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Obama's Book Club

When I was a lowly high school debater, more Sundays than not, a certain quotation found its way into my raptured analyses of everything from third world industrialization to the development of an ICBM defense system. The quotation comes from the 1,700-page Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Shocked that anyone had ever actually completed this book, I nevertheless deployed its main thesis with aplomb:

Empires wax and wane, states coalesce and cleave asunder.

It was the O-negative of the DANEIS league; multipurpose and devastating to even the most binder-laden opponent. In lovely prose, it suggests that global civic change is inevitable, that one century's Portugal is another century's Persia is another century's America. No nation is sacred. 

I relate the story because of what's on Barack Obama's bookshelf. The New York Times has flagged this snapshot of Barack Obama with his finger slipped between the pages of Fareed Zakaria's latest book, The Post-American World.

To look at the US news media (among our many fine but flawed exports), America is in waning mode. Toppling markets; a distinct educational gap, defined in part by poor immigration policy; a foreign fire sale on real estate; sky-high energy costs; sky-high national debt; a virtually lone prosecution of two foreign wars; growing international antipathy; rising domestic malcontent and--holy hell. Why does anyone want to be president of this mess?

The Times' review, however, makes a point of distinguishing this work from the Chicken Little lit that bookended the closing years of the Cold War: "Zakaria’s is not another exercise in declinism," writes Jeffrey Josef Joffe. Firstly, any cursory glance at the seismic changes in the world economic--not to speak of political and cultural--order makes it clear we have much history to go. The economic ascent of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, fueled by the rise of petro-states like Russia, Venezuela and the UAE, and the remarkable diffusion of technological knowledge--for better or, in the case of rogue states, worse--will undoubtedly define this century. The population multiplier effect will, of course, make any actions taken China and India (and to a lesser extent, Brazil and South Africa) all the more resonant.

But second, the United States will likewise play an outsized role. Speaking recently at Politics and Prose in Washington, Zakaria made his point rather counterintuitively: In this catastrophe-laden stretch since roughly 2003, the United States has sneezed repeatedly and still the world has not fallen ill. Does this mean Americans are irrelevant? Is everyone else suddenly immune to both our charms and germs?

In fact, Zakaria is arguing, this is not an either/or proposition. The United States is very good at just about every event in the geopolitical decathlon, and in some arenas (higher education, defense) can still crack a five-minute mile. But increasingly, nations flung across the globe are discovering a penchant for the pole-vault. By adopting quintessentially American models of competition and keening toward best practices--now visible across lowering informational barriers--developing countries are following the leader into the lead.

Zakaria feels that, in a humming, multipolar world, Americans must realize that they, too can learn from others. Seems pretty basic, but there is little evidence that this dialogue is taking place (on energy, for example, we could be learning a lot). Apparently, that’s where Obama comes in. Tom Schaller makes the case that he's our next best export, noting particularly:

Mr. Obama and his foreign policy team emphasize "dignity promotion" over "democracy expansion." If that notion itself sounds a wee bit soft, think again. What Mr. Obama believes is that in societies paralyzed by dehumanizing poverty, ethnic and tribal violence, or lacking safe or abundant food and water supplies, not only is there little hope of democracies emerging, there's a much greater chance to germinate terrorist ideas.

If he's reading Zakaria, perhaps* he also believes that such common sense solutions are ours for the teaching and taking. Foreign policy must be conducted in the hope that the nations we help to strengthen will in turn produce ideas that turn our planet one day. How else to be post-anything?

Anyway, it's encouraging to see such synergy--even if only literary--between two smart young men. The first chapter of The Post-American World is here. Other good discussions of Zakaria's book can be found here, here and here.

--Dayo Olopade

 *updated 5/23