In our turbulent world, it is tempting to view America as surrounded by enemies intent on our destruction. Everywhere we look, we can see signs of American influence waning. Often-and especially in a time of economic turmoil-our mounting troubles can seem insurmountable. But sometimes merely looking at the world through a different lens can help us gain some perspective. And if that lens is held by one of today’s most perceptive observers of the world scene, it might even help us all take a deep breath and relax.
In Post-American World, best-selling author Fareed Zakaria takes a look at America’s place in the world and explains why we have reason to be optimistic. Zakaria, who was born in India, came to this country as an awkward and naive eighteen-year old in the depths of the recession of the early 1980s. What he found then-and what he still sees all around us today-is a vibrant and expansive country, open to fresh ideas and eager to show the world what it has to offer. What has changed in today’s world, he explains, in not America: rather, it is the merely rest of the world, racing to catch up with us. And while this new era-where American ideas and aspirations have inspired the world to follow us into the future-may pose unique challenges, they need not be as frightening as the pessimists and nay-sayers make them out to be. In his view, the key to understanding our changing world is to realize that America is not really lagging behind; rather, it is the rest of the world that is rising. And if we are tempted to respond by retreating-withdrawing into Fortress America, secure in our belief in our own superiority-then we are playing a game that has failed other civilizations in the past, and would likely surrender our leadership for the future.
Among the cautionary tales the author cites from history is the example of China, another great country that once stood at the pinnacle of greatness. Nearly a century before Columbus, in the early 1400s, a series of expeditions set forth from China, with several hundred vessels, each larger than an Spanish galleon, carrying thousands of men. They sailed eastern shores, down coast of Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean, impressing they met with majesty and might of Chinese civilization, and returning with treasures including precious stones, exotic plants and animals. Yet by the middle of the century, all this stopped: a new emperor had come to power-one who viewed these excursions as needless and expensive extravagances of little use to China. Before the end of the next century, building similar ships was forbidden on pain of death, and vast tracts of forests were burned to make similar ventures impossible in the future. And so China, convinced of its own superiority, turned firmly away from outside contact to withdraw within itself…and before long, the rest of the world had passed the stagnating Chinese culture in all manner of accomplishments. It has taken them six centuries of struggling to approach the pinnacle again; and now, having learned the lesson of history, they seem determined not to repeat the mistake.
Today, though we are beset by dangers on many sides, Zakaria reminds us that we often fail to appreciate just how lucky we are to live in an age of plenty and an era of discovery and adventure. Now that America has led the way, the rest of the world is racing to catch up to us. But, he cautions, we should not treat their efforts with suspicion or disdain, but we should embrace the future envisioned by our own ideals-for it is those very ideals that have long inspired the world.
Foremost among our many resources are the American culture and people. Both are filled with resilience and optimism. The American spirit of innovation derives from the openness of our culture, and our embrace of the off-beat and heretical-as well as the welcome we have shown to the best and the brightest from around the world. And despite the imperfections of our much-derided educational system, the author demonstrates that most of our problems stem from disparities within our own country: there is, the author notes, a greater disparity between students from our typical, middle-class schools and those from poverty-stricken, inner-city schools than there is between our best, and the best from the rest of the world. And while we bemoan our own lagging test scores, others are actually coming to the US to learn our techniques. And what impresses them most are the things we take for granted: the willingness of our students to challenge teachers; their courage to speak out in class; and their ability to be creative in applying what’s taught to their everyday lives. While the rest of the world may beat us at teaching their students to take standardized tests, our system seems to excel at producing people who can be innovative, willing to challenge convention. Our culture seems drawn to the heretical and oddball; and since our schools don’t quite squash this out of our students as well as some countries do, these same oddballs help keep our culture fresh.
Comparing us to the British Empire in its heyday, Zakaria notes that Britain, though blessed with gifted statesmen, was saddled with a dysfunctional economic and cultural system that stifled creative impulses of British society. In many ways America’s challenge is just the reverse: we have a vibrant, dynamic culture that remains the envy of the world-but one that is saddled with a political system that often seems more intent on gaining temporary partisan advantage than moving the country forward. And where our culture benefits from the influx of immigrants-bringing energy, ambition, and new ideas along with them-we often mistake the challenges they bring as well for danger, rather than viewing them for what they are and have always been: a priceless source of renewal.
Insightful and well-written, filled with a global perspective often lacking in today’s commentators, The Post-American World offers hope as well as perspective. It is written not in the lofty tones of academics, but with a precision born of thought and deep understanding. Those interested in understanding America’s place in the world-past, present, and future-would do well to read it carefully. The world, after all, needs an America-embodying the free spirit and sense of adventure we have always taken for granted. That is, the author concludes, this country’s real role in the world-and the reason that most people across the Earth still look to the United States with good will. It would be a pity if, through misguided attempts to hold back the future, we squandered the America we have…and forced the world to go looking for a new one.