"Nobody has a monopoly on the truth"
The state of the world Geostrategist Fareed Zakaria analyzes the rise of Asia and the post-American world order. He cautions against what he calls illiberal democracy and the erosion of constitutional rights. And he answers the question of how Western countries can better interact with those nations that are on the losing end of globalization.
Fareed Zakaria, you are one of the most distinguished observers and commentators of our time. In your view, where does the world stand today?
We are experiencing a post-American world order. We are fundamentally moving from a world that has been completely and comprehensively dominated by the United States at every level: geopolitical, geoeconomic, cultural. That world is eroding, but nothing new is coming into its place. Thus far, China does not seem powerful enough, nor does it seem to have the ability or inclination to set the global agenda.
An unstable constellation?
Yes. This is a new experiment, in a sense, because for the last 250 years, we have had either a dominant hegemon – Great Britain or the United States – or we have had chaos and world war. Pax Britannica was followed by Pax Americana. So, we have not had a system of multi-polarity or even some version of that in which we have found a way to create mechanisms of order and stability, and maintain the international structures. I know it might sound very pessimistic. I don't mean it that way. I think we're going into a great unknown, uncharted moment in world history.
A power vacuum seldom leads to peace and prosperity.
That's true, unfortunately. You can see it in microcosm if you look at the Middle East today. The Middle East was essentially dominated by the United States ever since the Soviet withdrawal from Egypt in the early 1970s. The US played the kind of role that Bismarck wanted Germany to play in the 19th century, which is to say it had better relations with every country than they had with each other. So, it was the center of a hub-and-spoke system. That system has decayed because the United States is less willing to put in the time, effort, energy and expenditure, again, largely as a reaction to the Iraq War. Countries like Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are, as a result, all jockeying for influence, which is causing a great deal of instability. You have, in the Middle East now, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Twelve million people in Yemen are on the verge of starvation, another 12 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Now that's the most vivid example, but one will start to wonder what happens if the United States gets less involved in Asia or Europe.
Returning to China: It might not be a hegemon in the same sense as the US in the 20th century, but the country's GDP has grown 14-fold within the last 20 years, and it now claims 15 percent of global GDP. What do you think that means for the world?
At an economic level, that is unmitigated good news. There will be more consumers, more savers, more investors in the world. All this grows the global economy. And after China will come India. It's not just that China has become quite big, but that it is also moving up the value chain very quickly. Most people would be surprised to hear that nine of the world's 20 top technology companies are from China. The other 11 are from the US, but ten years ago, 18 or 19 of the companies on this list were American. China is at the cutting edge of the digital economy and will of course try now to assert its own interests and influence – just as the US and Britain did. The interesting question is whether the United States will allow this expanded self-interest on the part of China.
What do you think about it?
I've had discussions about this with policymakers in Washington, who bemoan what China is doing in the world. They don't have an answer to the question of what they think an acceptable expansion of China would look like. They apparently have not strategically thought about what it actually means to have another country become an economic superpower and therefore a competitor. Graham T. Allison calls this Thucydides's trap, in reference to ancient Sparta's concern about the growing power of Athens and the resulting Peloponnesian War [editor's note: 431-404 BC]. One famous way to think about the United States is that the US has never been comfortable living in a world that it cannot isolate itself from or dominate. We are in exactly this situation today.
What does that mean for liberal democracy, which forms the foundations of the Western nation states?
Statistics and research have shown that the world is getting better and better. Health outcomes and living standards are rising while the number of wars is falling. But it is very difficult to argue that the world is getting better on one metric: liberal democracy. 20 or 25 years ago, Turkey had a better democracy than it has today by almost every measure. The situation is similar in Hungary, Poland and India. Latin America is seeing this trend as well. Look at Brazil – and even Mexico could be heading in this direction. And in all of these cases, what you see is what I call illiberal democracy: the rise of popular leaders who take advantage of their momentary popularity to erode the constitutional basis of liberal democracy.
The governments of all of these countries were democratically elected, and some of them are leading their countries to economic success. What, exactly, are you worried about?
There are two components to liberal democracy: the democratic component, with popular participation, voting, elections. But there is also the liberal component: the rule of law, the protections of individual liberty, the separation of church and state, and the freedom of the press. This liberal element is set out, for example, in the Bill of Rights in America. They are inalienable constitutional rights that cannot be abolished even if the majority wants to do such a thing. In other words, it's a check on democracy to protect against majoritarianism, from the "tyranny of majority," as Alexis de Tocqueville called it. Even these constitutional rights are seemingly being eroded in the illiberal democracies.
Why has there been such an influx of politicians striving for this type of illiberal system?
The great challenge for the Western world is to bridge the very deep divide within society between the people who have access to knowledge and capital who are doing well in the world and the people who do not have access to knowledge and capital, who are doing badly. And it is now becoming a very clear geographic divide: The people who live in cities and metropolitan areas are benefiting while the people who live in rural areas are losing. Look at the protests in France now. This is the backlash of a group of people who are less connected to the world. They don't benefit from France's great public transport system; they have to drive to work. They have low incomes, and now they have to finance the higher green taxes through increasing gas and diesel prices? A third or maybe more of the population in the West feels they are not benefiting enough from the supposedly wonderful world of globalization and the information revolution. Although they see these growth numbers and higher wages, their lives aren't affected at all.
What do you think is going wrong here?
Interestingly, this situation has arisen because we in the West place great value on meritocracy – much more so than in the old aristocratic order. In a meritocracy, people are successful and rise because they perform well – at least, that's how the term is commonly defined. This makes people think that their own success is justified and legitimate, which suggests that people who are less successful are likewise at fault for their own failure. But the fact that we don't live in a purely meritocratic system is often overlooked: Not everyone starts from the same place and factors like luck also play a major role. So, in a weird way, meritocracy has had this unforeseen dimension of creating class conflict.
What can be done to make up for this imbalance?
That's a great question. We know all these forces that are pulling us apart. What are the forces that can bring us together? I think the first thing we have to do is create more opportunities for people who do not have access to capital and knowledge. To my mind, that means a much deeper investment in infrastructure. I think we need to think about ways to recognize that certain activities need greater help and maybe greater public expenditures. So, I would be in favor of a new kind of redistribution that is focused on those who are losing out because of globalization and information technology
What role can Europe play in the world?
Europe is an extraordinary experiment that works very well, overall. The continent has created and maintained institutions and norms that protect liberty and individual rights. Countries that warred against each other over centuries are now collaborating and coexisting peacefully. It's not as much as, maybe, some people dreamed about, but it's really extraordinary and a substantial accomplishment. I think what Europe needs to do is to be more strategic and active on the world stage and try to be the second pillar of freedom and democracy in the world, especially at a time when the first pillar, the United States, is weakened or seems uninterested in playing that role.
The West is struggling while the East is flourishing. In your own life you've experienced how the focus of the world is shifting.
When I left India in the early 1980s, it was a land of gloom and doom, of pessimism and decline. I came to America, a much more optimistic place. It was a land that was inventing the future. And now it feels like the reverse. Even the American president seems almost pessimistic. His slogan, "Make America Great Again," implies a decline, after all. It's quite the opposite in India and other parts of Asia, where the mood is very optimistic, even about globalization, which has lifted millions upon millions out of poverty.
What is the upswing like for you when you're in India?
Just as an example, I went to the craziest wedding in the world; the bride was the daughter of Mukesh Ambani, India's richest man. It made "Crazy Rich Asians," the blockbuster about the bright young things of Singapore, look like a movie about the middle class. The Ambani clan is a good example of a typical Asian selfmade success story: Unbelievable fortunes are generated here in extremely short periods of time.
India was a very hopeful place during your childhood as well; the nonviolent Indian independence movement of 1947 was still reverberating. What do you remember about that time?
Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, died the year I was born [editor's note: 1964], but we had long-playing records of his speeches that we listened to as if they were music. I can still recite his speech on the moment India got its independence. My father was part of that struggle as a politician. My mother was a journalist. Our house was alive with this new freedom and the beautiful future; a feeling of hope and promise lay in the air. Gandhi and Nehru gave the impetus for an India based on pluralism, democracy and secularism. My family was Muslim, but we still celebrated all of the Hindu festivals, as well as Christmas, and we even had a Santa Claus. He was played by my jovial uncle who later became a Muslim fundamentalist…
The hopes of your childhood didn't come to fruition.
Things started to go awry when I was a teenager. The economy collapsed because of Nehru's quasi-socialist orientation. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, then implemented even more dramatic measures and tried to shield its domestic industries behind high tariff barriers, nationalized banks and import taxes. And then you have the suspension of democracy for two years from 1975 to 1977, complete with the jailing of political opposition and censorship of the press. It was a very painful thing to watch. The expectations and optimism of the 1970s evaporated.
How did this period also shape your own worldview?
It shaped my views as a secularist and as somebody who deeply despises bigotry and chauvinism of any kind, because they made India go off the rails and I could see the cost of it. I lived through riots where thousands and thousands of people were killed in the streets. My father took us to them; he wanted us to see what was happening. I recognized the importance of Western values and what happens when they are not upheld. And I recognized how inefficient economic socialism is. Nothing worked. It just produced stagnation and corruption and a bureaucratic elite that would then milk the system for its own benefit.
In 1982 you came to the US to study. What was your first impression?
I was alienated as a high school student in India. I felt as though people were just interested in becoming doctors and lawyers, and finding a job. I was fascinated by the intellectual element of high school, and I wanted to read things for pleasure and understand the world, but I couldn't find a lot of people who were like-minded. And then I went to Yale on a scholarship, and I felt like I had come home. My fellow students were just like me. We would stay up until 4:00 in the morning talking about politics and economics and literature. It was a completely magical time for me. I immediately fell in love with America, or rather, with a very particular part of America.
As a commentator and book author you can't be pigeonholed politically. You are neither on the right nor on the left, and you are not clearly pro- or anti-immigration. Does that make life easier or more difficult?
Definitely more difficult. I am trying to understand the world and I find myself trying to grapple with an issue on its own terms. I've gotten into lots of trouble for saying that some of Donald Trump's deregulation was both necessary and has been economically positive for America, and that's why the US economy is outperforming other economies. It's considered a crime to say this in some circles, but it's my opinion. I still hope that a large part of the public is practical and is not trying to evaluate the world as if there were two sports teams and your team is always right and the other team is always wrong. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. Naturally the moderate voices are quieter – but they exist in all societies. I think of myself as the voice of that forgotten center.