European Affairs

With President Barack Obama's administration past its first birthday in office, it is instructive to look at Zakaria book and see how it stands up today. Here is an obvious query: to what extent is Obama changing course in ways consistent with Zakaria’s advice? Or is Washington simply putting a more literate face on its policy while continuing the “bad” practices that are blamed for accelerating the slide into a “post-American world.”

Zakaria, a native of Mumbai, India, is editor of Newsweek International and is a rising media star, including now a role as host of a popular Sunday talk show on CNN International called “GPS.”

In a new (2009) preface, relating the global financial meltdown to the “post American” thesis, Zakaria sees the crisis as a corroborating footnote to his view. His argument is that this time the trouble emerged from America and not elsewhere as in recent past crises (i.e. the Asian crisis of 1998 or Russian and Latin American meltdowns earlier in the 1990’s).

And Zakaria says that the current upheaval will only hasten the move to a post-American world. “If the Iraq War and George W. Bush’s foreign policy had the effect of delegitimizing America’s military-political power in the eyes of the world,” writes Zakaria, “the financial crisis has had the effect of delegitimizing America’s economic power.”

What about the intellectual bottom line: does the book remain relevant? The answers an unambiguous yes because his narrative and insights are instructive as a very helpful guide, particularly to what he calls “the rise of the rest.” The “rest” means the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and others including Turkey and even Saudi Arabia, which are growing more rapidly that the US. Hungry to take their place as players in the international world and increasingly able to hold their own against American competition, the rising “rest,” says Zakaria, creates a new international system and represents the birth of a “truly global order.”

The “rest” explicitly excludes Europe and the Eurozone (the 16 countries using the euro. Europe, like the U.S., has substantial economic power, but – compared to “the rest” – is becoming lazy, old and flaccid, and with a declining percent of world population (dropping to five percent of the total by 2050). In short, Zakaria thinks Europe will become increasingly irrelevant.

Europe’s fate is not sealed. He notes that today the eurozone garners about one half of the world’s foreign direct investment and has labor productivity as strong as the U.S. Moreover, on the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Index, European countries occupy seven of the top ten slots. And as a result, Europe presents the most “significant short-term challenge to the United States in the economic realm.”

But short term is not what Zakaria is talking about, and in the long term the critical question and the only question for Zakaria is how America adapts to the new world order created by the rise of the “rest.”

Zakaria goes to some pains to say that his book is not about the decline of the America, but rather the rise of others. And this raises a challenging aspect of the book. Zakaria attempts, but does not wholly succeed, in coherently teasing out the tension between “post America” thesis inherent in the rise of the “rest” on one hand, and the fact that the US remains a formidable superpower with superpower assets on the other hand. He refuses, like some others -- eg Singapore diplomat scholar Kishore Mahbubani -- to see international power as a zero-sum game, where the rise of one necessarily means the decline of the other. In some places Zakaria catalogues the precipitous fall of American power and prestige, but in other sections he exults in the strengths of America, which if properly used could result in the resurgence of the American hegemon. As a result the reader finishes the book not sure whether Zakaria really believes we are in a post-American world.

Most of what Zakaria wrote about China and India in 2007 makes good sense today, even if it seems somewhat familiar. Zakaria is particularly nuanced and excellent about the rise of India, his native land, which he characterizes as a potential “ally” of the US as opposed to China which he calls the “challenger.” India is one of the few counties that have maintained a majority positive view of America. He asserts with some chauvinism perhaps, that the India-America relationship is a special relationship, based on more than government to government relations — but something deeper, and akin to the relationship the U.S. has with Great Britain and with Israel.

As the “rest” are rising the U.S. has suffered grievously both in loss of real power and in loss of prestige. He cites surveys from European countries that as high as 80 percent oppose U.S. foreign policy and even say that the US is the greatest threat to world peace. Even without Iraq and Bush, the rise of the “rest” would likely have generated a rise of anti-Americanism since economic progress generates nationalism and nationalism abhors unipolar dominance.

At the same time the U.S. remains a superpower economically and militarily. The U.S. holds world leadership in education and in innovation. And the U.S. has what Zakaria calls “a secret weapon” –immigration, which will slow its decline and provide a source of energy and renewal. Unlike Europe as well as Japan, and China, the U.S. is “demographically vibrant” because of immigration. US population will surge by 65 million by 2030 while Europe will remain virtually stagnant. The native-born white population in the U.S. has fertility rates that are sinking, but not as fast in Europe. But America’s edge in innovation, asserts Zakaria, is overwhelmingly the product of immigration. The evidence? Foreign students and immigrants account for 40 percent of the science researchers in the country. Half of all Silicon start-ups have one founder who is an immigrant or first generation American. The energy and energy of immigrants sets the U.S. apart from other great economic powers like Britain that have lost their once-dominant positions.

Zakaria is saying that although the rise of the rest will create a real change in the world order, regardless of what America does, America can be more readily accepted an integrated into the new order if it fixes its foreign policy and other aspects of how it relates to the rest of the world. Zakaria states that “for most of the world, the Iraq war was not about Iraq.” Rather it is “about how the world’s superpower wields its power.”

He recites the exchange between self proclaimed pro-American Nicolas Sarkozy of France and former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice where she asked him after his election in 2007, “What can I do for you?” Sarkozy’s response: “Improve your image in the world.” He continued, “It’s difficult when the country that is the most powerful, the most successful—that is, of necessity, the leader of our side—is one of the most unpopular countries in the world.”

So what does Zakaria think the US needs to do? Among his prescriptions: “Be Bismarck not Britain.” Bismarck engaged with all the great powers and tried have better relations with all of the than they had with each other, says Zakaria, to be the pivot of Europe’s international system. Britain on the other hand, says Zakaria, “tried to balance against rising and threatening great powers but otherwise kept a low profile in the European continent.” This role would be different from the traditional superpower role and involve consultation, cooperation and compromise. Power, says Zakaria, is derived by setting the agenda, defining the issues and mobilizing coalitions. “It is not a top-down hierarchy in which the United States makes its decisions and then informs a grateful (or silent) world,” says Zakaria.

Zakaria also thinks that to succeed in the post-American world the U.S. must understand that is not exempt from the need to have priorities. Wanting to “have it all” is one of the harmful illusions of American omnipotence. So Zakaria tells the new administration that it must clearly choose between regime change or policy change in North Korea and Iran And in Russia the U.S.must decide among corralling loose nukes, modifying behavior in Ukraine and Georgia, oil and gas pipelines, or internal human rights. Previous policy was “all of the above”— a non-starter for the post American age.

Among his prescriptions for the Obama administration’s foreign policy reform, two more stand out. First, the need to “think asymmetrically”: The most powerful military in the history of the world has found it difficult to prevail in Iraq and Afghanistan because “asymmetrical responses have become easier to execute and difficult to defeat.” The U.S. must learn not to be drawn into traps where the asymmetricality of the situation neutralizes traditional U.S. military assets. Bombings and their collateral damage changes the local debate from terrorism to U.S. imperialism.

Second, “legitimacy is power.” “It is better to be feared than loved,” wrote Machiavelli, and the Cheney/Bush administration acted as if they agreed. In today’s world, Zakaria says, such fear destroys legitimacy if in trying to scare your enemies you terrify the whole world. Legitimacy is the critical deficiency in American foreign policy as it has evolved over the past 10 years. Noting that the protesters in Tiananmen Square built a model of the Statue of Liberty, not an F-16, Zakaria says that it is this Statue-of- Liberty- part of America that has made the immense power of the U.S. tolerable to the world for so long and is the key to providing a legitimate superpower role going forward.

Obama campaigned on the promise to put a new face on American foreign policy. And he has taken some steps that Zakaria could claim show that Obama was listening. Obama has tried to “reset” relations with Russia, again with little to show for it. He has gestured to Arabs and Muslims in Cairo. He has indicated that he understands the need to participate in ASEAN (Association of South East Nations) affairs.

It may be too early to judge whether America will achieve the power of legitimacy that Zakaria talks about. Commentators have noted that the substance of the Obama foreign policy has been remarkably similar to what preceded it. While Obama ran his campaign against the Iraq war, he has adopted the Bush policy of a staged withdrawal and retained Bushes defense secretary Robert Gates to oversee withdrawal. Obama has increased the US force in Afghanistan and is encouraging discussion that is pointing toward even more increase. While he talked about reaching out to Europe and NATO those efforts have resulted in little tangible success and continued European refusal to go along with escalation in Afghanistan. In any event, it will be a tall order for any American president to preside gracefully over the move to a post-American world. In the hours after Obama committed himself publicly to a military surge in Afghanistan, Zakaria commented that the President had seemed to be going against his personal instincts, but was still seeking a formula for reconciling a new American electorate to a new global geo-political and geo-economic order.