The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Best of Worlds (book review)

The Post-American World (2008)
Fareed Zakaria


Caveat: The following book review is very long. It is probably a longer treatment than the work really deserves. However, I came to political consciousness at the same as I was reading the weekly columns of Fareed Zakaria and so I think I felt a certain need to deal with the subject once and for all. The review serves as a fairly thorough exploration of a very self-consciously "universal" version of the American ideology as adopted by a prominent liberal American intellectual of South Asian extraction.

You can also see Zakaria's lecture at LSE (scroll down to June 2009) on his book, which I attended. At the fifty-second minute I made a joke relevant given the earlier conspiratorial questions on Zakaria's attending Bilderberg conferences and nervously asked a question (which unfortunately he forgot to answer until I approached him later at the book signing). I hope the review does not seem too harsh, however, real criticism of someone's public life and work should not be shied away from when it is warranted.


It was reported during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign that Barack Obama was reading a book entitled The Post-American World. This might seem a less than promising sign for a future of Chief of State. Fareed Zakaria’s book, however, is not so much concerned with the end of America as the rise of the "Rest," that is, of the end of the Third World's underdevelopment and impotence. The meaning of this is not predetermined. We live in a time of particularly fractious identities. Whether it is wealthy Russian expats getting an education in elite Western universities or the descendants of poor West Indian immigrants in the streets Paris and London, questions of belonging, of which world to inhabit, of learning how to act in different social and national contexts, and of deciding what cultural values one will adopt (if any) are unavoidable. And while these "Third Culture Kids" form a small minority, they have a disproportionate impact on the world. They include both Obama with his celebrated (ad nauseum) background and Zakaria, an Indian immigrant and naturalized American. Thus, in reading and writing The Post-American World, each could ascribe whatever values they wished, from cheering the long overdue return to economic equality of the (darker-skinned) peoples of the South to fearing a development boding ill for the power and future of the West, and of the United States in particular.

In his book, Zakaria emerges as a kind of synthesis of two prophets of new order. He is Francis Fukuyama in signaling and praising the triumph of Western capitalism and liberal democratic ideals across the world. But there is also, counter-intuitively, Frantz Fanon in saluting the rise of the postcolonial South from wretched poverty and thereby ending 500 years of Western cultural, economic, political and military hegemony. The book is useful both for its own analysis and as an expression of a prominent Establishment commentator's thoughts. These assets are unfortunately obscured somewhat by the style of writing. There isn't exactly self-censorship but one has the distinct impression that Zakaria writes as he imagines his decidedly middlebrow audience of Newsweek readers would like him to. Numerous appallingly bad expressions, inaccuracies and metaphors (which a good editor really would have spotted) also detract from the text. His noted description of Burma as "tiny" (the country is the size of Texas) is only the tip of iceberg

Zakaria identifies "the rise of the Rest as the great story of our times." In a few paragraphs, he skillfully dismisses the neurotic obsession with Islamic terrorism and the imagined struggle with the "Islamofascist" tide. These are both rather annoying distractions. And indeed, it is the economic developments of the past forty years that have been revolutionary. Between 1870 and 1970, the economically and technologically advanced countries of the world remained concentrated in North America, Europe, Britain's White Dominions, and Japan. A few small, wealthy countries were added in the form of the postwar Asian Tiger economies while Argentina (once as rich as the U.S.) ingloriously fell back into the fold of the "underdevelopment". Today, most of the world's growth is outside the developed world and particularly strong in China. "The Rest" have hardly reached parity, and most of their new wealth is concentrated in an insecure minority of their populations, but their collective weight nonetheless has made them capable of negotiating with what used to be called "the North" on more equal terms. The G7's replacement by the G20 is the institutional manifestation of this shift.

World leaders at a G20 summit.

Zakaria sees the economic rise of the South as the ultimate logical consequence of the West's own rise that began five centuries ago. He offers a plausible theory of economic development in Asia being constantly crippled by "strong states". Societies were dominated by princes and warlords who were interested in building palaces and monuments to their own glory and would often seize the assets of those who got too wealthy. Zakaria writes that "Asian rulers largely fit the stereotypes of the Oriental tyrant." Indeed, "Most countries in Asia had powerful and centralized predatory states that extracted taxes from their subjects without providing much in return." He compares them to the Soviet Union, both equally obsessed with prestige projects like the Taj Mahal and space exploration. He also notes how the egalitarian poverty of peasant societies from Russia to China were often scornful of merchants, placing them at the bottom of the social ladder in terms of honor if not wealth. China's was a continent-country where the centralization of power was such that the Emperor could at a whim cut off the funding of the explorer Zheng He, who had traveled to much of the rest of Asia as a sort of prelude to Columbus. Zakaria's damning assessment: it was "the expression of a civilization's stagnation".


Into this static historical order came the West with its vast technological and economic power. By 1919, the Europeans and their descendants controlled 85% of the world's landmass and dominated China indirectly too. This spread European ideas (or at least political vocabulary): while the first generation of colonial subjects wanted the West's power, the second wanted also its ideal whether in the form of liberalism or Marxism. In particular, under the twin "hegemonies" of Great Britain and the United States, there spread limited and rational government, constitutionalism, free trade, capitalism and so forth. For Zakaria, it is the long-delayed embrace of Western (American) ideals by the Third World that has allowed it (finally) to begin to overcome Western superiority.

Zakaria is not entirely positive about the (neo)colonial experience. But besides the White supremacy, wars of pacification and occasional genocide, he sees this as on balance a laudable development. Still, only because the Western hegemony would end. All is not perfect in the world dominated by what Winston Churchill called "the English-speaking peoples". For example, Zakaria discusses one of the legacies of that world with an uncustomary (and welcome!) bite. World financial institutions continue to have the curious tradition of always appointing an American to the head of the World Bank and a European to the International Monetary Fund. Zakaria responds: "This 'tradition,' like the customs of an old segregated country club may be charming and amusing to insiders,but to outsiders it is outrageous and bigoted." Fanon could not have written with a more acid tongue! But this sort of comment is rare and Zakaria does not dwell on past injustices because "The natives," he writes, "have gotten good at capitalism."

Zakaria brings no real insight as to why capitalism began to succeed in the tropics where it had failed for 200 years. He is rather better as to the consequences. Modernization will change gender relations and threaten "the hierarchy of age, religion, tradition, and feudal order." Global civilization will no longer be the monopoly of European culture. Many new "regional CNNs" like Al Jazeera, TeleSUR, France 24, and Russia Today provide new lenses through which to see the world. American mass culture maintains its exceptional influence in the world but we also see the proliferation of film and music industries in India (Bollywood), Nigeria (Nollywood) and parts of the Arab world. There are a few shallow ruminations on what this means for the future (will culture become "modern" or Western"?) but Zakaria also moves to the meat: "The great shift taking place in the world might prove to be less about culture and more about power." And here, we have another Fanonian word, this time in a darkly prophetic mode as he talks of the leaders outside the West: "They have read the Goldman Sachs BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, China] report. They know that the balance of power has shifted." So whereas the first wave of global civilization was under Europe's boot, this new one will emerge with a certain equality between peoples.

Zakaria deals in anecdote and generalization. He has almost nothing to say specifically about the futures of the Middle East, Latin America, Africa or the former Soviet Union. Europe and Japan are mentioned mainly to cite their terminal demographic decline. Zakaria is distinctly uninterested in the European Union, which is perhaps surprising given its economic weight (slightly greater than North America) in the economically-obsessed world he describes. Nor is he interested in dealing with it as an attempt at transnational governance complementary to globalization, a model for other regions, or indeed even something to be discredited. Zakaria limits himself to national portraits of India and China, which he clearly clearly sees as the two new emerging powers to be contended with. We have two chapters replete with facts, vignettes and stereotypes. While both are useful, neither is really satisfactory.

China's GDP.

China's chapter (entitled "The Challenger") is the better of the two. We find many useful facts and amusing asides. Whereas Zakaria has the (apocryphal?) quote of Napoleon Bonaparte that "when China wakes,she will shake the world," he also juxtaposes this with the mentality of the American missionaries and capitalists that penetrated China in the nineteenth century: "1 billion souls to save, 2 billion armpits to deodorize." Has there been a better expression of the Spirit of the Age? We are treated to a plethora of statistics on the Industrial Revolution in China since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping: 9% growth a year for three decades, 400 million people lifted out of poverty, a sevenfold increase in personal income. China's success, of course, doesn't square particularly well with the "spread of Western ideas/free markets" narrative, at least in its more extreme form. For while Deng's reforms did reintroduce a form of capitalism to China, it remains extremely statist. Besides the authoritarian polity, the economy remains protectionist (like the Asian Tigers before it) and monetary manipulation (an undervalued Yuan) is used to boost exports, while Zakaria notes that state-owned enterprises form half the economy. The author guards himself from making ill-advised predictions. He notes the growing environmental damage and increasing number of protests in China, but does not see democracy as an immediate necessary outcome. Despite the chapter title, he does not predict a U.S.-Chinese confrontation. Rather, the U.S. will remain militarily superior for decades. America and China remain inevitable bedfellows through a kind of economic M.A.D., one needs the market, the other the debt, this happy circumstance appearing indefinitely sustainable...

There is however also the inevitable absurd Zakarian phrase. Responding to a poll saying that 72% of Chinese believe one does not need to have belief in God to be moral, he says of this: "The point is not that [China] is immoral—in fact all hard evidence suggests quite the opposite—but rather that in [China] people [do not] believe in God. This might shock many in the West [...]." How earnest! I cannot comment on the "hard evidence" suggesting the Chinese are not more evil than other peoples. From Europe, however, not wholly godless but well-acquainted with concepts of "secular humanism," one can only wonder wonder what "West" he is talking about.

The chapter on India (imaginatively entitled "The Ally"), while also filled with useful tidbits, is actually a fairly dire failure. It often borders on total incoherence. I don't know if this is the written manifestation of the struggle between Zakaria's Muslim Indian background (which he scarcely mentions in his writings) and his adoption of American citizenship (with the zeal of the converted). The chapter is perhaps the most misleading, if not self-deceiving, in that he forces us (and himself) to see an unconvincingly strong natural kinship between the U.S. and India. He sometimes gives the impression the latter country is a really a sort of embryonic, Hindu America that by some accident found itself attached to Asia. He sees a U.S.-India "special relationship" emerging of the sort normally reserved for the United Kingdom and Israel. While this is not an implausible possibility, his evidence his weak. He bases his argument partly on the notion that democratic India is a society which has "asserted dominance over the state." This condition is the subject of Zakaria’s very first book (From Wealth to Power), which quite eloquently explained the rise of the U.S. in the nineteenth century in terms of having a weak state and strong society. (In contrast, again, to the "predatory," warring states of Europe of that time.) He sees Indian-Americans being a bridge between the two countries in a way which (more numerous) Chinese-Americans apparently cannot be. But then problems begin. "The country might have several Silicon Valleys, but it also has 3 Nigerias". It ranks 128th out of 177 in the Human Development Index. Female literacy stands at 48%. We are talking of "a country of rampant poverty, feudalism, and illiteracy." The Indian elite was self-consciously socialist from independence onwards, sporting a very "mixed" economy in every sense, and whose "many intellectuals and journalists [...] are well-schooled in the latest radical ideas - circa 1968, when they were in college."

Yet despite all this Zakaria finds the chutzpah to claim in a single, unqualified statement: "If Indians understand America, Americans understand India." Unfathomable. It seems too absurd to consider that an American society centered on consumption as an end in itself could "understand" a country where abject poverty is not only rampant but, in some cases, held up as a Gandhian ideal. It is not explained how Americans "understand" a country which at once has an extremely diverse population of over 1 billion inhabitants and receives scarce media coverage in America. Certainly American leaders did not "understand" Indians in the decades after independence, when New Delhi adhered to a strict anticolonial line on issues like Indochina and to Moscow-leaning neutrality in the Cold War. Indeed, as Republicans tar every opponent with the brush of "Socialism," and Liberals defensively deny they are guilty of such apostasy, can it really be said America can "understand" a country like India which not only has a proud Socialist tradition but indeed has several states (West Bengal, Kerala, Tripura) that still consistently elect Communist governments? Indeed, that Indian democracy is continental, multiconfessional, multilingual (17 languages, 22,000 dialects), featuring "multiple regional elections," not true national ones, suggests greater affinity for (and a vote of confidence in) embryonic pan-European democracy than what exists in the United States. Pace Zakaria, how could we not come to the conclusion that this great Indian-American consanguinity is no more than the imaginative projection of an enthusiastic immigrant's failure to come to terms with his own inevitably fractured identity?

Indian Communists in Kerala pay homage to Soviet socialist realism.

The final parts of the book are dedicated to what America's place in this new "globalized" world of economic equals should be. The discussion is informed first by the tired comparison with the British Empire. And here, Zakaria freely indulges in his penchant for silly phrases and inaccuracies. What does it mean to say that the failed British attempt to keep the Thirteen Colonies of North America over eight years, at a high cost in blood and treasure, was a "strategic masterstroke"? Can it be said of the 1899-1902 Boer War that it "broke of the back of [the British] empire," when that entity continued merrily along for another half-century? Indeed, what to make of the statement that "London played its weakening hand with impressive political skill" during the postwar years? While Britain's decolonization was not as traumatic an experience as that of France, one would have to forget that British "strategy" for managing its decline was more often than not to sloppily flee whatever area got too troublesome - India, Palestine, Greece - often leaving problems that remain with us today. And how can such "impressive political skill" be squared with the humiliation at the hands of the Americans at Suez in 1956?

Typical right-wing American literature (and the two that follow).

Nonetheless, Zakaria's substantive discussion of the future of American power is more insightful. The U.S. will continue its demographic growth through immigration and procreation. Although the Iraq War was the "apogée" of a kind of American power, the country will likely maintain a near monopoly on intercontinental military power for some time to come. America will remain the "indispensable nation," to use Madeleine Albright's phrase, for any question needing international concertation. The problem becomes one of encouraging America's better instincts. That the country not be tempted to use its power for selfish ends. He urges against empire, for an acceptance of rising powers, and recommends behavior like that of Franklin Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush. He cites the ineffectiveness of military force in the asymmetrical fight against terrorism ($1 trillion having been spent on military means and only $10 billion on civilian ones). Hozever, to a nation with military power, the imperial temptation is inevitable: "To a man who has a hammer, every problem looks like nails."


The answers are unclear. Zakaria says we need "(international) legitimacy" on issues from climate change to Darfur which leads to the problem of "how to get people to agree?" In all this hangs ever-heavily the question of the Iraq War. How can a just international system be established given the preponderance of American power, its ability to start wars in regions regardless of its inhabitants' feelings on the subject, and indeed drag numerous European governments along for the adventure despite the protests of their own citizens? He has no answer to this or to his own support for the Iraq War (like so many other "good Liberals," see Hoffmann vs. Zakaria and Tony Judt's "Bush's Useful Idiots"). He limits himself to a long, awkward footnote on his support of the invasion, with retrospective caveats on having a "larger force" and "international sanction". The recommendations and questions are not accompanied by anything on how a less imperial America and a more balanced world might be practically achieved. He does not suggest (say) that the inhabitants of regions affected by the U.S. should have a veto on the policies supposedly done in their name. Zakaria is reduced to pleading against the concept of eternal war in the name of total security: "We will never be able to prevent a small group of misfits from planning some terrible act of terror." He shows incomprehension towards "chest-thumping hysteria" and the fact that "[t]he strongest nation in the history of the world now sees itself as besieged by forces beyond its control." He advises, "the United States must make a much broader adjustment. It needs to stop conveying fear."


But this is only the beginning, for there are two Americas: the one Zakaria thought he joined and the one that exists. He is extremely critical of political realities in the U.S. which might as well be called "decadent". We have an "irresponsible national political culture" that is "proud to be despised abroad". The capital, "D.C., has become a bubble; smug and out of touch with the world outside." A venerable political system has been "captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media, and ideological attack groups." At the same time, Zakaria waxes lyrical about America being "the first universal nation," on account of its acceptance and successful integration of huge numbers of immigrants from all corners of the world (indeed, an impressive feat). In contrast, he sees a defensive, selfish, narrow-minded America emerging. He writes of first moving to the U.S. as an 18-year old student: "America was a strikingly open and expansive country. Reagan embodied it." Yes Reagan, of all presidents, incarnated America's more broadminded and cosmopolitan side! There is something ridiculous in Zakaria's disappointed expectation that as America "globalized the world, it forgot to globalize itself." There is a strange, lame and almost pathetic quality to these observations and pleadings. The book concludes thus:

For America to thrive in this new and challenging era, for it to succeed amid the rise of the rest, it need fulfill only one test. It should be a place that is as inviting and exciting to the young student who enters the country today as it was for this awkward eighteen-year-old a generation ago.

Is one reading of a country, or a man who having married a girl under the intoxicating influence of love, rolls over some time later to discover that she was not without flaws and vices, not the picture of perfection he had imagined? Actually, the triumphs and idiosyncrasies of America are closely linked to it being an insular and indeed extremely parochial nation. But for Zakaria, evidently, "universal nations" speak English (and are wary of the creeping bilinguality from southern neighbors that might one day plague them like their northern neighbor), use only the Imperial System (alone, Zakaria notes, with Liberia and Myanmar), park their SUVs in pleasant suburbs (preferably in California), they don't know what's happening abroad (dramatized by this TED presentation), and "soccer" is certainly not the national pastime of predilection (but any number of sports with little appeal beyond North America can still have the qualitative "world" in the titles of their tournaments). In fact, the more the inhabitants of any country tout its "universality," the more they believe that their own little fraction of humanity is indeed the sum of human existence, the less they feel a need to interest themselves in the affairs and lives of those beyond their borders. Zakaria has forgotten that America is a really existing nation, which is to say a group of people, and not an idea that exists in the sublime abstractions of the mind.

A naturalization ceremony. Also see the 7-minute video Disney produced that U.S. customs shows at international airports.

Ultimately, the book never escapes its contradictions. The first between the "acultural," "universal" America of Zakaria's immigrant imagination (the one made up of lovely words like "democracy," "freedom" and "rule of law") and the America of really really existing human beings with their inevitable flaws, idiosyncrasies and particularities (Black, White, Southern, rural, working class, Establishment, hippie, Baptist...). The second tension, less personal and more conceptual, between Zakaria as a prophet of the triumph of the Third World (Fanon) and of the ideal of Western liberal capitalism (Fukuyama). His love for the ideal means he cannot bring himself to condemn the means for its propagation: centuries of European colonialism and hegemony in the Third World. There is a singular lack of engagement. Read Zakaria and one almost wonders if Indians should thank the British for conquering their land and, though leaving it in the same condition of abject poverty after 100 years of rule, at least in the meantime having taught them the good sense of speaking English (and the worship of melanin-deficiency). Was it beyond the imagination to suggest that the benefits of technical progress from West could (should) have been spread in the rest of the world without being subjugated by that civilization (indeed, following the Japanese example)? In the same vein, for all his talk of the universal interests of mankind, Zakaria has no answer to all the questions posed by the necessarily parochial and self-interested character of American power. His curious conception of national identification (parochial) leads him to total moral abdication (universal): "The Iraq War may be a tragedy or a noble endeavor, depending on your point of view." The latter may be a question of subjective experience but the former is not in doubt.


Not much remains after all this. For if the portraits are clichéd, the generalizations crude, and the critical engagement absent, what is the point of reading Fareed Zakaria? At the least, he has identified the most important development of our time and worked hard to discredit the false and pernicious narrative of the "Long War". In that sense he plays an important role in American political discourse. But he has come rather late. Asia has been "rising" for three decades. Its does only so much good to condemn the War on Terror after singing its praises all the way past the Rubicon. For this book at least, I do not think posterity will judge Zakaria to be much more than a Johnny-come-lately and the uncritical cheerleader of a era, someone who was incapable of asking the hard questions, let alone even beginning to answer them.


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