June 27, 2009
The Post-American World
I recently finished reading The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, and I must say that it was a really interesting read. Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International and he grew up in India before emigrating to the United States, so he has the background to write a book about America's global role in the 21st century. The book is split into three relatively equal parts, the first is generally about what he calls the "rise of the rest." The idea is that America is not slipping per se, but that most of the rest of the world is on the rise economically as well as politically. The middle third focuses on the individual situations of China and India, while the third is specifically about America and its role in the coming century.
While the rest is interesting, I think the most important part is the last third in which Zakaria details the sources of America's strength and what we must do as a nation going forward to keep from being left behind. I won't go into too much detail since you really should read the whole book to get the full argument and not a half-hearted attempt at summarizing a 250-page book in one paragraph. But the ultimate point that Zakaria makes is that America's most important strength is its openness and ability to assimilate immigrants from anywhere in the world. He points out that were it not for immigration, America would face the same negative population growth that is being experienced in Europe. It also gives America a diversity that is unique in the world, and that helps imbue the nation with energy and creativity moving forward. Zakaria points out, though, that America is crippled with a political environment that is long in rhetoric and machismo but sorely lacking in the willingness to have a long-term outlook. He says that the preoccupation with fear (of terrorism, immigrants, China, etc.) that our politicians and media display cripples our ability to have a meaningful discourse on where American efforts, diplomatic and otherwise, should be directed to achieve our long term goals, or even as to what those goals should be. In Zakaria's own words:
"The United States is not a fundamentally weak economy, or a decadent society. But it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics. An...overly rigid political system...has been captured by special interests, a sensationalist media, and ideological attack groups. The result is ceaseless, virulent debate about trivia--politics as theater--and very little substance, compromise, and action. A 'can-do' country is now saddled with a 'do-nothing' political process..."
With the possible exception of some of President Obama's recent reforms (though one suspects there can be very little compromise involved when bills are passed without being read), this is a perfect snapshot of America at the dawn of the 21st century. As I said before, the book is extremely interesting and prescient, and I highly recommend it. It is fairly easy reading, but can be time-consuming if one pauses to really consider some of the issues that Mr. Zakaria raises, which is something that all of America should be doing as we ponder the future of America in a Post-American World.