Whether by accident or as a signal to voters of a certain intellectual attainment, senator Barack Obama allowed himself to be photographed a few weeks ago carrying a copy of The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria. By the looks of it, Obama is taking this celebrated young author seriously — in the photo he appears to be marking his place about one-third of the way through. As it happens, I have been reading the very same book. Since I have more time on my hands than Obama, I hereby offer him an executive summary.
It used to be, senator, that bright young foreign policy pundits turned out a predictable product. Every foreign election, every inflation spike or productivity slowdown overseas was plugged into the same master narrative: country X needed to embrace “free trade”; country Y had allowed labour unions to get too strong; country Z needed to cut taxes and deregulate.
Zakaria cleverly yokes together this favourite pundit hobbyhorse with another: American decline. The problem, he argues, is not that other lands need to learn the laissez-faire way; it’s that they have learned it too well, that they’re better at it than we are, and that “the rise of the rest” — namely, China and India — threatens to problematize the precious number-oneness of the US.
Zakaria’s trademark style is to noodle aimlessly through world history, wondering why the West managed to triumph over the East and amazement at unremarkable things, such as the way distant people adopt some Western customs but not all, or the fact that countries sometimes “forge their own ties with one another” without first getting the say-so of the US.
But in ways that matter, he’s on-message, especially when it comes to the righteousness of markets. Beginning in the 1990s, he asserts, all recognized that “there was only one basic approach to organizing a country’s economy.” That way, naturally, was laissez-faire. For Zakaria, the truly enlightened Americans are Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Co. and other business chieftains.
Average Americans give him fits with their ignorance of foreign ways and doubts about free trade. This attitude has opened up “a growing gap between America’s worldly business elite and cosmopolitan class, on the one hand, and the majority of the American people, on the other”.
A warning here, senator. Were you to integrate it into your stump speech, you might even deliver the south side of Chicago over to John McCain.
How do I know this? It’s all explained in a far more worthwhile new book, The Predator State, by James K. Galbraith. At your next photo-op, I hope to see you half way through it.
The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org