Jon Meacham on America's Changing Place in the World

Perhaps naively, I have always been skeptical of what you might call the Gibbonization of America—that we are, like Rome, fated to inevitable decline. Admittedly, history offers little support for my view that things are rarely as bad as people think they are, but there is a dangerous solipsism in the tendency to believe that the problems of the day are inherently more difficult and intractable than those that faced earlier generations. To take only one example, the Civil War was pretty bad.

It was with a measure of wariness, then, that I opened the galleys of Fareed Zakaria's new book, "The Post-American World," which we excerpt on our cover this week. We are colleagues and friends, and while we had discussed his project, one never knows where a book is going to take its author. And since my initial interpretation of the phrase "post-American world" made me wonder whether Fareed had decided the country was in a declinist phase, I was already mentally crafting warm but not effusive words of praise—not effusive, because I assumed, wrongly, that he would be taking a too-dark view of the American future.

As you will see, though, Fareed has characteristically avoided both blind optimism and predictable pessimism, instead offering a new and compelling way to think about the world. His book, as he says, is not about the decline of America but "the rise of the rest"—the rest of the world.

The heart of Fareed's argument: "We are living through the third great power shift in modern history. The first was the rise of the Western world, around the 15th century … The second shift, which took place in the closing years of the 19th century, was the rise of the United States … For the last 20 years, America's superpower status in every realm has been largely unchallenged and untested—something that's never happened before in history, at least since the Roman Empire dominated the known world 2,000 years ago. During this Pax Americana, the global economy has expanded and accelerated dramatically. And that expansion is the driver behind the third great power shift of the modern age—the rise of the rest.

"At the military and political level, we still live in a unipolar world. But along every other dimension—industrial, financial, social, cultural—the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance … This will produce a landscape that is quite different from the one we have lived in until now—one defined and directed from many places and by many peoples."

It is a landscape Fareed knows well. "I came to this country as a young foreign student, found a country that was open to outsiders, to hard work, innovation and to the future," he says. "I remember being so struck by how easy and fluid life was in the States—from renting a car to getting a summer job. I made it my home and built a family and a life here. So this story has been one that obsesses me in a deeply personal sense. In traveling around the world I've watched the 'rise of the rest.' Other nations have their strengths, but boy, so do we. This place has unique virtues. But it's when I travel around America that I get worried. We're losing faith in the very things that have made us great—our openness, flexibility, adaptability."

Fareed's sound counsel is that a recovery of our faith in ourselves and an understanding of the true shape of the new world will mean that we, too, shall keep rising. My money is on Dr. Zakaria, not Mr. Gibbon.