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HomeGeopolitical CompassThe AmericasAmerica Shouldn’t Give Up on the World It Made

America Shouldn’t Give Up on the World It Made

Author: Fareed Zakaria

Affiliation: CNN, Washington Post, Newsweek

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: December 12, 2023/USA

Type of Literature: Research Analysis

Word Count: 5626



Keywords: USA, Rules-Based System, Russia, China, Ukraine, Declinism, World Order, Unipolar, Multipolar, Bipolar



In this article, Fareed Zakaria tries to make the case that US’s current pessimism about a future of decline is unfounded, and that secondly, America should actively work to maintain the rules-based international order it founded following WWII. However, to do so, he argues, America will need to respond to the changing world order.

First, Zakaria tries to refute the pessimistic notion that America is on the decline by invoking four key metrics: economy, hard power, energy, and demographics, in all of which the US maintains a clear supremacy. Then, Zakaria discusses the existing world order, postulating whether or not we are still living in a unipolar world, before highlighting aspects of the US’ pessimism in its approach to the international order, and warning of the potential dangerous outcomes of such an approach to the survival of the rules-based world order.

Zakaria first outlines the prevalent pessimism at both the popular and leadership level in the US. For instance, a long-running Gallup poll shows that the percentage of Americans satisfied with how things are going has not crossed 50 percent in the last 20 years, while it currently stands at 20 percent. On the leadership level, Zakaria argues that this has been a common factor for both Trump and Biden, who both aimed to channel varying levels of dissatisfaction. Furthermore, back in April 2023, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, criticized “much of the international economic policy of the last few decades” for undermining the US’ industrial base, particularly blaming globalization and liberalization. This harbored pessimism has manifested in a number of economic policies. Perhaps most notably is the fact that the US is currently imposing the highest tariff on imports since the Smoot-Hawley Act dating back to 1930, which reflects a more defensive inclination in terms of economic policies.

Zakaria tries to make the argument that such pessimism is unfounded. First, he shows that US economic superiority has vastly grown, with the disparity between the US’s per capita income and Japan and Western Europe jumping from 17 percent and 24 percent in 1990 to 54 percent and 32 percent respectively. Meanwhile, the US economy is now twice the size of the Eurozone, after the two were nearly the same size in 2008. Such figures pose the question to the pessimists “With which advanced economy would the US want to have swapped place over the last 30 years?”

As for hard power, he bases his argument on the criterion proposed by historian Angus Maddison who argued that the world’s greatest power at any point in time is often the one with the strongest lead in the most important technologies of its time. As such, Zakaria argues that the US may be stronger today that it was, with nine of the top ten most valuable companies in the world today being American. Moreover, the US is better equipped for technological changes, as it has raised $26 billion in venture capital for AI startups, about as much as China, which is second-ranked in that regard. In energy, the US is today the largest producer of oil and gas, while simultaneously expanding production of green energy.

Demographically speaking, while the US’s fertility rate has dropped from 2.1 children per women to 1.7, it is still higher than Germany’s 1.5, China’s 1.1, and South Korea’s 0.8. Even more, the US can make that up through immigration and assimilation, with the US taking in around one million legal immigrants per year, making it the largest immigrant hub in the world. In comparison, China has not been able to wash off the effects of its one-child policy, while its cultural homogeny policies make it an unattractive destination for immigrants.

However, the US is not leading a unipolar order anymore compared to the 1990’s. In that decade, it enjoyed undisputed supremacy, as evidenced by its major role in many crises of that decade, including the Gulf War, Yugoslavia War, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in addition to its stepping in to solve the financial crises of Mexico and East Asian countries in 1994 and 1997, respectively. 

Zakaria points to Türkiye’s changing behavior as an example of the changing world order. In that, Ankara had been a close US alley until recently, as “Türkiye is [now] a much richer and more politically mature country led by a strong, popular, and populist leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It routinely defies the United States, even when requests are made at the highest levels.” The US was unprepared for this shift, Zakaria argues, looking at its failure to secure Ankara’s preemptive support ahead of its 2003 Invasion of Iraq, and Türkiye striking a deal to buy an air defense system from Russia in 2017.

As such, Zakaria asks the question, “Is today’s world still unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar?” While the rise of China makes for similar conditions to the bipolarity following WWII, China’s power has limits, such as a lack of allies, and the West’s wary approach to China. With other countries also rising to become medium powers, Zakaria describes the world as “uni-multipolar” citing a 1999 article by Samuel Huntington. In other terms, Zakaria describes today’s international system as a post-American world, where countries are trying to navigate a world in which the US’s unipolarity is waning.

Today’s two largest crises are the Ukraine-Russia War and the Gaza War, both of which Zakaria uses as evidence for a weakening American unipolarity. For one, the power vacuum left in the Middle East region has upset the balance of power, while China is testing the US’s resolve in Asia. Another indication of the changing power dynamics for Zakaria is Riyadh, which has grown stronger, demanding the US to commit to a formal security guarantee, rather than simply relying on informal understandings, which he sees as a sign of the US’ weakening influence.

Zakaria then turns his attention to the most significant external threats of the world order, within which the US is still the most powerful. However, he recognizes differences between the Russian and Chinese threats. Russia, in Zakaria’s view, is a spoiler state, unlike China which has benefited from the international system and as such would be more uneasy to overturn the system. In that context, Zakaria recommends that the US “accommodate legitimate Chinese efforts to enhance its influence in keeping with its rising economic clout while deterring illegitimate ones,” as Zakaria sees that China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy has backfired for Beijing. “Xi seems to be searching for a modus vivendi with America. In September 2023, he told a visiting group of U.S. senators, ‘We have 1,000 reasons to improve China-U.S. relations, but not one reason to ruin them.” Zakaria writes.

Still, the US maintains a significant structural advantage afforded by its unique geographic and geopolitical position, whereas China has to take into account the potential to alienate its neighbors in every move it makes, with many of those neighbors being US allies. 

As mentioned earlier, Biden and Trump both have a pessimistic view of China. They both assumed that the US has been at a disadvantage in the open market. As such, it is reasonable to restrict China’s access to its high-tech exports. However, Zakaria believes that the US’s “buy American” policy has gone overboard. While tariffs raise the cost of imported goods, “buy American” prevents foreign goods from being bought at any price.

Such policies were picked up by Okonjo-Iweala, head of the World Trade Organization, who stated that rich countries are exhibiting overt hypocrisy. For decades, those countries have urged the developing world to liberalize and participate in the open world economy, while condemning countries that enact policies of protectionism or subsidies. Now, however, those countries, having amassed wealth and power under such a system, “now no longer want to compete on a level playing field and would prefer instead to shift to a power-based rather than a rules-based system.”

Zakaria also highlights other aspects of hypocrisy in US foreign policy, which long stressed the need to sustain the rules-based international system. The Iraq War was a violation of unprovoked aggression for instance. Similarly, the Trump administration abused the power of the dollar, which accelerated efforts in Beijing, Moscow, and even European capitals to find alternatives. Zakaria warns, “American unilateralism was tolerated in a unipolar world. Today, it is creating the search—even among the United States’ closest allies—for ways to escape, counter, and challenge it.”

Finally, Zakaria predicts that if the US continues to be consumed by overstated fears and chooses to abandon its leading role in world affairs, “it will open up power vacuums across the globe and encourage a variety of powers and players to try to step into the disarray.” He points out that if the US was to withdraw from Europe or Asia, same as it did with the Middle East, this will lead to “seismic global consequences” with the presence of great powers, rather than regional ones. Zakaria concludes, “As long as America does not lose faith in its own project, the current international order can thrive for decades to come.”


By: Hamza Ghadban, CIGA Research Intern 



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