On May 23, Professor Kishore Mahbubani was at Fudan University in Shanghai to deliver a talk titled “Has The West Lost It?”, based on his latest book release of the same name.
Prof Mahbubani began the talk by answering his question that no, the West has not lost it, where “it” here refers to the correct path that the West should be taking. However, he conceded, it could lose its way if it does not change its course now.
He addressed three matters in his talk: why the West matters; what mistakes the West has made that justifies asking this question, and strategies the West can adopt in order to not lose its way.
The West matters because it is the most successful civilisation in human history. No other civilisation has performed as well as the West has done in the last 200 years. The West has gifted the world with the gift of reasoning, the belief that one can make his or her condition better, and the spread of good governance. As a result of these gifts, Prof Mahbubani pointed out, the human condition has made more progress in the last 30 years than in the last 3000 years. From the drastic reduction of global extreme poverty from 44% in 1981 to below 10% today, to the rise in literacy rate, there are many causes for celebration, and it seems as if the Western project has succeeded.
However, the West is not celebrating but is instead seriously depressed. Prof Mahbubani attributed this pessimism to three strategic mistakes the West made in the past 30 years.
First, it was in 1990. The end of the Cold War resulted in great celebration in the West. Francis Fukuyama famously declared in his essay “The End of History?” that the end of the Cold War signified “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”, bound to bring about world peace. Prof Mahbubani called this essay “a serious brain damage to the West”. It put the West to sleep at the precise moment the world is waking up, especially China and India. Both countries were long the two largest economies in the world before 1820, and compared to the 2000 years that China and India dominated, it was only in the short span of the last 200 years that Europe, then America took off. Repeating his words at the World Economic Forum at Davos this year, Prof Mahbubani asserted that the past 200 years had been a major historical aberration, and all aberrations come to a natural end. Hence, it is perfectly normal to see the return of China and India, and it is at this critical moment that the West decided to go to sleep.
The second turning point was 2001. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, America had declared war on the Islamic world, with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. As a result, America was stuck in war for a whole decade in the Islamic world. On the other hand, China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. With 800 million new workers injected into the global capitalist system, the Chinese economy took off. Prof Mahbubani opined that this was consequential for world history.
The last strategic mistake of the West was in 2014, when China overtook America as the world’s largest economy. In contrast, in 1980, America’s share of the global Gross National Product was 25% and China’s was 2.2%. While the Chinese economy grew, the West continued on autopilot without making adjustments to adapt to the changing world.
Hence, Prof Mahbubani called this book a “wake-up call” to the West. When asked later on why there is a need to wake the West up, he explained that the rest of humanity should be grateful to the West for drastically improving the human condition. In addition, there will be unnecessary geopolitical conflict if the West continues on autopilot. After sleeping through what he calls “the most consequential 30 years of human history”, it is time for the West to wake up and adjust. For them, he proposes three new strategies: the “3M”.
Firstly, it is for the West is to be minimalist. Prof Mahbubani remarked that it is “common sense” for the West to take a minimalist approach when dealing with global affairs. As a result of being dominant for 200 years, the West has a habit of wanting to fix the world by intervening in the affairs of others. However, with the continued improvement of the human condition, it is no longer in Western interest to intervene, as espoused by the rest of the world. Taking Syria and ASEAN as examples, he explained how the West’s intervention in Syria had caused the conflict to worsen, while its neglect of ASEAN allowed ASEAN to not only develop its economy, but also become one of the most peaceful regions in the world.
The next ‘M’ – multilateral. The West has been undermining the very international institutions that itset up, such as the United Nations, World Bank, and WTO, which to him, is suicidal. It is in Western interest to utilise these international organisations to strengthen a rules-based international order in a world that is becoming increasingly small and interdependent.
Lastly, Machiavellian. Prof Mahbubani arguedthat Europe has to develop its continent independently and stop following America’s policies blindly, as it will only end up damaging its own interests. Citing Africa’s exponential population growth, he explained that if Europe does not help Africa’s development, it will only result in more mass migration from Africa to Europe. For this, the best partner that Europe can choose then, is China, as China has been heavily investing in Africa. However, Europe’s stance has been to disapprove of Chinese investments in Africa simply because America opposes it.
Prof Mahbubani’s advice for America is to accept the simple reality that no matter how powerful it is, it has to continue to adjust and adapt. As it is in the American psyche to not conceive the possibility of America becoming number two, Americans do not recognise that cannot continue on autopilot. Therefore, his suggestion for the West was to admit its own decline, as only then can it set itself up for strategic success.
Prof Mahbubani concluded by cautioning Asian countries not to be complacent. By 2050, four of the five largest economies in the world will be in Asia – China, India, Japan, and Indonesia. As these countries grow in strength, they must come up with their own ideas and practices on how to run the world. They should not, and cannot free-ride on the West any longer. Instead, there is an urgent need for them to come together and speak with a united voice on how to manage the new world order and ensure that with Asian leadership, the world becomes a better place. To do that, Asian countries have to first manage their internal rivalries, such as the one between China and India. When Asia succeeds, it will be the main driver of the future of world history, and from the 21st century onwards, history will bear no semblance to the aberrations of the 19th and 20th century.
Prof Mahbubani is currently Chunqiu Senior Fellow at the China Institute, Fudan University. His stint at Fudan University comes after stepping down as Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) on Dec 31 last year.
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