European Affairs

But this book, published by Public Affairs in New York, may not be dismissed so easily. Even when the decibel level of his arguments rises to polemic, he is saying things the West needs to hear. (Asians tend to define “the West” as North America (U.S. and Canada), the 27 EU states in Europe and “self-consciously” Australia and New Zealand.) A larger relevance of this book comes from the fact that his account of Asia’s reading of the contemporary world articulates views shared by policy-makers in other, more reticent Asian nations, including China. The Asian conclusion? The “reluctance of leading Western minds to acknowledge the unsustainability of Western global domination presents a great danger to the world,” he writes.

The real question for future global stability, he says, is how the 12 percent of the world’s population that is Western will react to the rise of Asia. While he hopes for a happy ending in which the West recedes gracefully, he is not at all sure this will happen.

Why, he asks, do so many Western leaders – George Bush being a primary example – talk about how dangerous the world has become, when in reality the economic prosperity of Asia and the movement of hundreds of millions of persons approaching middle class status has rendered the world much safer and more stable. Few Asian countries will want to destabilize a system that has brought such a rise in living standards. Exhibit number 1: the emergence of China as a “responsible stakeholder,” just like Robert Zoellick, now the World Bank head, has called for (as early as 2005 when he was U.S. Deputy Secretary of State).

Mahbubani argues that the Asian rise has a safety-producing effect in the Middle East, too, although with somewhat less force. In the past, there were only two models: Osama bin Laden or the West. Neither was very appealing. Now, the presence of a non-Western success story provides a positive third model for areas like the Middle East and Africa that are still in the developmental doldrums.

The danger, writes Mahbubani, is that the West, instead of being happy and proud about the success of Asia, which after all, has emerged based on the adoption of many Western principles like capitalism and entrepreneurial activity, actually feels threatened and inclined to retreat into “fortresses” that ultimately doom their inhabitants to suffer the forces of change rather than shape them. Large parts of the West, he argues, are rapidly losing faith in free trade of the sort that is has long preached. EU protectionism is particularly blatant, he notes, quoting Nicolas Sarkozy saying, “The word ‘protection’ is no longer taboo.”

Mahbubani documents well the irony of how free trade is a Western idea and how it was initially viewed with skepticism when it was introduced to Asian countries. But now, the U.S. and Europe feel threatened by the success in the developing world and appear determined to hold on to agricultural subsidies (probably dooming the Doha Round), turn back the clock on the North American Free Trade Agreement and halt and/or revisit bilateral free trade agreements that were once heralded as major foreign-policy successes. At the same time, most Asian countries have been converted to the benefits of free trade by the Japanese success and by the export successes of their own booming economies.

The well-known sagas of the U.S. blocking a Chinese company’s attempt to purchase UNOCAL (Union Oil Company of California) and the hysteria induced by the possibility of the sale of American port management to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates provide further evidence of Mahbubani’s fortress fear.
Western reaction may go beyond retreat in fortresses, says Mahbubani, to something even more dangerous. It is possible that the West’s triumphant frame of mind – created by “winning” the Cold War – will be extended into an effort to maintain superpower perquisites and resist the rise of Asia as a matter of strategic imperative.
Mahbubani recalls a meeting between foreign ministers of the EU and the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the early 1990s. The Belgian foreign minister Willy Claes (whose country then held the rotating EU presidency) “said matter-of-factly at this ASEAN-EU meeting that with the end of the Cold War, there were only two superpowers left in the world: the United States and the European Union,” recalls Mahbubani, “He did not have to say the rest: these two new superpowers would dominate the world, while other nations would have to adapt and adjust to their wishes.”
As an even better example of Western “triumphalism” in the U.S. and Europe, he cites the positive reception of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Mahbubani notes that many Westerners took the book’s thesis to mean that with the triumph of Western civilization, it became an item of faith that “the only way forward for the 5.6 billion people who then lived outside the West was simple: all they had to do was to become cultural clones of the West.”

Fat chance, says Mahbubani. History has not ended, it is resuming. He notes that Western dominance is recent and comparatively short-lived in the span of history. Two millennia ago, Asia accounted for 76.3 percent of global GDP while Western Europe’s share was only 10.8. And by the year 1000, Western Europe’s share had actually declined to 8.7 percent. It was only after the start of the industrial revolution, which Mahbubani dates from 1820, that Europe and the West began to gain and eventually overtake Asia.

But this overtaking is about to come to an end. Mahbubani cites the Goldman Sachs BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) study prediction that by 2050, three of the four largest economies in the world will be Asian – with China being the largest, followed by the U.S., India and Japan.

But the West seems unwilling to make the necessary geopolitical accommodations that changes in the economic pecking order require. The evidence? He points to the way the West “clings” to dominance in the two most important international economic institutions: the IMF and the World Bank. At the IMF, the unwritten (but firmly enforced) rule requires that the head official be a European. And at the World Bank, the top position is reserved for an American.

Mahbubani calls these rules “an obvious anachronism.” He goes on: “The great paradox of the twenty-first century is that this undemocratic world order is sustained by the world’s most democratic nation states, the Western nations.”

He makes a similar analysis of other levers of world control, the UN Security Council and the G-7. About the G-7 he is particularly contemptuous: “Any objective audit of the G-7 process will show that it has effectively done nothing to improve the state of the world. Indeed, the G-7 may…have done some real damage by creating the illusion that they were actually tackling global challenges.”
Western failure to accommodate appropriately to the diminished role that the West plays in a multi-polar world, where some of the big poles are in Asia, contributes to Western blunders and incompetence in running the world. Iraq, the Middle East, climate change and nuclear non-proliferation have all been bungled by the U.S. and Europe in a way that threatens the security of the world.
Mahbubani says that with a West less arrogant and more accommodating, each of these issues could have been handled more competently.

In contrast, he points to the remarkable diplomatic achievements of the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN), which has, in the face of substantial hurdles, managed to broker unprecedented peace and prosperity among its member nations after the end of the Cold War. Vietnam, says Mahbubani, could have remained a force of destabilization, “Yet Vietnam has gone from being Southeast Asia’s North Korea to becoming [a new] Singapore.” Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995 and, since then, has become fully invested in ASEAN’s vision of peace and prosperity in the region.
Although he is discreetly silent about the slow pace of economic integration in ASEAN, Mahbubani improbably credits the Association for playing a key role in assuring that the emerging powers of China and India have avoided serious conflict. Both China and India would likely shake their heads in amazement over the assertion that ASEAN had anything to do with their mutual accommodation since their war in 1962.

Mahbubani’s prescription for the West is less interesting than his account of its alleged incompetence and insensitivity. There should be more reliance on UN institutions and a redistribution of power within it in order to reflect today’s economic and global realities. For example, he finds it absurd that Europe has two representatives on the UN Security Council (England and France) with the possibility of a third (Germany), when Europe holds only 10 percent of the world’s population. And he believes that the U.S. power in the UN should be reduced, while at the same time the U.S. needs to take the UN seriously and not wreak further damage on international law through unilateral and poorly-executed actions like the invasion of Iraq that seem to thumb the American nose at the rest of the world.

Mahbubani is rumored to be on the short list to be Singapore’s next ambassador to the U.S. If he is sent to Washington, his presence will be both stimulating and constructive as a new U.S. administration forges a new foreign policy that hopefully includes a more nuanced policy toward Europe and especially toward a rising Asia.

William Marmon is Vice President of the Washington-based US-ASEAN Business Council. The article expresses his personal views, which are not necessarily those of the Council.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 3 in the Fall of 2008.