2008 Financial Crisis, Adam Smith, American Empire, American Exceptionalism, Big Bang Theory, Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies, Book Review, British Empire, CNN, economics, Empire, Fareed Zakaria, Gore Vidal, GPS, history, imperialism, journalism, military industrial complex, Patton, Politics, Rajesh Koothrappali, Rise of the Rest, Roman Empire, The Post American World, The Wealth of Nations, Washington Post
I’ve become an old man in the last two years. The reason for this conclusion is multi-faceted but I’ve arrived at it by observing many changes in my behavior which I’ll list in order so that the reader can understand them as little actions that become part of a larger whole. These changes in behavior include: collecting coins and buying books for them, owning a pipe that I sometimes hold in my mouth while I write, I own six tweed blazers, I would rather stay at home on a Friday night and read, I actually enjoy the company of my cats, I’m considering life insurance as well as retirement accounts, I watch Charlie Rose interviews for fun, I genuinely enjoy classical music, and every Sunday morning I wake up and watch GPS on CNN with Fareed Zakaria. Now by themselves each of these decisions and actions wouldn’t constitute “being an old man,” but reflection has a way of clarifying and connecting the dots. I’m not mourning the fact of this development I’m just trying to prevent any incoming self-delusion or bullshit later on when I reflect upon “the wild and spontaneous man I once was.”
My self-examination aside it’s the last action that has played such a significant development in my personal and professional life because there are few people working in News Media today that I hold with such respect apart for Fareed Zakaria. Like most of the intelligent and thoughtful people in the public sphere that I have become aware of I first recognized Zakaria from an interview he did on The Daily Show. I remember the specific episode for it was the Anthony Weiner intro where Stewart cut his hand on a margarita glass and when Zakaria took his seat he had the perfect response, “I leave you alone for five minutes and you’ve destroyed yourself.” I’ve compartmentalized this line and have used it in day to day interactions. Watching the interview I was struck by the man’s eloquence, the fact that he was able to explain economics in a way that wasn’t similar in sensation to root canal surgery, and most importantly for his balanced politics as he explained the problems with Republican as well as Democratic economic strategies.
After this interview I would read his articles in TIME magazine, but as so often happens in life, I lost touch with the man’s work as college and relationships began to take precedence. It wasn’t until after I got married and had moved into a new house with my wife that I rediscovered Zakaria, specifically his program GPS. Watching the show, before or after the McLaughlin Group depending on the week, was unlike watching Fox News, MSNBC, and even other programs on CNN because while other reporters would attempt to be charming, snarky, sarcastic, or entertaining, Zakaria would deliver facts first and then worry about entertainment. I recognize bitching about the news is cliché the usual stuff of self-righteous blogs, but the reason I trusted Zakaria was that he didn’t try to be entertaining, he tried to deliver the news first and then, if the occasion arose, attempted some humor or personality. Zakaria didn’t offer his opinions outright as the stuff of the report, instead he would offer up his assessment as an economist citing facts and figures and even bothering to mention his source.
All of this, along with the recommendation of my fellow writer and friend Jason Walker, eventually lead me to his weekly Washington Post articles as well as his book The Post-American World.
The title by itself may put off some casual readers for fear that Zakaria is another bleeding-heart liberal damning America and doing nothing but ragging on the country in print for 300 pages. This reader would be surprised by the actual thesis of the book which is not about America’s weakness as a country, but rather its shifting identity as the world economy changed following the financial crisis that took place in the housing market in 2008.
Zakaria opens his book up with a clarification on the title:
This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else. It is about the great transformation taking place around the world, a transformation that, though often discussed, remains poorly understood. This is natural. Changes, even sea changes, take place gradually. Though we talk about a new era, the world seems to be one with which we are familiar. In fact, it is very different. (1).
He goes on a few pages later to further clarify:
The rise of the rest is at heart an economic phenomenon, but it has consequences for nearly every other sphere of life. […] But in all other dimensions—industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural—the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance. That does not mean we are entering an anti-American world. But we are moving into a post-American world, one defined and directed from many places and by many people. (4).
My readers in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America may not be terribly impressed by these two passages, and may wonder why I was so stunned by this comment, as many were when the book first came out. The reason is largely due to American Pride. Since the Second World War as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Zakaria explores, America has assumed more and more authority in the world, specifically when it comes to monitoring the behavior of nations. The common term for this idea is American Exceptionalism, sometimes also expressed by the notion of America as the “World’s Police Force,” and military interventions as well as diplomatic influence have been the stuff of American political reality for well over thirty to forty years. Zakaria is not just referencing American Exceptionalism in terms of political and military affairs, but rather to observe how economics has been the force behind these actions.
America was alongside Britain in establishing an Industrial Revolution rather quickly and that innovation and capitalist enterprise has been one of the keys to our success as a super power. Because the richest people in the world are Americans, because we are leaders in technological innovation, because our entertainment industry has lead the world for decades, and because our military has been well supplied through government as well as private industry Americans have steadily come to look upon themselves as the center of creation. This is hyperbole of course, but only so much. The idea that Americans would be equal to the rest of the world, or that we would have to share responsibility in governing the world is notion that is distasteful because as George C. Scott so eloquently put it in the film Patton:
Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.
Zakaria’s book does the job of explaining then how Americans need to get past this idea to recognize the, as he put it, “rise of the rest.” Noting the atmosphere of the economic landscape Zakaria notes that:
Meanwhile, in the United States, the mood is sour. Americans are glum, dispirited, and angry. The middle class, in particular, feels under assault. In a Newsweek poll in September 2010, 63 percent of Americans said they did not think they would be able to maintain their current standard of living. Perhaps most troubling, Americans are strikingly fatalistic about their prospects. The can-do country is convinced that it can’t. (227).
This quote is contained within the chapter “American Power” which follows earlier chapters dedicated to his examination of the developments of China and India as new sources of economic strength. This observation is partly one of the reasons why this book created the controversy that it did.
The larger reason is that nobody actually read the book and therefore entirely missed why it’s called the Post-American World. On a side note this misinterpretation is an excellent if chilling indictment about Americans at large: we tend not to miss subtext because many of us prefer not to read. The other reason for the controversy is the unfortunate notion of American Exceptionalism. For years countries like India and China have been presented in American media as backwards countries. China of course is a communist nation, and given America’s history with communism the fact that China hasn’t imploded is source for sourness on American’s part. Democracy was supposed to topple Communism, and the Chinese like the Russians before them were supposed to fall. In the case of India this perception is clouded by ignorance and some racism. Watching a show like Big Bang Theory one is able to observe contemporary America’s perception of India in the character of Rajesh Koothrappali. An effeminate blundering metrosexual, Rajesh often fails at understanding Western moors and values and often references to his home country either involve snide remarks about Hinduism or else the lack of sanitation. India is often painted as either the “exotic orient” or else a backwards clusterfuck of magical religion and medieval plumbing standards. These examinations are simply an attempt to explain why Zakaria’s book, which argues that both countries are in fact generating new innovation and creating booming economies while America struggles to pick itself back up, caused some annoyance on America’s part.
It’s important to note though that Zakaria isn’t trying to put Americans down at all, in fact he’s trying to get them back up.
In a later passage he offers some hope:
As this hollowing out of the middle suggests, there really isn’t a Third World anymore. China, India, and the United States all compete on a level playing field. What, then, is America’s competitive advantage? The answer lies in something the economist Martin Wolf noted. Describing the changing world, he wrote the economists used to discuss two basic concepts, capital and labor. But these are now commodities, widely available to everyone. What distinguishes economies today are ideas and energy. A country must be a source of either ideas or energy (meaning oil, natural gas, coal, etc.). The United States has been and can be the world’s most important, continuing source of new ideas, big and small, technical and creative, economic and political. But to do that, it has to make some significant changes. (232).
One of these significant changes is the idea of Empire. My American reader may object that America has no empire, but I would warn them about saying that out loud less the ghost of Gore Vidal should appear wearing a turtle neck and sipping a Cosmo. Seriously I said it once as a joke and now the dude follows me room to room, it’s freaking my cats out.
Many people who talk of Empire like to compare it to the ones that preceded it. In the case of America the most frequently offered comparison is Rome and then after Great Britain. The conflict with these comparisons is that they are empty of nuance and detail. Many of them eventually spiral out into some kind of moral argument about society’s imploding morals at which point rather than becoming philosophers, historians, or economists, such “prophets” become panders of a cheap pornography dedicated to selfish inward denigration. People like to talk about what’s wrong about the world rather than offering improvements.
While America may not hold any flags or markers over the various countries that we aid and occupy, our military presence and actions do reek of imperial ambition. Since the Second World War and the instigation of the Marshall Plan and the Domino effect, America has in the last half century acted all across the globe often spouting the argument that we’re simply trying to improve the world, and let’s be fair some of the time that effort was spoken through some honest selflessness. The larger problem however is that that monitoring of the world affairs has stretched the American economy thin, caused the deaths of millions of people, and has in its own small way brought about many acts of terrorism by countries that envy or distrust our country’s involvement in their affairs.
Zakaria, much like Christopher Hitchens did in his book Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies, approaches this problem by comparing America to the British Empire during the height of Imperialism. His effort in taking this approach however isn’t to forebode the eventual collapse of American democracy and military might, but rather as always to recognize the failing of this practice and the potential economic disaster it could bring on:
The United States could easily fall into a similar Imperial trap. Every crisis around the world demands its attention and action. American tentacles and interests are spread as widely today as were Britain’s at the height of its empire. For those who believe that America’s place in the world is wholly different from that of the British Empire, it is instructive to read the “Base Structure Report” for the fiscal year 2006. In it, the Department of Defense boasted of being “one of the world’s largest ‘landlords’ with a physical plant consisting of more than 571,200 facilities (buildings, structure, and utilities) located on more than 3,700 sites, on nearly 30 million acres.” The report lists a sprawling network of 766 bases in foreign countries, from Antigua to the United Kingdom. These overseas bases were worth at least $127 billion in 2005, housed 197,000 uniform personnel and an equal number of dependents and civilian officers, and employed an additional 81,000 local foreign hires. They covered 687,000 acres (nearly 1,100 square miles) of foreign land and cost taxpayers $13 billion in maintenance alone.
America may be more powerful than Britain was, but it still cannot neglect the lesson that it must make choices. It cannot be involved in everything. (262-3).
It’s in the last two closing lines that Zakaria’s book comes full circle and why I believe it’s an important book for our contemporary period. Before I continue though I have to appreciate something as a grammar nerd. In the long paragraph when he placed the world landlords in quotes within the larger quote he accurately uses apostrophes instead of putting more quotation marks. Speaking as a regular editor of student and even professorial papers, essays, articles, etc., that was truly inspirational and refreshing to see somebody actually get that grammar rule right…god I’m a nerd.
“America cannot be involved in everything” may at first seem to stand in stark contrast to the figure of Uncle Sam that exists in American minds, if anybody still remembers who Uncle Sam is and no it’s not the eagle from the Muppets. While it may not appear so to a casual observer America has seemingly lead the world in politics, innovation, technological development, creativity, economic development, and industry over the last half decade and along with this lead was policy that in many cases demanded or required that America play some role in it. Isolationism, the idea that America should stick out of other people’s problems, was largely abandoned because America was America and America surely had a policy or philosophy or interest in whatever problem was happening in the world. Zakaria’s book offers an important philosophical difference with this worldview, not because he disagrees with the policy out of moral or philosophical conflict, but because he recognizes the economics behind such behavior isn’t going to last.
I’ve offered here a few passages from the book so that the reader can understand the base of Zakaria’s work, but I have failed in the ability to supply all of the nuance. Zakaria doesn’t just talk about America’s impractical foreign and economic policies, he also discusses the economies that are taking shape in China and India in order to offer his American reader ideas. Rather than complaining that China will “steal our jobs” or that India’s rising software industry will put all of us out of a job, Zakaria examines the forces that are driving these workforces and how American entrepreneurs can find inspiration from it. The Post-American World may at first appear to be a bucket of cold water, but in fact the book is a vibrant, well written insight into how the Global Market and society is changing and while America is no longer the leader of this world, it’s not necessarily a loser in this category.
While The Post American World is not necessarily the equivalent of a economic masterpiece like The Wealth of Nations, and it also doesn’t create a new model of Keynesian economic theory, it nevertheless stands as an important book not only for our contemporary times, but also for the future. The details of the book won’t necessarily age well, but the ideas of America as a country in transition will serve a bountiful purpose for those looking back and trying to understand what was happening in this country at this time. Zakaria, as always, asks only that his reader considers the facts and then remember what can actually be done. Near the end of the book he offers a closing sentiment:
At the end of the day, openness is America’s greatest strength. […] But historically, America has succeeded not because of the ingenuity of its society. It has thrived because it has kept itself open to the world—to goods and services, to ideas and inventions, and, above all, to people and cultures. This openness has allowed us to respond quickly and flexibly to new economic times, to manage change and diversity with remarkable ease, and to push forward the boundaries of individual freedom and autonomy. It has allowed America to create the first universal nation, a place where people from all over the world can work, mingle, mix, and share in a common dream and a common destiny. (283-4).
As an immigrant from India Zakaria knows what America as a nation can offer, and clearly, it has offered him much.
Writing this review, and pouring over that last quote, I’m reminded why I love my country, why I hang a flag behind me while I write, and why I, and many Americans, need to remember that we don’t need to make America “great again.” America is already great. While the financial crisis of 2008, and the ever growing wealth-gap will be issues that Americans will have to struggle with over the next few decades, despondency is a real danger to the Republic. Reading The Post-American World checks that despondency and reminds the reader that America is a country, an economic force, and an idea that is worth fighting for because unlike anywhere else, its unique culture and economics can still overcome any obstacle.
As for the “Rise of the Rest,” that just means we may have to be second or third in line for the buffet now, but we’ve been meaning to lose some weight for a while now anyway and after all it is bikini season. I don’t know about you but I intend to wear that polka-dot bikini and look damn good doing it too.
All passages quoted in this essay come from The Post American World Release 2.0, the updated and expanded edition.
If the reader is at all curious I’ve posted two links below, one is to a WordPress page operated by Zakaria to promote his writing, public speaking events, and television projects, the other link is to The Washington Post Home-page which publishes his weekly column for that newspaper if you’re interested in reading some of his shorter work first.
Washington Post Columns: