Sep 26th 2008

Fareed Zakaria: The Post-American World – A Book Review

Above there is an interview with Fareed Zakaria by the New Perspectives Quarterly about his book "The Post-American World". Below there is a summary of the book as for a background for the interview.

Zakaria argues that America's relative weight in the world is in decline. It is not a question of America's decline as such, but about the rise of everybody else, which will end the Western world's hegemony in world affairs.

The rise of the West started in Italy in the fifteenth century during the period called, maybe misleadingly, the Renaissance. Men like Copernicus and Galileo gave birth to modern science. The years between 1450 and 1550 marked, according to Zakaria "the most significant break in human history - between faith, ritual, and dogma, on the one hand, and observation, experimentation, and critical thought, on the other"; and produced modernity in form of science and technology, commerce and capitalism. Europe was followed by the rise of the United States in the closing years of the nineteenth century, when the industrialized United Sates became the most powerful nation since the imperial Rome.

Zakaria argues that we are now living a power shift, which he calls "the rise of the rest", as countries all over the world have adopted originally Western modern thinking with the result that they are experiencing unprecedented economic growth. The growth has taken place almost throughout the world, i.e. not only in Asia. In 2006 and in 2007, 124 countries grew at a rate of 4% or more. The West's share of the total diminishes, while the less developed countries are catching up after having adopted Western economic principles. The West's relative decline is therefore a result of its success of having exported its thinking.

The developing countries' adoption of the Western model of modernity has led to almost one-fourth of the world's population (1.5 billion people), speaking some level of functional English. Companies are run according to "standard" Western practices, starting from double-entry bookkeeping, which is of Italian origin. Government institutions have become more alike, encompassing parliaments, regulatory agencies, and independent central banks. Clothing has become similar from blue jeans to Western business suits. Books, movies, and television shows are becoming more standardized in order to attract the largest possible audiences.

The financial force that has powered the new era is the free movement of capital. Most Western countries removed controls in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, between 1990 and 2007, the global economy grew from 22.8 trillion to 53.3 trillion, and global trade increased 133 percent.

Zakaria sees many positive aspects in the rise of the rest, such as a decline in poverty and violence.

Poverty.During the past two decades, about two billion people have entered the world of markets and trade. This has reduced the number of poor dramatically. The share of people living on a dollar a day has decreased from 40% in 1981 to 18% in 2004 and is expected to decline to 12% by 2015.

Violence. Zakaria claims that war and organized violence has declined dramatically over the last two decades. We are today arguably living in the most peaceful time of the human history. The "war on terror" will persist, but it is the governments that have the upper hand. The Islamic terrorists do not, according to Zakaria, form a monolithic foe. Instead there are several terrorist groups with differing agendas, enemies, and friends. They are "small local gangs of misfits hoping to attract attention through nihilism and barbarism". They do not have the support of the main Islamic population. "On an ideological level, it presents no competition to the Western-originated model of modernity that countries across the world are embracing". (See also John Mueller's article "The US Terrorist Threat Is Overblown" on FACTS & ARTS.)

Global economic growth has produced its own problems, which Zakaria calls "the problems of plenty". Due to increased demand, the price of oil has risen. Commodity prices have been at a 200-year high. By 2015 the world population will be eight billion people, which will require crop yields to reach four tons per hectare, up from three today. There is also a scarcity of water. In the twentieth century, world population tripled, but the use of water increased sixfold. An average American uses 400 litres of water per day. In poor countries the figure is 40 litres per capita.

'Modernity' does not equal 'Western'. Zakaria quotes Samuel P. Huntington, who argues that becoming modern is about industrialization, urbanization, and rising levels of literacy, education, and wealth. The qualities for a Western society are, in contrast: classical legacy, Christianity, separation of church and state, the rule of law, civil society. Western civilization is not universal, it is unique. "The Rest" have different cultural backgrounds. The Rest are adopting modernity in ways that fit them and are adding their contribution to the concept of "modern". They are increasingly interested in themselves, their own economic development being their main goal. They form alliances that fit them and pay less attention to the only super power in the world the United States. The often-expressed hatred towards America is turning into indifference towards it. Thus the title of Zakaria's book "The post-American world".

State and the society. Economic development means also more pluralistic societies. The governments must yield part of the power to various players in a society, such as independent central banks, companies, multi-national companies, trade unions, various non-governmental organizations such as environmentalists; and in particular to the markets. The state and the society become distinctively separate concepts.

China. The central issue for the emerging new world order is how a stronger China will use its power. Zakaria searches for the answer in religious and philosophical backgrounds, which according to Zakaria have had implications for countries' foreign policies. "Historically, countries influenced by Christianity and Islam have developed an impulse to spread their views and convert people to their faith. That missionary spirit is evident in the foreign policy of countries as diverse as Britain, The United States, France, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. In case of Britain and the United States…. the Protestant sense of purpose at the core of their foreign policies has made a deep mark on global affairs."

China's cultural background is Confucianism. Confucius was a teacher, not a prophet. His writings are non-religious. He warns against thinking in divine terms and instead sets out rules for acquiring knowledge, behaving ethically, maintaining social stability, and creating a well-ordered civilization. Zakaria draws the bold conclusion that: "Simply being China, and becoming a world power, in a sense fulfils its historical purpose."

"Simply being China" might be smart for China, but challenging for the West. Zakaria: "Were China to push its weight around, anger its neighbours, and frighten the world, Washington would be able to respond with a set of effective policies" … "But … what if China gradually expands its economic ties, acts calmly and moderately, and slowly enlarges its sphere of influence, seeking only greater weight, friendship, and influence….. slowly pushing Washington onto the sidelines in Asia."

India. Zakaria, who was born in India and moved to the United States at the age of 18, sees India as America's natural ally in spite of their clear differences.

India's main religion is Hinduism, which according to Zakaria is not a "religion" in the Abrahamic sense, rather a loose philosophy that has no answers but merely questions. Its guiding principle is ambiguity. Zakaria quotes the "Creation Hymn" in Hinduism's most central text, the Rig Ved and compares it with the certainties of the Book of Genesis:

"Who really knows, and who can swear,

How creation came, when or where!

Even gods came after creation's day,

Who really knows, who can truly say

When and how did creation start?

Did He do it? Or did He not?

Only He, up there, knows, maybe;

Or perhaps, not even He."

Zakaria writes that in Hinduism there is no core set of beliefs, no doctrine, no commandments. Nothing is required, nothing is forbidden. You can respect some beliefs and not others. You can pray or not pray. You can be a vegetarian or eat meat. Zakaria adds that Hindus are deeply practical and their mind-set is to live and let live.

What makes India and the West similar is the English language. The British planted the language in India. It functions as the lingua franca of India, which has some 20 official languages. English is also the working language of the well educated. With the English language, India has the access to modernity.

Other similarities with the West are democracy, a genuine private sector, established rights of property and contract, independent courts, and the rule of law. Zakaria writes that "Indians are extremely comfortable with and well disposed toward America".

India's growth is taking place bottom-up rather than top-down - it is messy, chaotic, and largely unplanned. "It is as if hundreds of millions of people had suddenly discovered the keys to unlock their potential." The economic growth is taking place regardless of the government. There is, to a degree, a separation of the society and the state.

But the majority of Indians are still very poor and poorly educated. Female literacy, as an example, is only 48 percent. Corruption, India's main disease, is widespread.

Other countries. Zakaria does not write much about other countries. He seems to have a positive view about the European Union. Oil-based economies he considers to be artificial and unsustainable. South America, Africa and Russia he hardly mentions. This tells something about where he thinks the future will lies.

Below an interview of Zareed Zakaria by the BBC:


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