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Originally published Friday, May 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Post-American World" | U.S. in need of legitimacy

Even if we Americans already know that our country has lost some of its game over the past, say, eight years, Newsweek International editor...

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Fareed Zakaria

The author of "The Post-American World" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle, sponsored by Town Hall and the University Book Store; $5 (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

Even if we Americans already know that our country has lost some of its game over the past, say, eight years, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria delivers this message in an altogether new, almost buoyant context.

"This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else," he writes in the first sentence of "The Post-American World" (Norton, 292 pp., $25.95).

It's about a China whose economy has doubled every eight years for the past three decades; a young and vibrant India emerging from debilitating poverty; a Russia newly flush with oil revenues; and strengthening economies worldwide, from Europe to the Middle East to Latin America.

These countries are not only wealthier, they're also expressing themselves in "new narratives," as Zakaria calls them, from more self-assertive diplomatic stances to an explosion of non-English-language media to a circumvention of the U.S. nexus in favor of greater multilateral trade.

Zakaria doesn't see these changes as inherently bad — for instance, he calls the economies of China and India, with their low-wage work forces, the "two great global deflation machines."

Rather, it's how the U.S. adapts to these changes that concerns him most.

America might have far to go, starting with the way we treat other cultures. Zakaria tellingly quotes Briton Christopher Patten, former European commissioner for foreign relations, who describes the arrival of American Cabinet officers to a conference abroad: "Hotels are commandeered; cities are brought to a halt; innocent bystanders are barged into corners by thick-necked men with bits of plastic hanging out of their ears. It is not a spectacle that wins hearts and minds."

This attitude is certainly an embarrassment, but given that America is also capable of creating the Marshall Plan, facilitating an Egyptian-Israeli peace accord and serving as an "honest broker" globally, such imperiousness may not be permanent.

More worrying for Zakaria seems to be our predilection for isolationism vs. internationalism, a tension being fully played out in this year's presidential primaries.

Reading Zakaria, it's hard not to reference Thomas L. Friedman's seminal 2005 "The World Is Flat," which sounded an alarm over the growing global competition America faces. If Friedman's study was more urgent in its call for a new American competitiveness, Zakaria is more sanguine in that respect.

He argues that our economy and military are strong, our educational system dynamic (Friedman's thesis notwithstanding) and our trade mechanism vital. (Oddly, the elephant in the room — global warming — is left largely untouched.)

Departing from Friedman, Zakaria emphasizes a need for America to restore its legitimacy. "The United States has every kind of power in ample supply these days except one: legitimacy. ... Legitimacy allows one to set the agenda, define a crisis, and mobilize support for policies among both countries and nongovernmental forces like private business and grass-roots organizations."

Illustrating the point of America's lost legitimacy, the author recently reminded PBS interviewer Charlie Rose that 19 years ago, pro-democracy demonstrators erected a likeness of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square. That probably would not happen in a demonstration there now, he argued.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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