Fareed Zacharia’s New Book: Revolutions that Endure or Fizzle


Political advice to a candidate: Promise everything to everyone, wherever you appear. Make sure you have an audience of true believers; remind voters of your opponent’s sex scandals.

That was the 74 BC advice to Cicero from his younger brother when Cicero  became a candidate for the Roman Senate. Two thousand years later if you’re running for office, you’re likely to get similar advice from your campaign consultants. Politically it would seem we haven’t changed that much.

Not so according to Fareed Zakaria in his latest book, Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present.

Fareed Zakaria is a writer, pundit, interviewer, a multi-media figure akin to an instrumentalist who has mastered string, wind, and brass instruments. The Future of Freedom, Post American World, and Post Pandemic World are among his recent books that are timely and catch the multi-media rhythm of news and commentary. He writes a widely circulated weekly column and appears Sundays on CNN and CNN International, which gives him a worldwide reach and reflects his global views.

Age of Revolutions is a step beyond the usual for Zakaria. He has been working on this book for the better part of a decade. The result is a broader and deeper perspective than his more popular output, and this volume is already a best-seller. Some academics and reviewers criticize the result as insufficiently researched. The author navigates the fine line between writing that satisfies some of his academic critics, and the readership Zakaria wants to serve with more accessible writing.

Zakaria looks at revolutions from the 1600s to the present from his perch as an avowed liberal/progressive. We are treated to the enormity of the Dutch dominance of trade that grew out of the revolution that overthrew the Habsburg rulers in Spain. The lowly Netherlands proved you don’t have to be big to be powerful nor do you need the biggest army. The country’s economic strength and technical innovation (they controlled more than 50 percent of European trade via the port of Amsterdam) carried its incongruous domination that reached across the world via Dutch traders and bankers.

At the same time the Dutch Revolution also established a democracy that survives to this day. Zakaria quotes historians who have pointed to the Dutch embrace of individual rights, markets, trade, and tolerance of religious minorities. That formula defined liberalism and built a lasting foundation. Holland has one of the highest average incomes in the world and top ten ranking in education, longevity, and wealth. All this with a population of 17 million.

In more modern times, according to Zakaria, it is the British industrial revolution and empire that follows the Dutch lead and finally gives way to the United States of the 20th and 21st centuries. There have been hundreds of revolutions to choose from since the 16th Century. Zakaria’s opus magnus has been criticized by some reviewers for limiting himself to the West, and indeed not offering a definition of a revolution. But the central point of Zakaria’s view of revolutions that succeed and have staying power is the argument between top down (like the French and Soviet revolutions) and ground up and organic (like democracy and the industrial revolution). The former are not built on social change and soon provoke backlash and counter-revolutions.

The author acknowledges that the China’s Deng Xiao Ping’s top-down revolution has been a success (though now undergoing a Mao-like counter-revolution). He points out that when those who have power are the beneficiaries of a revolution they won or created, they create a double-edged sword. Those at the bottom may not buy into the authoritarianism that often follows. We may be in the midst of a Populist backlash that is sweeping the world, as is the case with Donald Trump.

The changes the British brought to their colonial empire gave them a currency that defined worldwide trade and economics until the dollar took over in the 20th century. A dominant Navy helped in the British case as trade dominance gave Holland the upper hand in the 16th century. The Capitalist Tiger was created as Zakaria points out and ever since, the world has been trying to tame that tiger, and even Communist Chinese flirted with what they call Capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

Fareed Zakaria’s guided tour of Revolutions from the 16th century to the rapid evolution of the Artificial Intelligence Revolution is full of information, perspective, and analysis. As one reviewer put it: “guaranteed to make you think and giving you the tools to do so intelligently.”

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
The Seattle-based author has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China.


  1. This is an excellent, provocative book. Three fresh insights: Revolutions can be too fast, out ahead of social changes, as happened since the 1960s in America. For every revolution, there is a push-back counter-revolution, and we are in the midst of that now (Trump et al). “The fundamental challenge this world order faces is that the country that imagined, constructed, and sustained it — the United States of America — no longer has the capacity or desire to play that hegemonic role.”

  2. As one who has not read Zakaria’s book, I am writing mainly to express appreciation to Peter Hereford for his review bringing the book to my attention.

    That said, I can’t hold back from making an observation. Sometimes revolutions do not happen in a rush, like a river in spate, but as a trickle, like a the trickle of an insignificant little stream that gets its start up in the forest, and meanders downstream, gathering more little trickles into itself, until it emerges as a powerful current that carries away everything that stands in its way.

    The force of support that wealthy politicians like Trump paradoxically receive from the less-affluent, less-educated Americans comes from the confluence of many small streams of disaffection — stagnant wages and lack of decent job opportunities, resentment of immigrants and minorities, perceived slights from political elites, etc. — that combine to make a segment of our population angry and alienated, and ready to tear apart the laws and institutions which should offer them the prospect of a better future. They become unwitting pawns of the truly wealthy, truly powerful, truly “elite” who have the capacity to turn our democratic republic into a corrupt and self- serving oligarchy of wealth and privilege.


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