Monday, 11 May 2009

“The New Asian Hemisphere”, by Kishore Mahbubani (PublicAffairs)


A “non-Western” Narrative of our Time. A much-travelled Asian ambassador argues that the 21st Century belongs to Asia

For centuries the world has been effectively and actually dominated by Western powers – be it the colonial powers (Britain, France, Portugal, etc.), or the preponderance of US power (economic and military) we have today. According to Kishore Mahbubani, former two-term Singaporean ambassador to the UN, Asians have finally understood, absorbed and implemented Western best practices and methods in a number of areas, including free-market economics, modern science and technology, and the rule of law. At the same time, we are seeing more and more widely accepted ideas, new patterns of cooperation, originating in Asia.

The New Asian Hemisphere takes a look at the rise of Asia and what this rise might mean for international relations. First, the author offers three possible scenarios that might arise in Asia: “The March to Modernity”, “The Retreat Into Fortresses”, and “The Triumph of the West”. Of these three, Mahbubani sees the first as the most likely. The book then goes on to explain why Asia is rising now, how the West has become less optimistic, and how the West and East compare.

“One of the key goals of this book is to restore Western optimism about the future of our world,” writes Mahbubani. It only requires one simple change, he believes:

“they need to drop all the ideological baggage they accumulated in the several areas of Western triumphalism, and they must stop believing that they can remake the world in their own image.”

With the failure of Americas’s democracy project (e.g. election victories of Hamas), there is a lot to recommend this position. There is a sense of “West knows best”, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise (the economic crisis we’re currently experiencing, for example). What the author has done is attempt to provide a look into how Asia and the West can rise together, as it were; to work together and succeed together.

“Pragmatism is the best guiding spirit we can have as we venture into the new century. It is therefore only appropriate to quote… the greatest pragmatist of the twentieth century, Deng Xiaoping: It does not matter if a cat is black or white; if it catches mice, it is a good cat.”

However, there are faults in the Asian approach to politics and economics (perhaps due to different mindset or root to societal norms) – just ask Minxin Pei, who in the early 2000s, seemed to be intent on publishing articles solely on endemic Chinese corruption. There are also issues with regards to human rights and pollution, which the Western powers hold dear but are seemingly not as important, or don’t hold the same definitions, for some Asian nations. The New Asian Hemisphere is not a book to read if you believe the West has the answers to every problem, every solution to today’s international issues and dilemmas. Personally, I don’t think this, so the book offered a great deal of useful, well-written opinions to draw from.

Mahbubani reasonably subscribes to the thesis that rising Asian powers (specifically China) are not interested in dominating the globe. Rather, they are more interested in finding ways to work within the current system, to replicate the successes (in their own way) of the West. This is because

“Recent decades have demonstrated that Asians have become among the greatest beneficiaries of the open multilateral order created by America and the victors of World War II in 1945. Few Asian societies today want to destabilize a system that has helped them.”

The West needs to learn to share – in terms of influence, power, and respective roles in international institutions.In this, Mahbubani is completely correct – how can China be excluded (except as an “observer”) from the major negotiations of the developed nations? That George W. Bush convened a G20 meeting shortly before leaving office is a good sign, that the US and the West is starting to understand that maybe it would be a good thing to share some of the burden, to allow other to carry the weight of the world. (If, for no other reason, than maybe people will ‘hate’ America less.)

“If the West could learn to work with, rather than against [Asia’s rise], it can help make the twenty-first century one of the happiest centuries of human history.”

The Economist described this book as “an anti-Western polemic, designed to wake up Americans and Europeans by making them angry”. While I am not sure I would accept “polemic” as a fair portrayal, the latter half of the quote is accurate – some might even say important. There are certain elements to the author’s thesis that could very well irritate narrow-minded Westerners (as it obviously did for The Economist reviewer), but equally the West has become somewhat complacent, sitting on top of the heap, and equally resistant to loosening its grip on the levers of global economic power. But, equally, Mahbubani pays tribute to Western “modernisation” that has helped Asian nations develop. He also suggests that the West should not look at Asia’s rise with foreboding – after all, it was Western modernisation that helped lift Asian success, development and growth.

Mahbubani does pick and choose some of his examples and data (especially when arguing that the West have not been competent caretakers of international order). His inclusion of Japan in the “Western” camp is strange given that, in the American mindset, in the 1980s, the “yellow peril” was about Japan’s economic and technological prowess. Also, having lived and travelled widely in Japan, to suggest it is “Western” like Europe and the USA (I would say) is incorrect. Tokyo, Kyoto and Fukuoka are as much Western as Shanghai or Beijing (perhaps with a little more of a penchant for neon signage).

If you can get past the self-congratulatory preface, together with Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, and Joshua Ramo’s The Age of the Unthinkable, The New Asian Hemisphere is essential reading for all with even a slight interest in the changing nature of the world, the shifting patterns and foci of power. The East is rising. Whether that results in a concurrent decline of the West is questionable, and too pessimistic to assume without evidence.

Overall, this is a very good book. It is written in an accessible, inviting style, which should help draw in new readers and non-specialists. Highly informative, illuminating, interesting, and (on many things) right. Recommended.

Also try: Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (2008); Joshua Ramo, The Age of the Unthinkable (2009); Bill Emmott, Rivals (2008); Parag Khanna, The Second World (2008); Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2008); David Kang, China Rising (2007)

By the Same Author: Can Asians Think? (2004) Beyond the Age of Innocence (2006)

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