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Imperial interpreter

Published : Jan 29, 2010 00:00 IST



THE United States has been particularly proficient in producing a significant crop of intellectuals on both ends of the political spectrum since the end of the Second World War. On the Left, the world has been gifted with the insights of Eqbal Ahmad, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and C. Wright Mills. On the Right and these have been far more numerous, notably and alarmingly so, since the collapse of the Soviet Union there is Francis Fukuyama, Hannah Arendt, Samuel Huntington, Fouad Ajami, Henry Kissinger, Kanan Makiya, Thomas Friedman, Bernard Lewis, born-again Christopher Hitchens, born-again Salman Rushdie, and so on. The latter have been remarkably adept at coining adages and labels that suit the needs of power, as and when needed.

One of the newest in this crop of American establishment thinkers is Fareed Zakaria, the author of the book The Post-American World. Zakaria begins the book with a description of three tectonic power shifts which in his opinion have reconfigured the global distribution of power, namely, the rise of the Western world; the rise of the U.S.; and, the rise of the rest. This last description, as the ream of admirers blurbed at the back of the paperback edition of the book attests to, is bound to become a ringing phrase in the corridors of American power where so many others have hit the dustbin of history; that is, the end of history, clash of civilisations, and so on. Perhaps what gives the view credibility is that unlike Fukuyama and Huntington, Zakaria writes not only as the citizen of a country he admittedly fell in love with when he first came here for his graduate studies, but as one who has his ethnic origins in India. He is, put simply, an extremely smug native informant who explains the Third World read India to the West.

Zakarias thesis is very simple: The new world order does not herald U.S. decline because the country has enormous strengths and that the world as it is now will not throw up a new superpower, rather a diversity of forces that Washington can navigate and even help direct (pages 44-45). He extols the countries that have followed the dominant economic discourse of the Washington Consensus in Latin America such as Brazil (not to mention its redistributive policies against hunger, illiteracy and unemployment), Mexico and Chile but dismisses the very serious economic and political alternatives posed by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela as mere insane rants (page 18). However, the model of oil-powered social democracy represented by Chavez cannot just be dismissed as tropical Venezuelan socialism. This democratic model, along with the anti-neoliberal politicians elected in election after election in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and now Uruguay, was instituted in South America after repeated failures of neoliberal reforms in that continent throughout the 1990s.

In chapter 2, Zakaria talks about the rise of nationalism in the Third World as the assertion of identity (page 38) but fails to acknowledge that U.S. imperial policies have actually stoked resurgent Japanese and Taiwanese nationalisms against China when it helps to achieve its (U.S.) foreign policy objective of attempting to contain China. Also, economic and political nationalism often implies that people in the Third World want to control their own resources irrespective of the wishes of Western multinational corporations, which is exactly what is now happening in the aforementioned countries of Latin America, where socialist Cuba is seen as an alternative worthy of being emulated.

Chapter 3 of the book is about A Non-Western World and tries to explain why two of the biggest countries of the non-Western world India and China, signifying the rest lagged behind in terms of modernisation while the European world was busy partaking of the fruits of the printed word, communications, trade and yes, empires. Zakaria would rather put in his lot with those who claim that to explain away the stagnation of these non-Western societies by mentioning imperialism is historically inaccurate but politically expedient. However, the truth is that in doing so he becomes an advocate of the modernisation theory, which was invented by Western academia in the 1950s and 1960s to provide an alternative, albeit ahistorical, path to the rudderless, newly decolonised countries away from a possible social and political revolution and a more authentic understanding of their problems.

Zakaria, with all the benefits of hindsight, can afford the luxury of scoffing at the Taj Mahal in Agra (and possibly the Forbidden City in Beijing) as examples of merely wasteful expenditures by Oriental despots, but the truth is that the like of such architectural wonders did not and still does not exist in Europe. What else but the rise of colonialism and its attendant imperialism explain the fact that without colonialism Japan went on to have an industrial revolution and became a colonial power, becoming in 1905 the first non-European country to ever inflict a military defeat on a European power, but in India European colonialism meant that whatever development did take place in the form of establishment of universities, railroads and libraries was used for looting and plunder and for enriching the metropole? Indeed, Zakaria would be loath to admit that men like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, the Indian reformer cited approvingly by him, and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, a leader of Indian Muslims, were the intellectual forefathers of what Lord Macaulay would later encourage the British to create in India a class of men Indian in blood but British in tastes, morals and intellect. These men would later form much of the corrupt, and hated, post-colonial elite that is in power in the majority of the Third World today.

In fact, many economic historians believe that were it not for colonialism, even countries such as India, ruled by a feudal dynasty like the Mughals, once freed from British rule would have taken off. Such was the strength and vitality of its productive resources in the 19th century. In other countries, such as China, the fact that colonialism and imperialism led to a loss of sovereignty and a society rife with feudal excesses, corruption and opium made revolution inevitable. On womens clothing in the Muslim world, the well-read and well-travelled Zakaria sadly offers us the clichd the Muslim world has the biggest problem with its women wearing Western-style clothes (page76) notwithstanding the advances Muslim women have made in countries such as Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Morocco, not just with clothing.

In Chapters 4 and 5, Zakaria sounds the tocsin regarding where he thinks the next challenge to and a prospective alliance with U.S. imperial hegemony will come from namely, China and India, whom he anoints The Challenger and The Ally respectively. He, predictably, dismisses the Mao years in China in a single paragraph (page 88) and describes the accession of Deng Xiaoping in 1979 as a watershed.

China, ever since ridding itself of foreign control and centuries of feudalism by means of a socio-political revolution led by Mao Zedong in 1949, has continued to surprise the world at that time those on the Right, and in recent times, those on the Left. One need not believe Harvard economists like Jeffrey Sachs (page 89) to be awed by Chinese achievements. Yet, despite the fact that the Maoist revolution was one of the most important political events of the 20th century, liberating close to a billion people from centuries of poverty, illiteracy, feudalism and patriarchy, Zakaria manages to compress this seminal event in a mere four lines (page 88), which informs us of his agenda regarding China. For what Zakaria calls the Chinese watershed in 1979 would not have been possible had the material foundations for it not been laid by the years under Mao, who, despite the setbacks of the Great Leap Forward, managed to not only contain Chinas population explosion through a prescient one-child policy but also solved the dilemma of feeding such a large population by means of attaining agricultural self-sufficiency and food security through the policies of communes and collectivisation.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, no friend of Marxism-Leninism, has highlighted in his work on famines that what differentiated China from India was the fact that government policies in China enabled self-sufficiency in food while the Indian government could not guarantee the same to its citizens, thus ensuring much higher mortality rates in India than in the case of the famine resulting from Chinas Great Leap Forward over the same period1. Revisionist historians such as Mobo Gao2 are now actively challenging the mainstream view in the West of the Mao years as an unmitigated disaster, by utilising micro-level studies conducted in China.

Zakaria burdens the reader with a plethora of statistics regarding the new semi-capitalist China but the one reality that cannot be missed regarding the about-turn from communism since the 1979 watershed is that annual growth rates of 9-10 per cent, which the Chinese economy has sustained for some three decades now, cannot be sustained in the long run without some economic costs and these have been witnessed in examples of widespread corruption; for example, in the mismanagement of the Three Gorges Dam project and instances of revolts in Chinas southern and coastal areas, where the inequalities bred by turbo-capitalism have accelerated the most. In fact, The New York Times reported last year the astonishing statistic that on every day of the calendar year in 2008, a revolt took place in China!

Zakarias confident prophecies about a future Chinese challenge to U.S. hegemony mask the fact that the Chinese economic model of providing America with cheap credit and low-cost imports, in place since 2005, has made the country even more dependent on the U.S.; in fact, so acute is this mutual Chimerican dependence that China is now functioning as Americas head servant, outperforming all other Asian economies in providing cheap exports to the U.S. and utilising its precious savings to finance American purchases of those exports, according to a recent and more intelligent evaluation of Chinese economic policy3.

However, what also cannot be denied is the fact that despite this recent dependent relationship between the two countries, the U.S. has often used the human rights stick and the future status of Tibet and Taiwan to beat the Chinese. The author reassures his potential clients in Washington that should the Chinese assert themselves, Washington would be able to respond with a set of effective policiesto limit Chinas emerging power (page 127).

There are more interesting developments occurring within China at the moment which Zakaria who is too obsessed with Chinas turn to free-market capitalism has missed, again predictably so such as the inner-party struggles between the populist faction and the elitist faction in the Chinese Communist Party4 as well as the rise of Chinas New Left, which has begun a critique of the partys rightist policies and is a force to be reckoned with5.

Another exciting question regarding the future shape of China is whether it can defy the so-called laws of historical materialism and avoid the transition to democracy, that is, combine capitalism with one-party rule6. These emerging battles have the power to shape the politics and society of not only China but the rest of the world. The same critique is also being extended now to the realm of culture to Chinese society, with Chinese cinema now beginning to respond to Zhang Yimous extravagant productions waxing nostalgic about the countrys imperial past, with cutting-edge films that often surpass their counterparts in Hollywood and Bollywood; similarly, novelists like Yu Hua, Su Tong and Mo Yan are writing searing portraits of what the restoration of private property and the creation of the communist nouveau riche in the wake of Chinas capitalist road have meant for the average Chinese peasant and worker.

According to Zakaria, the key to combating the rise of China will be the role of his native India. He admires the democratic and secular vision of the countrys founding fathers, if not their socialist outlook, which all changed in the 1990s with the architecture for Indias subsequent neoliberal reforms set up by the current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Yet Zakarias main grouse about India is that despite having done away with its socialist past, India is still not neoliberal enough for him. For that, he excoriates the Indian Left, which he accuses of campaigning not for economic growth to benefit the very poor but rather to maintain the relatively privileged conditions of unionised workers and party apparatchiks. Indias left-wing is largely opposed to the policies that have finally reduced mass poverty (page 142).

I suspect Zakarias real frustration here is not the policies of the Indian left but the fact that the communist tradition in India is one of the oldest anywhere in the world and States such as Kerala and West Bengal have put into practice social policies that Indias socialist-turned-neoliberal mandarins in New Delhi have been promising for decades but have failed to deliver in practice. In fact, the subsequent turns of the Communist Party in West Bengal, where it is very amenable to foreign capital, should massively please rather than displease Zakaria. What he omits to mention though is that the thoroughly secular government which came to power in New Delhi in 2004 could only do so because of its electoral compact with the communists. Amid the enthusiastic reports from India about its new glitzy shopping malls, millionaires (including the slumdog variety, eternalised recently by Danny Boyles Oscar-winning film), Bollywood and the thriving call-centre industry, what is lost in the process is the massive poverty in Indias rural areas and instances of suicide committed by heavily indebted Indian farmers, especially in Andhra Pradesh, the victims of Indias democratic turn to neoliberalism.

The turn towards neoliberalism in India also produced the frenetic rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which alienated the minorities and unleashed a reign of terror in Gujarat under Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who would be classified and jailed as a war criminal in any other circumstances for his role in presiding over the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat. Similarly, Zakarias bright portrait of India, as Americas ally and counterweight to the rise of China and the rest of South-East Asia must not blind us to the fact that in India there are now very powerful social and political movements opposed to the ruling class visions of India as a global power and a regional cop of the U.S., personified in the Indo-American nuclear deal and its growing alliance with Israel.

The final two chapters of Zakarias book, American Power and American Purpose respectively, are devoted to asking how America itself will react to a post-American world (page 166) and how, if at all, can the U.S. respond to shifts in economic and political power. Indeed a comparison of imperial America involved as it is with its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan at the moment with the former colonial power in both countries, Great Britain, is very welcome. Britain was a world power for most of the 20th century and whether it was the Boer War that undid its empire or the rebelliousness of its Indian and Arab subjects, the one thing it learned from its colonial ventures was that sovereign people do not like to be occupied and ugly occupations cannot produce beautiful resistances, as the U.S. is now learning.

Zakarias argument that unlike the bad economics that destroyed the British empire, the Americans have sound economics does not sound plausible any more in the wake of the Great Crash of 2008. His argument that the twin occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan will not bankrupt the U.S. (page 182) is a weak one since reputed economists such as the Nobel Prize-winning Joseph Stiglitz have estimated that the cost for just the Iraq war has run into $3 trillion, a conservative estimate 7.

Few would argue though with his contention about the strength of the American university system which allows people to fail and then gives them a second or third chance. The U.S. education system has been remarkably adroit at attracting hard-working, talented youth from the developing world. However, it is important that the U.S. puts an end to the ugly features of a surveillance state, which makes it difficult and very humiliating for potential students, especially from West Asia and Pakistan, to enter and exit the land of opportunities freely. This sort of treatment is more reminiscent of colonial regimes and there is absolutely no justification for it, since these talented people contribute vitally to Americas service industry, especially when many of their native countries governments are cooperating with the U.S. in the War on Terror. It makes little sense to exploit the labours of these people and not treat them as respected human beings.

The fact that many of the honorary Americans who win Nobel Prizes each year are not really WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) but owe their origins to either China, Japan, Germany or Russia; and that they may choose to return to their native countries whenever conditions improve back home does not perplex Zakaria, probably since he will never make that choice himself. Also, to set the facts straight, Americans overwhelmingly have not been winning the Nobels in literature or peace (until the Nobel Committee decided to shock the world this year with its Peace Award to U.S. President Barack Obama). Culturally, Hollywood films are now being overtaken by many artistically superior films made on shoestring budgets and often under conditions of strict government censorship; they include films from China, Iran, India and Eastern Europe.

As Zakaria realises, a highly dysfunctional politics characterises the U.S. today. Barring the symbolically significant election of African-American Obama as President last year, there is no hope beyond the two-party system the U.S. has cultivated since the 18th century. Both parties are now quite similar in their political programmes, whether it is domestic or foreign policies. They subscribe to the 18th century notion of the U.S. as a country that should protect the minority of the opulent against the majority, to paraphrase the views of one of its founding fathers, James Madison.

The fact that a developing country like Cuba has been providing its citizens with free health care, education and housing despite half a century of sanctions while the wealthiest country in the hemisphere is still debating whether to provide universal health care coverage is a scandal Zakaria never admits to. This cannot be realised without dismantling the military-industrial complex which anxiously cheered the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. But surely this is too radical a prescription for Zakaria, who gives us his own checklist which he thinks American policymakers can use in order to make the world in their shape, literally: carefully choose the regions and the fights the U.S. needs to be involved in; do not be selfish by insisting only on American interests; cultivate relations with all major powers; be committed to order; think creatively and asymmetrically; and, build legitimacy.

On the whole, The Post-American World does not advocate a break with the U.S. imperial past, which the Bush years exacerbated; in fact the book is a sort of handbook on how to manage the American empire better, despite the fact that the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is not going well for the U.S. Zakarias book is yet another manifestation of the fact that to date there is no American public intellectual on the Right who has drawn the appropriate lessons from the American experience in Vietnam; there is still an advocacy on the continuation of Empire, not a break with it.

Also, the greatest threat to the Empire as a way of life comes not from China and India, which may become, respectively, a viable Great Power or just a Great Democracy8, but still ensconced in a neoliberal slumber until some of their peoples struggles bear fruit. It comes from Latin America, where spurred by the example of the socialist Cuban Revolution, countries are now adopting an anti-capitalist programme that is not built on the greed of private property which has already led to multiple crises of capitalism in Brazil, Turkey, Argentina, the Great Crash of 2008 afflicting the U.S. and now Dubai, none of which the author ever predicted.

Fareed Zakaria was recently honoured with the 37th place in Foreign Policy magazines first annual list of the 100 Top Global Thinkers for defining the limits of American power and convening the smartest public conversation about it9. The book under review, with all its anecdotes and quotations from some of the brightest stars of the neo-conservative and neoliberal firmament to boost its claims, predictably does neither.


1. Poverty and Famines by Amartya Sen, Oxford University Press, U.K., 1983.

2. The Battle for Chinas Past by Mobo Gao, Pluto Press, U.K., 2008.

3. "Americas Head Servant? The PRCs Dilemma in the Global Crisis", by Hung Ho-Fung, New Left Review, Number 60, November-December 2009.

4. Ibid.

5. See One China, Many Paths (2005) by Chaohua Wang and The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (2009), by Wang Hui; Verso, New York.

7. The Three Trillion Dollar War, by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes; Norton, 2008.

8. Desai op cit.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 29, 2010.)



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