Rise of the Declinists
With America mired in two wars and a recession, is the country being eclipsed on the world stage?
The bulk of Khanna’s book is a fast-moving tour of the second world, and this is where it shines. In the tradition of the great British historian Arnold Toynbee–whose 1958 book, East to West: A Journey Round the World, Khanna seeks to emulate–and current writers like Robert Kaplan, this is a serious book written by an author in motion. Khanna uses his exhaustive travels (by my count, he visited over 40 countries) not just to describe places few readers have ever been or will ever go but to explore complex global changes with first-hand observations and plenty of local color. From the barrios of Caracas and scenes of whirling dervishes in Turkey to the rugged Hindu Kush and the gleaming glass and steel of Dubai and Shanghai, we get a picture of the second world in all its hopes and contradictions. As a primer on many of the globe’s most important yet distant places, one will find it hard to read this book and not come away enlightened.
Zakaria follows a similar approach in The Post-American World, although with fewer frequent-flier miles and a tighter aperture. His depiction of what he calls the “rise of the rest,” or those emerging powers “entering the Western order but doing so on their own terms,” focuses mainly on the big powerhouses: China and India. Of the two, Zakaria sees China as a more direct challenger to the United States, and he explains how its elites are thinking seriously about how to manage the country’s transformation. Much of what he details will not be new to even casual China watchers, but he does uncover some interesting–and possibly illuminating–nuggets, such as the fact that Albert Speer Jr., the son of Hitler’s infamous architect, is helping redesign Beijing’s streets for the Olympics. He also handles questions about a possible military conflict between the United States and China with welcome sobriety.
Both authors take the same tack in addressing the U.S. politics and its relationship to globalization–namely, that it is highly dysfunctional. They lament the fact that instead of embracing globalization, too many politicians are running from it by demonizing immigration, curbing trade, and neglecting global institutions. This is especially true for conservatives, who have never really been comfortable with globalization. During the 1990s they could barely bring themselves to utter the term, believing that to do so would be tantamount to embracing a kind of Davos one-worldism.
But globalization is not just a problem for conservative politics. Progressives have likewise dabbled in isolationist and protectionist populism. Indeed, anti-free trade politics is again resonating with broad swaths of the liberal electorate. And there is a consistent strain of progressive thinking, within which Khanna’s book clearly falls, which argues that to understand America’s troubles with the globalizing world and its inability to grapple with the rise of second world states and a post-American order, one shouldn’t just point the finger at the U.S. political system, but at America itself. By this argument, the problem is more fundamental than the design of our government’s structures and institutions or the quality of our leaders; the problem is us. Khanna argues that when considering a variety of measures–the widening gap between rich and poor, the relative poor health and obesity of many Americans, rising crime–the United States is “ceasing to be a middle class nation, becoming instead a classic second-world combination of extremes.”
Khanna is correct that in too many domestic arenas, the United States needs urgent reform. Progressives have been making such arguments for years. Yet he greatly diminishes his case by displaying a significant degree of pessimism about, and in some cases outright disdain for, America itself, criticizing everything from the movies we like to the sports we follow. By comparison, he exudes admiration for Europe and its evolving union (although one wonders how he squares his contempt for America’s “wasteful motor sports” with his exalted Europe’s own obsession with fast cars and motorbikes). In his telling, America’s decline is basically irreversible; there’s nothing left for Americans to do but sit back and wait for the fall. That doesn’t offer much for those looking for a way forward.
This is where Zakaria proves far more edifying–and where the significant difference between these two books exists. He does not downplay the challenges the United States faces, but he works hard to remind us that, actually, the news is not all that bad. “It feels like a dangerous world,” he writes. “But it isn’t.” Zakaria makes the important point that despite predictions to the contrary, the global economy has continued to grow, and Al Qaeda central (led by Osama bin Laden and his cohorts) has not been able to pull off a successful spectacular attack against the United States since September 11. Of course the globe is changing, and of course the United States will not remain as dominant as it has been during the last 20 years. But the important point, he argues, is that the world is moving toward the values and structures that the country espouses and, in turn, that benefit its interests: “As long as we keep the forces of modernization, global interaction, and trade growing, good governance, human rights, and democracy all move forward.”
Nevertheless, even if the global order is becoming “post-American,” the world still needs the United States. Zakaria notes that for all its recent troubles, the country still maintains deeper relations with more of the world than any other global power, and it is still relied upon to help resolve disputes and to solve problems. As Madeleine Albright argued over a decade ago, the United States remains the “indispensable nation.”
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