TNI editor Robert W. Merry recently sat down with Kishore Mahbubani, author of The Great Convergence: Asia, the West and the Logic of One World. Mahbubani argues that the dominance of the West is coming to an end, and that the United States must recognize its interest in creating rules of the road for the coming multilateral world. As a public-policy scholar based in Singapore—a place integrated with the West but no longer governed by it—Mahbubani brings a unique perspective on the long-term challenges facing U.S. foreign policy.
RWM: Kishore Mahbubani, an underlying thesis of your book is that globalization and technology are transforming the world—the nation-state is in decline, the one world sensibility is on the rise, a kind of new global civilization, as you call it, is on the rise. This is powerful change, big change. What makes you so sure and confident that it won’t unleash major global disruption?
KM: Well I, as you know, this book is very optimistic and I give tremendous and many reasons for the optimism. But the fundamental changes I speak about, about how we have created a new world order—I describe through the use of something I call the boat metaphor.
I say that before the contemporary era of globalization, when humanity lived in a multitude of separate countries, it was as though we were living on separate boats with captains and crews taking care of each boat and rules to make sure that the boats didn’t collide in their passage. But today, as a result of the world having shrunk, we no longer live in separate boats—we live in separate cabins on the same boat. But the problem now is that you have captains and crews taking care of their own cabins, but no one taking care of the boat as a whole.
So the greatest challenge I see for humanity today is that this is why we need to strengthen institutions of global governance, and it can be done, as I explain in the book, quite easily. Of course, there will be challenges, there will be disruptions. History now moves in a strange line, there will be ups and downs and so on and so forth.
But at the end of the day, the reason why I am optimistic, as I say, is that we are creating a new civilized global order. Of course, the number of people who have been educated in the world, who have been exposed to modern science and technology and reason and logic, is the largest it has ever been. The global middle class is exploding. So this new, and in a sense more intelligent, global community will, I think, converge on a more reasonable world order.
RWM: Let me ask you this. You talk in your book at great length about some of the barriers that could stand in the way of this convergent form of global governance, and you talk I think with a great deal of detail about what you just said, that there will be a great deal of ups and downs and zigs and zags, but that we know roughly where we’re going. But one of the potential barriers that I think is dealt with more obliquely than directly is lingering nationalist sentiment. Tell me, what happens to the nation state as this convergence in global governance that you’re talking about happens?
KM: Well, the nation state as you know has been around for 365 years. The Treaty of Westphalia created the notion of national sovereignty almost 365 years ago, in 1648, I think, and it is not going to die easily, so it will continue in some ways. And I’m glad you mentioned all the political challenges we face. Of course, having worked for thirty-three years for one of the most tough-minded governments in the world, the Singaporean government, I’m not an idealist. I’m actually a very down-to-earth realist, and that is why this is important. From the point of view of the down-to-earth realist, I see hope for positive changes happening.
So nationalist sentiment will continue and will from time to time rise, but at the end of the day I think you notice that as you develop middle class populations, one of the consensuses that middle classes all over the world have is that it is the stupidest thing to go to war. One of the best charts I have in the book is where you see wars going down over the last fifty years like this and free trade agreements going up like this. So these are both leading indicators of the way the world is heading and, as you know, more and more nations are cooperating in more and more ways. And in fact it is cooperation that is the largest driver of the development of the new world order, and it is puzzling that we haven’t noticed that, don’t you think?
RWM: Now, one could argue perhaps that the European Union is convergence in microcosm, and yet the EU is struggling and some people feel that the euro itself is threatened and the EU could go with it. How do you see that as a potential harbinger of what you are talking about?
KM: Well, I think as you know this has been one thing about the European Union—the achievement of the European Union has not been in the economic sphere but in the political sphere because the EU has achieved the highest level of civilization because in the European Union, there are not just zero wars between any two EU states—there is zero prospect of war and that is an amazing achievement. Believe me, if we can achieve zero prospect of war in Southeast Asia, if we can achieve zero prospect of war between Japan and China, if we can achieve zero prospect of war between India and Pakistan, the world will be a much better place. Which is why the European Union still provides the gold standard in terms of what we should try to achieve in terms of peace.
Of course, in the case of economic integration it can be said that one can go too far, meaning the single currency. And they would have succeeded basically if they had themselves abided by the rules they had set. And the biggest mistake that was made was that the two biggest economies, Germany and France, were the first to violate the 3 percent rule on budget deficits and the minute that they violated the rule, they gave a loophole that others also walked through. If Germany and France had actually stood really firm and been disciplined in saying that sorry guys, but this is a rule we all have to obey, then we would be seeing a different eurozone. But the thing about Europe that is actually quite striking is that when I was in Ireland in, I think, 2010, you got a sense that the world was about to go over a cliff and that the EU was going to break apart and not hold together. And what surprised me is the determination of the Europeans to stick together. And that, by the way, has nothing to do with love, but fear, because they realize that if they fall apart, their ability to compete with America and their ability to compete with Asia just disappears.
RWM: Mr. Mahbubani, some of your previous books have been described in the Western press as anti-Western and “denunciations of wicked U.S. power.” Now, you deny any such sentiments in your book. But, if I were to sum up what you were saying in part, I would say that what you’re saying is that the 88 percent of the world that is not Western is catching up really fast and is going to overtake the 12 percent that is Western, and that you are saying to the 12 percent, “listen, you have to accept your 12 percent status. You are no longer going to get a disproportionate share of the global wealth and power, so get over it. Adjust.” Is that a fair summation?
KM: That is a somewhat harsh summation, and I would put it more diplomatically than you do. But, you see, the difference here is that, as you know, you have set rules that to become the head of the IMF you must be European, to become the head of the World Bank you must be American – and that rule disqualifies 88 percent of the world’s population from running the world’s most powerful economic organizations when the economic center of gravity is switching to Asia. So these are absurd and anachronistic rules that have to go, and the sooner the West adjusts to this the better.
But at the same time, I must emphasize that the world I envisage is a happy one for the West, because the 88 percent, when they become successful, they don’t want to dominate the West, they don’t want to say “Hey, you didn’t ask before, now it’s our time to dominate you.” That’s not the sentiment. In fact, what they want is to replicate the West. They want to create within their societies the same kind of comfortable, peaceful, prosperous middle class societies that the West has created.
So it is a world order—and I must also say that in some ways the American project has succeeded. As you know, as a dean of a school of public policy, one of the most painful things I had to do in this book was to praise schools. Because I see that the spread of the MBA—the American MBA—around the world has produced a whole new cadre in East Asia of American-trained MBAs who don’t want to make war, but to make deals. And the reason why trade is exploding in East Asia is because all the leaders now are saying, “What is the point of fighting each other? In trade, you win some, I win some, we are all winners. So lets carry on doing it that way.” So in that sense, America has actually civilized the world. And yet, America is not aware that it has civilized the world.
RWM: But you’re expressing with a great deal of confidence that the 88 percent, having adopted and embraced Western values, as you say in the book, will embrace also policies and practices and outlooks that will protect the 12 percent when it no longer can protect itself through power and wealth. And, I found myself wondering whether there maybe isn’t perhaps a little bit of naiveté here. Why would the 88 percent—you’re also quite stark in your presentation of how the 88 percent feels about the abuses, perceived abuses of the West over the course of its three-hundred-year hegemony. So why wouldn’t the 88 percent be more harsh in terms of its dealings with the West in the future?
KM: Uh, I will say that the short answer—and throughout this book, by the way, I don’t appeal to ideals, I don’t appeal to altruism, I appeal to selfish national interests. And so I think it’s in the selfish national interests of the rest of the world to work with the West, because the West has had by far the most successful societies, the best universities in the world are still in America, some of the best research is done here, so why have a fight with the West, why not work with the West? But at the same time, I also appeal to the selfish national interest of the West to say that it is now in your interest to create a new world order that you would like to live in when you are no longer the dominant power.
And you’ll notice in the book that I begin by quoting the speech that Bill Clinton gave in 2003 where he said “If America thinks it will be number one forever, then fine, lets keep on doing what we’re doing and not care what the rest of the world thinks. But if we can conceive that we will no longer be the number one power, then surely it is in America’s national interests to create a multilateral, rules-based order.”
Now, what he didn’t say, but it was obvious that he was leading to, is that we should act to constrain the next number one, China. But clearly the key point that I make to American policymakers is be aware of every loophole that you are creating in international law. Every loophole you’re making is one that China will walk through. So if you don’t want China to walk through those loopholes, close them now.
So it is now in your interests to strengthen international laws, to sign treaties and conventions that are in your interests. Think about this example: You had Secretary Robert Gates going to Singapore to speak at the Shangri-la Dialogue, calling on China to abide by the Law of the Seas convention, which is good. China should abide by the Law of the Seas convention. But a friend of mine stood up at the Shangri-la Dialogue and said, “Mr. Secretary, I’m so glad you asked China to abide by the Law of the Seas convention. When is the Unites States going to ratify it?” And obviously he was embarrassed.
And the worst thing that America can do is to underestimate the intelligence of the rest of the world. The rest of the world, having become very intelligent, can see through double standards clearly and it is not in America’s interests to have double standards, because every double standard you have creates an opening for China.
RWM: You talk a lot in the book about the relationship between the United States and China, and you suggest that history tells us that when a number one power in global or any geopolitical setting is faced with relinquishing its number one status to a rising power, that often that leads to conflict. And yet you are relatively optimistic about the US-China relationship into the future, notwithstanding this historical reality. Can you explain why you are optimistic?
KM: Well, as you know, one of the painful things that I speak about, both in my previous book and in this book, is Chinese geopolitical competence. Because the Chinese have done a great deal of work—they came out of nowhere. One of the examples I gave is that in 1980, the US share of global GDP was 25 percent in PPP terms and Chinese share was 2 percent. Now by 2017, which is only four years from now, the U.S. share is going to go down from 25 percent to 17.6 percent, and China’s share is going from 2.2 percent to 18.2 percent. Now that’s a remarkable rise in history and yet they have been able to do it without shaking up—upsetting the global order and without alarming the United States of America. And this was the result of very wise advice that Deng Xiaoping gave to the Chinese leaders: “Take a low profile. Swallow your humiliation. Accept that you have been insulted from time to time. Wait for your time to come and do not rock the boat.”
RWM: It will come, they are saying.
KM: It will come. It will come. So in a sense they have been rising very quietly, but you can see already in China that nationalism is rising. So it is not in America’s interests, it is not in global interests, to see China emerge as an angry dragon. So if you do not want it to emerge as an angry dragon, create the rules of the road that you want the next big elephant to follow; right now, while you are the number one elephant, create the rules of the road and say this is how the number one elephant behaves. Cause everything you do today—behave, how do you say, do to thy neighbors, as you would want others to do to you, right?
KM: So similarly, everything you do as number one elephant in the road, say this is what I want China or so to do. And once you adopt that path, it clearly creates an opening for China to follow you. And the Chinese, by the way, have absolutely no desire to run the world or conquer the world at all. Because that country itself has so many problems, they do not want to take on the world at all. In fact, they would be quite happy to see the United States carry on its leadership of global organizations. They are not rushing to say: “hey it is my turn to be number one.”
RWM: Unlike what a lot of people in America are suggesting, including in Presidential campaigns here.
KM: Yeah, yes.
RWM: But let me ask you this: You compare the United States somewhat unfavorably, as you just did to an extent, to China in respect to being players on the international economic scene. And we at The National Interest agree with that to a significant extent. But hasn’t China also acted irresponsibly at times in currency policy and intellectual-property protection, cyber thefts, cyber spying, and shouldn’t that come into play in these discussions?
KM: Well, I actually believe as a realist that in the world of geopolitics, there are no saints; there are only sinners. We are all sinners, and the question is the extent. Certainly one of the points I make in the book, that it is a bit unfortunate that the United States invaded Iraq. Apart from the fact that Kofi Annan said it was an illegal war because it was not authorized by the U.N Security Council nor was it an act of self-defense.
But the stupidest thing about the Iraq War is that it is the biggest geopolitical gift to China. I’m sure the Chinese must have popped the champagne in Beijing and saying, “Good, this gets the United States out of our hair for seven to ten years. We can focus on economic growth, let them get stuck in a quagmire and waste a trillion dollars,” which is what you did. So, that’s an example of geopolitical incompetence.
So, you have been making mistakes, and the Chinese have been making mistakes, too. Certainly, as I have described in the book, they really mishandled the crisis with Japan over the detention of the Chinese fishing boat captain; they mishandled South Korea over the North Korean shelling of the island; and they mishandled the ASEAN states over the South China Sea. So they have been making mistakes recently, and I say, “Guys, what is happening to you?”
Now on things like currency and cybersecurity and all of that, this is rare, I advocate multilateralism so strongly in this book because things like currency wars, no country can solve it unilaterally, you have to achieve a global agreement on what rules we adopt. When you carry out QE1, QE2, QE3, as you know, you flood the world with inflation too, and one reason why Mubarak fell was because prices of food went up in Egypt. So we all have to agree on a common set of rules. Similarly, in terms of cyberwarfare, let’s have a multilateral agreement on what countries can do and cannot do in the area of cyberwarfare and draw clear boundaries and we all follow the boundaries. But you cannot ask one country to be a saint while another country remains a sinner.
RWM: Let me ask you about Israel. You have written, and you imply in this book, that time is not on Israel’s side, and you suggest that Israel is basically relying now almost exclusively on its alliance with U.S. power to maintain its control over the occupied territories. What do you see as the future of Israel, the future of America, and the future of the Palestinians in the context of what you were writing there?
KM: Well, I actually emphasize that I am a friend of Israel, and I say if I see a friend of mine walking towards a cliff, do I say, “Stop!” or do I say, “carry on”? And I think the biggest damage that the Israeli lobby has done to Israel today is that it is not alerting Israel that time is no more on its side. Because you see, America power, as a share of the global GNP, even though in absolute terms, it remains and grows, in relative terms it is going to decline. The power of the Islamic world has troughed; it is the lowest it has been in one thousand years. This has to go up, right?
And so Israel will be caught in a pincer movement. And so it is in Israel’s interest to make peace on a two-state solution now while it is strong and powerful, while America is number one. But when America becomes number two, right, and the Islamic world becomes much stronger and more confident, then the logic will change because then you may have some “smart-asses” in the Islamic world saying, “Time is on our side. What’s the hurry? Let’s wait it out.” Then the opportunity will be gone.
Right now, as you know, there is agreement in the Arab League to agree to a two-state solution, it was actually proposed by the King of Saudi Arabia as a proposal once. So this is the time to do it. Cause if you wait, the assumption is if you wait, somehow America will grow stronger, Israel will go stronger. But that is no longer the case.
And, by the way, public opinion, the sad part about Israel, the really sad part, because you know it is a good country, very successful in its own right and so and so forth, but if you did surveys of public opinion globally, the reputation of Israel is very low, and that is very sad. And it should worry not only about its standing in America, which still remains high, but it should worry about its standing not in the remaining 88 percent, but in the remaining 96 percent of the world because even in Europe public opinion has turned against Israel.
RWM: Yes, yes. But as a political analyst, do you believe Israel, your friend, is going to heed your warning to stop or continue towards that cliff?
KM: Well, I think a lot depends on the signals it gets from America. If the world’s strongest power tells me, “Don’t worry. You have a blank check,” I will carry on. But if the world’s strongest power tells me, “Hey, maybe you should be careful.” And by the way I come from a small state that lives in a difficult region. Singapore is surrounded by more Muslims than—Singapore is a non-Muslim state surrounded by more Muslims than Israel is.
So you have to respect your geopolitical environment and you must come to pragmatic terms with your geopolitical environment. You must understand, you cannot change your geography; you cannot change your neighbors. If you are going to be with your neighbors for the next thousand years, and not going to disappear, please develop better and better relations with them rather than worse and worse relations with them.
And, you know, the saddest part is watching Israel’s relationship with Turkey. Turkey was Israel’s number one friend in the Islamic world in its neighborhood. And today, the Turks are so angry at Israel, and how can you give up your best friend in the Islamic world when you are in the Islamic region? That’s not wise. You shouldn’t be doing this.
All I am asking Israel to do is to make careful, pragmatic adjustments that all states do, the way that Switzerland, for example, right. Switzerland did not have to contribute money when the Euro was falling apart, right, but they realized they have a lot to lose if the Euro falls apart. So voluntarily they made a contribution. That’s what you do. You understand your geopolitical context and work with it and not against it.
RWM: That is my last question and I want to thank you very much for joining us. That was a very, very good discussion and it is a very provocative book.
KM: Thank you. I appreciate it very much.