Wednesday, 5 January 2011

De-Exceptionalizing America: The Vision of Fareed Zakaria

Part of the America creation myth dates from the 17th century Puritan doctrine of US as “the City on a Hill” chosen by Divine Providence to be an example to the rest of mankind. Secularized by the Deistic duo of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, it was later corrupted into a ideology that justified abusing the American Indian and imported African slaves.

Eventually it served as the folksay that “Every American boy could grow up to be President” until the crisis of the Great Depression engendered “the American Dream”, a compensatory ideology that reduced the original universal promise for all to the vague possibilities of a few Americans a striking it very,very rich. It is this fatuous theory of America’s Exceptionalism as a nation that Fareed Zacharia disassembles in his third book, “The Post-American World” (Allen Lane, 2008). TV pickings for Americans are mighty few in Germany, but his hour-long Sunday afternoon (1400h.CET) “The Global Public Square” (2008--) has become my must see attraction.

A short bio will help explain both his brilliance and clarity. Born in Bombay in 1964 to a father who was both an Indian National Congress politico and Islamic scholar and a mother who was once editor of the Sunday Times of India, Fareed went to a private school and became secularized, honoring both Hindu and Muslim festivities. He studied Political Science at Yale, where he was president of the Yale Political Union, editor-in-chief of the Yale Political Monthly, and a member of Scroll and Key. He then went to Harvard to get a Ph.D. under Samuel P. Huntington at age 31. He directed a research project in American foreign policy at Harvard before becoming the managing editor of “Foreign Affairs” in 1992. From 2000-2010, he was the International editor of Newsweek, until he became a contributing editor of Time in 2010.He is already a naturalized American citizen.

One of his first Time essays is “WikiLeaks shows the Skills of U.S. Diplomats” (December 02, 2010.) He is cooly contrarian, “These leaks have been compared to the Pentagon Papers. Which they are not. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the U.S. engaged in a systematic campaign to deceive the world and the American people and that its private actions were often the opposite of stated public policy. The WikLleak documents, by contrast, show Washington privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly.”

But his real genius is in explaining to Americans how unproductive, even self-destructive, their Myth of Exceptionalism is, indeed always has been! He brings us back down to earth, explaining that the issue is not our decline but rather “the rise of the rest”.The expansion of communications meant that the world got more deeply connected and became “flat”, in Thomas Friedman’s famous formulation. Cheap phone calls and broadband make it possible for people to do jobs for one country in another country—marking the next stage in the ongoing story of capitalism. With the arrival of big ships in the fifteenth century, goods became mobile.

With modern banking in the seventeenth century, capital became mobile. In thew 1990s, labor became mobile. People could not necessarily go to where the jobs were, but jobs could go where people were. And they went to programmers in India, telephone operators in the Philippines, and radiologists in Thailand.” (p.25.) You can’t outsource all jobs, but the effects of outsourcing could be felt everywhere. The “rise of the rest” became more and more possible and attractive. So Americans need not feel they were declining. They just had to figure out how to go better with that new flow “of the rest”. To monolingual, “exceptionalist” Americans, that would be a tough transition.
Other successful nations were suddenly acting Exceptionalist for their own good reasons!

Zakaria recalled an informal meeting in a Shanghai Internet café with a young Chinese go-getter. “He was describing the extraordinary growth that was taking place in his country and a future in which China would be modern and prosperous. He was thoroughly Westernized in dress and demeanor, spoke excellent English, and could comfortably discuss the latest business trends or gossip about American pop culture. He seemed the consummate product of globalization, the person who bridges cultures and makes the world a smaller, more cosmopolitan place. But when we began talking about Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, his responses were filled with bile.” (p.32.)

Eh, the Rising Rest has its own historic agenda, that complicates the lives of both Risen and Riser! And each Riser will inherit memories from before the Rise. Globalization is no cinch! “’When you tell us that we support a dictatorship in Sudan to have access to its oil,’ a young Chinese official told me in 2006,’what In want to say is, ’And how is that different from your support for a medieval monarchy in Saudi Arabia?’ We see the hypocrisy, we just don’t say anything yet.’”

Ah Yes. Different strokes from different folks! For Fareed, the de-exceptionalized American will inspire more confidence and agreement in the Risers with discrete agendas. We must navigate shrewdly (and humbly) from a world of anti-Americanism to one of post-Americanism.

Indeed, Zakaria, “American”in spirit since he was 18, flying from Mumbai to study at Yale, points the way. Don’t fret about losing. Concentrate on dealing fairly with the hordes that are rising, willy-nilly. He is a model of post-exceptionalism. His book probes how the rest of the world is dealing with the New Risers. Arrogance about being Number One, once, won’t do it. Joining the human race is the first step. It’s easier after that.

This article has been republished with permission from Broad Street Review.

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