e Guru of Conventional Wisdom | The United States | Hegemony

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  1:a ã Azuii e Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria W.W. Norton, 2008, 304 pages. Reviewed by James Kirchick F areed Zakaria is one of the most innuential foreign anairs commentators in the world. Only forty-nve years old, he is the editor of Newsweek International and hosts a weekly discussion show on CNN in which he interviews major political ngures from around the world. With his upper-class Indian pedigree, lilting accent, and sterling academic creden-
   ã A e Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria  W.W. Norton, 2008, 304 pages. Reviewed by James Kirchick  F areed Zakaria is one of the mostinuential foreign aairscommentators in the world. Only forty-ve years old, he is the editor of  Newsweek International  and hosts a weekly discussion show on CNN in which he interviews major politicalgures from around the world. Withhis upper-class Indian pedigree, liltingaccent, and sterling academic creden-tials from Yale and Harvard, Zakariahas quickly earned himself a rare andcoveted place among the Americanelite: that of a bona de intellectualcelebrity. His specialty is the distilla-tion of arcane international relationstheory into terms that the generalpublic can easily understand. Zakar-ia’s journalistic success, however, hasnot satised his ambitions, and he ap-parently hopes to follow in the foot-steps of his idol Henry Kissinger by ecoming a foreign-born counselor to American policymakers. “My friendsall say I’m going to be secretary of state,” he told New York  magazine in2003. “But I don’t see how that woulde much dierent from the job I havenow.” ough Zakaria didn’t makethe short list of candidates to servein the current administration, he doesseem to have caught the attentionof President Barack Obama, at leastriey. During the presidential cam-paign, Obama was photographed car-rying a copy of Zakaria’s latest book, e Post-American World   “When I talk to people in a foreigncountry, no matter how strange, they are always, at some level, familiar tome,” Zakaria wrote in a 2007 col-umn that examined then-candidateObama’s foreign policy experiencein comparison to that of his chief Democratic Party rival, Hillary Clin-ton. Despite Clinton’s globe-trottingas First Lady and impressive tenurein the Senate, including her serviceon the Armed Services Committee,he came down on the side of Obama.To Zakaria, the fact that Obama wasorn to a Kenyan father, spent “four e Guru of Conventional Wisdom    /  ã  years growing up in Indonesia,” and was brought up “in the multiculturalswirl of Hawaii” endowed the juniorsenator from Illinois with a compre-hension of foreign cultures and peo-ples that was unique in the history of  American presidential candidates.Zakaria went further than this,however, writing that he instinctively identied with Obama because hesaw the same attributes in himself.Despite teaching at “colleges andgraduate schools” and accumulating“fancy degrees,” Zakaria believes thathis worldview is “distinctive” becausehe spent so many years as a foreignertrying to become an American citi-zen. Obama’s rootless childhood, Za-karia wrote, has endowed him witha similar kind of empathy. Backingup his claim for the importance of a transnational mentality and a cos-mopolitan childhood, Zakaria half- jokingly concluded, “Trust me onthis. As a Ph.D. in internationalrelations, I know what I’m talkingabout.” F amiliarization with the srcins of Zakaria’s beliefs is crucial to any understanding of  e Post-AmericanWorld  Its thesis is just the kind of os-tensibly provocative idea that makesa “big think” book on internationalrelations a major best seller: Accord-ing to Zakaria, the United States,owing partly to its own mistakes butalso to factors beyond its control, will eventually be overtaken by othercountries and lose its standing as the world’s sole superpower. To drive thepoint home, Zakaria opens his book  with a quote from historian Arnold J.Toynbee, who was an expert on therise and fall of empires. is is, infact, not a particularly srcinal idea.ndeed, books and articles predictingor declaring the decline and fall of the American empire seem to appear withstartling regularity these days. Never-theless, a world dened by Americanpower and consumer culture is theonly world that most readers know,so a book by a popular commentatorthat attempts to overturn this com-fortable paradigm is bound to turn atleast a few heads. While Zakaria’s thesis certainly hasits attractions, what emerges once hegets past the omas Friedman-styleanecdotes and aphorisms are factsinconveniently at odds with his bigidea. e actual statistics on econom-ic performance and education levelsZakaria presents tend to contradicthis claims. For example, he notes thatas much as 70 percent of the world’stop fty universities are located inthe United States, though it has only 5 percent of the world’s population.e World Economic Forum, more-over, rates the United States as havingthe most competitive economy in the world, which is unlikely to change any    ã A time soon, and—because economiccompetitiveness is more dicult toachieve in sclerotic and corrupt au-tocracies—such rising authoritarianpowers as China will never be able tomatch it so long as they continue tolimit political freedom. And in a book lled with unattering comparisonsof the United States to the BritishEmpire, Zakaria nonetheless notesthat “Britain’s unrivaled economicstatus lasted for a few decades,” while“America’s has lasted more than 130years.” Indeed, Zakaria ultimately concedes that, in spite of the recentdownturn, America remains on track to retain its leading role in the worldeconomy for many years to come.Nonetheless, Zakaria insists that America has lost its “prestige.” eraq War, he claims, represented the“apogee” of America’s now decayingglobal inuence. is calls Zakaria’sreputation as a trendsetter into ques-tion, mainly because it demonstratesan easy susceptibility to the herdmentality. In eect, Zakaria is simply repeating the conventional wisdom of elite foreign policy journalists whohave accused the Bush administrationof single-handedly destroying Ameri-ca’s reputation. In this vein, he dubi-ously refers to the war against Saddamussein’s regime—which he himself supported when it was popular—as“an unprovoked attack on a sovereigncountry.” Similarly, he repeats theshibboleth regarding Bush’s “cavalierrejection” of the Kyoto treaty butneglects to mention that Bill Clintonnever sent the treaty to the Senate forratication because the body had al-ready passed a resolution overwhelm-ingly rejecting it.More than Zakaria’s self-contradic-tions and trite rhetoric, however, hisapparent indierence to the prospectof American decline gives e Post- American Worl  an unsettling tone.e appears to share president Obama’sviews on American exceptionalism, which the president articulated in arecent speech. “I believe in Americanexceptionalism,” Obama said duringa press conference in France, “just as Isuspect that the Brits believe in Britishexceptionalism and the Greeks believein Greek exceptionalism.” In other words, the world’s oldest constitu-tional democracy, which successfully defeated totalitarianism twice in thelast century and whose leaders havelong expressed a sense of providentialmission, is not objectively exception-al. It plays some world-historical roleonly in the minds of its own citizens.Zakaria seems to agree. For example,he nds the State Department’s An-nual Human Rights Report “smug”and “out of touch with the worldoutside,” and he is annoyed that theUnited States is “the only country inthe world to issue annual report cardson every other country’s behavior.”    /  ã  is is in spite of the fact that humanrights activists often nd these “reportcards” to be an invaluable resource.ndeed, Zakaria’s troubling outlook on American global leadership ismost apparent in his dismissal of theidea that the world is, on the whole, abetter place because of it.  A  s skeptical as Zakaria may beabout American exceptional-ism, he is even more concerned by hisfellow citizens, whom he perceives asprovincial, chauvinistic, and “cower-ing in fear” at the world around them. America, he argues, “has become anation consumed by anxiety, worriedabout terrorists and rogue nations,Muslims and Mexicans, foreign com-panies and free trade, immigrants andinternational organizations.” is, heclaims, is largely the fault of the Re-publican Party, which has capitalizedon this latent nativism in order to winelections.nsisting that this is a new phe-nomenon in American history, Zaka-ria attempts to refute historian Robertagan’s contention that Americanforeign policy has been remarkably consistent over time. Kagan’s work has held that America’s dierences with the European Union stem fromthe simple fact that the United Statesis a superpower and acts accordingly.Europeans, on the other hand, tendto prefer multilateralism because they are relatively weak. Europeans op-posed to American “unilateralism,”agan argues, might think dier-ently if their countries still had globalempires. And indeed, Europeans didview the world more assertively whenthey ran it. Zakaria, however, arguesthat the Bush administration’s uni-lateralism represented a fundamentalreak with American foreign policy traditions. “America was the mostpowerful country in the world whenit proposed the creation of the Leagueof Nations,” he writes, omitting thefact that the Senate promptly rejected joining the league, and he furthernotes that Franklin D. Rooseveltand Harry Truman “chose not tocreate an American imperium” after World War II, but rather “built aninternational order of alliances andmultilateral institutions and helpedget the rest of the world back on itsfeet.” e problem with Zakaria’sargument is that building multilateralinstitutions and establishing unchal-lenged American hegemony are notnecessarily mutually exclusive. earchitecture of international security established after World War II, suchas   and other regional bodies, was dominated by the United States. As for the United Nations, it hasnever played a signicant role in any global conict, nor has any Americanpresident sacriced the United States’interests or objectives to its diktats.
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