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How Asia and China can revive the West's waning institutions

A world adrift desperately needs global thinkers, most of all from Asia. Singapore's Kishore Mahbubani fits the bill with his new book, in which he calls for a more robust UN, IMF, and WTO – led by the emerging global powers. Let’s hope his optimism about this revival is justified.

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Mahbubani and Ferguson avoid the loaded term “democracy” as a norm or an application. For Ferguson, “competition” would seem to encompass not only multi-party contests, but also meritocratic performance competition within one party, as in China. For Mahbubani, the West was the first to leap ahead by destroying feudalism, but democracy is not yet universally shared. In China, he nonetheless sees a kind of systemic accountability of the party to the masses since it must “earn its legitimacy daily” through performance.

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It is in this interstice, which separates values from norms and apps, where the rub lies. The challenge is precisely how to establish effective institutions of governance based on common interests – or even “one logic” – but not preceded by a common identity rooted in a common value system.

For Mahbubani, employing the one logic of common norms that we all share as an operating system is sufficient to sustain a rules-based system.

This, however, implies tilting toward the geo-civilizational worldview of the East, in which incommensurate values coexist in one world with many systems. That contrasts with the stubborn geo-political worldview of the West, which sees territories and ideologies as either won or lost.

Mahbubani is not naive. He exhaustively inventories the geopolitical stumbling blocks that can throw a wrench into his optimism (e.g. China vs. India, sea lanes between Japan and China, an Iranian nuclear detonation, etc). At the same time, his trust in the allegiance to a rules-based system in the West from whence it emanated seems to me grounded in a time warp.

Indeed, the greatest stumbling block from my point of view is how the democratization of global institutions Mahbubani proposes will be frustrated by the democratic publics of the West. It’s democratization vs. democracy.

First, these publics are turning ever more inward to protect themselves from the very winds of competition the post-WW II system has unleashed. We see this not only with China-bashing in the US. We also see how difficult it is for democratic European states to make the tough reforms necessary to maintain the competitiveness required to finance their generous welfare state in the face of the double challenge of demographic demise and the rise of the rest.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put the issue squarely: Europe has 7 percent of the world population, produces 25 percent of global product, and accounts for 50 percent of social spending. That will be tough to maintain as Europe’s proportion of global production shrinks. Today, the continent is paralyzed by this prospect.

Second, and most important, the UN and the Bretton Woods system were put in place after World War II, when the democratic American public still trusted its elites enough to agree to delegate power to institutions that would benefit all. That trust in the “best and brightest” was shattered by the Vietnam War, trampled during the counterculture ’60s, de-legitimated during the Reagan and New Right war on government, and finally laid to rest by the advent of the dis-intermediating information revolution.

If there is any flaw in this otherwise excellent volume, it is Mahbubani’s projection of East Asia’s trust in elites onto the West, where their legitimacy has fatally withered.

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