Mark vs Cancer

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Rise of the Rest

I just finished an excellent book, The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria.

It's a discussion of America's unprecedented global economic, military, and political power, and how it will play that hand in the near and distant future.

He suggests that America will remain strong and continue to be the leader of the world, a beacon of capitalism and democracy, but will see a relative decline of its power due to the rise of emerging nations, namely China, India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa. He coins this emergence of other powers "the rise of the rest," which heralds a new, multipolar international order. Ironically, this global rise, sometimes cloaked in anti-Americanism, is actually a fulfilment and globalization of American ideals.

But you don't want to hear me talk about it. Here's a brief synopsis of the book from his website:
  • "This is not a book about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else." So begins Fareed Zakaria's important new work on the era we are now entering. He describes with prescience a world in which the United States will no longer dominate the global economy, orchestrate geopolitics, or overwhelm cultures. He sees the "rise of the rest"—the growth of countries like China, India, Brazil, Russia, and many others—as the great story of our time, and one that will reshape the world. The tallest buildings, biggest dams, largest-selling movies, and most advanced cell phones are all being built outside the United States. This economic growth is producing political confidence, national pride, and potentially international problems. How should the United States understand and thrive in this rapidly changing international climate? What does it mean to live in a truly global era? Zakaria answers these questions with his customary lucidity, insight, and imagination.
He uses the rise and decline of the British Empire as an apt analogy. In the late 19th century, Great Britain was the Empire of the Sun, with unrivaled power that stretched across the globe. Due to hubris, ill-conceived wars, and even more so over-extension, their decline became inevitable. Yet even as they declined, their former colony, the United States of America, put into practice its British democratic heritage and economic structure, and thus became the greatest power in the history of the world, the first ever "hyperpower." And in this way, British power and influence survives in the legacy of its former rebellious colony.

The book is engaging, well-researched, and convincing. For a book about some fairly obtuse topics, it is extremely well-written, even a page-turner.

What's my personal opinion about his ideas? I think he's spot on, the same way a commentator speaking at the height of the Roman Empire would have been right if he'd said, "You know, this unequaled power thing ain't gonna last forever. Time to adjust."

But I don't take his book to be a repudiation of the Bush Administration's policies, or of the necessity of the Iraq War and prosecution of the War on Terror. (Zakiria, like many other pundits, actually endorsed the invasion of Iraq at the time, but now does a fancy two-step. He was for it before he was against it . . . The book was published in 2008--I wonder if his opinion has changed again by now.)

Perhaps I'm a little too idealistic, or inclined to determinism, but to me, things have unfolded pretty much as they should have. One hundred years ago, America rose to prominence at a time when it, joined at the hip to the declining British Empire, was destined to turn the tide of two world wars and the Cold War, defeated Nazism, Fascism, and Communism, and then, when Islamic Fundamentalism and Terrorism posed its suicidal threat to a globalizing world, to call it evil to its face and defeat that menace, too.

And now, as America's world-saving century is nearly complete, it's time to step down from the mountaintop and make room for the rise of the rest. Or perhaps a better analogy would be that America's new destiny is to reach out to emerging nations, expand the size of the mountain-top, and pull them up alongside us, sharing our wealth, freedom and power. I think President Bush was perhaps the only man with enough stubbornness and idealism to stand strong against the swell of anti-Americanism and choose to exercise American power in one last battle against tyranny, sowing (some would say force-feeding) the seeds of democracy into a dangerously dysfunctional but pivotal part of the planet.

And now, I believe President Obama is the right man to ride into the inevitable chaos produced by that clash of civilizations and repair relationships, heal wounds, listen and build trust, once again allowing America to lead by inspiration, though of necessity in a lesser, more collaborative role.

I look forward to a not-too-distant future where I and my children can travel safely to the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramids of Egypt, or tribal lands of Pakistan (okay, maybe not there), without fear or shame. I believe in the greatness of our nation and our ideals. Sometimes, we have to fight for those ideals. But sometimes, we simply have to live up to them.

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