Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Opinion

Obama, West, reread Fukuyama to the end, and look East

The Western footprint on the world is about to get a whole lot smaller.

By Kishore Mahubani / November 10, 2009



Singapore

For many, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the so-called "end of history" and the final victory of the West.

Skip to next paragraph

This week, Barack Obama, the first black president of the once-triumphant superpower in that cold-war contest, heads to Beijing to meet America's bankers – the Chinese Communist government – an unfeasible prospect at the time of the wall's fall 20 years ago. Surely, this twist of the times is a good point of departure for taking stock of just where history has gone during these past two decades.

Let me begin with an extreme and provocative point to get the argument going: Francis Fukuyama's famous essay "The End of History" may have done some serious damage to Western minds in the 1990s and beyond. Mr. Fukuyama should not be blamed for this. He wrote a subtle, sophisticated, and nuanced essay. However, few Western intellectuals read the essay in its entirety. Instead, the only message they seemed to take away from the essay? The end of history is the triumph of the West.

Western hubris was thick in the air then. I experienced it. In 1991 I heard a senior Belgian official, speaking on behalf of Europe, tell a group of Asians, "The cold war has ended. There are only two superpowers left: the United States and Europe." This hubris also explains how Western minds failed to foresee that instead of the triumph of the West, the 1990s would see the end of Western domination of world history (but not the end of the West) and the return of Asia.

There is no doubt that the West has contributed to the return of Asia. As I document in my book, several Asian societies have succeeded because they finally understood, absorbed, and implemented the seven pillars of Western wisdom: namely free-market economics, science and technology, meritocracy, pragmatism, culture of peace, rule of law, and education.

Notice what is missing from the list? Western political liberalism – despite Fukuyama's claim that "The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism."

The general assumption in Western minds after reading Fukuyama's essay was that the world would in one way or another become more Westernized. Instead, the exact opposite has happened. Modernization has spread across the world.

But modernization has been accompanied by de-Westernization, not Westernization. Fukuyama acknowledges this today. As he said in a recent interview, "The old version of the idea of modernization was Eurocentric, reflecting Europe's own development. That did contain attributes which sought to define modernization in a quite narrow way."

In the same interview, Fukuyama was right in emphasizing that the three components of political modernization were the creation of an effective state that could enforce rules, the rule of law that binds the sovereign, and accountability.

Indeed, these are the very traits of political modernization that many Asian states are aspiring to achieve. Asians surely agree that no state can function or develop without an effective government. We feel particularly vindicated in this point of view after the recent financial crisis. One reason why the US came to grief was the deeply held ideological assumption in the mind of key American policymakers, like Alan Greenspan, that Ronald Reagan was correct in saying that "Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem." Fortunately, Asians did not fall prey to this ideology.

Permissions