“The Post-American World” by Fareed Zakaria

When I first heard of this book, I imagined the general public’s reaction: “‘Post-American World?’  Author with a foreign-sounding name?  It must be a smug, inflammatory book about how the terrorists are going to destroy us and mold the new world order to their liking!  Grrr….I hate them terrorists!!”

Well, it’s not quite like that.  No terrorist uber-plot is outlined or advocated.  Rather, Zakaria reports on the economic (and therefore political and social) “rise of the rest” — he focuses mainly on China and India, but also refers to Russia, Brazil, and other emerging (already emerged?) economies.  Since the end of the Cold War, the US has functioned as the sole superpower in the world.  In many respects, America’s place at the top is not likely too change soon, but many advantages it has enjoyed are disappearing as the rest of the world becomes more educated, stable, and democratized.  It’s kind of ironic because those are the things America has been trying to build up in the rest of the world; now that they are present in a lot of up-and-coming nations, we can no longer rest on our laurels.

There isn’t a whole lot to this book other than this summary.  It’s a pretty short read.  But, it is well written and causes the reader to ponder (and worry a little about) the direction America is heading.

There were a few items in the last part of the book I found interesting.  One deals with the often repeated notions on how American education is slipping behind the rest of the world – lower test scores than other industrialized nations and being outnumbered in annual science and engineering graduates are two pieces of evidence usually cited to support this.  Zakaria points out the 2/3 of American school districts are on par with the countries possessing the “best” (test-wise) education systems in the world.  The other 1/3 of American school districts, usually in inner cities, bring down the overall average such that it appears we have a big problem.  (Such inequality IS indicative of a big problem; but it is different from  America as a whole being uncompetitive in a global economy due to poor education.  Some students obviously are poorly prepared by their education system, but many more are thriving in theirs.)

The other stat, that China and India graduate thousands more scientists and engineers than the US does each year, usually includes “lighter” degrees – equivalent to technical or associate’s degrees – for the foreign countries while only counting bachelor’s and higher degrees for the US.  Not exactly apple to oranges.  Also, Zakaria points out a few examples showing how the quality of American higher education is still the best in the world.  Several institutions in other countries excel individually, but on average nothing beats the American university system.

The book’s closing chapter mentions a few rules that American policy makers need to keep in mind as they tackle the problems resulting from the “rise of the rest”.  One of the most compelling to me was the need to choose our diplomatic battles and policies carefully.  In the past, whatever America said on the global stage was as good as law.  We have been so powerful for so long that we have forgotten in a lot of ways that other countries have interests, too.  We won’t be able to have everything go our way…so we need to pick and choose our fights – make sure we win the important ones, and try to get as much out of the ones we lose as we can.  We won’t be able to solve every problem, so we need to focus on the ones that will help us the most.  This quote from the book made me laugh: “Washington has to move out of the eighth century AD, adjudicating claims between Sunnis and Shias in Baghdad, and move into the twenty-first century – to China, India, Brazil – where the future is being made.”

“The Post-American World” is a good introduction to the challenges facing the country.  It doesn’t mention at all the ongoing recession (it was published in early 2008, so likely written before the meltdown), but the challenges it DOES discuss will need to be addressed both now and after the current financial crisis.  I hope our national leaders and policy makers have read it or other similar books.

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