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Johann Hari

Johann Hari

Posted: December 22, 2008 08:14 PM

The Soft-Voiced Authoritarianism of Fareed Zakaria


Are we living in the final days of American dominance? The Newsweek honcho Fareed Zakaria opens his latest work -- The Post-American World -- with some slap-in-the-face facts: "The world's tallest building is now in Taipei, and it will soon be overtaken by one being built in Dubai. The world's richest man is Mexican, and its largest publicly traded corporation is Chinese. The world's biggest plane is built in Russia and Ukraine, its leading refinery is under construction in India, and its largest factories are all in China." But this is not a Rome-style collapse, with the amphitheaters of America regressing to scrub. America is standing still, or only moderately declining. What we are witnessing is "the rise of the rest."

Zakaria argues there have been three tectonic power-shifts in the past half-millennium. In the fifteenth century, the West began to spurt ahead. In the late nineteenth century, the US zoomed ahead within the West. Today, we are living through the catch-up of the rest of the world. In China alone, the average income has multiplied sevenfold in the lifetime of a 30 year old. So what will the planet look like as America becomes only one strong power-player among many?

In some ways, Zakaria is one of the least irritating of market fundamentalist commentators. A super-smart Indian immigrant to the US, his reading, traveling and learning are wide -- even if they are then squeezed into through a tiny ideological window. A certain amount of reality percolates into his writing -- which is an accolade on the American right.

So at periodic intervals in The Post-American World, he punctures some of the most feverish National Review-style fantasies about what a post-American world will be like. For example, he deflates the idea that Europe is about to become a shariah-law-enforcing 'Eurabia' with a few brusque statistics: "The best estimates, from US intelligence agencies, indicate that Muslims constitute about three percent of Europe's population now, and will rise to between 5 and 8 percent by 2025, after which they will probably plateau." He says panic about Chinese military capacity or the small numbers of foul jihadis is overblown. He gawks at Dick Cheney lamenting he can't be as "tough" as the tyrannical Soviet Union, and laughs out loud at Cheney's advisor Bernard Lewis claiming confidently "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.)"

But in his sober analytical style, he offers some ideological assertions that are just as shocking and counter-factual. Under the guise of being dry and rational, Zakaria actually preaches soft-voiced authoritarianism -- without attracting the opprobrium he deserves.

Zakaria asserts -- quoting Margaret Thatcher -- that "There Is No Alternative" about which direction all countries must travel in if they are to continue rising: small states and pure markets. Only a limp, passive state that lets corporations run where they will can ensure progress and a fall in poverty. So all the 'post-American' countries must as an urgent matter demolish the active state (whatever their people want) and become Thatcho-Reaganites -- only more so. He mocks the "unreconstructed left" who beg to differ.

Yet this book comes as the market fundamentalist bubble is bursting. Zakaria says with admiration that "London's financial system was overhauled in 2001, with a single entity replacing a confusing mish-mash of regulators, [and this is] one reason that London's financial sector now beats out New York's." Not long after this work went to press, that very act of deregulation-mania caused the first British bank run in over a century. As hundreds of thousands of savers rushed to withdraw their savings, the British state had to step in with a $45bn bank-saving guarantee -- a potential expenditure larger than the country's entire schools budget.

The prescription Zakaria is pushing has been disastrous time after time. To give just one more example, he lauds the lifting of capital controls in the 1970s and 1980s in developing countries as a quasi-divine act of wisdom, providing a "celestial mechanism for discipline". He doesn't acknowledge it produced significantly lower growth in the developing world than in the "bad old days" -- just 1.7 percent annually, compared to 3 percent before. Worse, he doesn't even note it led directly to the catastrophic collapse of Argentina from a middle-class country to a beggared one almost overnight. For him, it is as if this didn't happen, and the vision must push on regardless.

Indeed, Zakaria's claim that "There Is No Alternative" is demolished by a piece of evidence he himself offers, in a few skimmed sentences he doesn't spot the significance of. He brags that the US has the most competitive economy in the world -- "slipping sometimes in recent years to small northern European countries like Sweden, Denmark and Finland." But -- wait. Is this the Sweden that takes 51 percent of GDP in taxes, and spends it on the most lavish welfare state in the world -- producing the most content population according to international studies? And it's more competitive than America? So it turns out There Is An Alternative course for the post-American world to pursue -- an extraordinarily impressive one -- but Zakaria just doesn't want to acknowledge it, because he would have to rethink some of his dogmas. When a poor country like Hugo Chavez's Venezuela tries to imitate this social democratic vision rather than Zakaria's, he abuses them as "trouble makers" prone to "insane rants."

To prop up this ideological vision, he has to go even further and draw a false version of history. He says that "for almost three centuries, the world has been undergirded by the presence of a large liberal hegemon -- first Britain, then the United States" who "kept their own markets open" and "travelled around the world pushing countries to... free up their politics."

This is startling in its ignorance. Far from keeping its markets open, the United States developed by protecting its industries behind huge tariff walls. By 1820, the average US tariff was 40 per cent; Abraham Lincoln then pushed them higher, and they stayed there until the First World War -- the very period Zakaria identifies as era when the US spurted ahead. Yet this is the very route Zakaria wants to deny to developing countries today; he derides anybody in the poor world who wants Lincoln-style subsidy and protections. The only criticism he has of the IMF and World Bank -- who push this brutal vision on the world's poor -- is that they are always headed by a European and an American respectively. He would apparently like to place a brown-skinned corporate logo at their head instead to pursue the same path. As for the idea that the US pushed countries to "free up their politics"... what can we say? This will be interesting news to the peoples of Chile, Iran, Congo, Indonesia and Nicaragua, who saw their democrats murdered with US support.

But Zakaria clings so fervently to his flailing ideology that he has a chilling contempt for any democratic resistance to it. He wants the post-American world to be a market fundamentalist one where counter-balancing state action occurs only if businesses demand it to make themselves work more smoothly. To achieve this, he repeatedly lauds the Chinese dictatorship for being able to impose this vision on their people, unlike those scrappy, messy democracies.

With fawning admiration, he quotes a Chinese official saying: "We have to let markets work. They draw people off the land and into industry, out of farms and into cities." Then Zakaria notes sadly that when he discusses this same subject with Indian or Latin American official, "they launch into complicated explanations of the need for rural welfare, subsidies for poor farmers, and other such programs, all designed to slow down market forces and retard the historical process of market-driven industrialization." He says with regret: "Politicians need votes in the short term. China can take the long view.... [The Chinese way] would be impossible in democratic India, where vast resources are spent on short-term subsidies to satisfy voters."

Never mind that the Indians and Latin Americans are reacting to the will of their peoples, and those "short term" subsidies keep people alive during economic transitions. The peoples are wrong, and any concessions to them is "populism" -- the ultimate market fundamentalist swear-word. Zakaria has a teleological world-view: the world will inevitably go in one direction, so we might as well speed it up. Messy human will mustn't be allowed to get in the way; don't they know There Is No Alternative? So thousands of Indian farmers commit suicide if their subsidies are stripped away and they can't move to the cities; that's History. It had to happen. Teleology is always dangerous, whether Marxist or market fundamentalist, because it renders actual living people as irrelevant, disposable extras in the inexorable March of History.

This becomes most clear in a sinister anecdote he offers, apparently as praise. He writes: "One American CEO recalled how Chinese officials took him to a site they proposed for his new (and very large) facility. It was central, well located, and met almost all his criteria -- except that it was filled with existing buildings and people, making up a small township. The CEO pointed that out to his host. The official smiled and said, 'Oh, don't worry, they won't be here in eighteen months.' And they weren't." He then notes, apparently with sadness, "India does not have a government that can or will move people for the sake of foreign investors."

Note how he sees the world entirely from the perspective of a CEO. He doesn't ask: how did the ordinary Chinese people who lived in this town feel about being driven out of their homes by the secret police acting on behalf of a foreign corporation? They don't even seem to cross his mind; it is the CEO's convenience and the onward march of markets that are everything. Later, he quotes a senior banker saying: "I've dealt with governments all over the world, and the Chinese are probably the most impressive." The fact that an investment banker prefers dictatorship is, for Zakaria, evidence that we all should.

Zakaria's book is badly timed; it is restating dogmas as they lie on their death-bed. Talking about the resilience of the global economy to disruption, he argues "the front page of the newspaper seems unconnected to the business section." This standard Tom Friedman-fodder might have seemed true a decade ago -- but it lies moribund on the page today when oil and food prices are sky-rocketing (and economies wilting) due to a cocktail of war, competition and global warming.

Indeed, it is here -- in the destabilisation of the planet's climate with greenhouse gases -- that we find the biggest hole in Zakaria's vision. He talks at length about how the new multipolar powers will interact, without seriously considering that -- unless we change course rapidly - this will take place on a planet where the climate is thrown into chaos, and resource-competition becomes ever-more vicious. He isn't a global warming denier; he even notes: "If water sources dry up in the future, tens of millions of people will be forced to start moving." But he offers it a few fleeting paragraphs. He doesn't seem to see that global warming will determine the stage on which this power-play will be acted out. It's as if he thinks the planet's climate and ecosystems can dramatically shift and the consequences on global order will be incidental.

For example, the great rivers of China and India all originate in the Himalayan glaciers. Water falls as snow in winter, and melts off in summer -- becoming the Ganges, the Yellow River, and more. Those glaciers are melting rapidly, and on course to disappear -- endangering the water supply of a billion people. Won't that affect the pacific development of India and China that Zakaria envisions? Won't it make conflict far more likely? Indeed, another throwaway sentence reveals a cavernous hole in his Weltanschaung. He says with a flick of the wrist: "Over the past decade, many predictions about the effect of climate change have proven to be underestimates because global growth has exceeded all projections." But if growth ineluctably causes global warming, doesn't this suggest -- as the environmentalist George Monbiot has suggested -- that an economic model built on perpetual economic growth is untenable? Shouldn't we be trying to develop different models urgently?

This, in turn, shapes Zakaria's vision of America in a post-American world. He believes the US should accept the rise of the rest, and try to maintain its position by being an "honest broker" between them all. Like Bismarck's Germany, it should be "better friends" with every country "than they are with each other." This is an improvement on the neoconservative belief outlined by the Project for a New American Century -- apparently endorsed by John McCain == that the US needs to retain "full spectrum dominance," crippling rivals before they emerge as a "threat". But if the US remains by far the largest per capita contributor to unleashing Weather of Mass Destruction, how can they be regarded as a reasonable umpire?

And this is only one reason why this America-as-referee vision is flawed. Zakaria can acknowledge that the rest of the world has grievances against America -- but they are always minor "mistakes", or safely located in the distant past. So for example, he notes that "Russians have long chafed at the standard narrative about World War Two," which is presented as a US-British victory -- when actually the Eastern Front was where the Nazis suffered 70 percent of their casualties. Similarly, he can acknowledge that India is uncomfortable with this narrative, quoting one Indian who says: "London told us to die for an idea of freedom that it was at that very moment brutally denying to us."

But when it comes to the present, he says Americans "are right" to believe criticism of them is "irrational, and that the country is unfairly turned into a punching bag." Spearheading global warming, invading Iraq and killing at least 600,000 people, forcing market fundamentalism on the world through the IMF... if you complain about this, you are "irrational." You should shut up and accept the US as your best friend and "honest broker." Zakaria acknowledges that at home, the US government has been "captured by money." He says "those who advocate sensible solutions" will "lose funds from special interest groups." But he seems to think this Big Money discreetly drives around the State Department. If he acknowledged that special interests can drive foreign policy too -- pushing for attacks on Iraq or coups in Venezuela, for example - he might have to understand why the idea of the US as an honest broker seems untenable to much of the world.

The Post-American World is a fascinating book, but not for the reasons its author intended. It is a character-study of a highly intelligent man who believes himself to be rational and humane and impartially sifting the evidence -- but actually pushes a vicious vision antithetical to both democracy and environmental sanity.


Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent newspaper. To read more of his articles, click here

A version of this article appeared originally in The Progressive, a must-read for liberals and left-wingers. To subscribe to their excellent print edition for just $14.97, click here.