Fareed Zakaria’s new book is a bit like a Rahul Dravid innings: The start is scratchy but it gets better and better as it goes along.
The Post-American World is—thankfully—not another book of the coming decline of the US and the rise of Asia. It is about the diffusion of power across the world as economic wealth spreads, thanks to the spread of global trade, capital and ideas. China and India are, expectedly, two important catalysts of this dispersal of global influence. The description of China as “The Challenger” and India as “The Ally” tells us a lot about the positions from which each country will negotiate in the future.
The Post-American World:Penguin, 292 pages, Rs499
Yale historian Paul Kennedy had written a remarkable tome in the late 1980s, The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers, where he more or less announced the death of the American empire, a few years before its great triumph against Soviet communism. What followed was the rise of the US as the world’s only superpower and as the driving force behind the second great wave of globalization. Events overtook Kennedy and his dark prognosis.
Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and author of the best-seller The Future of Freedom, treads more cautiously. He clears the air in his opening sentence: “This is a book not about the decline of America but rather of the rise of everyone else.” This theme—what he calls the “rise of the rest”—marks this out as a book that is essentially written with an American audience in mind. But it will still resonate with readers in India and elsewhere.
The central message of the book is an optimistic one. Zakaria does not quite buy the popular view that the world is a more dangerous place, and shows that war and organized violence have declined in the past two decades. He then quotes Harvard professor Steven Pinker: “… today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.” He even argues that Islamic radicalism will wane.
The optimism lingers on when Zakaria examines the geopolitical cross-currents, even though the lessons from the 20th century are not too assuring. Germany and Japan emerged as major economic powers in the early years of that century; their rise was followed by a malign cycle of war and destruction. Will India and China shake the world in more violent ways?
Zakaria is enough of a realist to see that economic success does fire national pride and nationalist fervour. But that may not unsettle the world. “We still think of a world in which a rising power must choose between two stark options: integrate into the Western order, or reject it, becoming a rogue nation and facing the penalties of excommunication. In fact, rising powers appear to be following a third way: entering the Western order but doing so on their own terms—thus reshaping the system itself.”
The real issue is how the existing powers reform the global system and make it fairer, so that India and China are not pushed into aggressive corners. A European always runs the World Bank. The International Monetary Fund is reserved for the Americans. The nuclear non-proliferation regime is a form of apartheid. The UN Security Council has five permanent members with the power to veto. This is a global system that was built during the Cold War. It needs reform. “The traditional mechanisms of international cooperation are relics of another era,” writes Zakaria. And then there are emerging global issues such as climate change and the food crisis. India and China will have to be partners in the solution.
However, how the West will respond is only half the story. India and China, too, will have to emerge as responsible global players, with a clear sense of both national interest and global strategy. China seems to have a better sense of direction right now, though the claim that “…with the exception of anything related to Taiwan, Beijing tends to avoid picking a fight with other governments” seems hard to swallow, given the thorny relationship between India and China—and the latter’s frequent statements about Arunachal Pradesh.
But the overall point is a valid one. Both India and China, as the main beneficiaries of globalization, have a long-term incentive to maintain peace in their neighbourhood.
A lot will also depend on the way the world economy evolves and grows. And how the two individual economies evolve. China is currently too far ahead in the game, though India is likely to close the gap in the next 10 years, as China’s population ages. But India continues to be too confused and circumspect about the virtues of market capitalism to get the wind behind its back in the global game.
Here’s an anecdote from the book. Zakaria tells us about the Chinese official who once told him that the best solution to rural poverty is letting markets work for industrial growth, which allows people to move out of farms and into cities. “When I have put the same question to Indian or Latin American officials, they launch into complicated explanations of the need for rural welfare, subsidies for poor farmers, and other such programmes, all designed to slow down market forces and retard the historical—and often painful—process of market-driven industrialization.”