By Fareed Zakaria

As 2011 was coming to a close, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a remarkable speech to his parliament. Assessing the Arab Spring barely a year after it had begun, Netanyahu announced triumphantly that it had failed, that events had confirmed his extreme suspicion about the pro-democracy movements in the region. The Arab Spring was moving the Middle East “not forward, but backward.”

Netanyahu seems to endorse the Syrian regime’s approach to political protest. During the uprising in Egypt, he wanted the U.S. to stubbornly cling to Hosni Mubarak–who had cooperated with Israel on mutual security issues–as millions of Egyptians gathered in public squares across the country to demand democracy. But leaving that aside, the evidence for Netanyahu’s pessimism now is that parties advocating an Islamic approach to politics have won pluralities in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections. None of these parties have abrogated civil liberties or persecuted minorities or limited women’s rights. Each party has promised to abide by constitutional processes. This may all be a ruse, and they may prove less liberal over time–some surely will–but there is little current evidence from which to draw the sweeping conclusions that Netanyahu did.

In fact, the growth of democracy in the Middle East is under substantial threat, but not from Islamic democrats. The threat arises from the lingering authoritarian impulse of those in power–from ruling political parties and from the military. Obsessed with political Islam, we are ignoring the real danger on the ground.

Consider Egypt. While Netanyahu is fretting about Islamic parliamentarians, the Egyptian military has been busily consolidating its control. A few weeks ago, the government raided the offices of 10 civic organizations whose only mission is to promote democracy, the rule of law and civil rights. It accused a few of these groups, such as Freedom House and the International Republican Institute, of receiving funds from the U.S.

Egypt’s military has used the traditional tools of authoritarian regimes to retain power–arrests, torture, military trials and scaremongering. In Iraq, six years after the country’s first free elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is using more unusual methods to cement his grip on the country. He has ordered the arrests of leading politicians–including his own Vice President (who comes from another sect and political party)–centralized the army and intelligence services and inserted his own party, the Dawa, into most of the major organs of government. Many Iraqis believe that Maliki refused to cut a deal with Washington so that American troops would have to leave Iraq and leave him unconstrained.

The most complex case is Turkey, where the former head of the military, General Ilker Basbug–one of 60 officers accused of a conspiracy to topple the democratically elected government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan–was arrested last week. These arrests are cited as one more piece of evidence that Turkey is turning away from its secular roots and toward Islamic fundamentalism.

Prime Minister Erdogan speaks in blunt ways and is a populist. But he has done nothing–no changes in laws or practices–to warrant the charge that he is dismantling secularism. In fact, Erdogan’s government has passed more economic and political reforms than any other Turkish government in history. It has made unprecedented concessions to Turkey’s Kurdish minority. In its quest to secure European Union membership for Turkey, Erdogan’s AK Party has passed hundreds of pieces of legislation over the past several decades to make Turkey’s political system conform to the guidelines set out by the Brussels bureaucrats. And by the way, the Turkish military has, over the years, planned and executed four coups against elected governments, so it is not inconceivable that it had been planning a fifth.

If there is a worry regarding Turkey, it is not about political Islam but about the autocratic tendencies of a wildly popular politician. Turkey has a highly authoritarian legal system, a legacy of its military era. (A human rights group notes that about half the nation’s prisoners have never been charged with crimes.) And Erdogan, having won his third thumping electoral victory, has used this system to harass opponents, including politicians, journalists and generals.

In other words, the danger in the Middle East is not that Islam corrupts but that power corrupts. A more open and democratic system is no panacea, but it will begin to create a more normal, modern politics for the region, one that will allow for populism and demagoguery but also provide greater accountability, transfers of power and media oversight. And that will move the Middle East forward, not back.





Why emerging powers didn’t lead in 2011 and won’t in the coming year

By Fareed Zakaria

The past year has been filled with tumultuous events—the Arab Spring, the euro-zone crisis. But the most striking trend of 2011, one that will persist in 2012, was one that got little notice: the emerging powers that weren’t.

By now everyone knows that a new and rising group of nations, including China, India, Brazil and Russia, are reshaping the globe. Yet if 2011 demonstrated anything, it was the inability of these countries to have much influence beyond their borders. They continue to grow their economies, but they all face internal and external challenges that make them less interested and less capable of exercising power on an international or even regional scale.

Let’s start with China. Chinese growth continues to be robust, though clearly the government is worried about the inflationary effects of the massive stimulus program it implemented after the financial crisis, which has created a boom-bust cycle and inflationary pressures across the country. The regime, however, is expert at dealing with economic challenges; political ones are harder. China faces a transfer of power in 2012 that is unprecedented. About 70% of the country’s senior leadership— the top 200 or so members of the Central Committee—will be replaced by autumn. The new leaders—Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang—are the first generation that was not personally blessed and selected by Deng Xiaoping, the architect of modern China. Perhaps as a result, we are beginning to see factions develop within the Chinese Communist Party along regional, functional and ideological lines. The change comes at a delicate moment. Beijing’s foreign policy assertiveness over the past two years on the South China Sea and related territorial issues has provoked other Asian powers to stand up to China, band together more closely and ask openly for American involvement in the Pacific. The result is that Beijing is now quieter on the regional stage. Global leadership is unthinkable. No Chinese leader today has the authority or the inclination to make big, bold decisions that would involve, say, shoring up the euro or initiating a new East-West climate compact.

India is even more obsessed with domestic affairs than China is. With a bewildering array of local and regional pulls on it, the central government has had little scope for foreign policy—or indeed any policy. Facing opposition on –every front, with state and national elections looming, the coalition government of Manmohan Singh is like a patient on life support grabbing for the oxygen mask, simply trying to survive.

Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill noted in late December, on the 10th anniversary of his coining the term BRIC, that the greatest disappointment among those emerging stars has been India. Indian growth rates are declining, its currency is the worst performer in all of Asia, foreign investment is slowing, and government policy has alternated between populism and paralysis. In this context, foreign policy has been almost entirely secondary, confined to regional issues like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and even in those showing little in the way of leadership.

The other emerging powers face their own challenges. Russia has presidential elections in 2012, though the outcome is predetermined. Still, it faces new political dissent on a scale not seen since the rise of Vladimir Putin. Abroad, it has a skeptical Europe on one border, an expansive China on another and a hostile and increasingly radical Muslim population on a third. Brazil is in better shape, though its economy actually contracted in the third quarter of 2011. (If that happens in the fourth quarter, it will technically be entering a recession.) And its moves to become a regional leader have run up against a Mexico that is determined not to be forgotten or dominated. Turkey has been the one emerging power that has successfully projected influence in its region, but there are natural limits to that influence. The rise of the rest is real, but the emerging powers are not ready for prime time.

The U.S. has been able to fill the leader–ship vacuum quite effectively in some places. It has deftly expanded its role in Asia; continues to forge strong ties with India, Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey; and has maintained a good relationship with Russia on nuclear-weapons reduction. But American influence is not what it used to be. During the Mexican and Asian crises of the mid-1990s, the U.S. managed global economic problems almost unilaterally. Today no one expects or believes that Washington could solve the euro-zone crisis or direct the outcome of the Arab Spring. It is a post-American world out there, one characterized more by the absence of great powers than by their presence.


WP: Fareed Zakaria.


By Fareed Zakaria

This week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll reveals what we have all sensed, that most Americans are increasingly concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor in this country. The issue quickly divides along partisan lines, as do so many, with liberals urging government to do more to reduce this gap and conservatives opposing such measures. (Overall, a significant majority does favor government action.)

But on an issue even more significant than income inequality, there does appear to be bipartisan agreement: the importance of social mobility. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) accurately noted that “upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise.”

Some believe we’re still doing fine. In his address to the Heritage Foundation last month, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) declared, “Class is not a fixed designation in this country. We are an upwardly mobile society with a lot of movement between income groups.” Ryan contrasted social mobility in the United States with that in Europe, where “top-heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class.”

In fact, over the past decade, growing evidence shows pretty conclusively that social mobility has stalled in this country. Last week, Time magazine’s cover asked, “Can You Still Move Up in America?” The answer, citing a series of academic studies was, no; not as much as you could in the past and — most devastatingly — not as much as you can in Europe.

The most comprehensive comparative study, done last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that “upward mobility from the bottom” — Daniels’s definition — was significantly lower in the United States than in most major European countries, including Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. Another study, by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Germany in 2006, uses other metrics and concludes that “the U.S. appears to be exceptional in having less rather than more upward mobility.”

2010 Economic Mobility Project study found that in almost every respect, the United States has a more rigid socioeconomic class structure than Canada. More than a quarter of U.S. sons of top-earning fathers remain in the top tenth of earners as adults, compared to 18 percent of similarly situated Canadian sons. U.S. sons of fathers in the bottom tenth of earners are more likely to remain in the bottom tenth of earners as adults than are Canadian sons (22 percent vs. 16 percent). And U.S. sons of fathers in the bottom third of earnings distribution are less likely to make it into the top half as adults than are sons of low-earning Canadian fathers.

Surveying all the evidence, Scott Winship, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, concludes in this week’s National Review: “What is clear is that in at least one regard American mobility is exceptional. . . . [W]here we stand out is our limited upward mobility from the bottom.”

When you think about it, these results should not be so surprising. European countries, perhaps haunted by their past as class-ridden societies, have made serious investments to create equality of opportunity for all. They typically have extremely good childhood health and nutrition programs, and they have far better public education systems than the United States does. As a result, poor children compete on a more equal footing against the rich.

In the United States, however, if you are born into poverty, you are highly likely to have malnutrition, childhood sicknesses and a bad education. The dirty little secret about the U.S. welfare state is that it spends very little on the poor — who don’t vote much — lavishing attention instead on the middle class. The result is clear. A student interviewed by Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan group founded to address these issues, put it succinctly, “The ZIP code you’re born in shouldn’t determine your destiny, but too often it does.”

Tackling income inequality is a very difficult challenge. Tax increases on the rich will do relatively little to change the basic trend, which is fueled by globalization, technology and the increasing gains conferred by education. (Getting back to the 1990 levels of income distribution in the United States, for example, would mean hundreds of billions of dollars of redistribution every year, which is exponentially larger than the biggest tax hikes anyone is proposing.)

But we do know how to create social mobility — because we used to do it. In addition, we can learn from those countries that do it so well, particularly in Northern Europe and Canada. The ingredients are obvious: decent health care and nutrition for children, good public education, high-quality infrastructure — including broadband Internet — to connect all regions and all people to market opportunities, and a flexible and competitive free economy. That will get America moving again — and all Americans moving again.



Education is the engine of social mobility, and it’s sputtering. Americans have two options: improve our schools or accept a lower standard of living

By Fareed Zakaria

For the past month, we have all marveled at the life of Steve Jobs, the adopted son of working-class parents, who dropped out of college and became one of the great technologists and businessmen of our time. How did he do it? He was, of course, an extraordinary individual, and that explains much of his success, but his environment might also have played a role. Part of the environment was education. And it is worth noting that Jobs got a great secondary education. The school he attended, Homestead High in Cupertino, Calif., was a first-rate public school that gave him a grounding in both the liberal arts and technology. It did the same for Steve Wozniak, the more technically oriented co-founder of Apple Computer, whom Jobs met at that same school.

In 1972, the year Jobs graduated, California’s public schools were the envy of the world. They were generally rated the finest in the country, well funded and well run, with excellent teachers. These schools were engines of social mobility that took people like Jobs and Wozniak and gave them an educational grounding that helped them rise.

Today, California’s public schools are a disaster, beset by dysfunction and disrepair. They rank at the bottom of the country, just as the U.S. now sits at the bottom of the industrialized world by most measures of educational achievement. The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S.’s educational system 26th in the world, well behind those of countries like Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada and Singapore. In science and math, we score even worse.

We’ve been talking about America’s education decline for three decades now, so much so that we are numbed by the discussion. But the consequences of that crisis are only just becoming fully apparent. As American education has collapsed, the median wages of the American worker have stagnated, and social mobility—the beating heart of the American dream—has slowed to a standstill. Education is and always has been the fastest way up the socio economic ladder. And the payoff from a good education remains evident even in this weak recovery. The unemployment rate for college graduates is just 4%, but for high school dropouts it is 14%. If you drop out of high school—and the U.S. has a 25% dropout rate—you will have a depressed standard of living for the rest of your life.

The need for better education for most Americans has never been more urgent. While we have been sleeping, the rest of the world has been upgrading its skills. Countries in Europe and Asia have worked hard to increase their college-graduation rates, while the U.S.’s — once the world’s highest — has flatlined. Other countries have focused on math and science, while in America degrees have proliferated in “fields” like sports exercise and leisure studies.

Bill Gross, the head of Pimco, the world’s largest bond fund, sums it up in no uncertain terms: “Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.” There are two variables here: our educational levels, which are low, and our wages, which are high. Either we will raise our educational level or markets will lower our wages.

How to do it? Well, there is one simple, time-tested method. Work harder. Thomas Edison said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Malcolm Gladwell found that behind many supposedly natural- born talents like musical ability lay lots of practice—by his calculations, about 10,000 hours of practice. U.S. schoolchildren spend less time in school than their peers abroad. They have shorter school days and a shorter school year. Children in South Korea will spend almost two years more in school than Americans by the end of high school. Is it really so strange that they score higher on tests?

If South Korea teaches the importance of hard work, Finland teaches another lesson. Finnish students score near the very top on international tests, yet they do not follow the Asian model of study, study and more study. Instead they start school a year later than in most countries, emphasize creative work and shun tests for most of the year. But Finland has great teachers, who are paid well and treated with the same professional respect that is accorded to doctors and lawyers. They are found and developed through an extremely competitive and rigorous process. All teachers are required to have master’s degrees, and only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted to the country’s teacher-training programs. The contrast with the U.S. is stark. Half of America’s teachers graduated in the bottom third of their college class.

Bill Gates has spent about $5 billion trying to research and reform American education. I asked him, if he were running a school district and could wave a magic wand, what he would do. His response: hire the best teachers. That’s what pro duces the best results for students, more than class size or money or curriculum. “So the basic research into great teaching, that’s now become our biggest investment,” he says. One study estimates that if black students had a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row, that would be enough to close the black-white test-score gap.

There are many more ideas, many of them worthwhile and worth trying, but you can get lost in the details of the education debate. These two seem simple—work more and get better teachers. Yet implementing them is anything but simple. They bump up against an education system that is deeply resistant to change and teachers’ unions that jealously guard their prerogatives. All the specific measures that would allow students to work more and good teachers to be identified and rewarded— more days, longer hours, merit pay—are mostly opposed by the teachers’ unions and other guardians of the status quo.

When you get depressed by the obstacles to reforming the educational bureaucracy, you can get excited by the meta-reformers on the outside who are trying to revolutionize the system.

Take Sal Khan, who accidentally created what might well be a new way of teaching. Seven years ago, the MIT graduate was helping his cousin, who lived across the U.S., with her math homework. When scheduling got difficult, a friend suggested he put the diagrams and equations he had drawn on YouTube so she could access them. Five years later, Khan has produced 3,000 videos teaching mostly math and science that have been viewed 80 million times!

But the real revolution has been in the classroom. Last year, Los Altos, Calif., decided to use the Khan Academy videos and software in its public-school classrooms. Doing so turns the educational model on its head. In the traditional method, students sit in class and receive information from their teacher while they busily take notes—a passive process that wastes valuable classroom time. They do the most challenging work—solving problems—at home without help. Under the new system, they watch the Khan Academy videos at home and solve problems in class, where the teacher’s talents can be put to use most fruitfully. In addition, students can learn at their own pace — rewatching videos—until they actually understand the material. The early results show huge leaps in student skills. Technology is being used to create a customized, interactive education that is both novel and powerful.

The reason that I am so taken by the Khan Academy—other than that I have used its videos with my 12-year-old son—is that it is a quintessentially American innovation, a new way of thinking about education.

I went through the Asian educational system, which is now so admired. It gave me an impressive base of knowledge and taught me how to study hard and fast. But when I got to the U.S. for college, I found that it had not trained me that well to think. American education at its best teaches you how to solve problems, truly understand the material, question authority, think for yourself and be creative. It teaches you to learn what you love and to love learning. These are incredibly important values, and they are why the U.S. has been able to maintain an edge in creative industries and innovation in general.

The U.S. should truly fix its educational system by emphasizing the basics—like hard work—again but also by renewing its distinctly American character. We will succeed not by becoming more Asian but by becoming, as the writer James Fallows put it once, “more like us.” That’s what made America the world’s most dynamic society—and it can make it so again.


By Fareed Zakaria  October 13, 2011

Europe is facing its most severe challenge since 1945. If the Greek crisis morphs into an Italian crisis, the entire structure of post-World War II Europe could unravel. Finally, European leaders seem to recognize that their strategy of kicking the can down the road has not worked. The result will not be a dramatic solution — that is not how Europe works — but, more likely, a series of steps that together will be more comprehensive than anything done before. Still, they will not address Europe’s core problem: a lack of growth.

It is an irony of history that the crisis has placed Germany firmly at the helm of Europe’s affairs. France conceived, planned and pushed for the continent to have a single currency, largely to dilute the influence of Germany, its central bank and its currency. But economic realities have proved stronger than organizational structures. Germany is by far Europe’s biggest economy and is in sound fiscal health. That makes it the only country that can write checks or issue guarantees that markets take seriously.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been criticized in many quarters for not endorsing a big-bang solution — something like euro-bonds, which would, in effect, extend a German guarantee for the debt of all euro-zone countries. But any such solution would allow countries such as Greece and Spain to borrow again at “German” interest rates (which are much lower than they could get on their own), meaning that these countries would have no incentive to cut their budget deficits and implement reforms to spur economic growth.

A few weeks ago, we got a glimpse of Germany’s nightmare scenario: Markets began focusing on Italy and its debt became expensive. The European Central Bank intervened, buying Italian bonds, which lowered rates at which Rome could borrow. As soon as the situation stabilized, Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, began watering down his commitments to enact economic reforms.

German officials are determined not to end up with a situation in which Greece, Spain, Italy or other troubled countries can avoid the hard work of restructuring their budgets because that would ensure that this crisis recurs — and the next bill will be bigger.

Europe faces two sets of problems. First, some of its governments have too much debt. Second, this debt is held by important European banks, which themselves face dangers as investors realize how much bad debt is on their books. Banks will be forced to raise capital to offset these loans. For Greece, some kind of default is inevitable, but it won’t be called that. Going forward, there is likely to be some kind of bond insurance that will at least partly guarantee the debt of euro-zone countries. Though an imperfect solution, this would keep some pressure on countries with high debt loads while ensuring that the burden is not crippling. Additional pressure can be maintained — and additional funds raised — if the International Monetary Fund partners in these efforts.

Ultimately, however, Europe’s crisis is one of growth. The problem is not so much that Greece has been unwilling to make sacrifices. It has made many. ButGreece’s budget numbers look bleak because its growth forecast looks bleak. It needs to address a much larger question of competitiveness. What can the Greek economy do to attract capital and investment? And at what wage levels? These are questions most European countries will need to answer to fully solve their problems. Italy’s economy has not grown for an entire decade. No debt restructuring will work if it stays stagnant for another decade. Even Germany is not immune, with an average growth rate of only 1.5 percent. German officials know that, with a declining population, in five to seven years the country is likely to grow at an annual rate of just 1 percent. That’s not much of an engine for Europe.

Europe needs a crisis agenda to get out of its bind, but beyond that it needs a growth agenda, which involves radical reform. The fact is that Western economies — with high wages, generous middle-class and political subsidies, and complex regulations and taxes — have become sclerotic. Now they face pressures from three fronts: demography (an aging population), technology (which has allowed companies to do much more with fewer people) and globalization (which has allowed manufacturing and services to locate across the world). If Europe — and, for that matter, the United States — cannot adjust to this new landscape, it might escape this storm only to enter another.