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.