Asia pushes, West resists
The New Asian Hemisphere by Kishore Mahbubani
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
When world orders are on the cusp of change, ascendant challengers push for acceptance as equals of dominant but declining powers. If the latter try to stop the inevitable and cling to status quo-preservation, conflict is likely. The guaranteed formula to avoid a costly clash with upwardly mobile aspirants is for custodians of the old order to accept them rather than to squelch their progress.
At this moment in world history, China and India are pushing for recognition and status on the global stage. They are beyond the phase of suppression or containment by the United States and its Western allies. Former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani's new book describes an untenable situation in which Asia is growing heavier in power scales while the West is obstinately unwilling to accede to a bloodless transition to a fresh world order.
The author's thesis is that Western societies are apprehensive about Asia's galloping modernization. Instead of celebrating Asian resurgence, Westerners fear that the undemocratic world order built to sustain their domination will be overthrown by it. The world could be safer and less violent if the West could learn to work with, rather than against, Asia's renaissance.
The book opens by hailing the empowerment of hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese who are escaping poverty and its impact on global productivity and creativity. To Mahbubani, Asia is marching ahead because its teeming denizens feel that they can finally take charge of their own destinies.
The US and the EU are reacting to the Asian surge with counterproductive protectionist barriers and subsidies. Far from enabling Asia's restless ambitions, Western trade policy remains captive in the hands of producer lobbies that wish to hide behind a wall of customs duties. Lacking the economic robustness to compete with China and India, trans-Atlantic economies are retreating into shells hostile to incoming goods and foreign investment.
Arrogance about the inherent moral superiority of Western values and selective promotion of democracy deepen the gulf between levitating Asia and its stationary former colonizers. Mahbubani takes the West to task for basking in post-Cold War "End of History" triumphalism when Confucian, Hindu and Islamic civilizations were "undergoing a revival of cultural confidence". (p 49)
Ironically, Asia's boom is founded on "pillars of Western wisdom" like free market economics, science-driven technological innovation, meritocracy in handling human capital, shunning of ideological rigidity, sanctity of contract, property rights, and quality higher education. Indian and Chinese self-belief that they, too, "can be world-class" comes from judicious adaptation of these Western elixirs of enrichment.
Yet, in spite of the "clear presence of Western values in the rise of Asia", Western material interests sense real losses from Asian competitiveness. (p 102) Be it in the UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, Western interests militate against reforms that give proportional weight to Asian powers. Regardless of which American administration is in power, it abuses and instrumentalizes these multilateral institutions for narrow selfish ends.
The West, home to only 12% of world population, jealously guards its control of organizations that were intended to serve the whole of humanity. Mahbubani rips apart propaganda in Western media outlets that participants in the annual Group of Seven summit "are meeting global challenges, not promoting their selfish national interests". (p 123) Newly energized Asians are consciously deciding to disallow their lives from being determined by Western interests.
Mahbubani asserts that a turbulent era of de-Westernization has commenced in Asia. With most Asians disavowing former beliefs that the West was the "most civilized part of the world", the latter has lost appeal as an ideal in human advancement. Chinese intellectuals, drawing on a history of insularity, have decolonized their mind the furthest and fastest. Accompanying China's accumulation of wealth and economic vitality is a popular rediscovery of its glorious cultural heritage and pride.
De-Westernization is even more drastic in the Middle East. Hardly any Muslim society, perhaps not even Turkey, is trying to demonstrate that it is Western in spirit. Islamic publics view Westerners as immoral, greedy and insensitive to the loss of Muslim lives. Mahbubani considers India to be a bridge between the "West and the Rest". Indian thinkers do not see the West as the custodian of the highest values, but they also appreciate their country's historic place in constantly admitting and absorbing foreign influences. The author's prediction is that India's natural propensity to keep both ears open and engage with other civilizations will lead to equidistance between the West and the rest of the East.
The book's later chapters ask whether Asian states are more competent at solving regional and global problems than the ham-handed West. International law is in tatters due to flagrant violation by the US and its allies. Trade liberalization is in jeopardy as Americans and Europeans perceive themselves as its "losers". The main roadblock to effective action for halting global warming comes from the US, the most profuse emitter of greenhouse gases. Chinese and Indian per capita emissions of pollutants are far below those of industrialized Western countries. As the West is unprepared to bear its commensurate share of responsibilities, the environmental crisis is deepening.
The nuclear non-proliferation regime is on shaky ground as the five treaty-recognized nuclear weapon states have not eliminated or even reduced their arsenals. The US and Russia are the biggest vertical proliferators of nuclear weapons whose reckless actions have triggered horizontal proliferation.
Mahbubani wonders if Western incompetence in managing all these colossal global concerns reflects a deeper structural malaise, wherein Western politicians are prisoners of inward-looking "short-termism". The EU spends more time sorting its arcane internal arrangements when it could have been enhancing its standing in different parts of the world. Its partnership with Mediterranean neighbors has not had the same impact that China's Free Trade Area with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is generating. Europe's failure to spread in influence beyond its Christian heartland is total.
The author's judgement is that sensible foreign policy options are being defeated by the West's "hugely divisive and often dysfunctional domestic political process". (p 214) In contrast, Asian states are adopting pragmatic approaches to regional and global problems. Despite enormous tensions, the Sino-Japanese relationship has not degenerated to the point of military hostilities. By means of a unique flexibility, China is leaving large footprints in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Islamic world. Mahbubani rides on China's geopolitical success to infer that "Asians are capable of delivering a more stable world order". (p 234)
The book concludes with a comparative analysis of which Asian power has the qualities to take over the mantle of global leadership from the US and the EU. China has a head start, but its "mind is always focused on developing Chinese civilization, not global civilization". (p 239) India is more cosmopolitan, but it is still mired in huge economic underdevelopment. Even if one of these two countries were ready, a bigger hurdle preventing Asians from assuming world leadership is obstructionism by the West (eg on International Monetary Fund voting shares reform).
Mahbubani signs off by recommending that the West should abandon its ethnocentric ideological baggage and allow Asia its due place at the table. For this to happen, the US and the EU will have to find ways of unshackling their foreign policies from retrograde domestic pulls and pressures. Although the author's seasoned liberal beliefs do not permit him to gaze beyond accommodation of Asia by the West, it is logical that violent conflict might arise if the US and EU make no timely adjustments.
This book proves Western hypocrisy and cussedness in practically every sphere of world politics. However, it loses coherence by trying to merge the Muslim world with China and India and show the whole of Asia to be on a dynamic path. Asia is no monolith, but Mahbubani's penchant to pit broad categories like "Asia" and "West" against each other leads to collating a regressing and internally fraught Islamic world with exuberant China and India. He uses the example of glitzy Dubai to claim that Muslim societies are keen on modernizing just like China and India. Had he picked Bangladesh, where religious fundamentalism is at an all-time-high, or Lebanon, which is locked in eternal sectarian strife, the picture would not look so rosy.
The other basic weakness of Mahbubani's account is sidestepping the China-India rivalry. Though not erring by placing the two in the same anti-Western camp, he fails to acknowledge the wariness with which the two Asian behemoths eye each other. In a bid to paint China's rise as indeed peaceful, he brushes under the carpet the strategic competition it is involved in with India. An "Asia versus West" story can still be credible if a "China versus India" sub-plot is added in for nuance. Mahbubani's otherwise enlightening book loses sight of this crucial intra-Asian contest.
The New Asian Hemisphere. The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East by Kishore Mahbubani. PublicAffairs, New York, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-58648-466-8. Price US$26, 314 pages.