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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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Finally, as Mahbubani readily acknowledges, the Pax Americana period of a rules-based international system that provided global public goods also served US interests. But, as former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has said in the European context, where values and identity much more closely coincide than, say, between China and the US, “it was believed that formalized rules would be enough” to contain the imbalances within the eurozone without a full fiscal and political union. “But this foundation of rules turned out to be an illusion: principles always need the support of power; otherwise they cannot stand the test of reality.”

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Even if the old rules-based system invented by the West ought to be maintained, it cannot be so without the full engagement of China and the United States. No reorganization of the UN or the IMF or the WTO will matter if these two powers don’t buy in. Given the weakness of elites in the US, this suggests that China – while its Communist Party autocracy is still invested with legitimacy and the broad allegiance of its public – needs to drive any new embrace of the global rules-based system in a way that provides common public goods for all.

Clearly, China’s leaders need to get ready for prime time. America, which can’t even decide at home how much government it wants and is willing to pay for, is in no position to take the lead in shaping a new world order that accommodates the interests of new players on the block. American democracy hasn’t even managed to rein in the “too big to fail” financial firms that instigated the global crisis in 2008-2009. They are bigger now than before. Americans can’t even agree to ban assault weapons on their own turf, no less achieve non-proliferation globally.

The danger is that this moment could be a repeat of 1914 – when a system of shaky alliances with waning and waxing powers jockeying for advantage was tripped into world war by a small event. The hope, which Mahbubani so optimistically and thoroughly sketches out in his vision, is that the immediate period ahead can be like the early 1950s, when enduring institutions that kept the peace and promoted prosperity to the benefit of all were constructed.

A world adrift desperately needs global thinkers, most of all from Asia. Kishore Mahbubani fits the bill with this signal work at this critical time. The kind of robust institutions he calls for in his book are all that will stand between us and 1914 all over again. Let’s pray his optimism is justified.

Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of NPQ and the Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services. He is co-author with Nicolas Berggruen of “Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East.”

© 2013 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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