June 10, 2008

June 10, 2008 | Commentary on Asia, Economy

Today's world, the reality of values

In The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria offers American policy makers an important perspective. He aims to illuminate the new world that U.S. foreign policy must navigate, and here, he is largely on target. His grand conclusions, however, miss the mark.

The central premise of Zakaria's book is revealed in the title. Today's world is, indeed, a vastly different place than it was a few decades ago. The "rise of the rest" is an elegant, non threatening way to describe the change. The United States will remain, as Zakaria calls it, "the single most important player in the twenty-first century." The changes are relative. But they are changes that America must acknowledge and respond to if it is to continue its leadership role in Asia and across the globe.

Those grabbing Zakaria's book on a rush through one of Asia's gleaming airports may be forgiven for assuming it forecasts America's downfall. Far from it, Zakaria dwells at some length on America's resiliency and continuing predominance. In a section analyzing "America's Long Run," he notes that "the central feature of Britain's decline -- irreversible economic deterioration -- does not really apply to the United States today."

Zakaria points out that, except for the extraordinary period of American dominance in the post-World War II 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. economy has held steady, accounting for about a quarter of global output for more than 100 years. He adds that by 2025, "most estimates suggest that the U.S. economy will still be twice the size of China's in terms of nominal GDP."

The writer repeatedly harkens to America's great strengths -- most prominently, its vibrant demography and openness to immigration. He also neatly takes apart some of the most widely cited threats, from the changes in its economy to the engineering deficit to the expense of the Iraq War.

The central challenge for America, he argues, is political. It is whether Washington can adjust to the rise of the rest. He's right.

Zakaria skewers the state of American politics as "ceaseless, virulent debate about trivia -- politics as theater -- and very little substance, compromise, and action." America does seem saddled with a political class incapable of making the tough choices on immigration, energy policy, health care, entitlement spending, and a number of other critical areas.

More central to his argument however -- but, curiously enough, only briefly touched on in his book -- is the potential abandonment of America's commitment to free trade. One of America's two parties has turned almost completely protectionist, judging by several recent Congressional votes on free trade pacts and the campaign statements of their Presidential candidates.

Unfortunately, in a part of the book where I found myself in most vigorous agreement, Zakaria takes a swipe at the organization I work for. He identifies The Heritage Foundation as part of the political problem. The Heritage Foundation is certainly different from The Brookings Institution and the other organization he cites and with which he is affiliated, the Council on Foreign Relations.

But all think tanks have a world view. To believe that some groups are objectively scientific and therefore more constructive is naïve. Heritage is consciously and transparently a part of the American conservative movement with all the philosophical background that entails, from Friedrich Hayek to Russell Kirk to Milton Friedman. To identify our mission with destructive Washington partisanship is grossly unfair. Ironically enough, it is precisely the sort of politics Zakaria decries.

Recognizing the reality of the world we live in today is this book's fine contribution to the discussion of American foreign policy. But when Zakaria moves into solutions, he loses his footing. He essentially advocates a value-less American foreign policy. The problem with this is that values are reality, too.

This is especially the case for the United States. Its foreign policy is value-laden for a purpose. Americans are involved in the world because they think they can make it a better place. Observers may judge them right or wrong, but there it is. Take that away, and you take America out of the equation.

To solve America's 21st century challenges, Zakaria zeros in on the geopolitics of the 19th century. In a recommendation entitled "Be Bismarck not Britain," he urges America to "engage with all the great powers," including China, as opposed to trying to balance its rise. There is nothing wrong with "engaging" China. America has too many interests at stake in the relationship not to engage.

But the analogy is a stretch. The U.S. is not Bismarck's Germany, in Bismarck's Europe, in Bismarck's era. To compare relationships with Japan, Australia, and India to China is to ignore the moral content of American foreign policy, a concept that would strike Bismarck as entirely foreign.

China is a dictatorship. Many, like the Chinese themselves, call it "Communist". Analysts in the West have now taken to calling it "Leninist" to account for the loss of its Marxist economic content. Yet Zakaria conceives of China as Confucian.

This is a convenient way around the problem, except for the fact that the Chinese government is not Confucian. The Communist Party has ruled China now for nearly 60 years. In an earlier era, the party ruthlessly destroyed anything associated with its pre-Maoist past, including Confucianism. Communist leaders today do not cite Confucius as rationale for their state.

They cite good-ole Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought -- with a bit of "Deng Xiaoping Theory". And on the matter that most drives observers to conceive of alternative ideological support for the Peoples' Republic of China -- practical economic reforms -- it is worth noting that Confucius was not a fan of the merchant class.

Zakaria's willingness to "de-value" foreign policy leads him to explicitly challenge American human rights policy. He calls it hypocritical and recommends that the U.S. accept that other countries are as justified as it is to make exceptions to a strictly rights-based approach. But there is a great difference between a policy exception and a policy norm. And for China, establishing close relationships with the world's most odious regimes is not the exception; it is part of the rule.

Revealingly, Zakaria cites American exceptions as "Taiwan and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia," and China's "exceptions" as "North Korea and Burma." Taiwan and Pakistan are democracies. Admittedly, Saudi Arabia is, in fact, a strategic exception for America. As for India's exceptions, any comparison of the criticism it gets over Burma compared to what China gets would demonstrate that the U.S. is extraordinarily tolerant of its sister democracy's strategic need.

The U.S. and Chinese governments have vastly different value systems. As long as this is the case, the U.S.-China relationship will necessarily be restricted to a series of strategic, narrowly-structured accommodations. The U.S. relationship with India and other democracies in Asia, on the other hand, proceed from a foundation of shared values. And as a result, their potential is virtually unlimited. This is as much reality as anything else in Zakaria's book.

Zakaria ends on a positive note. He references President Reagan's optimism. And he recalls the warm atmosphere that welcomed him to America. "For America to thrive in this new and challenging era," he concludes, "... it should be a place that is as inviting and exciting to the young student who enters the country today" as it was for him a generation ago. On that sentiment we can agree wholeheartedly.

Walter Lohman is senior research fellow for Southeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Walter Lohman Director, Asian Studies Center
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the Jarkata Post