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Talking about what ails America

Author Fareed Zakaria suggests how the U.S. can remain a major player in the world.

May 23, 2008|Utku Cakirozer | Times Staff Writer

The world's tallest building rises in Taipei, while the largest factory and shopping mall sprawls in China. Nine of the globe's 10 biggest shopping centers aren't in the United States. The planet's largest casino isn't in Las Vegas -- it's in Macao. Bollywood's bigger than Hollywood -- both for the number of movies made and tickets sold.

So what are Americans to make of these indicators that we're lagging behind? For Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and a frequent guest and commentator on an array of broadcast news programs, these are signs of a global trend of other nations threatening to surpass the United States. And, he says, we'd better do something about it.

In his new book, "The Post-American World," Zakaria argues that the U.S. remains the lone global military and political superpower, but, "in every other dimension -- industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural -- the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance."

This, he says, will be the third global "tectonic power shift" in the last 500 years. The first was the rise of Western Europe in the 15th century, producing modernity, science, commerce and the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Then, he says, the world witnessed the American ascent in the late 19th century, with the U.S. domination of global economics, politics, science and culture.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 30, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Fareed Zakaria: An article about Fareed Zakaria in the May 23 Calendar section quoted the author as saying that California "has not built a new campus in decades; meanwhile, it has built new prisons." In fact, California State University opened its Channel Islands campus in 2002 and the University of California opened its Merced campus in 2005.

Now Zakaria sees a third great transformation, with China, India and many other developing nations experiencing enormous economic growth, creating a "truly global order" in which huge swaths of the planet no longer serve as others' objects but become players in their own right. Further, power not only will be diffused among nations but also from them to international bodies and nongovernmental organizations. This hybrid system will be more democratic, open, dynamic, free and interconnected, he says, adding that it will prevail as the post-American world for decades.

"Nothing lasts forever," Zakaria said in an interview. "In the late '90s and early 2000s, I was writing of an age of American unipolarity and of the single superpower world. It was a very accurate description of the world that we lived in then. American power has been unrivaled. What I point out now is that this age is coming to an end."

His startling message has found an audience. In Los Angeles, the buzz built for days about an appearance by this Brahmin of the foreign policy pundit-ocracy. In fact, organizers of the Central Library's Aloud author program had to turn away half as many Zakaria fans as were able to pack the 238-seat Mark Taper Auditorium on Tuesday.

Part of the local clamor for the plain-spoken but aristocratic former editor of Foreign Affairs may stem from the largely friendly praise that his latest book has drawn from reviews in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and the Washington Post. While some reviewers have expressed skepticism about aspects of his argument, Business Week, for one, called his overall analysis "sobering."

To those who heard him Tuesday in Los Angeles, Zakaria carried an important message in a persuasive manner. He was "well-informed and objective, [and] seemed to be right on track," said lawyer Hardy Thomas, who waited with his wife for an autographed copy of the book.

Dianne Harrington, a retired educator, said, "It was worth coming early and waiting so long" because Zakaria was "not only fascinating but absolutely inspiring. I would listen to him for hours."

Though he is only 44, the world has taken note of the Indian-born author for some time now. His father was a leader of India's Congress Party, his mother a senior editor at the Times of India. Zakaria was educated at Yale and Harvard. He distinguished himself not only as a writer and editor for Foreign Affairs and Newsweek but also with his television show and a previous bestselling book, "The Future of Freedom." When profiled by various publications, the crowd that comments about him includes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and Council on Foreign Affairs President Emeritus Leslie Gelb.

To successfully navigate the new world, Zakaria -- who describes himself as "still confident about America" -- said the U.S. must retain its strengths: a competitive economy, a good education system and a diverse, vibrant people. But it must change its "dysfunctional" political system.

Americans leaders, who for decades "have gone around the world telling countries 'Open up your markets to trade, to the modern world, to the kind of an American model,' " he says, now find themselves and their society "bewildered, surprised, outraged or fearful" of globalization. "While the world is opening and changing, the great danger is that we are closing down."

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