Saturday, November 29, 2008

Zakaria's Post-American World

I finished this book (which I highly recommend) just days before the Mumbai attacks, and it seems like there's little better time to listen to what its market-centric Mumbai-raised ethnic Muslim author might have to say about things.

I'm also glad to see that our president-elect read it (I'm not sure if the people who circulated this email were trying to outrage Americans by out-and-out lying about the contents of the book, or just trying to reach a certain demographic disturbed by the idea that the next president might read voluntarily). If PAW's popularity at the San Francisco Public Library is any indication, everyone else likes it too (they have 16 copies and I had to wait for 2 months to get one after I put it on reserve). I was pleased to discover that my own priorities match those of a recognized international relations expert like Zakaria, namely: 1) China, 2) Climate change and resource issues and 3) religious fundamentalism and violence (a distant third). His conclusions:

1. The economic expansion of the world at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century is good for everyone because it eliminates poverty and decreases violence, and results from the increasing liberalization of economies around the world, especially including developing economies. (Note: he wrote the book before the depth of the 2008 Credit Crisis became apparent, but I think he would argue that this will still be seen in the future as a bump in the road.)

2. The US government as the head of the Western world order has largely been the guardian of liberal democracy and the economic liberalization process, despite its occasional mis-steps and hypocrisies. In the multipolar world that is emerging in the wake of global economic growth, the U.S. cannot expect to maintain this role, especially not if it continues failing to set priorities.

3. In prior eras, threats to world stability like German nationalism or Russian and Chinese communism were real threats only because they had real allies and their ideologies were seen as viable alternatives to liberal democracy and capitalism.

4. By extension, Zakaria sees the acts of Al Qaeda in the same light as does Francis Fukuyama, in Fukuyama's words "a desperate rearguard action" which will be a footnote to history. (I will assume he would have spent more time developing this argument if his book had come out in late 2008.) By further extension Zakaria states that that the U.S. has been distracted by Islamic terrorism from the real challenges it faces, which stem directly from the emergence of economic multipolarity. Today there are two brands of neocons, the orthodox neocons who continue trying to make an industry out of scaremongering, as Zakaria puts it, and the reformed neocons like Fukuyama who, like Zakaria, view religious fundamentalist violence as something to be dealt with but as something not coming close to threatening the foundations of modern civilization.

5. Finally, global economic growth is only threatened by climate change and resource depletion. The book is not an environmental polemic but he does mention these problems, especially where China's growth is concerned.

The book ends with a warning not to focus on populist social issues as he bemoans of his native India, and he strongly emphasizes in an extensive analysis of British decline starting not with the First World War but the Boer War that economics drives history (not the first time we've seen a UK-US model for the US-China relationship in place of a USSR-US model). The US is in an economically stronger position than the British Empire ever was, and has been in it for far longer. My favorite statistic in the book is that in 1907 Britain produced more bicycles than the U.S. by a factor of 4 to 1; the U.S. outproduced Britain in automobiles 12 to 1. Possibly bicycle revenues in 1907 were a greater portion of both country's domestic product than automobiles, but of course the trend would have quickly made that fact obsolete, and I hope the point here is clear. We can't afford to become distracted and lose sight of the heart of our economic strength, our universities, which will continue to be the launching pads for innovation that drives the global economy, not just our own, and continues to tie other economies to us.

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