“Growth takes place whenever a challenge evokes a successful response that, in turn, evokes a further and different challenge. We have not found any intrinsic reason why this process should not repeat itself indefinitely, even though a majority of civilizations have failed, as a matter of historical fact.”—Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History

This piece—co-authored by a middle-aged father, his recently-graduated-from-college daughter, and his college-going son—is a collective engagement with Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. The father is anxious about how effectively Americans are utilizing the advantage of world-class universities; the daughter is seeking to address the inequity of unequal access to higher education; and the son is optimistic about his fellow students’ prospects in a greener post-American world.

The Post-American World opens with Toynbee’s observation that while decline is not inevitable, new and different challenges require new and different responses. Zakaria, like Parag Khanna (whose Second World was reviewed last month in India Currents) looks back to Toynbee while looking to the future. But the similarity between the two authors and their worldviews seemingly ends with Toynbee. Unlike Khanna, who coolly suggests that America is in decline, China is ascendant, and the rest of the world is on the sidelines, Zakaria strikes a more balanced and optimistic note.

Like an engaging and enlightening five-paragraph column for Newsweek International, The Post-American World is highly accessible. After the opening chapter concisely introduces an argument for “the rise of the rest,” the next two chapters disabuse the notion that the world is a very dangerous place: “It feels like a very dangerous world.

But it isn’t. Your chances of dying as a consequence of organized violence of any kind are getting lower and lower.” However, this more peaceful world is no longer the economic or cultural domain of a Western system driven by an American engine. Reflecting this shift, Zakaria focuses the middle two chapters of his book on China as a “challenger” to the United States and India as a potential “ally.”

But a post-American world does not mean a world without America. Nor does it necessarily mean an anti-American world. It merely means the end of the current unipolar global order. As such, Zakaria closes his book with an exploration of American power in the multipolar world and with an exhortation for greater clarity of American purpose.

Zakaria’s honest and hopeful argument finds agreement with daughter and son: “America is a large and diverse country with a real inequality problem. This will, over time, translate into a competitiveness problem, because if we cannot educate and train a third of the working population to compete in a knowledge economy, it will drag down the country. But we do know what works … Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think” (emphasis added).

The opening epigram is echoed in the book’s first sentence: “This is a book not about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else.”

As powerfully demonstrated in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, China is a big part of Zakaria’s “everyone else” (though, curiously, Europe is nearly invisible in the book). A few facts about China give both Sinophiles and Sinophobes pause: “it is the world’s largest country, fastest-growing major economy, largest manufacturer, second-largest consumer, largest saver, and (almost certainly) second-largest military spender.”

Zakaria neither underestimates America’s ability to be an exception to Toynbee’s historical rule of preeminent civilizations failing, nor does he relegate India to history’s dustbin of third-world status. While acknowledging that in dealing with China, the world (and more specifically America) is presented with new challenges “for which it is largely unprepared,” Zakaria doesn’t trade in tired lessons from the last century. Instead he recognizes that the world has moved beyond Cold War dynamics that required nations to take sides or be cast aside as pariah, non-aligned states.

Zakaria is brilliant in considering lessons of history while contemplating sophisticated possibilities of the present and future. Indeed, he suggests that India and China have moved closer, not only in terms of trade, but also by a shared stage of development that values peace and stability rather than a foreign policy based on isolation and belligerence. But this India is different from the 20th century India which maintained neutrality between the United States and the Soviet Union, while aligning itself with the losing side of the Cold War. This is an India which “is poised to become a great power at last. And at the center of its new role is a much closer relationship with the United States of America … Indians understand America. It is a noisy, open society with a chaotic democratic system, like theirs. Its capitalism looks distinctly like America’s free-for-all.” Because the strength of its society overshadows the strength of its state, India can look to America for parallels to its own growth in hard and soft power.

The father finds much to agree with Zakaria, especially that “the base of American power—a vibrant American society—[is] its greatest strength and its weakness.” He believes that countries like India and China are bringing new and different responses that are not always comprehensible to those who grew up believing in a Pax Americana and proclaiming American-English as a de facto global lingua franca. And while the citizens of these countries often do speak English, they are also fluent in one or more of the 6,911 other languages spoken in the world. And the peace they seek is a local one that may or may not depend on American might.

While Indians might look to leverage similarities with American society, some dispassionate scholars and highly anxious citizens on both sides of the Atlantic consider parallels between the United States of the 21st century and the United Kingdom of the 20th century. Many Americans bemoan the apparent downward trajectory of their country. “The analogy is obvious; the United States is Britain, the Iraq War is the Boer War—and, by extension, America’s future looks bleak … The familiar theme of imperial decline is playing itself out one more time. History is happening again.”

But Zakaria believes that Britain’s challenge was economic and America’s is political; and while British economics were irreversible, American politics are not. He borrows a jauntily named economic concept called the “smiley curve” from James Fallows to dissect the argument that America is declining. Simply put, American companies outsource the low-margin manufacturing at the base of the curve, while defending strong positions in design and marketing at the highly profitable top tips of the U-shaped smile. And Zakaria believes that the best socio-political defense of this economic fort is higher education, “America’s best industry.”

The father hopes that readers of The Post-American World appreciate what Kishore Mahbubani, formerly Singapore’s foreign secretary and ambassador to the United Nations, has to say about diplomatic dialogue: “There are two sets of conversations, one with Americans in the room and one without.” If those of us making our lives in the United States remain in Mahbubani’s cocoon, we will miss out on the world’s new moment, a moment presaged by another statesman of Indian origin, Jawaharlal Nehru: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

THE POST-AMERICAN WORLD by Fareed Zakaria. W. W. Norton, May 2008. Hardcover. 292 pages. $25.95

Having graduated from Northwestern University, Anupama is committed to Teach for America. Entering his second year at Stanford University, Siddhartha is studying Earth Systems and Public Policy. Reading books and writing reviews, Rajesh is focused (with his wife, Mangla) on the other “r”: raising children.