Books: 'The Post-American World'

Fareed Zakaria
Editor, Newsweek International; Co-Moderator, PostGlobal
Monday, May 12, 2008 3:00 PM

Newsweek International editor and PostGlobal co-moderator Fareed Zakaria was online Monday, May 12 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his new book, " The Post-American World," which examines how the world will change as the U.S. slips further from its decades-long position of dominance.

The transcript follows.


Washington: My father was in the Foreign Service and I lived in India and Egypt as a child. During those years in the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed to me the Soviets were quite dominant in Asia, with Japan in second place. If I had to guess, America was the dominant power in the '50s and early '60s, and then again in the 1990s. So it doesn't faze me to think that China will challenge the U.S. in Asia. What is the argument for an American dominance that I'm not sure really exists in a world of Tata Motors, Sony and Nokia?

Fareed Zakaria: At one level, you're right -- the major powers have waxed and waned in influence. The Soviets and the Japanese had their periods of great influence, but even during those periods, the United States was in some sense always the dominant power. In terms of the size of its economy (and thus aid and contributions to the U.N., etc.), its military and its political presence, the U.S. has been No. 1 since the end of World War II. I argue in the book that this exceptional position is beginning to fade, not from the temporary posturing of others or an uptick in one economy, but rather from a broad shift across the globe that is diffusing power, moving it to many centers, many lands and many people. I agree that it's not a condition to fear, but rather one to prepare for and compete in.


Aesch, Basel-Country, Switzerland: Would we be talking about this if the United States had not invaded Iraq?

Fareed Zakaria: Yes, the shift I am describing is broad and deep. Last year 124 countries around the world grew at more than 4 percent. There are now dozens of big countries growing at twice the rate of the United States. Given time, that trend will give them greater weight in the world. And this economic competence is giving rise to political confidence and assertiveness. Regional associations are becoming more significant because the regional players are now big and important. Iraq has accelerated some of this -- particularly the psychological factors -- but the shift goes much deeper.


Anonymous: Why is Zakaria totally oblivious to the environmental collapse of the Earth's natural systems, which is having an increasing impact on the geopolitical games Zakaria, narrowly and myopically, is preoccupied with?

Fareed Zakaria: Actually in my book I talk about the strains on resources and the environment. We spend too much time worrying about the problems of crisis and collapse. Look at the current discussion on the credit crunch and recession. Our real problems are -- ironically -- problems of the upside, of synchronous global growth. With standards of living rising in so many countries, the strain placed on the earth is huge and unprecedented. We need to focus on this problem and address it in two ways -- technologically and politically. Technology can help us get part of the way, using new techniques for efficiency and new products altogether. But then we also need political solutions that involve the coordination and cooperation of many countries. The best example of the need here is to combat climate change. Only joint action will work, and yet joint action seems increasingly difficult.


Wilmington, N.C.: It seems to me that the nation-state is becoming obsolete, and will be replaced by corporations that will be responsible for resource allocation and security. Democracies are in decline because they are unable to provide rewards to all but a thin slice of their populations. Is this the the future, or is it even bleaker then this?

Fareed Zakaria: I'm not such a pessimist. First, corporations are powerful, but so are governments -- and the newest set of actors, increasingly big players, are nongovernmental organizations. Add to them international organizations like the WTO and the U.N. and you have a power gumbo! That's the real picture of the world today. Everyone is involved but no one is in control. It can be frustrating, but it's the product of immense energy and activity around the world.


Washington: My question is, who is going to pay for all the investment in our infrastructure and education when we've already got a debt above $9 trillion, and trillions more in obligations for Social Security and Medicare?

Fareed Zakaria: This is the trillion-dollar question! We need to make important investments to compete in this new global economy, but the federal government faces huge entitlement costs as the baby boomers retire -- a process that begins in a few years. The states and localities have their own pension costs that will cripple them and that they are refusing to admit to on their balance sheets (see a great Washington Post article on this a few days ago). Without a complete reform of social security, health care, and pensions, the U.S. government is going to go bankrupt. So let's hope we get some leadership on this -- and fast!

_______________________ Growing Deficits Threaten Pensions (Post, May 11)


Washington: Mr. Zakaria, the excerpts I've read so far are compelling. Thanks for writing this book! I suspect that a great many people will find it fascinating reading. The post-American era you outline seems to offer both tremendous challenges and opportunities. What kind of social, cultural or even (dare I say it) political dynamic would best serve us in making the most of this transitional period? Thanks for taking questions!

Fareed Zakaria: The most significant change we have to make is one of attitude. We know very little about the rest of the world. We are bordered by two vast oceans and two weak neighbors (sorry Canada), and the result is that we get by with little awareness of trends taking place abroad. That must change, because the future is happening over there (not solely, but enough that we need to know about it). We need to benchmark to best practices across the world. American debates rarely involve any comparison with another country, other than to belittle it. Nicholas Sarkozy won the presidency of France by saying, in effect, "we need to look at Britain and become dynamic like them." He went to London to extol its virtues as a dynamic city of the future and urge Paris to emulate its energy. Can you imagine an American politician going abroad to draw attention to how they do things better there? He would lose in a landslide!


Tucson, Ariz.: China is a big imitator, not an innovator. To some degree the same can be said of the other Asian powers such as Japan and India. Inventiveness still seems to be a particular penchant of the West, especially America. A liberated mind and spirit of man is behind all the development since about 1400. You need to talk about this.

Fareed Zakaria: I do -- I spend a good bit of the book describing the rise of the West around the 15th century, and why it has been so long and persistent. But there are two things to keep in mind: First, the size of China and India make things different. Even if those two countries simply copy the West, their sizes will ensure that they cast huge shadows on the global economy and politics. If China gets to $10,000 per capita GDP, which is one fourth of the current U.S. level, it will be the largest economy in the world.

Second, what's going on in the sciences and arts in Asia these days is quite impressive. Look at biotech in Singapore and South Korea, computer science research in China and biochemistry in India, and you will be very impressed. The West is still well ahead but it won't stay that way if it becomes smug and cocky. This is not something set in Western genes. Most of the advances being made in the West are now made by people with names like Kim, Chang and Patel. And before the 15th century, China, India and the Middle East were the centers of learning and science.


Reston, Va.: What can Americans do individually to prevent our loss of national power?

Fareed Zakaria: A great question. Tell our politicians to focus the country and public policy on the basics. We need to save more, spend less, fix our entitlements, ensure that we do not alienate large sections of the world, and preserve the greatest source of strength -- our openness and flexibility to goods, ideas and people from around the world. If we can do this we will retain enormous strength and influence, even in a post-American world.


Syosset, N.Y.: I agree with you in general -- the shift in the center of power is not going to be tilted towards a country in particular. Quite a few new emerging economies are shaping toward maturity. Global and intertwined economic forces are going to be the dictating forces. The influence of U.S. power in Asia seems like it's going to be less affective than might be desirable, but the time frame for this inevitable change is hard to predict because it depends on quite a few variables. What's your take?

Fareed Zakaria: Yes, timing is the hardest thing to predict in international relations. The shift has begun and is real, but my guess is that it will take a while to work itself out. Other countries have their own problems and straight-line projections are always wrong. We have a window of time to get our house in order -- but I don't see many indications that we're doing that.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Our run at dominance was short-lived, especially compared to Rome, Greece or even England. At the beginning of World War II we were not even in the top 10 military powers, and we emerged from World War II as the world's largest military and economic power. Did our putting too much emphasis on military slow our economic growth?

Fareed Zakaria: Not really, at least not in the strict economic sense. We have been able to have both guns and butter, and the U.S. share of world GDP has been large (about 25 percent) for more than a century, so I don't think our dominance has been short-lived. The unipolar era has been brief but that has been such an unnatural situation, never seen before since the Roman empire 2,000 years ago. The real culprit here is not us but "them." In the book I call it, "the rise of the rest" -- everyone else finally growing their economies -- that is changing the world. The pie has expanded, and while our slice is still large, it will shrink somewhat over time.


Las Vegas: Thanks! What do you believe the world's reaction would be to a U.S. president named Obama? I believe the world gasped, a little horrified, when we re-elected Bush, and I believe the world may take some comfort that we haven't slipped into some hyper-conservative pit of despair in a further misguided reaction to terrorism and Sept. 11 if we elect this hopeful young man with the face of the world.

Fareed Zakaria: There's no doubt in my mind that the world is fascinated by Obama, and the attacks on him have not dulled his appeal at all. For people abroad this is an "only in America" story, something that tells them that the United States remains this exceptional land that creates the patterns of the future. Were he to be elected president, there would be a huge and sympathetic wave of support for him across the globe. Now, all that said, high hopes set the stage for big disappointments. After a few months what will matter is not the symbolism but the substance of his administration. If Obama adopts anti-trade policies, the rest of the world will stop cheering very fast!


Anonymous: How do you think the Americans themselves will react to this loss of power? I live in Britain, and we seem to have handled things reasonably well (though we're currently over-eager to "punch above our weight" in military matters). The French never seem to have got over losing the No. 1 spot. The Dutch, who were the top nation for a very short time, seem relaxed about it.

Fareed Zakaria: This is a key question. I hope Americans react to it by running fast but not running scared. We still have an enviable set of cards and could play a strong hand. But if we get angry, paranoid and defensive and start attacking the world -- trade, foreigners, immigrants -- we will do badly, and lose our moral credibility in the process. I hope that this doesn't happen. America is not about hanging on to the past but about creating and celebrating the future.


London: My worry is that when the U.S. steps aside as top nation, it won't be replaced by anyone at all, turning the whole planet into something like Somalia -- small, squabbling groups at one another's throats.

Fareed Zakaria: Actually that's what I talk about in the book, A world with many countries growing and no overarching authority can get very messy. Economic globalization produces growth, but that produces national pride and nationalism, which means less cooperation. It's the great paradox and danger of today's world. The big challenge then is to create structures of cooperation and problem-solving in a time when many feel empowered. The only solution, I think, is to do so in a very different way than the past -- horizontal not vertical; cooperative not hierarchical.


Toronto: Not sure why you think Canada is weak -- our economy is in pretty good shape, with budget surpluses, funded entitlements, widespread prosperity, no mortgage crisis, huge natural resources, very low inflation...

Fareed Zakaria: You got me. I was just joking. Yes, in an age of high commodity prices Canada is becoming very rich. It's one of those crucial countries that are rising and thus reshaping the world. But historically it has been somewhat in the shadow of the U.S.


New Carrollton, Md.: Hello, Fareed. Could you please explain why it matters whether the U.S. is No. 1? I'm pretty sure that Nos. 2-10, etc. still were doing okay while the U.S. was on top. Thanks.

Fareed Zakaria: Ah, you raise a great question. Do we need to be the pivotal global player, or should we relax, cultivate our gardens and let others do the striving for world position? Well, I think I would worry about a world in which others -- China, Russia -- were the dominant ones. I hope we can be politically active in a way that involves others and creates a larger base of stability, but we would still need to be centrally involved. Given our size, history, and values, I don't think we can become Switzerland -- living in but not shaping the world.


Fareed Zakaria: Thanks for a superb set of questions. I always worry about getting crazy questions, but honestly there wasn't one bad one here -- and many, many excellent ones. My sincere apologies to those to whom I was not able to respond. And please buy my book!


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