these same ideas, he makes an argument that the war on terror is stretching the US too think and better diplomacy would be more effective going as far to say that military action is what terrorist want from the US.

With these advantages and disadvantages in mind, Zakaria outlines six guidelines for the US to follow. America needs to “Choose” specific goals. As new countries emerge as superpowers, they will be less influenced by America and make decisions off their own agenda. America will need to get used to not getting everything and anything they want. Second, the US needs to “Build broad rules, not narrow interests.” America needs to give up power to international bodies instead on issues alone. Broader guidelines and long term goals should be the focus over short gains like the war on terror. Along these same lines, the US should focus on “Being Bismarck not Britain.” The British Empire tried to always be as strong as their rivals while Bismarck tried to be the diplomatic hub of Europe. The US should not focus as much on being the strongest military power in the world and instead be an international peace maker. To help accomplish these goals, America should “Order a la carte.” The US is in an ideal position as a member of NATO and the UN along with other international bodies. Different situations would be better solved by different organizations and the US should take advantage of having different options. Along with allowing the international bodies to do more, America needs to begin “Thinking asymmetrically.” The war on terror is expensive and makes the US military thin so new approaches need to be tried. Finally, America needs to remember that “Legitimacy is power.” For a long time, the US was the only superpower and the world was ok with that. However, the US lost a lot of their international recognition and legitimacy by entering the Iraq War without much international support. American ideals can still be important to the world but America’s actions have to support these ideals in order to maintain and gain back legitimacy in the eyes of the international committee.

Personally, I disagree with Zakaria that the US will lose its position in the world. While there are emerging countries like Brazil, China, India, Turkey, etc., they all have major issues to getting on the same level as the United States in the international community as a superpower. To be on the same level, the country would have to have the same type of economic, political, and military strength as the US has able to maintain and seems likely to continue to maintain in the future.

Globalization probably makes it more difficult for a superpower to fall than it was in the past so the British Empires and older superpowers are not necessarily relevant to the current United States. Financial markets worldwide are very focused on America (as well as London.) This is a big area where China cannot match the US because of their closed economy and lack of currency freely traded in the market. Additionally, companies are becoming large international conglomerates who have as much if not more power than international governments. Political donations by the companies even allow them to shape government decisions. Many of the largest companies are focused on the US market giving the US an edge on competitors. This edge is likely to maintain as Americans are large consumers who have a culture that embraces going into debt unlike Japan where their culture embraces savings.

Besides globalization, the other big issue that will aid the US as they try to maintain their role as world superpower is the American military strength and international alliances. The US has the most powerful military right now and continues to invest a lot of money into defense so there should not be a drop off in the future. Many of the top defense contractors are based in the US so this always gives an edge into new military innovation. Besides pure military power, the US has strong alliances with most other world powers. Mexico and Canada are also strong allies on each border protecting America from ever having to fight a war on its own land while having outposts close to emerging world powers if military conflict did arise. This strong military position as well as being an economic power leaves the US well positioned for the future although Zakaria does have some strong arguments to the contrary.