Five years ago Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek‘s International Edition editor, splashed onto the public intellectual scene with The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. It’s somewhat heterodox, at least for the mainstream, observation that liberal democracy is more than simple majoritarianism, earned him some notoriety. Enough so that he could receive a fawning profile in New York Magazine. But while five years ago Fareed promoted some rather academically well known but transgressive ideas about the necessity for institutional, economic and cultural supports for a flourishing democratic polity, in The Post-American World he plays the role of the golden-tongued expositor of conventional wisdom. The basic thesis of the The Post-American World is that as the 21st century proceeds the United States will have to resituate itself in a multi-player world where it is the most powerful actor, instead of being the only agent on stage. China & India rise, globalization brings wealth, terrorism is a manageable, and no longer being #1 in every metric does not imply decline. The big picture is dime-a-dozen, but Fareed’s fleshing out of the argument is littered with facts which shed light on subtle points in regards to the precise dynamics across which the arc of history will be played out.
The Post-American World is anchored by a series of extended essays which pass themselves off as chapters tied together only loosely by the theme of the book. In fact, sometimes I felt I was reading selections from Foreign Affairs, a journal to which I once subscribed and for which Fareed served as managing editor. After a perfunctory précis the The Post-American World dives into a brisk calming narrative where Zakaria makes the case that despite the fact that history has not ended, it is definitely not regressing. He reaffirms the power & the plenty of the modern world, the forward progress in terms of battling poverty and generating wealth despite the looming threat of anomie posed by Islamic terrorism. In short, 9/11 did not change everything, it was simply a minor course correction. Nor does Zakaria believe that North Korea or Iran pose existential threats. Some of you may be curious as to why he would address such alarmist conceptions, but the power of such apocolyptic ideas to shape American foreign policy seems manifest and so it must be named and repudiated as the fevered dreams which gripped us in the wake of shocking tragedy.
With the task of assuaging our fears past him The Post-American World transforms into a “cliff notes” economic history which pulls us from the past to the present, and attempts to put into perspective the unique moment in history which we’re observing. Zakaria references several prominent economic historians, Greg Clark and Angus Maddison, in the process of transmitting the received orthodoxy of this discipline. It seems that Northwestern Europe was already, on a per capita basis, the wealthiest region of the world centuries before the Great Divergence, which ushered in the era of increasing returns on technological innovation and the breakout from the Malthusian Trap. In the process he repeats some of the arguments from The Future of Freedom which suggest particular preconditions for why Europe was poised for this particular take off due to changes which date back to the High Medieval period. As the chapter closes we now move past the European moment and gaze upon the vistas of a world where the rest besides the West look to be retaking their conventional place in the order of things.
The next two chapters deal with China, the potential rival to the United States, and India, the potential ally. It is here that one might confuse The Post-American World for the rehash of conventional wisdom that you might find in Newsweek, how many times have you read about the rise of China and India after all? Despite this subtle details which massage the margins of the tried & true narrative are emphasized; from China’s autocratic nature to the chaos of India. Zakaria claims, I believe correctly, that the race between China and India is China’s to lose, not only does it have a head start but its rate of growth is still higher. By simple deduction from these axioms the inference is clear that India will not catch up unless it can exceed China’s rate of growth sufficiently in the future. Despite the awakening of these two demographic and cultural giants to produce the post-American world between them, it is important to note that for the foreseeable future the United States will still remain the Coca-Cola to their Pepsis; a jack of all trades and still master of some. Zakaria emphasizes again and again that the reduction of American power will be relative, not absolute. This is obvious and banal, but it needs reiterating to a public which is not comfortable with the details of international affairs.
One thing that definitely shows through in these two chapters is the reality that the author is a human being with his own biases and experiences which shape his viewpoint; the chapter on India was clearly written by someone with a far deeper knowledge of that society between the cracks than of China. Zakaria knows China as a journalist and public intellectual, as a wealthy New Yorker fêted in the halls of power. He knows India as someone born and raised in that nation until he went off to college in the United States. Not only does his treatment of India exhibit a personalized richness, Zakaria seems more familiar with the concrete quantitative factoids which adds body to the narrative.
Unfortunately it is here during these “close up” chapters of China & India that Zakaria also feels the need to make up “facts” and engage in some rather wild speculation about cultural differences which I believe warrant skepticism, and perhaps even dismissal. Fareed Zakaria writes as an American who was born and raised in India into a wealthy Muslim family. He also views the world through a cosmopolitan internationalist lens. He is a secular Muslim who once wrote a wine criticism column for Slate. And by criticism, I don’t mean he criticized wine consumption; no, Zakaria penned strange defenses of the quality of German wines of all things! (haram indeed) To me, the most annoying aspect of The Post-American World is the fact that Zakaria, a Muslim who doesn’t seem to believe in Islam, makes some rather tendentious claims about the differences which are entailed by the fact that the cultures of China and India do not believe in God. Or, to be more clear about it after some qualification, the Abrahamic God, the God of the Christians, Jews and Muslims. A Creator God who is the author of the heavens and the earth, the great lawgiver on high.
How does Zakaria support this claim? He points to a 2007 Pew Global Survey which suggested that China and Japan are two nations where the majority do not believe that one needs to believe in God to be moral, and that the United States is a nation where the majority do believe you need to believe in God to be moral. And that’s about it! Granted, he makes some allusions to Chinese history & philosophy and the nature of Hinduism, the latter thoroughly larded with his own observations of the Hindu religion supplemented by folk wisdom in regards to Eastern superstition. I believe that Zakaria is onto something real when he suggests there are deep-rooted philosophical differences on the level of culture between East Asia and the West. If you want a scholarly treatment of this from social science, I would read The Geography of Thought : How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. It confirms many of Zakaria’s contentions drawn from his reading of history; the Chinese philosophers were generally pragmatists more interested in case-by-case solution rather than grand principle. The Chinese do have an aversion to law as opposed to human judgement. But I don’t think that Zakaria handles the generalizations with much grace; intellectual history isin’t his field, and I think one can make a strong case that these philosophical generalizations might not necessarily mean that much on the level of the typical person. And that fact matters because Zakaria makes the case in The Post-American World for the universal rise of mass, as opposed to high elite, culture.
The treatment of Hinduism was just plain sloppy, and if the author of some of the passages in this book had been a white man he would be accused of crass cultural imperialism. Zakaria is not a chauvinistic Muslim; in fact, he is only marginally more Muslim than Richard Dawkins is an Anglican. If Richard Dawkins had emigrated to Morocco perhaps he would be asked to give the “Christian” perspective on the world? In any case, Zakaria’s description of Hinduism as polytheistic is correct on the popular level, many Hindus will tell you that they believe in 333 million gods (though how seriously they take this does vary from my experience). But at the same time he also states that Hinduism is a philosophy as opposed to a religion as such, and as a philosophy (e.g., Vedanta) Hinduism is usually not polytheistic at all, it is monistic/pantheistic. If Hinduism as a philosophy is polytheistic then so is Christianity. There are also devotional movements of some prominence within the Hindu which are explicitly theistic in a manner which would not be unfamiliar to followers of the Abrahamic religion (e.g., Hare Krishna). I won’t even address Zakaria’s cultural generalizations because one asks not to be taken seriously after such a sequence of contradictory assertions and fantastical analysis. The future will be one where cultural differences which will come into sharp relief will not be those noted and tabulated in the ivory tower, they will bubble-up from below in the differences of taste & preference. What has this to do with Rome or Jerusalem?
So it’s nice when Fareed moves to something he knows quite a bit about from first hand experience, the United States, its history, its economics, and its place in the world. Zakaria was a teenager when he was an Indian, and it shows. As an American he is an intellectual trained at elite institutions, and it shows. A decade ago he wrote From Wealth to Power, which chronicles the transition of the United States to a major actor on the world stage of international affairs in the last years of the 19th century. Some of the material from that work is deftly inserted into the narrative as Zakaria shifts the focus to the hyperpower of our time. Since most of his readers are likely to be Americans he can’t make do with embarrassingly obvious assertions, rather, he throws in surprising facts to allow us to grasp the historical perspective from startling new angles. For example, aside from the anomaly after World War II our nation’s proportion of world economic output has remained in the 20-25% range for almost a century! Zakaria shows that though we are for all practical purposes #1 in all measures, military and economic, cultural and technological, such was not always so, and such may not always be so. It seems likely that within a generation China will reach parity with the United States in terms of Gross National Product, but conversely it seems unlikely that the United States will cede ground as second on many of the other metrics. Will Mandarin replace English as the language of mass culture and science? Unlikely. Will a China confronting the specter of demographic transition be seeking parity with the United States on the field of arms by matching our expenditures on military equipment? That seems unlikely for any fiscally responsible state.
It is in tracing out the present and projecting the most likely trajectory into the future where Zakaria displays his most effortless erudition as he makes analogies with, and draws distinctions from, with the last hyperpower: Britain in the 19th century. By illustrating the dance of various parameters which come together to shape the nature of a state and its ability to act upon its intentions among the parliament of nations Zakaria highlights the importance of historical contigency. So doing he offers up a caution about the future, and emphasizes that his narrative is ultimately a high provisional one which makes the most plausible outcome constrained by the more deterministic demographic variables. It seems fair to say that only a multidisciplinary tapestry which weaves together historical, economic and social aspects, placed in a broader temporal and spatial framework, could add value to the knowledge base of an American target audience in regards to their own country. And so with the description and prediction out of the way Zakaria closes with prescription. Much of this seems common sense, but its validity is by necessity filtered through your norms. So I’ll just list them out and leave you to find out what he means by each….
2) Build broad rules, not narrow interests
3) Be Bismarck not Britain
4) Order à la carte
5) Think asymmetrically
6) Legitimacy is power