ROBERT SIEGEL, host

Fareed Zakaria is an optimist. He believes in the ability of the United States to adapt. But in his new book, "The Post-American World," Zakaria raises a tantalizing argument that the war in Iraq could mark the decline of American power. He offers the argument and then he rebuts it.

Zakaria is a columnist and the editor of Newsweek International. And the possible precedent that he cites for the U.S. coming undone in Iraq is what happened to Britain just over a century ago in South Africa during the Boer War.

Fareed Zakaria, welcome. And I'd like you to start with what the possible relevance of the Boer War is to the present day.

Mr. FAREED ZAKARIA (Author, "The Post-American World"; Editor, Newsweek International): Well, it's actually a very similar moment. Britain is as close as you could get, Imperial Britain, to America today. It was the only truly global power. It was larger than, in terms of its navy, than every other country, in fact it was larger than the next two navies put together. It ran this vast empire. A quarter of the land surface of the Earth and a quarter of the people were ruled by the British Empire.

I pointed out that at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, a fourth of humanity got the day off because she was being, you know, celebrated. They go into the Boer War just after a spectacular military victory against a native force in the Battle of Omdurman. And for me that - in so many -there are similarities with Afghanistan, a battle that many people thought the British would do badly at Omdurman, they did fantastically.

SIEGEL: So they're confident and...

Mr. ZAKARIA: Yes, confident - and there is an element of hubris. One British parliamentarian says, this is the British Empire against a group of Dutch farmers meaning, the Boers.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ZAKARIA: And even though by the end, several years later, the British army wins, it breaks the back of the British Empire. They have huge casualties. It exposes massive incompetence and corruption. And it begins a process in which the British Empire is unable to maintain this vast set of commitments it has all over the world, and at the same time remain a competitive economy.

You know, there is a sense in which it is - the people in London are too worried about the constitutional arrangements of Dutch farmers in the Southern Transvaal and not worried enough about the core, which is British's strength - industrial, technological - and the rise of Germany and the United States as economic competitors to Britain. So, in that way, there is a parable.

SIEGEL: So for those who are completely not captured by your parable of what could befall the United States, in the end you say no. You think that the United States has virtues going for it that can avoid the sort of decline that Britain experienced in the 20th century?

ZAKARIA: You put it exactly right. It can avoid that decline. We're at a similar moment. Britain, at the end of the day, had a problem which it couldn't solve, which was that it was declining economically and technologically, and Germany and the United States were overtaking it. The British economy had lost steam by the early 1900s.

The American economy today remains extraordinarily strong, very powerful, vibrant, creative, dynamic, but it is facing enormous new competition. If the rise of Germany and the United States were the core reality of the early 20th century, the core reality of the earliest 21st century is what I call the rise of the rest. Everyone is rising. It's not just Asia; it's everywhere.

And what America has to figure out is how do we reorient our strategy -economic, political, foreign policy - so that we thrive in this world, we, you know, lead, master, help shape this world rather than being buffeted by the forces of the rise of the rest the way Britain was. We have a much stronger hand, but we do have to adapt.

SIEGEL: And you would suggest that the role that the United States can find in the world is not as of the great imperial or the great superpower, as you would say now, but rather as a kind of global chairman of the board?

Mr. ZAKARIA: That's exactly right. The age of American unipolarity is over. You just have to look around the world, Robert. If you - the largest company in the world is now in Beijing. The richest man in the world is in Mexico. The tallest building in the world is in Dubai. You know, the largest casino in the world is in Macau, in China. All those things, by the way - just five, 10, 15 years ago - where all are topped by Americans. So the world has changed. And in that context, we have to recognize that leadership will mean something very different. And as I say, you know, a chairman of a board can be very powerful as long as he recognizes that he is the chairman of the board, not the dictator.

SIEGEL: When you speak of being the chairman of the board, though, in the world - well, you have one example which is of how Imperial Germany under Bismarck behaved itself in international company. In present terms, how might the U.S. behave in a way that would exemplify this chairman's role that you describe?

Mr. ZAKARIA: You know, the world that we're living in now is enormously productive that has the rise of the rest taking place. It means lots of countries are growing, but it's producing all kinds of problems - from environmental problems, problems relating to oil prices, problems relating to the coordination of anything from health to human rights, and of course, the rise of national pride complicates all these.

What the United States could do is to really play a central role in trying to bring to the global agenda the issues that need to be dealt with, figuring out what forms they should be a dealt within, bringing together the right countries to deal with this problems. That would be something where we would be able to be a win-win. The world would be grateful to us, we would be advancing our interests, we'll be shaping the world in a way that we believe it should be shaped, rather than narrowly protecting our own interests and saying, well, the International Criminal Court may be a great idea, when are we going to be a part of it.

You know, to really recognize that in order to lead the world, we truly would have to be a part of it. We can't stand outside, you know. The United States is the only country in the world - with the exception of Liberia and Myanmar - that is not on the metric system. And we've always had this view that there might be rules - universal rules even - that are wonderful. They just don't need to apply to us because we're special.

And that what I'm trying to say in the book, and I call it "The Post-American World" for that reason, is that that special dispensation is done with.

SIEGEL: The end of American exceptionalism?

Mr. ZAKARIA: The end of American exceptionalism because the gap between us and the world is no longer that large. And people look at the United States and say, you know, if we can figure out the metric system, you should be able to as well.

SIEGEL: Fareed Zakaria, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. ZAKARIA: A pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Fareed Zakaria's new book is called "The Post-American World," and you can hear more of our conversation at npr.org.

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