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Reviewed by John W. Coffey

Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 292 pp., $25.95

The Whig interpretation of history dies hard.  Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World marks its latest come-back.  For Zakaria, globalization provides the engine of Progress.  Broad in scope and graced with sprightly prose and a deep affection for his adopted country, his book, nonetheless, is infused with a benign economic determinism that glosses over the precarious nature of the new world order.

“The rise of the rest” rather than America’s decline comprises Zakaria’s theme.  A few statistics tell the story.  In 2006-2007, 124 countries, 30 of them in Africa, grew over 4%.  People living on $1/day dropped from 40% to 18% between 1981 and 2004 and should reach 12% by 2015.  China has raised 400 million people out of poverty; overall, poverty has declined in countries containing 80% of the world’s population.  While America remains a superpower, power has ebbed away to other countries and non-state actors.  What, the author asks, will it be like to live in this new, post-American order?

Contrary to a false sense of catastrophe purveyed by the mass media, the world is not really a dangerous place in Zakaria’s roseate view.  He affirms, however, that he doesn’t think “war has become obsolete or any such foolishness.”  America’s relative slippage in the global economy needn’t be harmful if we adapt, and if in deterring “rogue actors” we learn to win other nations’ cooperation through compromise and accommodation.  Zakaria expresses the dubious premise of his book in his assertion, “Across the world, economics is trumping politics,” although he hedges his bet by conceding “this may not last (and has not historically).”  Of course, that it may not last and never has is the crux of the matter.

Zakaria maintains that the global problems confronting us – the price of oil and commodities and raw materials, resource exhaustion, environmental degradation, climate change – are those of success, not failure; yet he acknowledges that states are less willing to cooperate, due to a nationalist resurgence and desire for respect commensurate with their newly found economic success (viz., China).  Brief consideration of the severe stresses generated by the global economy illustrates its fragile, perilous structure.

Stresses of Globalization
Globalization has alleviated much human misery, but it has spawned forces of instability – financial crises, interruption of vital supplies (e.g., oil), trade wars, and violent business cycles – threatening everyone’s well-being and holding the potential for major conflict.  As Robert Samuelson observes, the emergence of economic interdependence and political nationalism forms a “combustible combination.”1 The old global economy had few power centers (the United States, Europe, Japan), was defined mainly by trade, and was committed to the dollar as the central currency.  Above all, the glue holding it together was shared democratic values and alliances.  Today’s global economy has multiple power centers (including China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia), is defined as well by finance, and is exploring currency alternatives to the dollar.  Most critically, today’s economic power centers represent disparate, conflicting political principles.

Moreover, present patterns – rapid technological diffusion, extensive environmental damage, vast inequality of income between and within countries – breed conditions for global instability and conflict.2  Significant regions of the world – Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, parts of the Andean and Central American highlands – have experienced increasing poverty in recent years, possibly leading to war, disease, mass migration, illicit activities such as drug trafficking, and increased environmental degradation.  The scramble for diminishing hydrocarbons by new regional powers such as Brazil, China, and India could trigger regional or global conflict.  Water disputes in South Asia, the Mideast, and Nile basin, together with disagreements over management of the global commons, could spark conflict.  Finally, as Jorgen Moller warns, without new forms of international governance to redress global environmental pollution (a negligible prospect in this nationalistic world), dreams of earthly progress may come to an ugly Malthusian end.3

Zakaria’s economic Whiggery shapes his assessment of China, “the challenger” in the new global order.  Despite remarkable economic growth and massive social change, China too confronts the problems of globalization and nationalism.  An insular Party faces the daunting task of controlling centrifugal economic and political forces; however, Zakaria believes robust economic growth will remain a prophylactic against regime collapse, even venturing to predict gradual evolution to some kind of “mixed regime” with a degree of popular participation coexisting alongside authoritarian rule.  The author holds an unshakable faith that a market economy and middle class society lead to liberal democracy in the long run.  That run could prove to be very long, indeed.

Peaceful China?
Will China’s rise remain peaceful?  Zakaria acknowledges a new pride of power in the younger generation, yet expects Beijing’s commercially-driven foreign policy of non-interference and non-confrontation to continue, with Washington and Beijing seeking accommodation out of mutual economic dependence.  China needs the U.S. market for its goods; the United States needs China to finance its debt – globalization’s version of MAD in the Cold War!  He judges the United States ill-prepared to counter China’s “asymmetric” strategy of using its economic clout and political skill to acquire greater international influence and marginalize Washington in Asia.

Zakaria’s sanguine view of China’s evolution into a “mixed regime” pays scant attention to political culture.  A market economy does not necessarily foster all good political things.  Liberal democracy took root in the Anglo-American world centuries before the advent of a free market.  Anyone interested in the prospects for liberal government in the developing world should examine the remarkable story of Singapore’s development.  Singapore’s visionary founder, Lee Kuan Yew, transformed a backwater entrepot into a dynamic modern state.  Lee’s judicious admixture of Confucian values and enlightened despotism to the British colonial legacy that was bequeathed to him, with its rule of law, underlay Singapore’s unique development.  Lee understood the primacy of political culture that requires generations to nourish. He writes:

History teaches us that liberal democracy needs economic development, literacy, a growing middle class, and political institutions that support free speech and human rights.  It needs a civic society resting on shared values that make people with different and conflicting views willing to cooperate with each other.4

Lee points out that China’s 4,000-year history was marked by dynastic rulers, interspersed with anarchy, foreign conquerors, warlords, and dictators.  “The Chinese people had never experienced a government based on counting heads instead of chopping off heads.”5 The massive repression imposed by Chinese authorities in preparation for the Olympics exposes the charade of China’s posing as a “normal country” and “harmonious society” deserving the trust and respect of the international community.  Speaking to foreign reporters in Beijing, President Hu Jintao declared that the Party intends to continue economic and political reforms.  China will not adopt Western political practices, he added, but “continue expanding socialist democracy and developing a state of socialist rule of law.”6

Demographic Issues
Controversy over Tibet and the Olympic Games have also stirred Chinese xenophobia, particularly among young people, which combines with China’s looming demographic crisis to make problematic China’s continued peaceful rise.  Global demographic trends, instead of heralding peace and prosperity, pose the risk of  chaotic state collapse and neo-authoritarian reaction in developing countries.7  As a result of its 1979 one-child policy, China is now rapidly aging and faces a massive age wave cresting in the 2020s, just as it becomes a middle-income country.  The social and economic stresses unleashed by this premature aging threaten the pillars of the current regime’s legitimacy:  social stability and rapidly rising living standards.

Added to these pressures is a stark gender imbalance resulting from sex-selective abortions favoring boys over girls.  After 30 years of population control China now has the largest gender imbalance in the world, with 37 million more men than women and nearly 20% more newborn boys than girls.  China’s “testosterone problem” – tens of millions of single, young men with surging testosterone making them prone to violence and aggression – will create a social volatility that could lead to civil unrest or a government stratagem to channel the energies of unencumbered, excess males into military adventures.  Recently, China’s state-controlled media fanned the flames of nationalism and xenophobia, exploiting young peoples’ resentment across the country to launch large demonstrations against the West because of its sympathy for Tibetan monks and Chinese dissidents.

Zakaria describes India as “the ally” and new national star.  For the past 15 years India has been second only to China as the fastest growing country in the world.  Unlike China, however, India’s consumer-driven growth is the product of a vibrant private sector endowed with rich entrepreneurial and managerial talent.  The author is grateful for the British colonial bequest of the English language, familiarizing Indians with Western business practices, and institutions such as courts, universities, and administrative agencies.  India’s case resembles Hong Kong’s, where every civic feature Hong Kongers boast of – the rule of law, individual liberties and representative institutions, a thriving market, an honest and efficient civil service – derives from its British colonial legacy.

India’s Problems
Nevertheless, serious problems beset India.  It has diverged from its own past and other Asian countries, claims Zakaria, by becoming a boisterous democracy:  “It is a noisy democracy that has finally empowered its people economically.”8 India’s paradox is that its vigorous society is saddled with a feeble political system.  Zakaria acknowledges India’s chronic problems: pervasive corruption, substandard social welfare, official corruption and incompetence, ethnic divisions impeding coherent national policies.

The recent confidence vote saving the U.S. civilian nuclear deal displayed India’s political dysfunction.9 Members of Parliament threw money on the floor, charging the ruling Congress Party bribed them.  Corruption runs rampant in government.  Nearly a quarter of Parliament members face criminal charges, including human trafficking, immigration rackets, embezzlement, even rape and murder, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a New Delhi watchdog group.  Bribery has stymied efforts to repair a decaying infrastructure and feed a country with more malnourished children than any other in the world.  Politicians have allegedly siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars from a $2 billion program to feed schoolchildren.  According to Transparency International India, poor citizens have paid some $206 million for government services.  L. K. Advani, leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said of the confidence vote:  “The whole thing is so scandalous.  It reeks of muck.  The scam will affect India’s robust image as a democracy.”10

India, like much of the developing world, has the formal mechanisms of popular government, but the challenge has always been the formation of decent, stable, effective self-government; and historical candor, if not political correctness, compels recognition that this has occurred in only a small sliver of human experience, the Anglo-American community.

America’s Future
What does the future hold for America?  Britain’s empire declined from systemic economic weakness, Zakaria maintains, whereas the threat to America today is political.  America’s economic problems – wasteful spending and inadequate savings, Social Security and health care, immigration, energy – stem from the partisan political paralysis in Washington, making it impossible to build broad coalitions to solve complex issues.  A dynamic U.S. society and economy can adapt to global power shifts.  Can Washington adjust to a world it no longer dominates?

The irresistible “rise of the rest” to power could be beneficial, if America redefines its purpose.  After all, “the world is moving our way!”  But what if it’s not?  The sunny determinism of globalization leads Zakaria to suppose that it will inevitably bring all desirable political goods in its wake, such as decent self-government and human rights.  Writing after the collapse of the Doha trade round, Zakaria faulted the West for failing sufficiently to integrate rising powers like China and India into the new international order.  Unless that happens, he warns, the new world might just turn out like the old nineteenth century world of economic globalization, political nationalism, and war.11

That history may be just one damn thing after another is the theme of Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of Dreams.  Readers will find of interest Kagan’s contrasting vision that instead of a pacific global convergence, the normal world of great power struggle, a conflict between liberalism and autocracy, and a violent clash with radical Islam (discounted by Zakaria) have ushered in a new “age of divergence.”12  As of this writing, Russia’s naked invasion of the sovereign state of Georgia, precipitated by controversy over the province of South Ossetia, signals the rude return of history.  This assault, Kagan points out, starkly demonstrates the perdurance of virulent nationalism and the use of military power to achieve military objectives.13 Someone neglected to tell Premier Putin that in the new global order economics trumps politics.

Foreign Policy Guidelines
Zakaria offers practical guidelines for American foreign policy in the new global era.  With the world divided into many competing centers of power, the United States should eschew a traditional balance of power strategy, adopting a Bismarckian role of global “honest broker,” that forges closer relations with all major parties than any of them has with each other.  As the pivot of the international system, America stands to gain leverage with all parties through a process of consultation, cooperation, and compromise.  Dividing the world into opposing camps, as Kagan’s “concert of democracies” does, would create a destabilizing, self-fulfilling prophecy.  This is consistent with Zakaria’s exhortation to set priorities and accept trade-offs.  If, for instance, proliferation and terrorism pose the gravest threats, then Russia’s cooperation is needed with Iran, as is China’s with North Korea.

The United States needs to order a la carte, finding new forms of cooperation for different problems – for example, enlisting corporations and NGOs in addressing climate change.  Policymakers must think asymmetrically.  Regarding Africa, Zakaria considers the new military command of AFRICOM mismatched for the task of nation-building; instead, we should rely on the Foreign Service and civilian assistance teams, even using private sector help.  This approach finds support in the fresh thinking of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  Speaking to the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign, Gates warned against the “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy, urging that the military play a supporting role to the State Department’s lead in U.S. engagement abroad.  “We cannot kill or capture our way to victory” in the campaign against terrorism, Gates stated, arguing that military action must be subordinate to adequately funded and staffed civilian agencies.14

Zakaria emphasizes the importance of “soft power,” of the need for international support and cooperation and the example of “who we are” as a nation.  The new “National Defense Strategy” issued by Secretary Gates recognizes the role of “soft power,” but realistically couples it with military assets as well, particularly a mastery of irregular warfare, in the long struggle against violent extremism.15  “Hard power,” years of clandestine intelligence assistance and training of Columbia’s army by U.S. Special Forces, not “soft power,” made possible the dramatic rescue of FARC hostages in the Columbian jungle.16  The same old world we’re fated to live in will not dispense with the need for TR’s maxim, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”17End.


  1. Robert J. Samuelson, “A Baffling Global Economy,” Washington Post (July 16, 2008), A17.
  2. Jeffrey D. Sachs, “A User’s Guide to the Century,” The National Interest, no. 96 (July/August, 2008), pp. 8-15.
  3. Jorgen Orstrom Moller, “The Return of Malthus:  Society and International Order,” The American Interest, vol. III (July/August, 2008), pp. 27-35.
  4. Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First:  The Singapore Story, 1965-2000 (New York:  Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 2000), pp. 493-494.
  5. Ibid., p. 493.
  6. Quoted in Edward Cody, “Hu Asserts World’s Confidence in China,” Washington Post (August 2, 2008), A11.
  7. Neil Howe and Richard Jackson, “Battle of the (Youth) Bulge,” The National Interest, no. 96 (July/August, 2008), pp. 33-40.  See also Mara Hvistendahl, “No Country for Young Men:  China’s Testosterone Problem,” The New Republic, vol. 238 (July 9, 2008), pp. 11-12; and Ariana Eunjung Cha, “China Is Growing Unfriendly to Foreigners, Visitors Say,” Washington Post (July 19, 2008), A9.
  8. Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), p. 138.
  9. Emily Wax, “With Indian Politics, the Bad Gets Worse,” Washington Post (July 24, 2008), A14.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Fareed Zakaria, “Beyond China-Bashing,” Washington Post (August 4, 2008), A11.
  12. See John W. Coffey, review of Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams, American Diplomacy (July 22, 2008).
  13. Robert Kagan, “Putin Makes His Move,” Washington Post (August 11, 2008), A15.
  14. Ann Scott Tyson, “Gates Warns of Militarized Policy,” Washington Post (July 16, 2008), A6.
  15. Josh White, “Gates Sees Terrorism Remaining Enemy No. 1,” Washington Post (July 31, 2008), A1 and 8.
  16. Charles Krauthammer, “How Hostages, and Nations, Get Liberated,” Washington Post (July 11, 2008), A17.
  17. Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography, introd. by Elting Morison (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1985), p. 552.


John Coffey
John Coffey

John W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.


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