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The End of American Dominance

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Tags Global EconomyMedia and CultureWar and Foreign PolicyWorld History

03/11/2009David Gordon

[Book Review: The Post-American World. By Fareed Zakaria. Norton, 2008. 292 pages.]


Fareed Zakaria poses a fundamental question. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, America has dominated the world. How long can we remain in this position? Zakaria foresees an end to our dominance, as other powers, especially China and India, continue to grow economically. Fortunately, he holds, this portends no bad things for America. Quite the contrary, we can fare very well indeed if we adapt to our lessened but still powerful new position.

Zakaria's argument has much merit, but I venture to suggest that the main interest of his book lies elsewhere. He has given a devastating account of the Bush administration's disastrous foreign policy; and, even more important, he argues, against the neoconservatives, that we do not confront a global jihad that requires that we wage a "war on terror."

Zakaria notes that Bush's foreign policy has turned much of the world against us. Although French President Nicolas Sarkosy is "unabashedly pro-American," he nevertheless said to Condoleezza Rice in May 2007,

Improve your image in the world… It's difficult when the country that is the most powerful, the most successful — that is, of necessity, the leader of our side — is one of the most unpopular countries in the world. (p. 228)

How did America get into this unhappy position? Does our unpopularity stem from resentment of our power and prosperity? Zakaria does not think so, pointing out that during the Cold War, American policy had a much wider base of support throughout the world. Rather, the arrogance of Bush and his minions has led to disaster:

[The attack on 9/11] broke the domestic constraints on American foreign policy. After that terrible attack, Bush has a united country and a largely sympathetic world. The Afghan War heightened the aura of American omnipotence, emboldening the most hard-line elements in the administration, who used that success [!] as an argument for going to war quickly and doing so in a particularly unilateral manner.… It was not just the substance of American policy that changed in the unipolar era. So did the style, which has become imperial and imperious. (p. 223)

The problem, our author makes clear, lies not merely with the ineptness of particular people. Rather, unilateralism violates a fundamental principle of policy: the acts of a major power need to be perceived as legitimate.

As power becomes diversified and diffuse, legitimacy becomes even more important — because it is the only way to appeal to all the disparate actors on the world stage. Today, no solution, no matter how sensible, is sustainable if it is seen as illegitimate. Imposing it will not work if it is seen as the product of one country's power and preferences, no matter how powerful that country. (p. 39)

Here we may consider two objections; or, rather, the same objection considered from contrasting points of view. First, has Zakaria raised a genuinely fundamental criticism of America foreign policy? If Bush had been able to secure greater international support for his Iraqi misadventure, would it then have become "legitimate"? Further, what if supporters of the administration responded that, however unfortunate the lack of global support for our foreign policy, the imperative of American security made necessary our unilateral actions?

Precisely in response to this last question lies the greatest strength of the book. Zakaria convincingly refutes the necessity of the much-vaunted "war on terror." Despite the 9/11 attack,

war and organized violence have declined dramatically over the last two decades. Ted Robert Gurr and a team of scholars … tracked the data carefully and came to the following conclusion: "the general magnitude of global warfare has decreased by over sixty percent [since the mid-1980s], falling by the end of 2004 to the lowest level since the late 1950s." (p. 8)

But even if the general level of violence has abated, does this really matter? Even if 9/11 pales by comparison with the losses of Vietnam, did it not represent the thrust of a world movement that at all costs must be eradicated? Zakaria puts this threat in perspective:

It feels like a dangerous world but it isn't. Your chances of dying as a consequence of organized violence of any kind are low and getting lower. (p. 9)

One can at this point imagine a neoconservative apologist rising in protest: "Has not Zakaria forgotten something? What about the millions of jihadi warriors who would stop at nothing to bring down America? Do they not form the backbone of terrorism?"

Here too our author manifests a refreshing skepticism.

Though there are indeed militant forms of Islam that have a wide following, terrorists number only a handful; and these have by now been largely contained. In the years since 9/11,

Al Qaeda Central — the group led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri — has been unable to launch a major attack anywhere. It was a terrorist organization; it has become a communications company, producing the occasional videotape rather than actual terrorism. (p. 13)

Nowadays, terrorist Muslim groups are confined to the local, with "almost no connection to Al Qaeda Central." The local terrorism of these groups cannot succeed.

[It has] a crippling weakness; it kills locals, thus alienating ordinary Muslims…. Over the last six years [i.e., through 2007], support for bin Laden has fallen steadily throughout the Muslim world. (p. 13)

Our imagined neoconservative, anxious for war, stands ready with a rejoinder: "Terrorism does not exhaust our present danger. An influx of Muslims into Europe and America threatens to overthrow Western civilization. If we do not act soon, Islamofascism will replace our civil liberties with sharia law."

Here too Zakaria warns against undue alarmism.

A cottage industry of scaremongering has flourished in the West — especially in the United States — since 9/11. Experts extrapolate every trend they don't like, forgoing any serious study of the data. Many conservative commentators have written about the impending Islamization of Europe (Eurabia, they call it, to make you even more uncomfortable). Except that the best estimates, from U.S. intelligence agencies, indicate that Muslims constitute around 3 percent of Europe's population now and will rise to between 5 and 8 percent by 2025, after which they will probably plateau. (p. 14)

In his commendable wish to extinguish the fires of neoconservative alarmism, Zakaria does not hesitate to confront the scholar to whom the warmongers appeal as their supreme authority. Bernard Lewis is genuinely an Arabist of distinction, especially noted for work on budgets of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, he is given to shrill and strident prophecies of doom.

And neglecting the complicated context in which some of these pseudoreligious statements are made — such as an internal Iranian power struggle among clerics and nonclerics — leads to hair-raising but absurd predictions, like Bernard Lewis's confident claim that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad planned to mark an auspicious date on the Islamic calendar (August 22, 2006) by ending the world. (Yes, he actually wrote that.) (p. 15)

Neoconservatives, appealing to Lewis, urge the United States to launch a preventive war against Iran, and Zakaria deserves great credit for challenging their argument.

But are the neoconservatives so easily dispatched? Even if the nonagenarian Lewis is a scaremonger, can we dismiss altogether the danger posed by a powerful Iran, particularly one in possession of nuclear weapons? And what of North Korea? Once more, Zakaria puts matters in perspective:

The GDP of Iran is 1/68 that of the United States, its military spending 1/110 that of the Pentagon. If this is 1938, as many conservatives argue, then Iran is Romania, not Germany. North Korea is even more bankrupt and dysfunctional. Its chief threat — the one that keeps the Chinese government awake at night — is that it will implode, flooding the region with refugees. That's power? (p. 17)

Given the facts to which Zakaria has drawn our attention, the war on terror, which dominated the Bush era and appears not to have ended when he left office, can only be deemed a monumental mistake.

In working within this context, [of asymmetrical war] the first and most important lesson is not to get drawn into traps. In a videotaped message in 2004, Osama bin Laden explained his strategy with astonishing frankness. He termed it "provoke and bait"; … All we have to do is send two mujahedin … [and] raise a piece of cloth on which is written "Al Qaeda" in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses. (p. 245)

For Zakaria, though, what I have so far discussed does not constitute his book's main thrust, and I would be remiss as a reviewer to neglect altogether our author's intentions. He is to an extent an economic determinist: world political power reflects economic strength.1 In the coming half-century, China and India will certainly not replace America as the leading economic power, but America's relative supremacy will lessen. As these and other nations grow wealthier, they will tend more actively to pursue what they regard as their national interests.

As economic fortunes rise, so does nationalism. This is understandable. Imagine that you lived in a country that has been poor and unstable for centuries. And then, finally, things turn and your nation is on the rise. You would be proud and anxious to be seen… It may seem paradoxical that globalization and economic modernization are breeding political nationalism, but that is so only if we view nationalism as a backward ideology, certain to be erased by the onward march of progress. (pp. 32–33)

Herein lies a danger for America. If we, continuing to view ourselves in a hegemonic role, act to thwart these assertions of national ambition, we risk hostility and war.

But has not Zakaria overlooked something? What if he has underestimated the designs against us of China? Does not prudence require that we check China before it gains sufficient power to strike effectively at us? Zakaria's analysis does not at all rest on a roseate perception of the Chinese but rather on a realistic assessment of their military capacity.

There is a group of Americans, made up chiefly of neoconservatives and some Pentagon officials, that has been sounding the alarms about the Chinese threat, speaking of it largely in military terms. But the facts do not support their case. China is certainly expanding its military, with a defense budget that has been growing 10 percent or more a year. But it is still spending a fraction of what America does — at most 10 percent of the Pentagon's annual bill…. China has twenty nuclear missiles that could reach U.S. shores, according to Pentagon estimates, but these "small and cumbersome" weapons are "inherently vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike." The United States, by comparison, has around nine thousand intact nuclear warheads and around five thousand strategic warheads. (pp. 125–126)


Zakaria rightly urges that the United States adopt a different course, but he fails to go far enough. He thinks that America should act in conjunction with other powers, rather than unilaterally respond to international crises; but why need we respond at all? A return to our traditional policy of nonintervention will keep us out of war much better than the multilateralism of which Zakaria is enamored.

This review originally appeared in The Mises Review, Spring 2009.


  • 1. For an earlier statement of his theory, see his From Wealth to Power (Princeton, 1998) and my review in The Mises Review, Fall 1998.
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