By Fareed Zakaria
Two-thirds of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, a poll number that has not shifted much in three years. The midterm election results were just another reflection of this pervasive discontent. And yet, looking at the rest of the world, what’s striking is how well the United States is doing relative to other major economies. Japan is back in a recession and Germany has barely avoided slipping into one, which would have been its third since 2008. President Obama says the United States has produced more jobs in its recovery than the rest of the industrialized worldput together.
Why is this? Many believe that the American economy has some inherent advantages over its major competitors — a more flexible structure, stronger entrepreneurial traditions and a more demographically vibrant society. Along comes a fascinating new book that says you ain’t seen nothing yet.
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As Moscow continues to send its forces into Ukraine, it seems clear that Putin's Russia presents America and the West with a frontal challenge. But in the longer run, it is not Russia's overt military assault but China's patient and steady non-military moves that might prove the greater challenge.
Russia is a great power in decline. Its economy amounts to just 3.4 percent of global GDP. China's is nearly 16 percent and rising, now almost four times the size of Japan's and five times that of Germany's, according to the World Bank.
Presidents Obama and Xi deserve the accolades they are receiving for their historic agreement on climate change, and it seems to suggest that America and China are moving towards a new, productive relationship.
Except that, even while signing these accords, Xi Jinping's government has been taking steps that suggest it is developing a very different approach to its foreign policy – one that seeks to replace the American-built post-1945 international system with its own.
Watch the video for the full Take or read the WaPo column
As Moscow continues to send its forces into Ukraine, it seems clear that Vladimir Putin’s Russia presents the United States and the West with a frontal challenge. But in the longer run, it is not Russia’s overt military assault but China’s patient and steady non-military moves that pose the larger challenge. Russia is a great power in decline. Its economy amounts to just 3.4 percent of global gross domestic product. China’s is nearly 16 percent and rising, now almost four times the size of Japan’s and five times that of Germany, according to the World Bank.
Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping deserve the accolades they are receiving for their historic agreement on climate change, which suggests that the United States and China are moving toward a new, productive relationship. Except that, even while negotiating this accord, Xi’s government has been laying down plans for a very different foreign policy — one that seeks to replace the American-built post-1945 international system with its own. There is clearly a debate going on in Beijing, but if China continues down this path, it would constitute the most significant and dangerous shift in international politics in 25 years.
Obama's biggest foreign policy initiative is powerful and intelligent – the pivot to Asia.
The greatest threat to global peace and prosperity over the next decades comes not from a band of assassins in Syria but from the rise of China and the manner in which that will reshape the geopolitics of Asia and the world. If Washington can provide balance and reassurance in Asia, it will help ensure that the continent does not become the flash point for a new Cold War.
But the Asia pivot remains more rhetoric than reality. Having promised a larger U.S. military presence in the Philippines, Singapore and Australia, there is little evidence of any of this on the ground...
...I know the world looks messy and the administration is now on the defensive. But recall what the world looked like when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were conducting foreign policy.
America was losing a war in Asia in which it had deployed half a million troops. The Soviet Union was on the march. Domestic opposition and troubles were mounting. Nixon and Kissinger had to initiate a major retreat but, as Robert Zoellick has pointed out, they combined this with a series of bold, positive, assertive moves.
Despite this week’s elections, President Obama has the time and scope to do big things over the next two years. But they will have to be in the world beyond Washington. Next week’s trip to Asia would be a good place to start. In fact, it’s odd that Obama has not already devoted more time, energy and attention to foreign policy. It has been clear for a while that there is little prospect of working with the Republican Party on major domestic initiatives. This is hardly unprecedented. Administrations often devote their last few years in office to international affairs, an arena where they have latitude for unilateral action.
If Obama wants significant accomplishments in foreign policy in his last years in office, he will first need the discipline with which he began his presidency. The incremental, escalating interventionism in Syria and Iraq — were it to continue — would absorb the White House’s attention, the public’s interest and the country’s military resources. It also would not succeed, if by success we mean the triumph of pro-democratic forces in the Syrian civil war.
Can Arab countries be real democracies? Well, one of them, Tunisia just did well on a big test.
More than twenty years ago, the scholar Samuel Huntington established his famous "two turnover test" for fledgling democracies. He argued that a country can only be said to be a consolidated democracy when there have been TWO peaceful transitions of power.
Tunisia passed Huntington's test after last weekend's election, when – for the second time – a ruling establishment agreed to hand over power. Tunisia's relative success is in marked contrast to the abysmal failure of Egypt, the Arab world’s largest and once most influential country.
As in Tunisia, Egyptians also overthrew a dictator three years ago...but after Egypt's brief experiment with democracy, in which the Muslim Brotherhood was elected and then abused its authority, today the country is ruled by a repressive dictatorship.
Of course, it may be too soon to celebrate Tunisia’s success. It faces a youth unemployment rate of about 30 percent. The government is also battling Islamist militants at home, and recent reports have suggested that the Arab world’s only democracy is also its biggest exporter of fighters to join the Islamic State. (This may be because Tunisia is relatively open and its jihadis find that their appeal is limited at home.)
But Tunisia’s success — so far — does suggest that there is nothing in Islam or Arab society that makes it impossible for democracy to take root. As would be true anywhere, you need some favorable conditions, good leadership and perhaps a bit of luck.
If all Muslims were radicals, we would have more than three to worry about last week. And yet, there is a problem within Islam.
It is not enough for Muslims to point out that these people do not represent the religion. They don't. But Muslims need to take more active measures to protest these heinous acts. They also need to make sure that Muslim countries and societies do not in any way condone extremism, anti-modern attitudes and intolerance towards other faiths.
Muslims are right to complain that there is anti-Muslim bigotry out there. But they would have a more persuasive case if they took on some of the bigotry within the world of Islam as well.
Read the full Take on CNN Opinion
The most striking aspect of Snowden’s substantive revelations on foreign intelligence is their limited consequences. That’s because they mostly showed the U.S. government doing secretly what it has said it is doing publicly — fighting the Taliban, spying in countries such as Pakistan and searching for al-Qaeda cells around the globe. The disclosures also revealed routine foreign intelligence operations. Some of these are justified, such as hacking into Chinese computer systems — something that Beijing does to other countries on a much larger scale. Others were unwise, such as tapping the phones of the leaders of Brazil and Germany. But none of these are morally scandalous. Bernard Kouchner, the former French foreign minister, said at the time of the revelations: “Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop, too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.”
The Obama administration should make clear that Snowden would get an open, civilian trial in the United States. And Snowden should come home and make his case.
For any strategy to work in Syria, it needs a military component and a political one. The military one – a credible ground army – is weak. The political one is non-existent.
The crucial underlying reason for the violence in Iraq and Syria is a Sunni revolt against governments in Baghdad and Damascus that the Sunnis view as hostile, apostate regimes.
The political solution, presumably, is some kind of power-sharing arrangement in these two capitals. But this is not something that the United States can engineer, certainly not in Syria. It tried it in Iraq and, despite 176,000 troops on the ground, tens of billions of dollars, and David Petraeus' skillful leadership, the deals he brokered started unraveling within months of his departure, well before American troops had all left.
The only strategy against ISIS that has any chance of working is containment – bolstering the neighbors who are willing to fight militarily and politically, neighbors who are threatened far more than the United States is. They include, most importantly, Iraq then Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the Gulf States. The greatest challenge is to get the Iraqi government to make serious concessions to Sunnis so they are recruited into the fight, something that has not happened so far.
A U.S. strategy of escalating airstrikes in Syria — even if coupled with ground forces — would wish that the weakest and most disorganized forces in the country somehow become the strongest, first defeating the Islamic State, then the Assad regime, all while fighting off Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan. The chance that all this will happen is remote. Far more likely, heavy bombings in Syria will produce chaos and instability on the ground, further destroying Syria and promoting the free-for-all in which jihadi groups thrive.
Critics are sure this policy would have been easy three years ago, when the opposition to Assad was more secular and democratic. This is a fantasy. It’s true that the demonstrations against the Assad regime in the initial months seemed to be carried out by more secular and liberal people. This was also true in Libya and Egypt. But over time, more organized, passionate and religious forces triumphed. This is a familiar pattern in revolutions — including the French, Russian and Iranian. They are begun by liberals and taken over by radicals.
When television host Bill Maher declares on his weekly show that "the Muslim world...has too much in common with ISIS," and the author, Sam Harris (a guest on his show) concurs, arguing that "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas," I understand why people get upset. Maher and Harris made crude simplifications and exaggerations.
And yet, they were also talking about something real. I know all the arguments against speaking of Islam as violent and reactionary. It is a vast world of 1.6 billion people. Places such as Indonesia and India have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don't fit these caricatures. That's why Maher and Harris are guilty of simplification and exaggeration.
But let's be honest: Islam has a problem today...There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrate violence and intolerance, and harbor deeply reactionary attitudes towards women and minorities. And while some moderates confront these extremists, not enough do so and the protests are not loud enough. How many mass rallies have been held against ISIS in the Arab world today?
But now the caveat, Islam today, is important.
Watch the video for the full Take or read the WaPo column.
The Global Public Square is where you can make sense of the world every day with insights and explanations from CNN's Fareed Zakaria, leading journalists at CNN, and other international thinkers. Join GPS editor Jason Miks and get informed about global issues, exposed to unique stories, and engaged with diverse and original perspectives.
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Check out all of Fareed's Washington Post columns here:
Obama as a foreign policy president?
Why Snowden should stand trial in U.S.
Hillary Clinton's truly hard choice
China's trapped transition
Obama should rethink Syria strategy
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