Photo of Kishore Mahbubani Kishore Mahbubani
US and Them
By John Lloyd, 7 July 2006 13:12

It’s now commonplace to assert that Americans are unpopular, or at least much less popular than they were, around the globe. Even in Britain - according to the polls - only half of us like them, whereas in the good old days three quarters of us did. I wouldn’t question the polls’ results, but I would question the basis for the dislike they show. Kishore Mahbubani, unfortunately, doesn’t.

Since the end of the cold war, disillusionment with the US has set in. Mahbubani ascribes it to US indifference: having won the cold war, the Americans simply went home and enjoyed themselves. Whether discussing Argentina or Africa, he blames the US for not doing enough. States and regions are invoked, and their problems given skeletal description, in order that these problems can be laid at the feet of the Americans.

It is the conventional wisdom that the US betrayed the world, and is continuing to do so. Where Mahbubani - Singapore’s ambassador to the UN for two terms, and now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in his country - differs from some US-blamers is in stressing his love of the country. Stressing is the word: the litany of US prelapsarian glories would make the most jingoistic American blush, including the assertion that “America has the best and strongest democracy in the world.”

His prelapsarian US - which tolerated Jim Crow segregation until the 1960s, fought a disastrous war in Vietnam, underpinned dictators and assisted the removal of elected rulers - is cast as a kindly uncle whom everyone loved. And who, in his change back into Scrooge, has carelessly lost the love and trust previous generations had built up. I don’t accept this thesis, and I believe Mahbubani is wrong to accuse America of four crucial strategic mistakes.

First, it is true that there has been disillusionment in the former communist states, but it is as much with Europe as with the US. These states went through a wrenching and inevitable impoverishment after the collapse of Soviet power and some have yet to recover to pre-collapse levels. The west might have been more generous but, as with Argentina, pumping money into bad or corrupt financial systems doesn’t help much.

Second, in a chapter devoted to the growth of Chinese power, Mahbubani chastises the US and the west for caring more about China’s human rights record and the promotion of democracy (a naive belief, he says) than about stability. It is true that a collapse of the Chinese Communist party would have unpredictable consequences. But the west’s promotion of human rights, for that very reason, is lukewarm at best. And Mahbubani loses me when he approvingly cites a Chinese scholar’s view that the revelations of Abu Ghraib undercut any claim of a superior US morality over a country that incarcerates hundreds of thousands for their political views, executes two-thirds of those condemned to the death penalty in the world and is engaged in the extinction of Tibetan culture.

Third, it’s true that Europeans routinely answer negatively to questions about the US. But during the cold war most saw the US as a saviour. Now Europe - especially France and Germany - wishes to challenge US hegemony. European elites in government and the media no longer promote the US as their greatest ally; not surprisingly, many Europeans follow suit. Mahbubani rarely gives any state beyond the US any agency, but the world is full of active agents.

Fourth, his most potent charge is that the US has stepped outside any framework of world law. He quotes Sir Thomas More’s lines from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, to the effect that “when the last law was down... where would you hide... all the laws being flat?” It is an insufficient charge. What also has to be asked (and was asked, at least by the US and the UK, when confronted by Saddam Hussein and a terrorist wing of Islam) is “what do you do, all the law-makers being supine?” To add to More’s question: what do we do, when confronted with Middle Eastern states whose leaderships promote and finance terrorism but who are protected by their membership of the UN? The question is not rhetorical, nor does it assume armed intervention. But it does call for an answer far beyond the platitudes of America the Violater.

Those who add to the narrative of wicked US power owe it to themselves and their readers to pose this and other questions before settling for the comfortable denunciations in whose (to be sure, more moderate) ranks this book claims a place.

Last modified on 23 July, 2007 by Wang Deliang