Sunday, June 01, 2008

Meeting Fareed Zakaria

On Tuesday May 27th, The Commonwealth Club of California's guest speaker was Fareed Zakaria, speaking to the audience about his new book "The Post-American World". The event was held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and those who live in Northern California know that the Club's events are later broadcast on National Public Radio's KQED station. I had been invited to the talk by a family friend who had an extra ticket and I was curious enough about Zakaria and his new work to be eager to attend in person.

I have found Zakaria's comments on George Stephanopoulos's Sunday morning show to be frequently insightful even if a bit timid in straying from the mainstream foreign policy establishment. He seems to have a genuinely global understanding of US foreign policy challenges but sometimes seems to strain to keep his views in check to avoid being tagged as an "international" intellectual instead of an Amercian one. (I sympathize with this natural propensity of an immigrant to seek whole hearted acceptance of a host country's elite). Also, I was impressed by his 2003 book "The Future of Freedom" in which he argues that constitutional liberalism must precede electoral democracy and that nations lacking a rule of law will inevitably end up as illiberal democracies. This squares with my own long held belief that durable democratic regimes can only be built on a constitutional rule of law and convinces me even more that the lawyer's movement in Pakistan demonstrated powerfully the country's potential to be a functioning democracy.

The main theme of "The Post-American World" (contrary to the title) is not a simplistic view of imperial America's decline. It is not another in a line of now forgotten tomes from the 80's about the Asian takeover of America (with China & India now substituted for 80's Japan). Instead Zakaria argues that the story of the 21st century is the "rise of the rest" even as America maintains significant advantages in competing with these new powers for wealth and influence. His advice to Amercan governments and people seems to be to embrace and learn to adapt and thrive in this new world rather than resist it and vainly hope for the preservation of a vanishing status quo. Zakaria's talk on his new book was an overview of this thesis peppered with anecdotes illustrating his views. He is an engaging speaker and entertained the audience with his suave wit.

After the talk there was a book signing and a long line formed in front of the podium so people could get their books personalized. After approaching him I told him how often I get asked if I am related to him (which I am not) because of our shared last name. He was very gracious and remarkably down to earth and made small talk (some of it in Urdu) for a couple of minutes showing curiosity about my vocation and the Pakistani background. He said "Khuda Hafiz" and as I walked away looking at the personalized signature in the book I was pleasantly surprised to see that below his signature he had added the inscription, "P.S. We're practically related".


Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable piece. I too have been asked the question a couple of times, in the past I have responded 'fortunately not' based on a few Fareed Zakaria articles I read in 'The Economist' long time back, but this has come as a pleasantly balanced opinion on him that should urge me to read a bit more of him before giving that answer again.

Fawad said...

I have oscillated in my views about him but have come to recognize him as one of the smarter voices on American foreign policy, albeit from a very American perspective.