Last Thurday night, driving home from work, I thought I had reached a milestone--metaphorically speaking, of course, because there are no literal milestones in my neck of the woods, unlike, say, along the Appian Way in the imperial days of ancient Rome. No, this milestone was an intellectual milestone, a stone that stood as unshakeable testimony to such an intense intellectual life that it occasionally produced something original. I speak of Fareed Zakaria, the much vaunted journalist and intellectual that graces the pages of Time and appears at the center of his own show each week on CNN. He has all the makings of a star--an international background, heavy with experience in the newly-chic cultures of South and Central Asia, a fist-class education, the ability to hold his own in conversation with the best of them, and yet I must confess that over the years I have found him, well, just a bit thin. Be honest, gentle reader: have you ever actually learned anything from the man? Have you ever come away from his page in Time or his show on the tube and said to yourself, "Yes, I admire the strongly counterintuitive stand he's taking"? Or have you ever thought to yourself after reading his prose or listening to his admittedly musical voice, "Well, there's an idea I've never encountered before. What bold, fresh thinking"? I must confess that after seeing hime a number of times on the ABC show This Week, I came away with the feeling that Zakaria embodies what Alexander Pope once described as the great virtue of fine verse: he says "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." I have heard him explaining that the war in Afghanistan is difficult, I have heard him say that the President's health-care bill faced a tough fight in Congress, I have even heard him go way out on a limb and opine that corruption is bad for countries. But I have never heard him utter an opinion that is bold, striking, and that in the gathering mists of time one will always associate with him.
It need not be thus. Public intellectuals can indeed--and often do--say striking things. Rightly or wrongly, Bernard-Henri Levy this spring strongly pushed Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene militarily in Libya. Francis Fukuyama boldy supported the invasion of Iraq, though it tarnishes his record as a reliable sage that when things there began to look bad, he decided that he had been wrong--just in time for the surge to work and President Bush to receive credit for salvaging an almost impossible situation. And then there is Bill Kristol, who in the darkest days of Iraq, when even so stalwart a Republican as Indiana Senator Dick Lugar was urging President Bush to abandon the mission in Iraq, used the editorial page of The Weekly Standard to argue that President Bush should stay the course and said that leadership often meant taking the hard, unpopular decisions, which with time may yield great victories when the overwhelming temptation is to take the easy way out. In those days, when seemingly everyone was opposed to continuing the war in Iraq, when scores, sometimes hundreds, were killed daily in the chronic Iraqi civil conflict, Kristol took a bold stand and said what might have gone a long way to discrediting him if things should have turned out differently--if things, in other words, had turned out precisely as almost everyone in those days was predicting it would.
Not so Fareed Zakaria, whom one is tempted to call Mr Bromide. His new book, which he is currently marketing, has as its thesis--I kid you not--that in our new multi-polar world, other countries will be as economically powerful as the United States and will come to challenge us militarily as well. Not exactly the fresh, innovative thinking of Pascal Bruckner's Tears of the White Man or Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. Those books may be right (Bruckner's perhaps; the jury's still out on Fukuyama) or wrong, but at least they say something; they provoke thought and provide conversation. Zakaria, by contrast, almost never says anything that wasn't said--and often repeated--by other mouths among the media elite.
So imagine my delight when, driving down the road, as I said, the other night, I caught Zakaria on Terry Gross' Fresh Air flogging his new book and heard him make the argument that, yes, American power relative to that of other countries in the world will almost certainly decline as places like India and China begin to transform economic power to military. But, he said--and this for me was the kicker--that's not necessarily a bad thing. It will be unpleasant if we find ourselves less powerful vis-a-vis China, for instance, but if we think back over the course of American history, it has usually been thus. We have been a world power only since the end of WWII: for most of our history, we have not been a major player on the world stage, and we did just fine. In fact, the decades that we think of as contributing most to the establishment of the American character were not decades when we were the world's lone hyperpower. This insight struck me at the time as brilliant; in the course of thirty seconds I revised my entire opinion of Zakharia. Here at last was an insight both simple and powerful--something that seemed so self-evidently true and yet no one else of any stature was saying it. (Indeed, he went on to make the point the point that since patriotism and American exceptionalism play so well on the stump, politician were almost by definition not going to make it.)
But then came the crash--once again I speak metaphorically. I made it home, but I walked through the door in a fog, because a very quick analysis had shown me that Zakaria made only a seemingly telling point. His point would have been true a hundred years ago: we might easily have been fine as a second-rate power or as only one pole in a multi-polar world. But as things now stand, with the rapid advance of technology, when countries on the other side of globe might now just as well be just off-shore, such a seondary or tertiary role could well be disastrous for the United States. The main reason to be a hyperpower is to project power outward so that we do not have to face battles here at home. During the 1990s, when we were the lone superpower but did not behave as if we were, we invited the type of thinking that led to the attack of 9-11. After 9-11, President Bush once again acted with authority around the globe, and we have remained safe at home. But if, with current technology, we find the world being ordered by the Chinese, then things may become very grim indeed. For my money, I disagree for various reasons with those conservatives who see China as a great threat. But I am not certain that I'm right, and I certainly wouldn't bet the nation's security on it. I would feel much safer--and so would most people around the world--if America remained able to react decisively to any major geopolitical developments abroad.
So, here's to Fareed Zakaria for a good try. But he might do better. Perhaps because he has the privileged background that he does he feels safe by travelling along well-trod paths. Still, right or wrong, I prefer the bolder vision of Bill Kristol any day.