Book Review: The Post American World


The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria.

Is there a link between having a modern society and having a western society?  The vast economic and military power of the United States (and before that, the United Kingdom) has made the two seem more connected than they actually may be.

Zakaria's new book is about what he calls "the rise of the rest":  non-Western countries becoming significant economic and military players.  This change doesn't imply any decline in US power; rather, it's an entirely predictable result of other countries choosing to modernize their economies, and become thereby more powerful.

China and India each gets its own chapter, and Zakaria provides a broad and deep exploration of the very different trajectory each is taking toward modernization.  Those chapters are excellent, but much of their excellence comes from their richness.  Any summary would lose exactly what's best about them, so I won't try.

The US has unmatched--probably unmatchable--economic and military power.  But as the past 8 years have shown, turning that into real benefits is not necessarily easy or straightforward.  Perhaps the best part of the book is the observation that the best strategy for the United States is exactly the strategy that it had always followed until the past few years:

America was the most powerful country in the world when it proposed the creation of the League of Nations . . . .  It was the dominant power at the end of World War II, when it founded the United Nations, created the Bretton Woods system of international economic cooperations, and launched the world's key international organizations. . . .  For most of the twentieth century, in other words, American embraced international cooperation not out of fear and vulnerability but out of confidence and strength.

He also articulates well one of my own biggest concerns about the United States--that we've let ourselves be terrorized.  (The things Americans choose to fear always puzzle me.  We tolerate over 40,000 traffic-related deaths every year.  Dangers smaller than that--terrorist attacks, for example, or contaminated food--deserve some attention, but what they get is, to my mind, wildly inappropriate.)

The biggest flaw in this book is that Zakaria seems to have no perception of the way resource limits will affect the future.  

He talks about natural resources, but always either in terms of their abundance or else in terms of how economic and military power influences how they're divided up.  There's no mention of peak oil, and no discussion of the impact that an actual decline in the quantity of oil brought to market might have.  

Environmental limits get a couple of paragraphs--he mentions that there are already on the books just in China and India plans to build coal-fired power plants that will release five times the total savings in carbon emissions proposed in the Kyoto accords--but that observation doesn't seem to inform the rest of his discussion at all.

(He does have some good observations on the effects that limitations of the supply of clean water might have, but that just makes me miss all the more the things he could have said about oil.)

To the extent that people are what's going to influence the future, this is the best examination I've seen this year into what the future is going to look like, and has the best suggestions I've seen for dealing with it.  (Admittedly, suggestions for public policy--there's little about what individuals can do to take advantage of the changes that "the rise of the rest" is going to produce.)  If that's of interest to you, The Post-American World deserves your attention.

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Andrea Karim's picture

I've been meaning to get my hands on a copy of this book, so I appreciate the review, Philip.

Worries about resource allocation have kept me up at night recently. It's only a matter of time before we all have to pare down our lifestyles significantly so that others can live with, oh, electricity and motorized transportation. That, or we all go back to mule-pulled carts as a means of commuting. :)

Guest's picture

I'm going to have to read this book. As the dollar continues to weaken over the next few years, I think there will be many more books like this one - which will go into more discussion about the many other factors that led up to the economic collapse of the largest superpower.

America will rebuild, because we still have the best legal system in the world which makes it the best place in the world to start a business. But, it may take 10-20 years to recover like it did with the Great Depression.

Guest's picture

What made America confident to begin with when dealing with the world was its lack of reliance on the world--a system wherein American businessmen saw foreign businessmen as independent trading partners and the American government recognized the right to free and completely unfettered trade. This truly free economy has unfortunately been supplanted by a largely government-controlled marketplace in the United States, which is why we fear this natural consequence of other nations catching up to us in prosperity. The Federal Reserve decreases the worth of the dollar, and other countries consider the possibility of switching from reserves of U.S. dollars to reserves of gold. The national debt continues to deepen, and foreign lenders have us (as a country) in their pockets. We regulate the American oil industry, and OPEC has us crawling.

When it comes to the fall of Rome, I would more likely believe a possible future scenario of economic collapse and rebellion from within than I would destruction from a war with terrorists who are "jealous" of our "free" country.

I'd like to get my hands on a copy of that book. It sounds interesting.

Guest's picture

I've seen this book around (mostly on my friend's Reading Social on Facebook) but I've not yet read any in-depth reviews of it. Thanks so much for sharing your reflections, it looks to be an itneresting read.

- Suz

Guest's picture

It seems like a lot of people are reading this book. Here's a picture of Barack Obama with the book.

Can't wait to get my copy this week.

Guest's picture

I haven't get a chance to read the book but few of my friends told me that there was a untrue fact about the Buddha. He was born in Nepal but he wrote Buddha was born in India. Due to this fact i don't want to read the book.

Philip Brewer's picture

During the Buddha's life the Mauryan Empire did cover virtually all of what is now India and large portions of southern Nepal. And according to the website About Buddha:

Buddha Skakyamuni was born as a royal prince in 624 BC in a place called Lumbini, which was originally in northern India but is now part of Nepal.

So I'm inclined to consider the statement in the book not so much an untrue fact as the sort of reasonable simplification that an author has to make if he's going to get his book finished.