Talking about what ails America

Times Staff Writer

The world’s tallest building rises in Taipei, while the largest factory and shopping mall sprawls in China. Nine of the globe’s 10 biggest shopping centers aren’t in the United States. The planet’s largest casino isn’t in Las Vegas -- it’s in Macao. Bollywood’s bigger than Hollywood -- both for the number of movies made and tickets sold.

So what are Americans to make of these indicators that we’re lagging behind? For Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and a frequent guest and commentator on an array of broadcast news programs, these are signs of a global trend of other nations threatening to surpass the United States. And, he says, we’d better do something about it.

In his new book, “The Post-American World,” Zakaria argues that the U.S. remains the lone global military and political superpower, but, “in every other dimension -- industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural -- the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.”

This, he says, will be the third global “tectonic power shift” in the last 500 years. The first was the rise of Western Europe in the 15th century, producing modernity, science, commerce and the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Then, he says, the world witnessed the American ascent in the late 19th century, with the U.S. domination of global economics, politics, science and culture.


Now Zakaria sees a third great transformation, with China, India and many other developing nations experiencing enormous economic growth, creating a “truly global order” in which huge swaths of the planet no longer serve as others’ objects but become players in their own right. Further, power not only will be diffused among nations but also from them to international bodies and nongovernmental organizations. This hybrid system will be more democratic, open, dynamic, free and interconnected, he says, adding that it will prevail as the post-American world for decades.

“Nothing lasts forever,” Zakaria said in an interview. “In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I was writing of an age of American unipolarity and of the single superpower world. It was a very accurate description of the world that we lived in then. American power has been unrivaled. What I point out now is that this age is coming to an end.”

His startling message has found an audience. In Los Angeles, the buzz built for days about an appearance by this Brahmin of the foreign policy pundit-ocracy. In fact, organizers of the Central Library’s Aloud author program had to turn away half as many Zakaria fans as were able to pack the 238-seat Mark Taper Auditorium on Tuesday.

Part of the local clamor for the plain-spoken but aristocratic former editor of Foreign Affairs may stem from the largely friendly praise that his latest book has drawn from reviews in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and the Washington Post. While some reviewers have expressed skepticism about aspects of his argument, Business Week, for one, called his overall analysis “sobering.”


To those who heard him Tuesday in Los Angeles, Zakaria carried an important message in a persuasive manner. He was “well-informed and objective, [and] seemed to be right on track,” said lawyer Hardy Thomas, who waited with his wife for an autographed copy of the book.

Dianne Harrington, a retired educator, said, “It was worth coming early and waiting so long” because Zakaria was “not only fascinating but absolutely inspiring. I would listen to him for hours.”

Though he is only 44, the world has taken note of the Indian-born author for some time now. His father was a leader of India’s Congress Party, his mother a senior editor at the Times of India. Zakaria was educated at Yale and Harvard. He distinguished himself not only as a writer and editor for Foreign Affairs and Newsweek but also with his television show and a previous bestselling book, “The Future of Freedom.” When profiled by various publications, the crowd that comments about him includes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and Council on Foreign Affairs President Emeritus Leslie Gelb.

To successfully navigate the new world, Zakaria -- who describes himself as “still confident about America” -- said the U.S. must retain its strengths: a competitive economy, a good education system and a diverse, vibrant people. But it must change its “dysfunctional” political system.

Americans leaders, who for decades “have gone around the world telling countries ‘Open up your markets to trade, to the modern world, to the kind of an American model,’ ” he says, now find themselves and their society “bewildered, surprised, outraged or fearful” of globalization. “While the world is opening and changing, the great danger is that we are closing down.”

What to do instead? “A set of sensible reforms could be enacted tomorrow,” he writes, “to trim wasteful spending and subsidies, increase savings, expand training in science and technology, secure pensions, create a workable immigration process and achieve significant efficiencies in the use of energy. And yet because of politics they appear impossible. A ‘can-do’ country is now saddled with a ‘do-nothing’ political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving.”

In the post-American world, "[t]he key issue is that as China, India, Brazil and others rise, they should feel that they have a stake in the current order and institutions and the current sets of rules and norms. And if they do so, they will grow happily within the system. If they do not, what history tells us is that the systems and the rules and norms will all break down and collapse.”

In the new order, Zakaria said, he sees California as a “microcosm” of globalization, benefiting from the rise of developing nations in nearby Asia and from increasing prosperity in Mexico. But, he added, “The real question for California is, can it restore itself to the place it once had in the eyes of the world?”


“When I was growing up in India,” he said, “we looked to California to see what the future is going to look like, to see the most interesting trends and innovations. [The state had] the extraordinary ability . . . to provide a kind of broad measure of prosperity to all its citizens. It had the best education system from kindergarten through post-graduate. It had a great system of highways, great parks.”

Now he calls California “a basket case.” He said its “fiscal balance sheet is fraudulent because it has not taken into account the massive pension liabilities of all state workers. It has not built a new campus in decades; meanwhile, it has built new prisons. The education system is collapsing. . . .

“If we want to succeed and thrive in a Post-American world,” he said, “rather than blaming foreigners -- in the California case, blaming Mexicans -- we should get our own house in order.”