Book Review: The Post-American World

I just put down Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and couldn’t leave the house without knocking out a quick endorsement. If you’re even the least bit interested in the changing role of America in the world it’s a must-read. Zakaria’s analysis of China and India as societies, economies and political actors is concise, lucid and free of political cant. Similarly, his assessment of America’s challenges and opportunities is both well-researched and entirely convincing in both its conclusions and prescriptions.

The crux of his argument is that our changing role has less to do with our “failures” as a nation than it does with the growing success of others, particularly India and China. In his analysis, this shift in relative roles has real and serious implications for us as a nation, but shouldn’t be viewed as an inevitable brake on our our continued prosperity and influence. That doesn’t mean we don’t have real work to do to maintain the health of our society, economy and influence, but those challenges are independent of the “rise of the rest”.

The book was published before both the outcome of the 2008 presidential election and the current economic downturn had come to pass, and the most satisfying aspect of the book (for me, at least) was the extent to which the current attitudes and actions of the Obama administration embody the principles and ethics Zakaria asserts as essential to our continued relevance. In his view, as our relative power is diminished, our greatest strength continues to be the idea of America as a free, fair, open and ethical society. In his words:

“There is still a strong market for American power, for both geopolitical and economic reasons. But even more centrally, there remains a strong ideological demand for it… what the world really wants from America is not that it offer a concession on trade here and there, but that it affirm its own ideals.”

As encouraging as the example of the Obama administration is, the response of the Congress to his policies offers stark proof of what Zakaria asserts is the greatest risk we face as a nation: our politics:

“As it enters the twenty-first century, the United States is not fundamentally a weak country, or a decadent society. But it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics… captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media and ideological attack groups… Those who advocate sensible solutions and compromise legislation find themselves marginalized by the party’s leadership, losing funds from special-interest groups, and being constantly attacked by their “side” on television and radio.”

If you followed his own party’s reaction to Obama’s recent budget draft, you have seen the truth of this assessment in stark relief. Even the most unassailably sensible proposals – like those to cut spending on failed weapons systems or agricultural entitlements – fell under attack by the Democratic leadership (the Republican response goes without saying). With real battles looming on heath care and pension entitlements, this early data suggests that the prospect of meaningful reform is dim.

I have never been more proud to be an American than I was on the day Obama won the presidency, and The Post-American World suggests there is good cause for continued optimism about our society and our role in a changing world. I have total faith in our economy to right itself no matter what fiscal interventions are (or are not) thrown at it. My greatest hope is that just enough of the idealism and ethics of the Obama administration trickles down through the body politic to enable the concessions and compromise required to ensure that optimistic future.