America Will Lead the World to Freedom

A review of Gideon Rachman's Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety.


Every age has its naysayers, its soothsayers, and its doomsayers. The last of these always command plenty of scorn. People don’t like to be told -- whether by Oswald Spengler or Lyndon LaRouche -- that they and their society are standing on the edge of a precipice. And yet every “paradigm shift,” to use an annoyingly trendy but necessary phrase, reveals more theoreticians of varying merit waiting to sell their solutions to the apocalypse.

Fortunately, not all books about our precarious future need be alarmist or demagogic or even the slightest bit emotional. It takes a writer of extraordinary grace and experience to resist these impulses, even if he’s bracing for what might come. That the world has entered an “age of anxiety” is certainly the view of Gideon Rachman, the foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, but his first book, Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety, is written in a refreshingly angst-free way.

To know where we’re headed Rachman believes it’s best to see where we’ve been. In his sober telling, the last three decades can be divided into distinct phases: the Age of Transformation, the Age of Optimism, and the Age of Anxiety. The first two, which comprised the years from 1978 to 2008, refer to a world of enormous economic advancement and possibility, a world of “win-win” logic (Rachman’s phrase) in which free trade, globalization, and Western democratic values were perceived as beneficial to all countries.

The world’s most powerful nations operated in symbiosis, behaving as though one’s gain could actually be another’s also. The role of the United States was that of leader and dynamo and the prevailing dream was of a

“more prosperous and peaceful world, pulled together by the ineluctable forces of globalization and regulated by markets and American power.”

The global economic crash of 2008, however, obliterated this optimism. Nations fell back to their primitive instincts of nationalism and protectionism. Capitalism and free trade went on the defensive and countries now risk treating international relations as a zero-sum game. Some have already begun to adopt the stance of neo-mercantilism. “More protectionist and defensive attitudes in the West will spark a counterreaction in Asia and much of the developing world,” Rachman writes:

Emerging powers such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa will be confirmed in their suspicions that the United States and Europe are not ready to accept the rise of non-Western powers. Put more simply, the new zero-sum logic means that one country’s gain looks like another’s loss.