Wow! What a book. I learned a ton! Here are my sketchy notes:
We are moving into a post-American world not because America is in decline, but because there is a rise of the rest of the world. The central challenge of this rise will be to keep the forces of global growth from turning into the forces of global disorder and disintegration. Economics, information and culture has become globalized, but political power is till tied to the nation-state which increasingly becomes less able to solve problems unilaterally and is less willing to come together to solve common problems. As the number of players increases, the challenge will become even greater. We need to learn to view things from various perspectives rather than just our own.
U.S. Secretary of State James Baker said, in 1991, that the world was moving toward a hub and spoke system, where every country went through the U.S. to get to its destination, to a point to point route. The rest of the world doesn’t have to go through us to get to where they want to go anymore and so are becoming increasingly interested in themselves and less interested in the U.S. The rise of the rest is a direct consequence of American ideas and actions – the U.S. globalized the world. The question is, can the U.S. globalize itself?
Many countries decry the loss of their culture to that of the American culture because the rise of a mass public empowered by capitalism and democracy looks American. But what is really happening is that the old, hierarchical order of these countries is in decline. The new mass culture is important because in a democratic age, quantity trumps quality. I find this interesting because it was Nietzsche’s fear that because democracy places the focus on equality, quality would no longer be valued. (Nietzsche calls it the “lie of equality” because equal “rights” is necessarily dependent upon an abstraction of values which he doesn’t think exists.)
Kurosawa had a lot of similar complaints about democracy. But what he liked about democracy was the empowerment of the individual and that is what is starting to happen with the rise of the rest of the world. Zakaria says that when he was growing up in India, global affairs were defined through a Western lens. But today, the news represents a great diversity of perspective on the world. This is the growth of new narratives – the rise of individual identities.
China has had incredible growth, more than any country in history. It remains a communist state, but history has shown repeatedly that a market based economy that achieves middle-income status tends toward liberal democracy. China has yet to reach that middle income status so we have yet to see if it will become democratic, but it will be interesting to watch play out.
Zakaria asks: What does God have to do with foreign policy? Islam and Christianity create a missionary spirit within foreign policy. The Protestant sense of purpose has made a deep mark on global affairs. China, on the other hand, has no such sense of missionary spirit or sense of destiny. It doesn’t need to spread anything to anyone to vindicate itself. So things like the lack of concern for human rights in other countries may look bloodless to those of us who are used to spreading our ideals, but that’s not necessarily true. It’s just that the veneration of an abstract idea is alien to China’s practical mindset.
According to Robert Weller, “The Chinese base their sense of cause and effect around the idea of qi energy. Qi is the stuff of feng shui, and the element in the body that is manipulated by acupuncture or Chinese herbs. It is part of a broad way of understanding the structure of the world as a set of interacting forces, complexly interrelated rather than working through a simple and linear cause and effect”. Concepts like qi are as central to their ways of thinking as our ideas of a moral Creator to the western mindset. But this can cause some problems because Beijing has been shown to be well aware of its power, but slow to recognize its broader responsibility by arguing that it is simply minding its own business.
Zakaria asks: If China continues to act calmly and slowly enlarges its sphere of influence, seeking only greater weight, friendship and influence in the world and pushes Washington to the sidelines in Asia, making itself the alternative to a hectoring and arrogant America, how will America cope with such a scenario? The U.S. is completely unprepared for this sort of challenge. Perhaps the answer is with India, which is the second fastest growing country behind China.
India is one of the most pro-American countries in the world. In 2007, 71 percent of Indians said they had a favorable impression of America. Only America has a more favorable impression of America (83%). There is a sense in which India understands America and America understands India. We are both quarrelsome democracies. But Hindus, like the Chinese, don’t believe in God. They believe in hundreds of thousands of them which makes it extremely tolerant. All ideas are readily absorbed into Hinduism. So like China, India isn’t missionary. The only guiding principal is one of ambiguity.
American Higher Education continues to be its greatest asset. It is lax when it comes to rigor and memorization, but it is much better at developing critical faculties of the mind which are needed to succeed in life. While most educational systems teach you to take the test, the American system teaches you to think. This is why America produces so many entrepreneurs, inventors and risk takers. In America, people are allowed to be bold, challenge authority, fail and pick themselves up. America’s culture of learning challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. While America marvels at Asia’s test-taking skills, Asian countries come to America to figure out how to get their kids to think. American culture celebrates and reinforces problem solving, questioning authority, and thinking heretically. It allows people to fail then gives them a second and third chance. It rewards self-starters and oddballs. Education expenditures are considered “consumption”, but in a knowledged based economy, education functions more like savings – it is spending forgone today in order to increase human capital and raise future income and spending power.
America has an advantage over Europe because Europe is moving toward taking in fewer immigrants at a time when its economic future rides on its ability to take in many more. America, on the other hand, is creating the first universal nation, made up of all colors, races, and creeds, living and working together in considerable harmony. Muslims are much more easily assimilated here than they are in other countries. America’s edge in innovation is overwhelmingly a product of immigration.
But, for all its strengths, the American economy now faces its strongest challenge in history. We are borrowing 80 percent of the world’s surplus savings and using it for consumption. Also, today we have the second highest tax rates of the major industrialized countries – not because American rates have gone up but because everyone elses have gone down. There are also major health care issues. Most of the cars manufactured in North America were made in Michigan for a century after 1894. But since 2004, Ontario Canada has produced the most cars. This is because car manufacturers have to pay $6,500 in medical and insurance costs for every worker in the U.S. and only $800 per worker in Ontario. The costs of the American health care system are creating a significant disadvantage to hiring American workers. Also, no where else in the industrialized world do people lose their health care if they lose their job but in America. This makes us far more anxious than other countries about foreign competition, trade, and globalization.
The U.S. is entering the 21st century with a highly dysfunctional politics. (Zakaria wrote this before the economic crash and says we are not entering it with a fundamentally weak economy – wonder if he still thinks that is true?) Our political system is antiquated and overly rigid. It is likely that our economic system will adjust to whatever challenges it faces. The question, Zakaria says, is can Washington adapt to a world in which others have moved up? Can it respond to shifts in economic and political power? Can Washington truly embrace a world with a diversity of voices and viewpoints? Can it thrive in a world it cannot dominate?
2002 was America’s Roman moment. Today we are an enfeebled global superpower with economic troubles. Anti-American sentiment is at an all-time high everywhere. But the biggest shift is that so many countries are no longer dependent upon us. In 2007, China contributed more to global growth than did the U.S. This was the first time any nation had done this since the 1930s.
Americans believe in the virtues of competition, but we seem to have forgotten this belief when it comes to the international arena. The U.S. has been unrivaled and unchecked and this has had its advantages but it has also made Washington arrogant, careless, and lazy. It has been driven by internal matters with very little sense of the broader environment. American officials seem clueless about the world they are supposed to be running to the rest of the world. The costs that come with being a superpower can be easily lowered through attentive diplomacy, which went out the window with the Bush Administration. But if we are going to gain this diplomacy, we have to let go of our fears.