States still compete in connected times | The Australian

Jul 27, 2013Book Reviews

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

Reviewed by Tom Switzer

Twenty years ago, the distinguished American academic Samuel Huntington put forward a controversial theory of the post-Cold War era. The fundamental source of conflict, he predicted, would not bepredominantly ideological or economic but cultural.

The ”clash of civilisations” would dominate global affairs and the fault lines between civilisations — especially Islam and Confucian cultures against the dominant West — would represent the strategic flashpoints of the future.

Singaporean academic Kishore Mahbubani hardly mentions the Huntington thesis in The Great Convergence, but the message of his book is strikingly at odds with the Harvard professor’s dour attempts to interpret the character of international relations in the post-communist world. In spite of the contemporary doom and gloom in much of the Western world, Mahbubani insists, the forces of progress, peace and prosperity are reshaping international relations.

Whereas Huntington believed we were heading towards a particularistic world of civilisations in which differences would be stressed, not softened, and which would allow plenty of scope for conflict and violence, Mahbubani is far more sanguine. The integrative and pacific consequences of market capitalism and technological progress, he says, are more likely to reduce the civilisational differences and end national divisions of the past.

This is a global convergence, one that is driven by rapidly rising living standards. Never have there been less hunger and disease or more literacy and prosperity. Notwithstanding the sluggish US and European economies, most developing countries are surging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by armed conflict and natural disasters is also mercifully low.

Whereas in 1990 one billion humans earned enough income to consider making discretionary purchases beyond mere necessity, by 2010 the figure had more than doubled. Whereas in 1990 there were 11 million mobile phone subscriptions, today there are 5.5 billion. And whereas 500 million people have emerged from poverty recently in Asia alone, that number will increase to about 1.75 billion by 2020.

According to Mahbubani, nations are so intermeshed and so integrated that conflict and competition are being replaced by convergence and complementarity. Instead of the separation that once fostered ignorance and insecurity, there will be growing familiarity and understanding. ”Today, the massive forces unleashed by globalisation are creating a new global civilisation,” he writes. ”We are building a new and better civilisation” where the ”logic of one world” is ”converging towards peace”.

The shifting power from West to East, he urges, strengthens the case for reforming global institutions such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Specifically, we need a ”global parliament” that, far from conforming to the expectations of the five UN Security Council powers, truly unites regions and civilisations.

That means Americans will not only need to come to terms with their nation’s status as No 2 behind China (whose share of global economic power is scheduled to surpass the US by 2017), they will also need to learn to share power with the rapidly rising non-Western world.

A distinguished scholar and former diplomat, Mahbubani is one of the world’s most thoughtful and sophisticated thinkers. But is he overstating his claim that economic and political convergence will change the chemistry of the world? Will a vastly greater volume of interaction between nations and peoples lead to a more harmonious and peaceful world order? Or could it mean more fragmentation and conflict?

A century ago, English pacifist Norman Angell made similar arguments about the degree of integration in Europe to maintain war had become unthinkable. Yet World War I, which followed shortly after the publication of Angell’s bestselling book, The Great Illusion, proved economic interrelationships are sometimes no match for national loyalties and primordial forces.

Moreover, some of the most savage wars have been civil wars, and it’s a fair bet the people involved knew each other well. These days, no two groups know each better than the Sunnis and Shi’ites of post-Saddam Iraq — unless they are the Alawites and Sunnis of Assad’s Syria. One could take the argument further and point out the most interdependent social organisation is the family; and yet many murders occur in families. As most long-lasting couples will attest, the key to a successful relationship is to give each other some space.

Mahbubani rightly welcomes the spread of democracy that represents the birth of a global middle class. As for his proposals for global solutions to global problems, however, it’s worth remembering that legitimate democratic sovereignty rests ultimately not with international organisations or global governments but with the citizens of nation-states. And although the US has big problems, no other power is capable of asserting itself across the globe.

None of this is meant to dismiss Mahbubani’s sound observations on contemporary global life. The world is indeed living in a golden age. But one does not need to subscribe to  Huntington’s thesis to be sceptical of Mahbubani’s new world. In a world of competing states, insecurity and clashing interests are inevitable.

This article was originally published in The Weekend Australian


By Tom Switzer, The Australian, 27 July, 2013