The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World, Kishore Mahbubani.

PublicAffairs, 2013

Australians have rarely had it so good, yet rarely felt so angry with and alienated from their polity. Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished scholar and former diplomat from Singapore, explores the same paradox at the global level. Perhaps the explanation lies in Westerners feeling uncomfortable that the others are catching up to them materially, copying their values and aspirations, and demanding a fair go in the dominant language of the West for the past two centuries. A fair go for the rest will mean a lot less of everything to go around for the 12 per cent of the West.

While reading this book, I was constantly jogged by memories of a typical rent-a-crowd anti-American demonstration in Kolkata. One young man held aloft a placard that boldly proclaimed “Yankee Go Home! And Take Me with You”.

Mahbubani’s story is the story of Singapore, which represents the success of Asia since the retreat of European colonialism. He recounts how some of his earlier books and newspaper columns have earned him a reputation as an anti-American polemicist. If Mahbubani appears anti-Western to some, they really have no idea of what some of the rest think about them, and we are in even deeper trouble in reordering the world on a new equilibrium between the West and the rest. It is past time for many leading Western public intellectuals (and leaders) to listen, not just preach — and preach more loudly if their message is not being well received — and learn to distinguish friend from foe, tough love from hostility. Asking if Americans are ready to accept their nation as number two may be premature. But it is hardly hostile.

Mahbubani is generous to a fault in acknowledging the many progressive moral, intellectual, and material contributions that the West has made to the rest’s wellbeing. But he is critical of many of its policies, especially US policies, and it is difficult to quarrel overall with his core claim that the minority West must find some accommodation with the 88 per cent majority rest based on common principles and the equal moral worth of all human beings.

There is no doubt that Mahbubani comes to this task as a friend of the West. His basic thesis is simple enough, but the simplicity with which it is expressed conceals one of the most astute and sophisticated men of the world I know. He may be an optimist, but he certainly is not naïve. The rest of the world is converging increasingly with the West in average income on the backs of a burgeoning middle class. This rapidly expanding middle class takes its major lifestyle cues from the Western middle class, producing a parallel convergence in values and aspirations. This is reflected in and assisted by the march of globalisation, technology and the growing numbers from the rest who are educated in the best institutions of the West.

The analysis proceeds smoothly, using a pleasing blend of serious scholarly research, personal anecdotes, and telling metaphors drawn with ease and facility from Mahbubani’s experiences in the UN, Davos, and other forums and venues.

Mahbubani develops his thesis with the help of a maritime analogy. The world’s 193 countries are passengers aboard a ship that has no captain or crew. Instead, each nation’s cabin has its own captain. Only when storms or other disasters strike do we ask if we should choose a skipper to take us safely through that particular crisis and then return to business as usual. Little wonder that the journey is rough and risky: the destination unknown and uncertain. This is especially so because the world must navigate its way through several dangerous fault lines, none more so than the divide between the West and Islam. Mahbubani’s insights on the China–US and China–India dyadic relationships are among the best and most original contributions of the book, although I would be considerably more circumspect about India’s prospects: it has an unmatched capacity to look opportunity firmly in the eye, turn around, and walk off resolutely in the opposite direction. Maybe just a hint of caution on China too might be in order.

The accelerating convergence heightens the urgency of the need for redressing global governance deficits. The Western-sourced middle class values mean that the principles on which such governance advances must be built are democracy, power sharing, equity, and accountability — as well as geopolitical realignments. But the West is proving singularly reluctant and obdurate in exporting democratic structures and procedures to international governance institutions, to ceding power in order to share it, to assuming equitable costs of managing the global commons, and, in general, to support a universal rules-based order in which one law applies to all.

Take the cosy arrangement by which Europe and the US have monopolised the leadership of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank respectively. The chutzpah with which the current leaders of these two institutions were chosen was indeed breathtaking. Or take the United Nations system. Mahbubani spent two stints as ambassador to the UN, including two years on the Security Council. His observations on the great-power machinations that keep the UN intentionally weak and ineffectual might seem unduly cynical. All I can say as a former senior UN official is they resonate powerfully with me. Mahbubani argues that the major powers cannot tolerate any international organisation that is both independent and powerful, and have a common interest in choosing a Secretary-General who is pliant and duly respectful, not independent-minded, bold, and visionary. A couple of times in the past they’ve mistakenly chosen the latter type.

His iconoclasm extends to attacking a number of other Western sacred cows, including foreign aid and sanctions as tools of foreign policy (dressed up in the language of charity and the international interest, they are either tools to control and manipulate others or disguised subsides to globally uncompetitive national industries), and to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Turning the tables on UN bashers, he argues that while the UN should be reformed under new management (keep the vehicle, change the driver, in Ban Ki-moon’s metaphor), the OECD should be shuttered.

While the book’s overall thesis is persuasive, I am less convinced than Mahbubani that the forces driving the world towards convergence are irreversible. It is useful to remember the many good news stories on peace and prosperity: we humans have never been healthier, wealthier, better educated, and more at peace than today. Even so, the relentlessly optimistic message downplays the dark side of globalisation, where elements of uncivil society have exploited the absence, retreat, and weakness of state structures to engage in drug, arms, and people trafficking. Prices have equalised rather faster than wages. Income inequality has worsened both within and between states. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ virtues are also exaggerated. Yes, it has been helpful and useful, especially for the smaller states. But even Asia’s major powers have not been shy of using it competitively against one another. And I managed to check my enthusiasm for the likes of Tony Blair years ago.

The book’s main arguments will be broadly familiar, uncontroversial, and, indeed, unremarkable to those from the rest, although they will welcome the persuasiveness with which the thesis is articulated and the evidence produced to substantiate it. Its primary audience and those who will benefit most from reading it is the opinion elite in the West. For Mahbubani is, at heart, a sympathetic chronicler of what ails the world and how it might be made better for all of us by being re-made in the image of essentially Western values and institutions. If his message is found to be harsh, unsettling, and uncharitable in Western capitals, we may yet sleepwalk into global disasters that can and should, with prudent foresight and a mutual generosity of spirit, be avoided.