Monday, January 31, 2011


In Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety Gideon Rachman charts the decline of Euro-American geopolitical optimism

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

A more accurate title for this book would be "The Rise and Fall of the Western Win-Win Theory of Globalization." It's not really until two-thirds of the way through the book that zero-sum theory of the title is broached. Which suggests that marketing considerations trumped editorial ones in positioning the book (the notion that American-led globalization has not exactly turned out as planned is not exactly a news flash, after all), or a lack of editorial supervision in telescoping the book into tighter, sharper parameters. Or both.

Not that this is a plodding read. Journalist Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, produces informed and readable prose. Almost too readable: the approximately 10-page, 24 chapters that comprise the book read a bit like extended "leaders," those finely crafted editorials one finds at the front of the Economist, Rachman's former employer. The effect is to make Zero-Sum Future feel like a collection of magazine articles. Perfect for a transcontinental flight, perhaps. But not a fully satisfying book.

Zero-Sum Future is transcontinental in other ways too. Like Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw's The Commanding Heights (2002), this is a view of the world at 30,000 feet. Rachman peppers his analysis with first-hand observations gleaned at Davos conferences and meetings with senior economic and political figures, which lends his analysis an air of authority. But his wisdom is thoroughly conventional.

Rachman's three-part story is clear enough. Once upon a time in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led their nations in shaking off their Keynsian torpor and spread the Good News of the Market beyond their borders (he calls this "the age of transformation"). By the 1990s, their success became common sense among not only the elites of the West, but apparently those of the East, too (this was "the age of optimism"). But in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan and the market crash of 2008, what once seemed like the stubborn refusal of Communist China to align its authoritarian politics with liberal economics now seems like the prescient patience of the incipient hegemon. In this new "age of anxiety," Chinese logic is being applied in other places such as Russia and Venezuela. And the U.S. inability to keep its financial house in order will make it increasingly difficult to manage its military affairs as well. From this vantage point, the period bounded by the fall of the Berlin Wall (or, he posits, the first Iraq War) until 2008 seems like a golden age. Or maybe just Indian Summer.

Rachman doesn't have much more of a clue than the rest of us about what Americans or Europeans can do now. He notes that the U.S., China and other global powers have shared interests in controlling nuclear proliferation, and he notes China's growing willingness to participate in the United Nations bodes well for its future legitimacy. He wishes, like the rest of us, that the United States would address its severe and growing budgetary problems. But it's hard to escape the conclusion in finishing this book that there's not much we can do to stop the tides of history. On the other hand, you also finish it thinking that elite opinion is a little like the New England weather. If you don't like it, just wait. It will change.