Kishore Mahbubani has long been a cheerleader for the alternative to Western dominance. In his first book, published in the mid-1990s, he warned Westerners that they must change their mindsets to adapt to the coming rise of Asia (meaning East Asia). In his second book, published in the first decade of the new millennium, he advised Western powers to accommodate rising Asia (this time meaning East Asia and India) in the high tables of the world.
His latest work, The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World, 9:00 PM 2/12/2013fgoes further: it argues that as living standards between the West and the rest (meaning, effectively, Asia) converge, the world needs to move to an altogether different way of conducting its affairs.
Due to the unprecedented changes over the last three decades, Mr Mahbubani contends, the people of the world are no longer in a “flotilla of a 100 separate boats” but in “193 cabins on the same boat”. While each cabin has its own crew, the big boat itself is without a captain. Nation-states, in other words, are no longer free agents; they have become hitched to each other, primarily because the environment, economics, technology and common aspirations have riveted them together into one big international system.
Mr Mahbubani identifies three geopolitical factors that can derail the great convergence: US-China ties, the India-China equation and how Islamic countries negotiate with the West. Any analyst unpacking any of these issues will end up deeply worried about the future. The book, however, offers optimism: if Southeast Asian countries could set aside their differences and create a miracle, so can the rest. Unfortunately, it is here that Mr Mahbubani fails to offer enough to persuade the sceptical reader that the Asean model can work in other settings. What appears to be “global irrationality” to the Southeast Asian mind often has perfectly rational explanations from other perspectives.
Mr Mahbubani’s quest for “one world” that transcends the political and national boundaries is not new. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and Tianxia in classical Indian and Chinese philosophy, respectively, conceptualised the unity of people long before we arrived at a situation in which fiscal profligacy in one part of the world could result in economic catastrophes in another.
More recently, as Manu Bhagavan recounts in The Peacemakers, Jawaharlal Nehru – inspired by Gandhi and Wendell Willkie – set about “bridging the ideological differences of the East and the West, healing the growing rift between capitalist and communist, and creating ‘One World’ that would be free of empire, exploitation and war”. Nehru went so far as to subordinate India’s national interests in the service of this ideal, before being chastened by the cruel realities at the United Nations (UN) and the China border.
That none of these conceptions of one world succeeded as templates for global governance should place the odds against a new one forged by a convergence in living standards. Even if its modern avatar is only a few hundred years old, the sovereign state with people, government, treasury, army and territory has not only been present throughout history, but also across geography.
It might appear that nation-states are an artificial construct that divides people and forces them into narrow identities against their wishes. Their endurance, however, might have something to do with the depths of human nature. Manuel Castells, in a prescient trilogy on the politics of the information age, points out that “data show time and again that the more the world becomes global, the more people feel local… People identify themselves primarily with their locality. Territorial identity is a fundamental anchor of belonging that is not even lost in the rapid process of generalised urbanisation we are now experiencing”.
Where Mr Mahbubani sees nation-states folding up into larger entities of global governance, Mr Castells warns of “a world of nations increasingly at odds with the nation-states that have engaged in networks of global governance to manage the global dimension of everything, at the expense of representing the nations’ interests…”. In other words, people do not want to be in cabins on the big boat; they want to be on their own boats. Nations seem be held together by a mysterious glue, sometimes ancient and natural, other times modern and invented.
To manage the global village, Mr Mahbubani recommends a renewed focus on the UN General Assembly, a Western commitment to multilateralism and the nurturing of what he calls a “global ethic”.
This prescription presumes a world made stable by a balance among the old and the new powers, a world secured by the most terrible weapons ever invented and a world made more prosperous by an invisible hand linking the rich and the poor. To extend Mr Mahbubani’s metaphor, it looks like this is a world where a couple of hundred boats are in a Great Entanglement.