The New Asian Hemisphere

Kishore Mahbubani
New York: Public Affairs
A Review by Susan Froetschel

The premise of Kishore Mahbubani’s latest book is simple: If representative democracy is the best known form of governance for nations, then it’s also the best form for the world.

With The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, Mahbubani is earnest and blunt, essentially telling the democratic West: We like your rules; please play by them.

The book is a stern message to the West from a man who has mastered its practice Mahbubani, dean and professor with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the National University of Singapore, also had a long diplomatic career that included service as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations. Overall, the book’s tone is more professorial than diplomatic.

He takes the rules established by the West - on democracy, rule of law and social justice - holding them up like a big mirror and showing the distorted reflection practiced by the US and Europe.

The West has two sides, he suggests. The philosophical West has made enormous contributions to humanity, offering ideals such as the equality of people and the dignity of the individual, while the material West places self-interest above values, regularly choosing leaders who cling to power and wealth. His list of complaints about the US and Europe is long: The West urges free trade until other countries start to do better, demands democracy but frets when enemies win elections, panics about global warming while guzzling energy and ignoring science, criticizing developing nations for nuclear research while hoarding weapons that could destroy the world many times over.

Any loopholes in global rules are dangerous for the entire world, but particularly for the minority communities of Europe and the US that created those rules. Mahbubani repeatedly reminds that by any measure, one small part of the world has devised rules and standards for the rest of the nations: Asia, Africa and South America outrank Europe and North America when it comes to population (about 85 percent to 15 percent) or global gross domestic product (52 percent to 48 percent).

The West cannot hope to preserve the post-World War II hierarchy indefinitely, Mahbubani argues, and should prepare for an orderly transfer of power and the world order of 2045. Neither the US nor Europe has shown the foresight, willingness or confidence to share power. The leaders who balk at orderly re-distribution or refuse to delegate or consult show that they lack trust in their own system.

An imbalanced distribution of power in global institutions - the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the United Nations - that does not reflect the modern world only weakens those organizations. If international organizations do not allow for shifts in power based on changing circumstances, then the emerging powers will establish their own systems and set their own rules. “Both the US and the EU now face a more insecure future, even though they have had two decades to enhance their security without any obvious challenge to them,” writes Mahbubani.

The book’s examples and statistics showing the rise of Asia will probably cause less alarm for readers in the US than those in Europe. The US roots for underdogs and actually works better from that position. US history, short as that may be, includes many examples of citizens working hard, displaying creativity, when they or the country is down and forced to compete - from the patriots who fought under George Washington to Thomas Edison or post-Sputnik America.

Changing course for world organizations, making room for new players, requires political courage of national leaders. But the leaders who eventually convince citizens of the West that they are part of a global constituency, that there are other stakeholders, will lay foundations for stability and peace. New checks and balances can save the most powerful nations as well as the powerless. “We need to develop both institutions and rules to manage the world as a whole, institutions and rules that reflect the wishes and interests of 6.5 billion inhabitants,” urges Mahbubani.

The world can benefit by striving for the ideals of the West, but also by adopting the pragmatism, patience and cooperation practiced by leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, whom Mahbubani describes as the “greatest pragmatist in Asia’s history.” Deng endured the humiliation of being purged twice for criticizing Maoist economic policies, but returned to government and, after a visit to the US in 1979, took the risk of being truthful with the Chinese people about US affluence. “Deng’s gamble unleashed the enormous energies of the Chinese people,” notes Mahbubani.

If China’s citizens could handle their truth during the early 1980s, then Europeans and Americans should have little problem with a modern set of facts that are much less harsh. The pace of social change has picked up since the 1980s and, in confronting adversity, those who practice flexibility and recognize the complexity of problems will probably have greater success in detecting multi-pronged solutions.

Neither Western nor Asian readers will be thrilled with the book’s leading metaphor - describing Asia and the rest of the world on a “March to Modernity.” Neither set will appreciate the definition that immediately jumps to mind, the notion of steady and rhythmic forward motion in sync with others. Too many people prefer setting their own pace for globalization - many run, but others stroll or take meandering turns that can lead to discoveries and innovation. Of course, another definition for “march” is a steady advance with direct purpose.

Likewise, Mahbubani’s definition of “modernity” is broad, sometimes referring to prosperity and at other times referring to virtues like intellectual freedom, fairness or willingness to help others.

Mahbubani urges optimism because we live in an era where immense problems await, yet most individuals can grasp at great opportunities. Individuals and societies alike have the luxury of selecting a purpose: Anyone can be like the executives who aspire to be the richest person on earth. Or they can be like Phuc Than, who fled Saigon as a boy, fell in love with capitalism, studied electrical engineering and worked with Intel. “If I leave the US, it won’t suffer,” Mahbubani quotes Phuc in explaining the decision to return to his homeland. “If I come back to Vietnam, I have the opportunity to do something great.”

So is Phuc Than a product of the West or East or both combined? Mahbubani’s book focuses more on processes and outcomes rather than motivation and their many sources. And perhaps he’s correct. The world agrees about many global problems, but is in dire need of finding a fair and common process before nations can truly set an agenda. Fortunately, the solution - redistributing power in world institutions - is obvious. True optimism is recognizing that higher forms of civilization and governance may yet be available and that anyone can contribute to building them.

The premise of Kishore Mahbubani's latest book is simple: If representative democracy is the best known form of governance for nations, then it's also the best form for the world.
© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization