If the Roman and British experiences are anything to go by, the literature of American decline has only just begun. Fareed Zakaria has started us off with a thoughtful, reasoned and hopeful sketch of global power and politics in the 21st century. He is not, however, talking to you and me. One key element of the post-American world is that we – the Europeans – will be marginal players. We will be rich and stable but demographically in terminal decline, unable successfully to absorb African and Asian migrants on our peripheries. As events in Ireland show, we are also unable to stomach the creation of federal European institutions that might allow the continent to be a real player. So be it. Europe has done more than enough shaping of the world as it is, and look where it got us.
In this Presidential election year, Zakaria is talking to America and America is taking note; all the more since Barack Obama was snapped, his thumb marking a page in the middle of this book. After listening to his victory speech in Minnesota at the end of the Democratic primaries, I can tell you he's been reading it. Zakaria's message to America is simple – Don't Panic! America's perceptions of the real risks and dangers it faces are massively out of kilter with any known reality. The creation of 24-hour news and the voracious media appetite for scaremongering has utterly distorted the nation's perception of itself. Worse, the current administration that has fed the frenzy and the fury to the profit of almost no one but Halliburton, Bechtel and their corporate friends.
America's best bet might be to turn off the TV, but failing that they could take note of Zakaria's line on the Islamic threat. Stop reading jihadi websites and check out Islamic societies. They are riven and complex, have their own frustrations with fundamentalism, and would like to settle down to their variant of capitalist development: "When Muslims travel they go to the razzle-dazzle of Dubai not the seminaries of Iran".
The real change America faces is not is the rise of a global jihad or its own decline, but the rise of everyone else. The most extraordinary thing about the 20 years since the end of the Cold War is the unprecedented explosion of capitalist development across the globe. The gigantic wave of growth in China and India, not to mention Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Russia and the oil-rich states, constitutes a shift of the same magnitude as America's rise to power after the Second World War.
This was precisely the intention of post-war US foreign policy: to defeat communism and its closed universe and to create open markets in a multilateral rule-bound world that would deliver collective prosperity. Well, guys: you got it. You won the Cold War and that global economy is here. However, it comes with strings attached. As the global South develops, the portfolio of economic, cultural, military and political power available to its key states will rise.
In this interdependent globalised world, the US will have to find ways of operating with a multitude of other powers. Collective problems, from organised crime to global warming, will not be tackled by unilateral policies or military power. This is, of course, unnerving for a superpower to contemplate, but Zakaria soothes his audience.
America is going to retain a lot of advantages and a lot of power. The brilliance of its higher-education system and its demographic and cultural vitality will keep the US at the forefront of almost every significant commercial innovation. Its new competitors, China and India in particular, have their own enormous problems to deal with before they can think about global hegemony. The space exists for the US to remain the key player, but as chairman of the board and agenda setter rather than in its current "Judge Dredd on steroids" mode.
Even a modicum of more nuanced diplomacy, a better use of the country's abundant soft power, would improve things immeasurably. In fact, America might find out that much of the world actually rather likes it. Or rather, we like its society and its cosmopolitan intellectuals, like Zakaria, but its state, its military-industrial complex, its religious and ideological fundamentalists and a tranche of its ruling elites are truly repellent. If Obama makes it to the White House, then this motley crew will be the biggest threat to his Presidency and the biggest block on the way to the more secure, balanced and diverse world Zakaria imagines.
David Goldblatt's history of football, 'The Ball is Round', is published by PenguinReuse content