Friday, December 7, 2012

The Post-American World - Book Review

The Post-American World
Author: Fareed Zakaria
ISBN: 978-0-393-34038-9
By: Marc O’Bryan


            In The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria offers a thought-provoking analysis of America’s new role in a world that is experiencing a change in its global power structure. He examines the emergence of rising non-Western global players, particularly China and India, and argues how this will affect America’s dominant economic and political influence in the world. He refers to this new global atmosphere as a “post-American world” where the global distribution of power is “defined and directed from many places and by many people” (p. 4).  He attributes this great shift away from American dominance to what he calls, “the rise of the rest” (p. 2). Zakaria sheds light on a reality that many Americans refuse to accept because it conflicts with their ethnocentric perception of America as matter-of-factly superior. According to Zakaria, the last thirty years have seen astonishing economic growth among many developing countries that were previously viewed as non-threats to America’s economic and industrial superiority (p. 2). He argues that we are experiencing a “genuinely global growth” that is causing significant reductions in global poverty, increased nationalism among “rising” countries, and a United States that is losing its global power and influence (p. 4).
            The primary purpose of this book is not to describe America’s decline or an increasingly anti-American world. In fact, Zakaria even admits that America will most likely continue to retain its military, economic, and social dominance for decades to come, but at a lower level. He is simply illuminating the fact that rising countries like China and India are becoming more empowered and less subordinate to American dominance. These rising countries have taken advantage of an open global economy created out of a more freely flowing movement of capital, widespread control over inflation, and a technological “flattening” of the world (pp. 24, 26, 27). By “entering the Western order” on their own terms, these rising countries are reshaping the global power structure by defining and pursuing their own interests in a more confident and defiant manner. America is losing its hegemonic hold over the world as its dominance over economic, military, and social influence wanes in the shadow of independently growing global competitors. Steering away from the classical imperialistic approach to gaining power and status, rising countries like China and India will continue to assert their influence in defining world issues and setting global agendas in a way that quietly best serves their own interests. This means America must be ready to take on a new role that recognizes these rising tactful countries as influential actors rather than mistaking them as submissive bystanders. If America wants to retain its authoritative position in this new post-American world, it must learn to adroitly assert its influence with a new sense of subtlety (p. 258).

Contribution to Knowledge:

            Zakaria offers a practical evaluation of America’s changing relationship with the rest of the world that forces Americans to reevaluate their perceived status. As globalization further increases the economic interdependence of nations, it becomes necessary to track the evolving nature of these international relations. Zakaria’s foreign policy analysis achieves this by shedding light on the extraordinary economic progress and strengthened political influence of new rising global powers. He offers insight into how countries like China and India are modernizing and adopting more capitalist forms of economic development in order to grow. It is important to note that this global power shift is being viewed as a long-term event that shows no signs of lessening in magnitude. Zakaria makes the excellent point that China and India are starting at very low average base incomes among enormously high populations, which creates a recipe for a sustained period of large scale economic and industrial growth (p. 23). This diffusion of global power to growing countries like China and India translates into a more egalitarian relationship structure between a less hegemonic United States and a rising class of new global players. This will have an enormous affect on how these countries interact in terms of economics, politics, and culture.

            This is a must-read for any foreign policymaker or anyone in a managerial position. Understanding this new power shift is now vital to the success of any business or government operating on a global level. As new global powers like China and India continue to grow more independent and defiant of the United States, American foreign policymakers must learn to accept progress no longer as dominance, but rather as compromise (p. 56). Multinational corporations based in the U.S. are beginning to understand that they must submit and adapt to a post-American world in which they no longer wield an overwhelming advantage. With annual revenue growth of 10-15 percent abroad, the majority of these U.S.-based corporations are reporting their growth as becoming increasingly reliant on penetrating new foreign markets (p. 57). In order to penetrate these foreign markets, they must first be understood. Zakaria does an excellent job of explaining the consequences of this new global paradigm, and revealing how Americans must adapt their worldview in order to remain a viable competitor.

Zakaria’s Strengths:
            Zakaria focuses primarily on India and China, two highly relevant and prominent rising global competitors, in order to illustrate the development of a post-American world. He identifies the similarities between these two rising nations and early America regarding their respective paths to developing into modern capitalist societies. Additionally, insightful thought is given as to why America’s economic and political dominance is waning, and how rising nations may face similar issues in the future. 
            Zakaria reveals the path being taken by India and China to become a modern capitalist society, capable of competing in a highly competitive globalized economy. Rather than simply focusing on the driving economic forces behind the growth of these two countries, Zakaria also provides a cultural and spiritual justification for their adoption of a capitalist society. This underlying justification provides the reader with a unique cultural understanding of how their development was not solely the result of economic incentives. By providing the reader with this more fundamental understanding of non-Western development, American readers can gain valuable and even applicable insight into how China and India have modernized on their own terms.
            It is important to first note that China and India are not the only societies that have based their particular path to capitalism on spiritual and cultural justification. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argues that early American capitalism was fueled by Puritan ethics, which promoted hard work, delayed gratification, and strategic planning. It is a common misperception that the development of capitalism in America is rooted in purely economic motivators. Zakaria demystifies this illusion by exposing the cultural and spiritual influences that guided and sustained the economic development of America. In doing so, he provides an indirect lesson on the Marxian perspective of how a society’s particular economic development is determined by its praxis, which is the way that society’s theories and action cyclically reinforce each other. It may be true that China, India, and the U.S. have all allowed capitalism to shape their current societies in similar ways. For example, all three nations are driven by a consumer society that is characterized by an instrumental rationality centered on monetary gain. All three societies have allowed external capitalist goals to replace freely chosen goals when it comes to understanding one’s life aspirations. However, the particular path to capitalism that each society chose was uniquely shaped by a set of underlying values related to different cultural beliefs and spiritualism. This particular aspect of Zakaria’s analysis mirrors Weber’s analysis of the relationship between religious ideologies and economics. It provides a fundamental understanding of how a society defines and justifies its purpose as a capitalist society. In the case of America, early capitalists used certain ideological aspects of Protestantism to justify and promote activities that established a capitalist environment. By associating moral and spiritual importance to capitalist behavior, early Americans established a social structure that has sustained a capitalist society. Zakaria points out that a reason for America’s decline is because it has transformed from “a country that once adhered to a Puritan ethic of delayed gratification” to a nation that “revels in instant pleasures” (p. 204). The implication behind this statement is that America’s insatiable consumerism and growing demand for instant gratification has allowed this nation to lose its competitive edge. Our country no longer possesses the same strong Puritan work ethic that enabled it to thrive for so long. Zakaria shows how China and India have also let spiritually based values dictate how capitalism developed in their respective societies.
            Zakaria claims that China’s form of capitalism is based on a combination of the values espoused in Confucianism and modern Western influences. Confucianism is rooted in rationality and practicality rather than in divine abstract notions of morality (p. 122). This spiritual teaching established guidelines for obtaining knowledge, maintaining order, and establishing social stability. Perhaps this explains the business practices of modern Chinese capitalism. China’s form of capitalism can be described as “state capitalism,” in which the state still retains a strong influence over the economic development of the country. This is intended to maintain economic stability and social order by mitigating the likelihood of the potential crises inherent in a free market economy. Zakaria makes it clear that China does not solely rely on a “Confucian way to generate economic growth” (p. 127). China has clearly adopted some aspects of  “Western rationalism,” as it attempts to replicate the successful economic model that America has exemplified over the years (p. 127). The main point here is to show that China’s current economic system emerged, and is indeed still being sustained, by a set of ancient spiritual values. The question is how will these values hold up against an increasingly consumer-based society, which is an inevitable issue that China will face as its capitalist system develops.
            Zakaria applies the values of Hinduism to the current state of India’s capitalist system. He describes Hinduism as a philosophy containing intentionally ambiguous guiding principles. (p. 171). Consequently, Hindus have incorporated this ambiguous attitude into the development of India’s particular form of capitalism. The Hindu value of ambiguity has translated into a highly adaptable workforce that can readily accommodate change (p. 172). This is an extremely valuable characteristic that is serving India well in a globalized economy that is constantly changing due to developments in technology and political power shifts. There ability to adapt to the needs of the job makes them a highly sought after source of labor, which Zakaria recognizes when he says, “the world is courting India like never before” (p. 146). The ambiguous nature of Hinduism may also account for India’s democratic social structure through which economic development is taking place in a totally unplanned and chaotic manner (p. 150). Just as Hindus follow the guiding principles of their faith, Indian citizens are also allowed to live by a set of guiding principles rather than strict rules. Unlike China, Indian companies have no restrictions regarding how capital is used. This has led to a more efficient and innovative use of capital in India, through which the “private sector has become the backbone of growth” (p. 151). This bottom-up method of economic development clearly demonstrates that Indians are much more at peace with economic uncertainty than most other nations. It is this attitude that allowed them to develop into a highly innovative society. Over the past five years, Indian companies have received the most Deming Prizes, an award offered by Japan to companies demonstrating exceptional managerial innovation (p 152). While India’s social and economic structure is to some extent adopting Western ideals, its cultural and spiritual history will continue to “pull it away from a purely American view of the world” (p. 168). India’s society has already become one in which “the consumer is king” (p. 152). This raises the question of whether or not India’s form of capitalism is better designed to withstand this increased consumerism and tendency toward immediate gratification.
            Zakaria’s in-depth analysis of the cultural and spiritual influences on these various developments of capitalism offer a much clearer understanding of how these rising nations will interact in the coming years of global economic growth. Simply examining the economic forces behind the development of a nation’s particular social structure is inadequate when trying to form a comprehensive understanding of how that country will operate in an increasingly globalized economy. Deciphering the underlying values that influence the economic goals of a nation is an essential task when it comes to forming sustained relations with that nation. Zakaria’s insight into the source of each nation’s worldview is an extra step taken to provide a well-rounded understanding of the post-American world.

Zakaria’s Weaknesses:

            The way Zakaria describes nationalism’s affect on rising global competitors is Zakaria’s assessment of the development of nationalism in rising nations challenges Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism in some respects. Zakaria does not thoroughly explain his justification or logic behind why he believes “sub-nationalism” is developing in these rising nations like India and China. He also provides indecisive reasoning behind what he defines as the consequences of increased nationalism. These argumentative flaws will be addressed through a comparison with Gellner’s take on nationalism.
            Zakaria and Gellner agree that nationalism is strongly tied to politics. Zakaria is correct in his assertion that “political power remains firmly tethered to the nation-state” despite the development of a globalized environment of economic interdependence and cultural sharing. This is due to the fact that these new rising global powers now have the ability to assert their influence when it comes to setting global agendas that serve their own interests. One might think that globalization and modernization would lead to a more cooperative global environment, but it makes sense that these once powerless nations now feel entitled to assert their political dominance in a way that might conflict with the interests of other nations. Consequently, the surge of nationalism within rising countries has the potential to create “global disorder and disintegration,” according to Zakaria (p 34). He is claiming that increasingly confident and self-interested nations like China and India are overtly threatening the global order due to nationalistic worldviews. However, he later claims, “Beijing has more recently toned down its support of nationalism, more fully embracing a quieter approach to diplomacy and politics” (p. 135). This statement coincides more with Zakaria’s recognition that China still views America as a dominant superpower, and recognizes the need to remain diplomatic rather than become defiant. Zakaria later addresses how India plans to handle its rising levels of nationalism. He links China’s foreign policy strategy to that of India, articulated clearly by its Prime Minister, which is “peace and stability to allow for development” (p. 169). Here, he portrays these increasingly nationalistic nations as less overtly assertive and more cooperative, when just prior, he claimed that these types of nations were allowing their increased nationalism to cause them to behave with an empowered sense of defiance and self-interest. In my opinion, Zakaria leaves the reader with an ambiguous analysis of how he thinks the relationship among powerful nation-states will play out. He contradicts himself when he claims that increased nationalism will lead to global disorder, but then later claims that two rising global superpowers, China and India, are pursuing a foreign policy strategy of “peace and stability.” While these countries may feel more empowered due to their economic progress, they realize that tactful diplomacy is still required to remain a global competitor, especially in a world of increasing economic interdependence. Although this does allow the reader to make up his or her own mind about the subject, Zakaria’s indecisive depiction of the matter somewhat delegitimizes his arguments.
            Zakaria makes another contradictory statement when he claims that “sub-nationalism” is occurring alongside the development of nationalism in rising nations. He argues that within each of these rising nations, segmented groups are independently forming a strengthened identity parallel to the overall country’s nationalized identity. As a consequence, they gain greater power, but at the same time, “it makes purposeful national action far more difficult” (p. 41). For example, Zakaria claims national parties in India are losing power to regional parties (p. 41). Gellner would disagree with Zakaria’s thoughts on the development of “sub-nationalism” in these increasingly nationalistic countries. While Zakaria claims that nationalism leads to within-country disorder, Gellner argued that nationalism actually accounted for the stability of modern societies. As a developing country adopts capitalism and becomes more modernized, cultural barriers become less salient. Society within that country becomes less stratified and culturally marked. Zakaria indirectly admits this early on when he states, “poverty is falling in countries housing 80 percent of the world’s population,” which means there is less socioeconomic inequality. As these societies become more socioeconomically egalitarian, sub-cultural distinctions, once marked by differences in wealth and status, begin to fade away. According to Gellner, this homogenizing effect on society occurs in response to the country’s necessity to modernize and prepare its population for a capitalistic environment in which constant technological change creates an unstable occupational structure. These societies must develop a common language and set of generalized values and customs in order to compensate for the affects of this unstable economic environment. Zakaria mentions how the rising global powers are placing more emphasis on widespread education in order to meet the capitalistic demands of a modernized society. This general education and training allows a society to be more occupationally mobile, which serves as an advantage in a modern society characterized by job switching. Gellner argues that the whole idea behind nationalism is to mask the antiquated social divisions in society that hinder economic progress in a modern capitalistic nation. For Zakaria to claim that “sub-national” groups are becoming stronger alongside increased nationalism is to say that these increasingly independent sub-groups are intentionally inhibiting themselves from succeeding in a modern globalized society. It is in their best interest to collectively unite their country in order to make it a more competitive global player. It makes no sense for these groups to work against each other or the state in order to achieve separate self-interests. As these rising countries become more capitalistic, the groups within each country become increasingly interdependent as their society becomes more characterized by organic solidarity. Emile Durkheim understood that the division and interchangeability of labor that followed modernized capitalism created a need for society to become more cohesive through generalized values and goals. Talcott Parsons also saw nationalism as a cultural medium capable of integrating complex capitalistic societies. It is this social bonding element that allows for the stabilization and continued existence of an increasingly capitalist modern society. Taking all of this into account, Zakaria’s claim of a growing “sub-nationalism” discredits his explanation of how rising nations are experiencing nationalism. As capitalism leads to nationalism, the resulting formation of a homogenized modern society supports a country’s economic progress. The insertion of a “sub-national” culture disrupts the perpetual flow of this model, and seems like a counter-intuitive response to nationalism. It’s hard to believe that sub-national groups are growing in size and power when they are operating in an increasingly competitive and changing environment that requires cooperation to succeed.

Overall Impression:

            My overall impression of The Post-American World is that it’s a highly relevant and well-written source for understanding how our world is changing. Before reading this book, I was fairly ignorant of America’s changing role in relation to other global competitors. This book has provided interesting and applicable insight into how other nations are changing the proverbial global playing field. All current and destined business managers should study the eye-opening concepts offered in this book in order to understand how international relations are transforming.
            This book does an amazing job of exposing the reader to all of the new opportunities being created around the world. If you are thinking about working in another country, this book is a great source of applicable knowledge in terms of understanding the pros and cons of working in different regions of the world. Zakaria makes you realize that an entirely new post-American world is developing before our eyes, and that for those who fail to see this, they will be left behind in the illusion of a “unipolar” world.  


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