April 25, 2011

Fareed Zakaria Offers Thoughts on New Middle East

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A phone call from Prof. Peter Katzenstein, government, then-chair of Cornell’s government department, forced Fareed Zakaria to think about his future, the acclaimed political commentator told a packed Statler Auditorium Monday. Katzenstein called to ask the Harvard graduate student to consider applying for a job at Cornell, which Zakaria said may have landed him in the audience, rather than on stage, for Monday’s talk.

“That [call from Katzenstein] began a train of thinking and asking myself of whether I really wanted to be an academic, which led me to the answer — no,” Zakaria told the audience. “I ended up going into journalism instead.”

Zakaria, currently the host of CNN’s GPS and editor-at-large of TIME magazine, spoke to more than 700 Cornell students and political observers in a lecture titled “The Rise of the Rest: The Post-American World,” as part of the Einaudi Center’s annual Bartels Lecture.

After sharing with the audience an anecdote about an interview with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi — during which he was surrounded by Gaddafi’s “Amazonian guards,” a throng of women dressed in military fatigue — Zakaria spoke about the current upheaval in the Middle East.

“The Middle East is in a sense catching up with the world,” Zakaria said.

Zakaria noted that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and the ensuing near-global political and economic stability, yielded an era of prosperity that the countries of the Middle East missed.

During these changes worldwide, “The Middle East looked like a place where things were actually moving backward in contradiction to this global trend I was talking about,” Zakaria said.

Yet in the past 10 years, this system has changed in the Middle East, Zakaria said.

Zakaria added that, in addition to greater economic stability and decreasing worldwide inflation, much of the change in the Middle East can be attributed to new, “disruptive” technologies. He contrasted a present-day Egypt filled with access to information through the Internet and new media like Facebook and Twitter to the past, when most of the information Egyptians were exposed to came from state-operated television.

Zakaria also said much of the change in the Middle East is a result of a diminishing presence of foreign powers, including that of the U.S., which related to the theme of his lecture.

“The Middle East has stopped being the playing ground of great powers for the first time in centuries,” Zakaria said.

Zakaria said he has seen the U.S. waver in its support of the regimes in the Middle East mostly because it has lost the capacity and the will to act as “protector” and “guarantor” of the Middle East.

“We’re an exhausted super power,” Zakaria said.

As the U.S. has begun to withdraw from the Middle East, the region has “literally opened up,” providing an opportunity for the countries to shape their own future, he said.

Zakaria spoke further about America’s declining power in the world.

“We don’t like to admit it, but we have gotten used to the satisfactions of empire,” Zakaria said, noting that the changes in the world today will be difficult for America to adapt to. He credited President Barack Obama with trying to acknowledge this change by seeking a multilateral response in Libya in contrast to the American invasion of Iraq.

Zakaria noted changes in the economy, as well as foreign policy, that will necessitate American adaptation. Even though the economy has recovered to pre-recession levels, Zakaria said that many people are still out of work, a result of innovation and technology making human effort unneeded.

Zakaria said he fears that the U.S. might be tempted to look at other countries recently achieving success and try to emulate their methods.

“For us to start looking at other people … looking at the Chinese for their command and control system, this seems to me to miss the challenge,” Zakaria said. He encouraged America “not to be more like them, but to be more like us.”

Original Author: Seth Shapiro