Sunday, March 15, 2009

Left Wing Book Club, pt 1

by Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria's book came out to universal acclaim early last year, and no wonder. Zakaria has been a prominent fixture on cable news shows, editorial pages, and assorted symposia for several years now. He has a magnetic charisma and a charming mien that translates well on television and in person. His ability to flit from one big picture topic to another is perfect for both CNN and the Davos Forum. That this book would become a best-seller, and that Candidate Obama would be photographed holding it as a talisman of his international thinking, was inevitable. 

Zakaria, like Thomas Friedman, is an enthusiastic apostle of globalization and transnational institutions. But, where Friedman usually adopts the perspective of the American abroad in the world, Zakaria often casts himself as the International Sophisticate explaining the attitudes of the world toward Americans. 

This book's theme - which you can guess from the title - is that we must be prepared for the imminent arrival of the moment when the US is no longer the dominant economic superpower. This is an ambitious undertaking for any book. Thus, I was surprised when I saw how short and slim this book is. At 250+ pages, you could easily read it in one plane ride. 

Zakaria's thesis has, in many ways, been overtaken by events. He opens the book by arguing the US's economic pre-eminence is rapidly becoming a thing of the past because of the "rise of the rest," meaning former backwaters like Brazil, China, Russia, India, and others are joining the global economy and growing at a rapid clip that will soon cause them to eclipse the US. Oops. Zakaria lacked a crystal ball to tell him the world financial system would come apart just a few months after his book was published with, so far, unknown consequences for "the rest," whose rapid growth depended on ever-growing first world markets for their exports. 

Zakaria spends the bulk of his book discussing China and India, the greatest of the "rising" powers. His China discussion is little more than a conventional recitation of China's development in the last 20 years. Did you know that China has rapidly urbanized? And that many western countries have outsourced their production there? And that there has been an explosion of consumer spending in China? And that China runs a trade surplus with the US? Well, if you somehow didn't know any of that, Zakaria clues you in. 

Zakaria's China discussion is definitely meant to be favorable to the Chinese, and to the idea that the rise of China will not be a threat to the US or to the Pacific Region. Zakaria repeats the Chinese gov't's repeated statements that they intend to have a "peaceful rise." He touches on the fact that the Chinese have demonstrated themselves to be virulently nationalist, but convinces himself (but not me) that the gov't will not use this to its own advantage. He mentions that one of China's great advantages is that it can order vast projects into being at a drop of Beijing's hat - if a neighborhood must be raized for an Intel plant, it shall be done. Zakaria doesn't seem to wonder how China would treat its rivals, if this is how it treats its own citizens. Zakaria's see-no-evil approach reaches its zenith when he talks to the German architect who designed many of the Olympics sites. The architect speaks approvingly of the gov't's willingness to move people and materials on his behalf. The architect's name is (I kid you not) Albert Speer Jr. Yes, he is the son of the Third Reich's Speer.

Zakaria's discussion of India, on the other hand, is excellent. Zakaria is obviously much better equipped to deal with India, as it is his birthplace. He gives a detailed history of India since 1948, both in its approach to economics and foreign policy. He gives a good accounting of Indian society, which can encompass both biblical poverty and spectacular entrepreneurship. He argues persuasively that America should regard India as a future ally. I hope that the hip NPR types who are his fanbase - as well as Obama - listen to this advice, as it is Zakaria's at his best. 

The rest of the book is dedicated to persuading us Americans to accept our lot in life, and refrain from resisting our economic eclipse. This part of the book was incredibly weak. Zakaria says we must prepare for a "post-American world," but doesn't grapple with what that world might be like. He clearly sees China as the next superpower, which is also the conventional wisdom in most parts. But he is reluctant to wonder what kind of superpower it might be. I would say that China would not be nearly the benign superpower that the US has been. China is not shy about aggressively securing commodities to itself, going as far as to support the Sudanese and other dubious gov'ts. It has been a nuclear weapons proliferator to some of the world's least deserving regimes. And yet, Zakaria breezily assures his readers that a world with a strong China and weaker US would simply be a richer, safer world. I doubt it. 

Zakaria is also willfully blind about the possibility of aggression from other corners. He treats Russia as little more than a rising power, without acknowledging its repeated aggressions - including invasions and energy blockades - towards its neighbors. On the topic of Islamic terrorism, Zakaria is almost contemptuous of those who would orient US foreign policy towards preventing another 9/11. Why Osama and his boys are just a bunch of ragamuffins now! Right, because the US aggressively acted to disrupt them, rather than sit around the office jawboning about what a shiny happy world we live in. Sadly, just 7 years from 9/11, I would say this is the prevailing attitude in most sophisticated circles. 

Zakaria's book is fine as a conventional apologia for China, excellent for its depiction of India, and weak in its lack of acceptance of world aggressors. Zakaria is also a little too eager to usher in a post-American world without wondering whether that world would be one in which he, or any of us, would want to live. But, as a record of what the educated liberal elite thinks of America's prospects, I would say this book is invaluable.

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