The Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria

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In his new book, Fareed Zakaria argues that to stay competitive, America needs to reconsider its global role now that other countries’ growing success is reshaping the world. His call to action isn’t new; it goes back as far as Alice Amsden’s 2001 book, The Rise of “the Rest”: Challenges to the West from Late Industrializing Economies. But Zakaria adds much to the discussion with his unique perspective, which is informed by historical events, cultural and political studies, and current affairs—and also with his telling details. He explains, for instance, how globalization’s increasing pace is evident in the growing percentage of non-American players in the U.S. Open tennis tournament. He also entertains his readers: His droll description of Queen Victoria’s jubilee alone is worth the price of admission.

Not that I always agree with his analysis of globalization. For me, the value countries place on innovation directly relates to their place in the current world order. Yet Zakaria mentions innovation only glancingly, never discussing some important points: that right after World War II, the United States was preeminent in the innovation game; that in the next 63 years, know-how and resources were redistributed to other parts of the world; and that today many countries are adopting distinct strategies to compete in that innovation game. China, for instance, has taken up a brute force strategy by mass-producing engineers and university campuses.

Nor does Zakaria adequately discuss how rapidly the assets that create innovation—talent, capital, and ideas—can flow across borders these days, and that as a result the United States is at risk of experiencing a brain drain as well as the flight of venture capital. Our need to regenerate our appeal to immigrant talent, traditionally a source of vitality for our national innovation engine, has been well documented, yet Zakaria takes up the immigration issue only in the book’s coda. I longed for him to provide more of his thinking on the subject. Although he does well in describing the globalization of capital markets, he does not anticipate the current era of debt market meltdown and tight credit. And regarding ideas, the book gives short shrift to the globalization of science, his tip of the hat to the emerging field of nanotechnology notwithstanding. As Zakaria himself admits, his portrait of technology and science is only a snapshot of a rapidly changing situation.

What should America do during the next lap of the global innovation race? Surely our future lies in developing the business model of systems integration—combining subsystems into a whole to create value.

Our asset base for such an approach is large. We have talented people whose ethnic backgrounds and language skills allow them to create business bridges with colleagues in their countries of origin. We have management skills and the ability to leverage business intelligence on a global scale. We have an ethos that encourages risk taking and unconventional behavior; take Apple Computer’s “think different” marketing campaign. And we have financial, academic, and corporate resources galore.

Zakaria anticipates how such a systems integrator role might work for the United States. Systems integration “involves consultation, collaboration, even compromise,” he writes. “It derives its power by setting the agenda, defining the issues, and mobilizing coalitions.” Indeed, by proceeding along these lines, America will remain an integral part of a new global blend—as long as its politics, international profile, and intentions all mesh with it, that is.

JOHN KAO is a former Harvard Business School professor who advises companies and governments on innovation strategy. He is the author of Jamming: the Art and Discipline of Business Creativity and Innovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back.