Fareed Zakaria

New York

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for the Atlantic. Prior to his current roles, Zakaria was editor of Newsweek International, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a columnist for Time, an analyst for ABC News and the host of Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria on PBS. He is the author of “In Defense of a Liberal Education” (2015), “The Post-American World” (2008) and “The Future of Freedom” (2003). Born in India, Zakaria received a BA from Yale College and a PhD from Harvard University. Honors & Awards:
  • National Magazine Award, 2010
  • Peabody Award, 2011
  • Books by Fareed Zakaria:
  • The Post-American World (translated into 30 languages)
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  • From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America's World Role
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  • The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad
  • Buy on Amazon
  • In Defense of a Liberal Education
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Recent Articles

FAREED ZAKARIA COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 16, 2021, and thereafter

(For Zakaria clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Fareed Zakaria

"To govern is to choose," a French prime minister once said, and this week, President Joe Biden made a difficult strategic choice. He announced a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, 20 years after they arrived. For several years, the United States had been unwilling to make a choice in Afghanistan, settling into a policy that was more a punt than a strategy. Biden should be commended for actually making a hard choice and not kicking the can down the road one more time.

Was it the right choice? I believe so. Let's recall that the United States has tried virtually every possible approach in Afghanistan. Initially, after 9/11, it went in with a light footprint, allying with local forces. After a few years, that strategy was seen as flawed by giving the Taliban the opportunity to regroup. Under President Barack Obama, Washington expanded coalition forces so that, at their peak, they numbered around 130,000. They attempted a comprehensive counterinsurgency policy - namely, to provide safety and win the hearts and minds of the locals.

But while the surge produced gains, they proved temporary. As U.S. forces withdrew, the Taliban always bounced back. Then,President Donald Trump announced a mini-surge of his own, adding troops but claiming that American soldiers would only fight the enemy and do no nation-building. Eventually, Trump decided he'd had enough and withdrew some of those troops, bringing them down to the current level of around 3,500.

To understand why the United States couldn't win, we should remember the dictum coined by Henry Kissinger in 1969 when describing the war in Vietnam: "The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win." Or recall the famous exchange between a North Vietnamese commander and Col. Harry Summers, in which the American officer told his Vietnamese counterpart just before the fall of Saigon in 1975, "You know you never defeated us on the battlefield." To which the Vietnamese replied, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant." The guerrillas win by not losing.

The question we don't ask enough, however, is not why the United States failed but why the Taliban has succeeded. For the past 20 years, facing the world's most powerful army -- with the most advanced weaponry and intelligence in history -- the ragtag Taliban has survived and often prevailed. We spend a lot of time condemning the Taliban for its fanatical ideology and its treatment of women. We call its members terrorists. But we don't seem to ask, despite all that, why it has done so well.

Mao once noted that guerrillas can succeed only if they can move among the people "as a fish swims in the sea." The Taliban have managed to do that. Scholars on the ground have found that ethnic identity and solidarity are key to understanding Taliban success, far more important than military prowess, economic aid or even good government. Many people, particularly Pashtuns (the largest ethnic group in the country), identify with the Taliban. The Kabul government is often associated with the outsider, with foreigners. In his brilliant book, "The Accidental Guerrilla," counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen recounts a battle in which local Afghans joined the Taliban even though they were not ideologically aligned with the group. They simply felt they had to join the fight against the outsiders. And no matter how much money and services the United States may provide, it remains the outsider.

There are other reasons for Taliban success, as well. The group has enjoyed a haven in Pakistan and received help from that country's military. It is difficult to think of a single case in history in which an insurgency was defeated when it had a sanctuary across the border. The Taliban also benefited from the massive corruption unleashed by the tens of billions of dollars of U.S. aid and military spending that has utterly distorted the Afghan economy. The United States weakened the Kabul government by insisting that it fight opium production, which for better or worse has been a staple agricultural product in provinces such as Helmand for centuries.

But ultimately, it comes down to a simple reality: An outside force that has an ambitious set of goals -- establishing a functioning democracy, ending the opium trade, ensuring equality for women -- cannot succeed without a powerful, competent and legitimate local partner.

People will claim that this withdrawal shows that the United States does not have the capacity to stay the course. They will say U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan as they have in South Korea and Germany. But those forces are stationed to deter a foreign invasion, not to hold the country together. American soldiers have stayed in Afghanistan longer than they did in Vietnam and twice as long as the Soviets stayed there. It is time for them to come home.

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Fareed Zakaria's email address is fareed.zakaria.gps@turner.com.

FAREED ZAKARIA COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 9, 2021, and thereafter

(For Zakaria clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Fareed Zakaria

A few months after COVID-19 burst onto the world stage, it seemed clear why some countries were doing well and others poorly. Places that had strong, effective governments -- China, Taiwan, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Germany -- suffered few deaths from the virus. Places with weak leadership and bureaucracies that were dysfunctional -- the United States, Britain, Italy, Chile, Brazil -- did poorly.

But now, one year into the pandemic, the situation is somewhat more complicated. Many European countries that had gotten the virus under control have now seen sharp spikes in cases. Some countries that were pummeled by the virus have done very well with vaccinations. How to make sense of these new facts?

It remains true that the single strongest ingredient to successfully handling the pandemic has been strong and effective governmental institutions, particularly in the public health domain. But it turns out, that's not enough. In addition to the state, we have to look at society.

Michele Gelfand, a cultural psychologist at the University of Maryland, has long argued that a key distinction among countries is whether they have "tight" or "loose" cultures. Tight cultures like China tend to be highly respectful of rules and norms; loose ones like the United States tend to defy and break them. In a January 2021 paper in the Lancet Planetary Health, she and several colleagues studied 57 countries and concluded that loose countries had five times the rate of COVID cases and nine times the rate of COVID deaths as tight countries.

Gelfand points out that this distinction between rule-observant societies vs. rule-breaking ones was first observed by Herodotus and has been noted by many anthropologists and scholars over the centuries. But she has tried to study the phenomenon systematically and determine the consequences of these cultural traits. In March 2020, as the pandemic was growing, she presciently warned that loose cultures were likely to have a hard time unless they managed to "tighten up."

The numbers speak for themselves. When looking at cumulative deaths per million among large countries, loose cultures such as Britain, the United States, Brazil and Mexico have been some of the worst performers. Tight cultures such as those in East Asia -- China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam -- have all maintained very low rates of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Gelfand wisely does not claim that these cultural differences are rooted in some innate differences between East and West but rather are a rational product of historical realities. Societies that have faced chronic threats -- war, invasion, famine, plagues -- tend to develop tight cultures in which following rules becomes a mode of survival. Think of Taiwan, constantly under the threat of Chinese military intervention, vs. the United States, sheltered by two vast oceans and two benign neighbors. Places that have been secure and prosperous for a long time tend to become more lax about observing norms.

This distinction between state and society sheds much light on Europe. In many European countries, such as Germany and France, the state functions well. As a result, they were able to crush the curve after the first wave. But eventually people got "weary" of following the rules (in Emmanuel Macron's phrase). In France, social distancing broke down during the country's August vacation period. In Germany, people decided to gather for festivities a few months later. The result -- COVID spikes.

The vaccine rollout highlights another dimension of this phenomenon. Some of the loosest countries, which fared poorly in managing the pandemic through measures such as social distancing -- the United States, Britain, Israel, Chile -- were the most innovative and dynamic at developing, procuring and distributing the vaccine. The very traits that made it hard to follow social distancing rules were ones that helped generate the solution to the problem -- and now they are benefitting from that creativity, risk-taking and rule-breaking.

Gelfand told me that this is not a case of one trait being better than the other. "Whether you are a country, a company or even a family, sometimes you want to be tight, sometimes loose. The key is, do you know how to move from one side of the spectrum to the other." She points out that New Zealand, generally considered a loose country, tightened up when confronting COVID. Greece, under the leadership of an extremely able prime minister, did the same. "The goal should be," she said, "to be ambidextrous -- tight or loose, depending on the problem we face."

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Fareed Zakaria's email address is fareed.zakaria.gps@turner.com.

FAREED ZAKARIA COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 2, 2021, and thereafter

(For Zakaria clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Fareed Zakaria

WASHINGTON -- While Donald Trump claimed he wanted to "Make America Great Again," President Joe Biden is attempting to actually do it. The former president's slogan got Americans thinking nostalgically about the 1950s and early '60s, when the United States dominated the world and its economy produced rising wages for workers and executives alike. A defining feature of those years was federal investment in infrastructure, scientific research and education. (Think interstate highways, NASA and the massive expansion of public universities.) By contrast, Washington in recent years has mostly spent money to fund private consumption by giving people tax cuts or transfer payments. Biden's infrastructure plan is the first major fiscal program in five decades that would focus once again on investment.

When you look at federal spending as a whole, it seems to have risen significantly over the past few decades. But the composition of that spending tells the real story - most of that increase is a result of sharp rises in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Core investment spending has actually dropped substantially. The United States used to spend as much as 3 percent of its gross domestic product on transportation and water infrastructure; that number is now closer to 2 percent. The United States used to be the world's unquestioned leader in basic science and technology. China is now almost on par with it.

Biden's plan harks back to the New Deal. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA)built or improved almost 1,000 airports, creating the backbone of the modern airline industry. The president's proposal will help create a modern electric vehicle system by funding a network of 500,000 chargers. The 1936 Rural Electrification Act brought electricity to rural areas. Biden proposes doing the same with high-speed Internet, which he argues is the equivalent in today's economy. The New Deal was bigger (relative to the size of the economy at the time), but it is the only valid comparison with what the Biden administration is proposing.

Where the spirit of the New Deal is sorely needed today is in the cost, efficiency and transparency of these kinds of projects. The United States used to be able to build things with astonishing speed. The George Washington Bridge,the world's longest suspension bridge when it opened in 1931 across the Hudson River from Manhattan to New Jersey, was built in four years, ahead of schedule and under budget. By contrast, just adding two miles of new subway lines and three new stations in Manhattan took, depending on when you start counting, 10 to 100 years and ended up costing $4.5 billion by the time it opened in 2017.

Building infrastructure in the United States is insanely expensive. The New York Times found that another project in New York, an expansion of the Long Island Rail Road, was the most expensive subway track on Earth, coming in at seven times the world average. New York is particularly bad - in a league of its own - but U.S. infrastructure often costs several times more than it does in Europe. Paris, Rome and Madrid have managed to build subway extensions for less. Yet those cities are hundreds of years older than any in the United States, and they have many unions and tons of regulations. So none of the usual excuses will do.

One recent study found that the cost of building U.S. interstate highways quadrupled from the 1960s to the 1990s, though material and labor costs have barely budged (after accounting for inflation). There are lots of reasons: multiple authorities (each with a veto), endless rules and reviews, and likely corruption. New York University scholar Alon Levy did a detailed analysis of the country's crazy costs and concluded that there were at least eight reasons for them. Fundamentally, though, he concluded that they were so high because Americans were unwilling or unable to look around the world and try to learn from other countries. American exceptionalism has led to an exceptional, uniquely bad system for building infrastructure.

By contrast, the New Deal was surprisingly well-run. The WPA employed 3 million people at its peak, more than any private company. In today's workforce that would be about 10 million people. The entire enterprise was skillfully managed by Harry Hopkins, a social worker-turned-bureaucrat who was one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's closest aides. The vast Tennessee Valley Authority - spanning seven states and eventually comprising about 30 hydroelectric dams - was devotedly led by David Lilienthal, a crusading lawyer. Most of the funds appropriated for the New Deal were administered scrupulously by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, another confidant of FDR. Each of these men developed a reputation for honesty, efficiency and reliability, which in turn made people believe that government could do big things and do them well.

For the Biden administration to truly be transformative, it needs to rival not only the ambition of the New Deal but also its impressive execution.

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Fareed Zakaria's email address is fareed.zakaria.gps@turner.com.

About
Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for the Atlantic. Prior to his current roles, Zakaria was editor of Newsweek International, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a columnist for Time, an analyst for ABC News and the host of Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria on PBS. He is the author of “In Defense of a Liberal Education” (2015), “The Post-American World” (2008) and “The Future of Freedom” (2003). Born in India, Zakaria received a BA from Yale College and a PhD from Harvard University.
Books
  • The Post-American World (translated into 30 languages)
  • From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America's World Role
  • The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad
  • In Defense of a Liberal Education
Awards
  • National Magazine Award, 2010
  • Peabody Award, 2011
Reviews
"His predictions have proved prescient, and … Zakaria has come to symbolize not only the rise of the [emerging world powers] but also a decidedly American determination to deal with it." —Foreign Policy, naming Zakaria 7th on its list of the top 100 global thinker

“Zakaria . . . may have more intellectual range and insights than any other public thinker in the West.” —Boston Sunday Globe

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