Goodbye America? Not yet (Book Review)

August 28th, 2008 - 10:39 am ICT by IANS  

Book: The Post-American World; Author: Fareed Zakaria; Publisher: Penguin/Viking; Price: Rs. 499.Don’t write an obituary of the American superpower yet. It’s not that America is declining, but everyone else is rising - this is the “great story of our times” Fareed Zakaria tells in his new book that goes to the heart of tectonic power shifts to the non-Western world in the 21st century.

Take a few random examples, says Zakaria, of this “great transformation taking place around the world”. The tallest building in the world is now in Taipei, the world’s richest man is Mexican, its largest publicly traded corporation is Chinese, the biggest plane is built in Russia and Ukraine, the biggest refinery is under construction in India, and the world’s largest factories are all in China.

What’s more, Zakaria says, “quintessentially American icons have been appropriated by foreigners” with Singapore flaunting the world’s largest Ferris wheel and Macau showing off the world’s largest casino.

“The biggest movie industry, in terms of both movies made and tickets sold, is Bollywood, not Hollywood. Of the top 10 malls in the world, only one is in the US; the world’s biggest is in Beijing,” he writes.

If all this gives the impression that “the most powerful country in the world since ancient Rome” is fading into the sunset, don’t be gulled by appearances. In “The Post-American World”, Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and one of the most influential commentators in Washington, tries to deflate the hype about the “rise of Asia” and pits it against hard facts about American power.

The US economy has averaged about 25 percent of global GDP for 130 years and will continue to do so; it’s economy at $14 trillion is more than four times that of China; and nearly 14 times that of India. Its military spending is nearly equivalent to what the rest of the world spends on defence.

This assertion, coming as it does in the face of a pronounced plunge in America’s credibility largely because of its military intervention in Iraq and post-9/11 muscle-flexing, may sound like a lot of bravura to some, but Zakaria is not the kind known to indulge in irrational exuberance.

On the contrary, Zakaria’s assertion about America’s continuing pre-eminence in a new world with multiple powers - India, Russia, China, Brazil and many others - is argued passionately and backed by revealing statistics and close reasoning.

The author admits that the US, which has got used to unrivalled unipolar dominance after the collapse of the Soviet Union, will now have to accommodate itself to “the rise of the rest”. But if the US is to play the role of an “honest broker” in the future, the author argues, it has to craft “a new approach for a new era, one that responds to a global system in which power is more diffuse than ever before and in which everyone feels empowered”.

In the tone of an incurable optimist - a quintessential American trait - Zakaria offers a roster of suggestions that the future occupant of the White House will do well to listen to if he wishes to reclaim the US’ battered legitimacy.

Instead of giving the impression of behaving like an imperialistic bully, the powers-that-be in Washington should return to old-fashioned sturdy coalition-building on big-ticket global issues and be ready to “think asymmetrically” to deal with guerrilla terrorism and non-state actors.

And, most important, learn the fine art of striking a balance in dealing with new players. India is rising and while it is still some years behind China in economic growth and has some distance to travel before its Olympic moment, it could be a vital ally with its vibrant democracy and noisy civil society.

The nuclear deal the US has offered India is not so much about energy but has the potential to alter the strategic landscape, bringing India firmly and irrevocably on to the global stage as a major player, writes Zakaria, the author of “The Future of Freedom”.

China is a “challenger” in a very real sense, with its economy growing in 7-10 percent range for the last 30 years and its escalating spending on defence. “China today exports in a single day more than it exported in all of 1978,” Zakaria writes revealingly. “China operates on so large a scale that it can’t help changing the nature of the game.”

But there is no Chinese dream to which people aspire, Zakaria quotes a Singaporean scholar as saying. And therein lies the difference. “The US does not have the hand it had in 1945 or even in 2000.

“Still, it does have a stronger hand than anyone else - the most complete portfolio of economic, political, military and cultural power - and it will not be replaced in the foreseeable future,” Zakaria writes.

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