Hans Dembowski: Kishore Mahbubani asks: “Has the west lost it?” – D+C

Jun 18, 2018Book Reviews

Kishore Mahbubani is a public intellectual from Singapore, where he teaches public policy at the national university. He has a long track-record of criticising western powers. His latest book, however, expresses the hope that they might finally stick live up to their own principles. Most of all, he wants them to practice the multilateralism they have been preaching to others for decades.

Mahbubani spells out “the west’s” interest in a rules-bound global order in a convincing manner. He emphasises, for example, that the EU has brought about lasting peace on the continent that used to be rocked by wars.

In a somewhat surprising twist, moreover, Mahbubani warns the western powers, whose hegemony is waning fast, that they are about to waste a great opportunity. Explicitly referring to Steven Pinker and his many statistics on child mortality, hunger, war and accidents, the scholar from Singapore writes that people in emerging markets and developing countries are aware of how positive recent trends were internationally. In his eyes, the west should endorse multilateral policy approaches to ensure that global goals are achieved.

He worries, however, that domestic frustration in view of the west’s own relative stagnation is leading to short sighted and destructive nationalism. He makes it quite clear that Donald Trump’s policymaking is not making his country great again. The USA is becoming increasingly isolated.

I appreciate Mahbubani’s work. He has always excelled in pointing out western governments’ double standards and post-colonial arrogance. On the other hand, he has downplayed the harsher sides of authoritarian rule in many Asian countries. His new book “Has the west lost it?” fits this pattern.

Mahbubani’s message is that China and India will rise to become the world’s largest economies – as they were for millennia before the colonial era. According to Mahbubani, this trend cannot be stopped. He praises the west for having replaced feudalism with reasoned policymaking, for overcoming fatalism and driving technological progress. However, he declares that Asian, African and Latin American countries have learned those lessons and are applying them. One chapter actually has the title “The gift of western wisdom”.

On the foundation of “reasoned thinking”, the author argues, economies are growing fast, and “the rest” is catching up with “the west”. He points out, for example, that the G7’s share of global GDP was 31.5 % in 2015, whereas the seven biggest emerging markets together accounted for 36.3 %.

Mahbubani declares: “The west has been at the forefront of world history for almost 200 years. Now it has to learn to share, even abandon, that position and adapt to a world it can no longer dominate.”  The former UN ambassador accuses the west of several serious mistakes in recent years. Western arrogance, he argues, has fuelled resentment in many places, including Russia as well as  predominantly Muslim countries.

Generally speaking, western interference in foreign countries’ domestic affaires, according to Mahbubani, tends to be “thoughtless” and counter productive. The worst example was probably the Iraq war, which President George W. Bush launched on the basis of lies but without a mandate from the UN Security Council. Mahbubani adds that he appreciates the reasons why many US citizens are appalled by Russian interference in the 2016 elections, but he also emphasises that consecutive US administrations interfered in many elections all over the world.

Instead of trying to impose their will, Mahbubani admonishes western governments: “We can and should strengthen multilateral institutions of global governance, like the UN, the IMF, the World Bank and the WHO to take care of common global challenges.” He calls for a new global consensus and argues that the “Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which espouse many universal values, can provide the foundation”. By living up to multilateral principles, the west can entrench those values, which may then bind the rising powers, Mahbubani argues. Cynical manipulation, by contrast, will only speed up western decline.

Western policymakers are well advised to pay attention to Mahbubani. He articulates grievances that are shared by many people in developing countries and emerging markets. That said, readers in the less advantaged countries should carefully check whether everything he writes is really accurate.

For example, he offers no serious evidence for his claims that President Xi Jinping of China feels accountable to his people or that Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is keen on improving good governance. Both leaders are known for restricting the civil-society space and maximising their personal grip on power. China’s spectacular successes in the fight against poverty, however, occurred before Xi rose to power, and its people are less and less allowed to express criticism.

In India, where the press is still free, Modi critics certainly do not share Mahbubani’s assessment. Check out what Aditi Roy Ghatak or Arfan Khanum Sherwani worte in D+C.

Mahbubani’s criticism of the west certainly deserves more attention that his praise for authoritarian leadership. His definition of good governance as “functional” rather than democratic governance is not convincing. Singapore is an unusual country in the sense that it is known both for comparatively authoritarian rule and comparatively low levels of corruption. To people living there it may seem that strongman-imposed order is benign. In most places, that is not so – at least not in the long run. Dictatorship typically goes along with exploitation and abuse. Developmental dictatorships are the exception.

The assessment of Dani Rodrik, the Turkish-born Harvard economist, is much more convincing: At this point, neither the G7 nor the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are in a position to lead. The BRICS lack a coherent vision. It is ironic, moreover, that the lack of democracy in China and Russia reduces these authoritarian regimes’ authority at the global level. I summed up his latest book in a recent blogpost. I’d like to add once more that while repression may strengthen a leader’s grip on power, it erodes the regime’s legitimacy which means it becomes less effective.


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