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.

Wang Zhao/Reuters
China's Communist Party chief Xi Jinping (R) meets with UN General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Dec. 27. Op-ed contributor Nathan Gardels praises a new book from Singapore's Kishore Mahbubani that looks at shifting leadership in Western-born institutions like the UN. 'For Mahbubani, the old institutions should remain, but under new management.'

The rise of Asia is the single most important historical development of our era. Yet, few voices from the region have stepped forward to address what role Asia, and above all China, must play in shaping Globalization 2.0 – an interdependent world in which no single nation has the upper hand.

In his new book, “The Great Convergence: Asia, the West and the Logic of One World,” Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, at last rises to the challenge. In a way, it is no surprise that a former UN ambassador from one of the smallest countries in Asia has the largest vision. Singapore – probably the most global state anywhere – has thrived by its wits in navigating the ever-shifting rapids of globalization.

Mr. Mahbubani’s magnum opus is so far the most comprehensive and objective proposal out there to update the world institutions – the United Nations, the Bretton Woods organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and the World Trade Organization – by accommodating them to the rise of the rest. Indeed, he evinces more faith in those institutions than their Western founders, who, as he acidly notes, are starting to see their own creation as a disadvantage now that power is shifting away from their control.

With characteristic Asian pragmatism, Mahbubani’s essential argument is not for the creation of new institutions that enshrine the global power shift, but rather for closing the “democratic deficit” by filling up the old bottle of the West’s rule-based system with the new wine of the rising rest. For Mahbubani, the old institutions should remain, but under new management. In a departure from his trademark agitating manner, what makes Mahbubani’s proposals so provocative is their very moderation.

Indeed, by Mahbubani’s lights, the greatest paradox of the present historical moment is that the “common norms” that have made Asia successful and are the basis of “the logic of one world” have been adapted from the West. In this, the long-time apostle of non-Western modernity arrives at the mirror-image conclusions of historian Niall Ferguson, the long-time champion of the virtues of Western imperialism. Mahbubani’s common norms more or less overlap with Mr. Ferguson’s famous “killer apps” of modernization, which Ferguson sees as becoming more robustly embraced these days in the East than the West. Neither could be further from Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis.

The common norms for Mahbubani are: modern science and logical reasoning, free-market economics, a social contract that accountably binds ruler and ruled, and multilateralism. Ferguson’s six killer apps are: competition, science, property rights, modern medicine, consumer society, and the work ethic.

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.

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.

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.”

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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