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The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria

January 10th, 2009

America still has great strengths.  Despite being overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, its military is still light years ahead of its nearest competitors.  And its higher education system is still far superior to that of any other country.  Its workers are the most productive in the world.  And its political power is still great.  But other countries are advancing, and there is nothing America can do to stop this trend.

Zakaria closes the book by setting out six guildelines for America to abide by in operating in this new world:

  1. Choose. America needs to be more direct and explicit with its priorities. On North Korea and Iran, for example, the Bush administration could not decide whether it wanted regime change or policy change (that is, denuclearization). Different messages will elicit different responses from the country in question, and must be taken into account. To the extent that the United States can learn from the decline of the British empire, it needs to make large strategic decisions about where it will choose to focus its energies and attention.  With the rise of the rest, it can no longer be ‘everywhere’.
  2. Build Broad Rules, Not Narrow Interests. There is a fundamental tension in United States foreign policy.  Should the country push its own interests abroad or should it create a set of rules and values that it wants the rest of the world to abide by?  Zakaria says it should do the latter.  And when it does develop and communicate those rules, it needs to abide by them like everyone else.  Consistency on the United States military’s stance on torture is one area where this comes to mind.
  3. Be Bismark, Not Britain. Britain tried to balance its power against rising and threatening great powers.  Bismark chose to engage all great powers and tried to have better relations with each of them than any one had with another.  Bismark aimed to be the pivot of Europe’s international system. Given the threatening nature of America’s great power, not overplaying its hand should be a critical component of its strategy.
  4. Order a la Carte. That is, the United States should embrace ‘a la carte’ multi-lateralism.  America should operate under the premise that no one institution or organization is always right, and no one framework is ideal. The UN might work for one problem, NATO for another, and the OAS for a third. And for new issues, such as climate change, perhaps a new coalition organization should be chartered.
  5. Think Asymmetrically. The United States has the most powerful military in the world, yet it has had many problems stabilizing Iraq and Afganistan.  This is because of asymmetric responses, such as suicide bombings, which are difficult to combat.  The United States must come up with comprehensive strategies for asymmetric warfare.
  6. Legitimacy is Power. The United States has every kind of power in ample supply these days, except one: legitimacy.  Legitimacy allows one to set the agenda, define the crisis, and mobilize support.  The United States used to have legitimacy, but it has been squandered.  It needs to rebuild its legitimacy.

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