My Literary Reviews

Literary Review of The Post-American World
Author: Fareed Zakaria


The Post-American World walks Zakaria's readers through the "third great power shift of the modern era" and the implications that this "rise of the rest" will have on all of us.  The basis of this power shift is the two billion people who have entered the world markets and trade in the last two decades and the "influence" that this group now has over economics and politics.  According to Zakaria, America's global interests depend on our ability to collectively and individually recognize how this influence is causing a shift from anti-americanism to post-americanism.  The latter being an indifference to how America thinks about or what America expects from the rest of the world.  After introducing his point of view and touching on the historical context, Mr. Zakaria groups his observations into three broad categories pertaining to the roles that China, India, and the US will each play in this shifting landscape. 

Will China overtake the US as a global power?  Like Ms. Shirk, Mr. Zakaria argues that the answer depends on whether China can continue to control the volatile situation within its borders.  Mr. Zakaria provides some interesting insight into why China's communist government has maintained power for as long as it has.  I found the Bill Gates quote about Chinese leaders being "fairly thoughtful about [what they deem to be the greater good all the time]" particularly interesting.  However, Mr. Zakaria balances the optimism with the facts concerning rising corruption, inequality, and the increasing social tension with the country.  For example, there were 74,000 protests of some kind or the other in China in 2004; ten years earlier, there were just 10,000. 

Mr. Zakaria offers supportive words to Americans who are anxious about a changing world.  "The world is going America's way.  Countries are becoming more open, market friendly, and democratic."  He uses the Bush administration as an example of the type of perceived arrogance that will diminish our influence if not tempored moving forward.  The opportunities for international cooperation remain.  However, American must continue to embrace such opportunities, "not out of fear and vulnerability but out of confidence and strength."  Ultimately, says Mr. Zakaria, we are our own worst enemy.  We must heed the message from the staggering majorities of Europeans who view the U.S. as the greatest threat to world peace. 

Reading this book has changed the way that I feel about and react to the international events that I read about on a daily basis.  Take NATO's decision to provide Libyan rebels with air support back in March.  I watched to see whether President Obama's actions communicated America's desire to lead through influence and buy-in or manage through control.  It seemed to me that Mr. Zakaria would have approved of our handling of that situation.  Obama was confident and strong as he presented America's position on the matter.  However, it seemed as though he was genuinely committed to consensus and cooperation throughout.  I think that this was an excellent example of good geopolitics in Zakaria's Post-American world. 

Coincidentally, our "invasion" of Pakistan a few months later resulting in bin Laden's death was an example of the old America rearing its ugly head.  Killing bin Laden was a good thing and I recognize the possibility that notifying Pakistan of our intentions might have allowed him to escape.  However, America needs to abandon its double standards sooner rather than later.  The long-term costs of our arrogance and hypocracy could be far greater than we can now imagine.  I think that Mr. Zakaria's vision of a world where America (and Americans) are increasingly "not invited to the party" is a distinct possibility.  Because the nature of global power has shifted from military to economic, our influence is no longer a right but a privilege. 


This book trumps both of the books that I've previously reviewed on this blog.  I highly recommend it to all because it strikes great balances between fact and opinion, historical context and future projection, and cause and effect.  I also appreciate that Zakaria hasn't bought into the hype of a bipolar world dominated by China and the U.S.  Instead, he presents a compelling argument for why the world is increasingly becoming a place without polars.  I find this particularly relevent in my career as a Supply Chain Manager.  According to Zakaria, we now live in "an international system in which countires in all parts of the world are no longer objects or observers but players in their own right.  It is the birth of a truly global order."  In other words, my value add as a Supply Chain Manager is the ability to recognize the opportunities to source from emerging economies everywhere.  The perspective provided by this book - and from our upcoming trip - will be invaluable as I develop my ability to add value in this manner.

Literary Review of China: Fragile Superpower
ISBN: 978-0-195-37319-6


If Shirk’s assessment of the perceived threat is accurate, then this book is landing on our shelves at the right time.  She claims that the behavior of ordinary Americans – public resistance to free trade, impulsive comments posted on blogs, or public demonstrations over China’s human rights isses – is as responsible for stirring anti-Americanism in China as is the behavior of our government.  “China’s emergence as an economic superpower requires a difficult adjustment for Americans,” says Shirk (p. 5).  This book helps us to understand why this adjustment is necessary and it provides the American public with insight into how its behavior is contributing to China's social instability.

Those Who Benefit from Shirk's Perspective:

Literary Review of Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China
Author: James Fallows
ISBN: 978-0-307-45624-3


Fallows in Shanghai
 James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, is a master at helping his readers understand themselves more fully by writing about instances where their worldview differs from others. Postcards from Tomorrow Square is a compilation of articles that Fallows wrote for The Atlantic between 2006 and 2008 while living in China and studying its recent economic rise. Fallows challenges his pre-conceived attitudes and conclusions about China in these articles and, in doing so, addresses much of the Western world’s current understanding-or misunderstanding-of this emerging economic superpower.
One of Fallows’ gifts is storytelling and he uses this gift to great effect in taking his readers deep into the collective psyche of the Chinese people. The stories shared in Postcards - many of which contain larger-than-life characters - symbolize the different aspects of present day China. Collectively, these stories symbolize the diversity of a country that most outsiders fail to comprehend. This leads Fallows to suggest that there exists an “overestimation of China’s power and a misestimation of its strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities.” Fallows concludes that narrowing this gap between perception and reality represents untold opportunity for all of us.

The Relevance of Postcards From Tomorrow Square:
Fallows’ journey into the soul of China leading up to and through the Olympic games of 2008 is timely for two reasons. First, Fallows provides many examples of how China’s rise is directly impacting the western world. For example, “without China’s billion dollars a day, the United States could not keep its economy stable or spare the dollar from collapse.” Fallows also goes into the implications of the staggering environmental challenges facing China’s leadership and how their ability to overcome these challenges will impact all of us.

Postcards is also timely because speculation about how China’s emergence will change the world is rampant today. This book addresses the opinions and attitudes that “outsiders” are forming, many of which are irrational and unjustified. As a result, China’s rise is having an indirect impact on the world because the perceived opportunities and threats relating to its emergence are leading to fear-driven responses. According to Fallows, “among [Americans’] worst enemies at the moment is [their] own hair-trigger mentality about foreign challenge, and the enemies that outlook generates.” Postcards is a wake up call for those of us whose ignorance may be spurring knee-jerk reactions to the perceived threat of shifting power.

Who Benefits the Most from Fallows’ Effort:

Because the articles that make up this book were meant to be published in The Atlantic, they meet the needs of a different audience then if Fallows’ had set out to write a book from the outset. The Atlantic promotes itself as a general editorial magazine providing America’s “thought leaders” with literary and cultural commentary. According to its editor-in-chief, James Bennet, “There is much not to miss about this world—but there are certain facets of it that are worthy and valuable, that demand a modern correlative. [America has] grown big and specialized, and few places remain where scientists, politicians, businesspeople, and writers, where members of the military, the clergy, and academe, where Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, the believer and the unbeliever, can regularly hear one another speak. The Atlantic is one of those places.”

I introduce The Atlantic’s organizational purpose because it helps to explain Fallows’ writing style and intended audience in Postcards. Fallows’ writing is directly in line with The Atlantic’s stated purpose. These articles hit the “sweet spot” between the broad, surface-level information coming out of China via the news agencies, and the deep understanding of China’s society that would require living there, reading volumes of books, or both. Thus, Postcards will provide the greatest benefit to those who want to capture the essence of the country with maximum efficiency. A good comparison to Fallows’ commentary on modern day China is a Greatest Hits Album of Beatles tunes. Academics – or connoisseurs – might be dismayed by the claim that one can understand the subject with this level of exposure. However, given the effort that would be required to conduct a comprehensive study and the pace with which the world moves today, Fallows’ commentary more than meets the needs of most inquirers today.

Who Benefits the Least from Fallows’ Effort:

Postcards is not a how-to book. Those who are seeking specific knowledge about how political and business processes work in China would be better served with some other work. Take sourcing for example. While “China Makes, The World Takes” provides meaningful insight into the contemporary manufacturing environment in Guangdong, the information provided isn’t nearly enough to prepare a Sourcing Manager or Entrepreneur for his or her first business trip to the province.

Fallows’ writing also should not be misinterpreted as a statistical analysis of the key forces explaining China’s economic emergence. It is clear from Fallows writing that the stories he tells are random samples that may or may not represent what is actually taking place in China. Fallows chooses to limit what he writes about, much like a photographer, to his own personal experiences. In other words, Postcards is one person’s perspective of what is taking place in China. Fallows cannot – nor does he pretend to – see through closed doors or beyond today. Therefore, business-, education-, and political-leaders should not make decisions assuming that the material covered in this book is authoritative, or statistically significant in terms of explaining what is – or will be – happening in China.

My Recommendation & Closing Thoughts:

Read Fallows because he provides tremendous insight into the way that your future is being shaped by what is happening in China today. Read Fallows because you can learn a great deal about yourself, your community, and your nation by receiving his perspective on China. This perspective can only be developed and shared by someone with Fallows’ uniquely observant mind, mastery of the written word, and viewpoint upon which to do so. Finally, read Fallows because he tells entertaining stories about people with truly unique worldviews. The entertainment value found in Postcards represents nonfiction literature at its best. I always know when a nonfiction author has“captured” me because I find myself finishing a chapter and then going online to find where the characters of the story are now. At various times I have set down Postcards to go in search of an aerial photo of Mr. Zhang’s Versailles palace on Google Maps, watch Ms. Zhou and the Wolf do battle on YouTube, or pictures of the shiny new five-star luxury conference center in Yellow Sheep River waiting for someone to come.

I strongly recommend this book to those audiences that I’ve previously mentioned. That said, I humbly suggest two ways that Fallows might improve this book in subsequent printings. First, I am surprised to see that Fallows chose not to edit the articles when compiling them into one work. For example, he “introduces” us to Susan Shirk and her book China: Fragile Superpower at least three times in the book. (pgs. xvi, 9, and 142) I would have expected a writer of Fallows’ caliber to tap a wider array of resources in his articles and certainly would have expected him to pull the redundant references out of the articles for the book. The second improvement that I would like to see Fallows make has to do with the speed at which things are changing in China. At the rate that things are changing in China, much of the material in this book could already be considered outdated. I’d like to see him do the little bit of work necessary to update the book for future editions.
In concluding, I want to follow up my recommendation of Postcards with a word of caution to fellow readers. If China is a topic that interests – or concerns – you, do not be content with an education consisting of Fallows sharing his experiences. Fallows has this to say about being a reporter, “the real payoff… is the chance to answer questions you did not previously know you wanted to ask.” The same can be said for all of us. We won’t really begin to learn about ourselves and our world until we apply ourselves to a life-long pursuit of understanding that allows us to answer our own questions that we don’t yet know we want to ask. Instead, we should let Fallows’ tales of adventure whet our appetite for embarking on our journeys of discovery. This may mean taking your own trip to China, reading books that cover these issues in greater detail, or developing your relationships with the Chinese Americans in your community. That is up to you to decide.

Fragile Superpower’s primary audience is American policy makers.  Shirk understands and responds to the strategic games that are played by our government.  The message to American policy makers is this: your Chinese counterparts may respond to your diplomatic moves in ways that you do not expect or are not prepared for because the rules of the game have changed from their perspective. In the past, we may have believed that China would never invade Taiwan or sell their U.S. Treasury Notes because, as a result of our retaliation, the outcome would be worse for the Chinese then their initial inaction.  Shirk is now saying that our calculations of probabilistic outcomes are no longer accurate because today’s equilibrium has shifted.

Shirk’s work is also of critical importance to American businessmen.  As American businesses continue to tie their futures to Chinese suppliers and the Chinese market place, they need to monitor and manage the risks of doing so.  Fragile Superpower gives executives reason to pause and consider the impact that a Sino-American conflict would have on their business.  Those responsible for the disaster-planning efforts of supply chains, markets, and even sources of capital will be well served by Shirk’s insight.

Criticism of Shirk’s Commentary

I am also greatly troubled by Shirk’s comments about China’s human rights violations.  Shirk openly discourages any U.S. action concerning these violations for fear of undermining internal efforts to do so or damaging our already strained relationship with China.  “Most Chinese, even those committed to democratization, resent American interference in the country’s domestic affairs and believe that in order to avoid chaos political change must be gradual,” says Shirk. “Overplaying the human rights issues also undercuts the Chinese voices who advocate a cooperative relationship with the United States by casting doubt on their patriotic credentials” (p. 262).  This is a ridiculous statement.  Fragile Superpower betrays the fact that Shirk has spent her life at a lectern or a mahogany negotiating table.  If she had spent even one day with her sleeves rolled up pulling victims from a crushed building following an earthquake, sipping tea with a family evicted from their home to make away for the Three Gorges Dam, or touring a Chinese orphanage full of abandoned baby girls, she would never accuse America of “overplaying” human rights.  To think that the brave individuals like Tiananmen’s Tank Man - who are willing to take solitary stands against their government in the face of swift, severe punishment – would prefer to go it alone is absurd.  It is difficult to get past Shirk’s ignorance in this regard.  It reminds me of the infamous picture of George W. Bush looking down on Hurricane Katrina’s devastation from Air Force One.  An image that Bush himself claims to be one of the worst moments of his presidency.

Closing Thoughts

China: Fragile Superpower is Susan Shirk’s attempt to convey to American policy makers and citizens how they are misreading and mishandling the threat that China’s economic rise represents to the U.S.  Fragile Superpower paints a sobering picture of a twenty-first century where the probability of conflict – possibly even war - between the U.S. and China is increasing as a result of social instability inside China.

Shirk places her readers in the shoes of China’s leaders over the past three decades of their country’s unprecedented economic growth and social change.  In doing so, she portrays a paranoid Communist Party that is facing “menacing social problems – the by-products of rapid growth under authoritarian politics” that threaten its existence.  According to Shirk, it has bought itself some time by inciting nationalism, an attempt to rally the public against common “enemies” who are trying to keep China down.  However, this strategy may be forcing the party into a corner with regards to foreign policy.  Shirk argues that the Chinese public is increasingly demanding that its government act boldly in responding to the antagonistic actions of America, Taiwan, and Japan.  The Chinese government may be approaching a crossroads where it will be forced into conflict with these countries or be overthrown.

Shirk’s message to Americans is that they need not be passive observers as their futures are shaped by the events unfolding in China.  Fragile Superpower includes proposed actions that we can take to reduce the social pressures that are building up in China.  Most notably, she encourages her American readers not to overreact to China’s economic rise.  “Cold War fears and protectionist instincts are clouding Americans’ economic reason,” says Shirk. “Our overreactions, which are read by the Chinese public and its leaders as an expression of our hostile intentions toward China, could turn China from an economic rival into an all-out enemy” (p. 268). 

Susan L. Shirk

Fragile Superpower’s primary audience is
Closing Thoughts

The Relevance of The Post-American World:

The Relevance of China: Fragile Superpower:

I recommend reading this book to those who are looking for a fairly exhaustive historical account of Chinese politics over the past three decades.  Shirk ties together nicely the domestic and international events over this time period that explain the CCP’s current foreign policies while allowing us to predict how they are likely to behave moving forward.  However, as Fragile Superpower moves from fact to opinion, the book loses its value.  Shirk’s reporting is spot-on but we could do without her commentary.  Read this book because an in-depth understanding of China’s political history is vital to understand where the country is headed and how it will affect us.  But let this be a warning to you, this book will is written by a strategist for strategists and, as such, it tends to sensationalize Chinese politics and international relations.  An American will understand what makes China tick after reading this book about as well as a Chinese would understand what makes America tick after watching an episode of Meet the Press or Hardball with Chris Matthews.  The picture is very incomplete to say the least.

Despite that fact that Shirk will undoubtedly capture the attention of China’s leaders with her work, she chooses not to condone their behavior.  The book does include some “steps that Chinese leaders could take to escape from this predicament” (p. 257).  However, the overarching message to Chinese leaders seems to be, we don’t blame you for this situation, we would prefer that you remain in power for our sake, and we won’t blame you if you end up attacking Taiwan to preserve “social stability.”  Is this really the face that we want to show Chinese leaders?  I disagree with Shirk in that our government should not assume that preserving Communist power is in our best long-term interest.
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