After reading the synopsis, I read Fareed Zakaria’s book, The Post-American World.  It’s good, but it’s typical of a certain modern type of book that read like forced expansions of the original magazine article.  He goes into more depth, but not that much more; the major chapters are on China, India, America, and America.  I wish he’d gone into more depth on South Africa, Brazil, and other rising powers.

He’s obviously well connected, but this isn’t always a virtue, especially when it comes to history.  It’s nice that he can get an interview with Lee Kwan Yew, but sometimes the argument seems to be based on a few brisk interviews and visits to burgeoning cities rather than on broader academic research.  (This can be felt especially in his discussion of Chinese and Indian mentality.  It sounds reasonable enough, but no nation can really be reduced to its mentality.  E.g. is Japan an isolated despotism as in 1830, a rising power as in 1910, a grandiose empire as in 1940, or a pacifist economic powerhouse as in 1980?  Even if all of these could be related to some theory of the Japanese soul, they can hardly predict what Japan will be in 2050.)

Still, he has a good story to tell.  He makes a good case that the rise of China and India means a lot for the world, and is essentially a Good Thing for most everyone.  Neither power is likely to repeat the trouble caused by (say) the rise of Germany or Japan– so long as the US doesn’t act like an imperial hegemon.  Our own economic power isn’t going to go away anytime soon.  He makes some illuminating comparisons with imperial Britain, which enjoyed a long period of political dominance (say 1815 to 1945) but only a short period of economic dominance (from about 1845, when its industrial output surpassed France’s, to the 1880s, when it was surpassed by the US).  The US has been much spottier as a political leader, only rarely finding a good balance between isolation and arrogance.  In some ways we do best when we shut up and let our values (democracy and economic opportunity) do their magic.

Zakaria has a strange relationship to the Bush administration and the Republicans in general.  Most of what he has to say is highly critical, but he bows in their direction a few times, as if they’re, you know, just a little misinformed and could be set straight by some pointed reminders.  He was also a supporter of the Iraq war.  The book was written before the election, but more recent columns show that he’s hugely relieved that we now have a president who acts much more in accordance with his views.

Perhaps because of his own experience as an immigrant who’s made good, he’s essentially an optimist– a rare thing these days.  He’s excited by the huge reduction in the world’s poverty, by the vibrancy of newly energized economies, by the fact that the prevailing models are essentially variations of Anglo-American liberal capitalism.  He mentions the many ways we could fall off the rails (global warming, Taiwan, nuclear weapons), but his mind just doesn’t dwell on them.

I tend to be an optimist too; I think we can solve our problems if we want to.  But that’s a huge if.  The next century could look like the 19th– a time of generally rising prosperity and globalism– or like the 20th, when that global order collapsed into war and brutality.  Zakaria himself points out that perhaps the US’s worst failing is our political quagmire.  Britain seemed to do OK whether Liberals or Conservatives were in charge.  We have to fear the disasters that another Republican interlude could bring.

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