Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

Let's think way back to the 1890s. Britain rules a quarter of the world - the biggest empire the world has ever seen. It's position seems to be unassailable. But, starting with some pig-ignorant Dutch farmers causing trouble in South Africa, things start going wrong. A few decades later, and it's all gone.

Now, America's not quite in the same position, but it should be sobering for them to reflect on how quickly it can all go away, and how to cope when the decline happens.

The title of this book's a bit misleading. Zakaria's talking about the rise of a multi-polar world over the next few decades in which the USA still plays a major part. But it's only since the 1990s that America's been the sole superpower, and if they think that's the way it'll always be, they're deluded.

Zakaria looks in depth at China and his home country India (he's now American.) China's the big boy in the coming years, and a bit of a mystery. What does it mean to be communist and capitalist? How nuts are they about things like Taiwan? And how scared should we be of them? The author's pretty sanguine about the Chinese, arguing that it's very different to how it was under Mao (a sadist's plaything) and despite some nasty human rights abuses and no democracy, it's heading in the right direction.

The real weakness of the government is a paranoia about their position, manifested in a fear of social unrest - why do they get their knickers in a twist about Falun Gong? Recent protests, incidentally, have been slapped down with a mixture of quite effective internet sabotage and good old fashioned stomping.

India's a strange one. It's economy is growing really fast - hourly wages have doubled in the past decade. Lots of people are getting rich, but there's still staggering poverty - 50% of infants suffer from malnutrition. Also the politics is rubbish, and there's stacks of corruption. Zakaria says the big plus for India is stuff left over from the British Empire - the English language and legal system, which means they know about contract law.

The USA is still going to be on top for a while to come, according to the author, although he again picks out the weaknesses. He rightly points to the political system becoming dangerously corrupt and ineffective due to special interests and the sensationalist media. Zakaria doubts that hard geopolitical choices which have to be made in the future (e.g. unpalatable but necessary concessions to China) will be possible in the increasingly strident bubble of US politics/media.

So things are looking up for China, India - even America. So who's really going to suffer in the coming years, according to Zakaria?'s us. Western Europe's going down the pan. China can do manufacturing better than us. India trumps us on technology. We've got a big public sector, a dwindling private sector, an ageing population and a boneheaded aversion to immigration because "they're taking our jobs - we can't afford them." We're toast.

Really worth reading this book if you're interested in how the future's going to unfold. It's clear and engaging despite often being about pretty dry stuff like economics. Although, I've just been enjoying Freakonomics as well, so perhaps the subject isn't as boring as The Man has led us to believe.


bryce said...

Economics is interesting, I think the most interesting thing is that they know how bits of it work but it's too complex to be able to reliably predict what the outcome of most scenarios will be.

To be fair, given how big the ideas are in this it is bordering on (informed) fiction. I would probably disagree with him... Not about the rise of India and China but I think the Euro-zone is more stable and balanced than the USA (and it is bigger). If California went all Japan it could easily put the USA into a tailspin... Never mind that loss of manufacturing has already devastated several big cities.

Joe said...

That's the problem with a book like this - five years on or so and everything looks different.

I think the yanks were really sold a pup by Clinton on globalisation. Detroit wishes OCP were running the show! I don't know enough about the situation in California, apart from the state being broke and the odd rolling blackout which I'm sure we'll get over here when we start relying on those windfarms.

But the eurozone? Stable? How can you have a common currency for such different economies? And no single financial minister's in charge? And it's increasingly unpopular, not just in Britain (though Ireland seems to be very chummy again since it ran out of money)

I still don't understand the connection between the amount of cash the goverment of a country (or state) has, and the strength of the economy.

Actually, there's lots I don't understand but it's fun reading about