Review: Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety

Gideon Rachman’s Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety is a revealing account of the past progress and new challenges facing international politics, but it strains to justify its foreboding title. Rachman argues that the generally cooperative political and economic liberalization of the past 30 years has given way to a more fractured world characterized by ‘zero-sum’ international competition, and his work seizes on the intuition that something important changed in 2008, even if we are still struggling to figure out what.

Drawing on his long career in international journalism—Rachman now serves as the chief foreign affairs columnist for The Financial Times and previously spent many years with The Economist—the majority of the book is a whirlwind tour of the peaceful, prosperous, and freer world that developed from 1978 to 2008, a period which Rachman divides into an Age of Transformation (1978-1991) and an Age of Optimism (1991-2008). The labels are not necessarily inaccurate shorthand for those periods, but they still come off as a bit silly and forced, like the dutiful product of foreign affairs commentators bound to introduce at least a few capital-letter catchphrases into any of their works.

Rachman begins with Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization in China, and then, in short but informative chapters, surveys Thatcher and Reagan’s conservative economic policies, the contagious spread of democracy across Europe in 1989, the generally undercovered story of Latin America’s democratic transformation in the 1980s, and the opening of India’s economy to international markets. The more interesting second section of the book highlights the beliefs that underpinned the era: the confidence that an increasingly democratic world would also be a more peaceful one, a deep faith in the free market, the promise of technology to fix current problems, and the might of American military to ensure global stability. Rachman frames the discussions around key proponents of each belief, and while helpful, some of the choices are idiosyncratic and betray a heavy reliance on popular Anglophone commentators to substantiate the narrative. Though the book is peppered with anecdotes from Rachman’s extensive foreign travel and conversations with powerful politicians, the stories mostly are the tired tropes of Western pundits—the Indian outsourcing firm, the impressive bureaucrats from Singapore—that reveal more of the limitations of a type of commentary than they enlighten about other cultures.

The extensive scene-setting gives way to Rachman’s bold claim in the book’s last third: the emergence of global problems (climate change, economic imbalances, failed states) has combined with a “weakening American power [to replace] the win-win world of the Age of Optimism with a zero-sum world, in which the world’s major powers are increasingly and dangerously at odds each other.” The last phrase hints at a general confusion over what Rachman means by zero-sum: do we have an international order of set obligations and benefits where conflict will focus on how these are distributed, or is he using zero-sum as a catch-all to characterize growing international rivalry and increasingly prominent collective action problems on global challenges? Notwithstanding many interspersed short paragraphs that assert some foreign affairs dilemma as another example of a zero-sum challenge, Rachman actually means the latter, and the book serves as a prime example of how an overly dramatic title can corrupt its substance.

And that’s a pity, because a lot of Rachman’s comments on contemporary questions are clear and intriguing. He throws some needed cold water on concern of an alliance of autocracies while redirecting real worry towards the growing independence and distrust of emerging-market democracies (South Africa, Indonesia, and Brazil for starters) for the North Atlantic West. His analysis of global governance enlightens an often dull subject, and he forgets his pessimism for a second to fancifully map out a blueprint of G20 cooperation on a host of vexing issues.Rachman is a little weak on U.S.-China relations and unclear whether their relation actually is zero-sum or only felt that way by leaders of both countries, and in his evidence to support the latter claim I think he over-dramatizes the recent signs of confrontation between the two countries. On the other hand, he is quite prescient on Egypt and North Africa’s simmering problems and the possibility for them to boil over, as they now have.

As we all are, Rachman is weaker on his prescriptions in the book’s final chapter, and again, this is partly a consequence of the limitations of the form which compels commentators to sketch, in thirty pages or less, a series of solutions to the problems they just spent so much time detailing. Rachman rightly calls for a focus on renewed growth in the developed world, but such a turnabout may be less important than before with emerging market economies increasingly decoupled from their Western peers, though a richer world in general will make it easier to secure the financial regulation and coordination of global economic policymaking that is still desperately needed. Rachman’s proposal for a Manhattan project to combat global warming is less helpful, and perhaps represents a continued belief in technological panaceas that Rachman earlier cautioned against. Unmentioned among his solutions are the forces of empowered civil society, a growing global middle class, strengthening regional alliances, a more aggressive international media, and a general feel for the effect that people (who don’t talk to Financial Times columnists) and culture can have on creating and shepherding a more peaceful and democratic world.

Rachman earlier in the book writes that the “Age of Optimism had seen an American effort to remake the world in its own image. But the model formed in America had failed in America.” I think the first sentence overstates American foreign involvement and the second misunderstands the causes of the global economic crisis and its attendant problems, but the statement telling for the underlying preoccupation with American policy that lingers into the last line: “A strong, successful, and confident America remains the best hope for a stable and prosperous world.” I think that true, but especially to secure a cooperative and peaceful global order, it is important to emphasize that there are many other hopes as well.


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