June 05, 2020
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Hold That Hammer

The Rise of the Rest seems to have hijacked the new American century. Zakaria tells the US what to do.

Hold That Hammer
The Post-American World
By Fareed Zakaria
Penguin/Viking Pages: 288; Rs. 499
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous American essayist, once quipped that one of the more powerful illusions of ruling elites is that history ended yesterday. Barely had the Berlin Wall collapsed that influential conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama gleefully declared "the end of history", marked by the global triumph of liberal democracy and market capitalism as the West has known them for most of 20th century.

Almost two decades on, history—that unfaithful mistress—seems to have resumed her uncertain ways. What was foreseen as "the new American century" might be turning out to be a "post-American world". This is the view taken by Fareed Zakaria. The future’s going to be nothing like the past. If the US is to maintain its influence, it had better adapt to the new rules of the game, shaped significantly by "emerging" nations. Bush-style "diplomatic imperialism" is a recipe for rapid imperial decline, all too familiar to history.

There is already evidence for Zakaria’s thesis. Between the early ’90s and now, "the rise of the Rest" is all too evident. While the US has been distracted by pyrrhic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global lines of force seem to have changed direction. An "enfeebled" superpower now has to deal with a Russia (once entirely at the mercy of America) awash with surplus oil billions. Far from the East Asian nations needing the imf (as they did a decade ago), their burgeoning currency reserves are helping finance America’s debt and bailing out Wall Street banks, pre-empting a collapse of the global financial system. China’s contribution to global growth has outpaced America’s; its markets and investments are now increasingly located in far-flung Africa and Latin America. India too has been growing at a threatening pace, its multinationals beginning to flex muscle in distant places.

To succeed in the new global neighbourhood, Zakaria counsels the US to avoid "imperial traps" and choose its priorities with an eye to the long term, eschewing self-destructive wars. If it wishes to continue to lead the world, the US must "build broad rules" for the international system, not focus on "narrow interests". It must follow Bismarck’s example of an "honest broker’s" role and seek good relations with all regional powers. "Superpower solutions" (where the "hammer" sees every challenge as a "nail") no longer work. "A la carte multilateralism" is more likely to be effective in regaining for US the legitimacy it once enjoyed around the world before cowboy diplomacy soured the mood. Perhaps Barack Obama’s election may reopen this line of realpolitik.

Read in good faith, Zakaria’s is an attempt to pin down Washington’s responsibilities to make the world a better—safer and richer—place. But there are a few oversights. How capable of fair play, leave alone justice, can an establishment so corrupted by graft, greed and wars still be after the damage done by the Bush years? Moreover, there’s more continuity (albeit accelerated) than change in the foreign policy postures of his administration. Distinguished statesman George Kennan had in the ’40s itself spoken of the coming imperative to deal "in straight power concepts" if the US was to continue to use a disproportionately (he might well have added, unjustly) large share of the world’s resources. By the time Bush Jr’s turn came, time was indeed ripe for the resource wars his father had inaugurated. Reading Zakaria’s book, one’s lulled into the illusion that American war crimes and against humanity began just seven years ago.

There are other premises that must be doubted. It’s facile and premature to declare globalisation a success when over two lakh farmers have committed suicide in India after the notorious 1995 ‘Agreement on Agriculture’ signed under wto and tens (possibly hundreds) of millions of the world’s population are getting reacquainted with poverty and hunger in an era of unprecedented rise in food prices.

And is there an umbilical connection between liberal democracy and market capitalism? Are free societies necessarily accompanied by free markets?

The case of China demonstrates just how successful a totalitarian political system can be at generating rapid economic growth and prosperity for a significant, growing minority. Before China, Soviet Russia in the decades ruled by Stalin, and South Korea during the ’60s and ’70s, produced economic "miracles" under authoritarian rule. For that matter, Western nations—witness Nazi Germany or any of the Allies—have grown fastest under the command and control structures of war economies, whose legacies are now institutionalised.

Sadly, the book leaves far more questions unasked than it answers.

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