Asia Pacific

Western Dominance Is a Historical Aberration

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Kishore Mahbubani, former ambassador of Singapore to the United Nations and president of the UN Security Council.
Kishore Mahbubani news, Kishore Mahbubani Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani books, Kishore Mahbubani East and West, Western dominance, West-centric world, East West balance, East West relations, China news, India news

© EtiAmmos / Shutterstock

October 23, 2019 11:53 EDT

The TED website describes Kishore Mahbubani, a career diplomat from Singapore, as someone who “re-envisions global power dynamics through the lens of rising Asian economies.” This description is not just apt for Mahbubani but also for his new book, “Has the West Lost It?” The title may appear controversial to a reader unfamiliar with world politics and history, but is is a treatise for the future. In less than 100 pages, the author carefully puts together reasons for the Western world’s demise and suggests a three-pronged solution for a better world, where the gap between East and West is bridged to a large extent.

In his career spanning over 40 years, Mahbubani has dedicated his academic scholarship to the growing geopolitical and economic influence of Asia. His books are a break from the traditional Western narrative of Asian societies, where overarching political problems are a roadblock to economic and social development.

In “Has the West Lost It?” Mahbubani dispels myths around Asian countries such as Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, which have achieved tremendous growth in the last 30 years. On the other hand, the Western world has failed to take care of its working class, which has been forced to the fringes. Mahbubani argues that the rise of countries like China and India mean that the West is no longer the most dominant force in world politics, and that it now has to learn to share, even abandon, its position and adapt to a world it can no longer dominate.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Mahbubani about his latest book, the need for the West to listen to the East, and the strategy the Western world should adopt to maintain its global relevance.

The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ankita Mukhopadhyay: In many of your recent speeches, interviews and books, you have focused on the West vs. East debate. Why do you choose to focus your work on this dynamic?

Kishore Mahbubani: The West has been dominant for 200 years in world history, which is a historical aberration. In the 19th century, Europe dominated the world, in the 20th century, the US dominated the world. Many in the US and Europe assume that this is the natural state of affairs and want their dominance to continue into the 21st century. However, I refer to Western dominance as a major historical aberration, because from year 1 to 1820, the two largest economies of the world were China and India. The US and Europe only took off in the last 200 years.

All aberrations come to a natural end. The rise of Asia is natural and was bound to happen someday. Today, in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, the number one economy in the world is China, number two is US, number three is India, and number four is Japan. Out of the top four, the clear winner is Asia. Even though economic power is now shifting to Asia, the West is reluctant to accept this shift. The West continues to intervene in many unnecessary conflicts. These unnecessary interventions have drained spirits and resources and demoralized Western societies. To prevent the West from losing it, the West needs to adopt a 3M strategy: minimalist, multilateralist and Machiavellian.

Minimalism is a call to do less rather than more. The West has wasted a lot of resources fighting unnecessary wars, especially in the Middle East and the Islamic world. The Islamic world will be better off if the West doesn’t intervene. A key example of a region that benefited from minimalism is South East Asia. This region used to be called the “Balkans of Asia” owing to Western intervention. In fact, two of the biggest wars following World War II were fought in South East Asia — the Vietnam War and the Sino-Vietnamese War. Now the region is at peace because Western intervention is at its minimum.

Multilateralism means strengthening the global multilateral institutions that the West has created, particularly the UN family of institutions, which were a gift from the West to the world. My friend Kofi Annan once said that the world is shrinking and becoming a small global village. But it is shocking to see that the West, particularly the US, is consistently undermining this. In my book, “Has the West Lost It,” I argue that it is against Western interests to undermine the world order. The West, at the end of the day, presents a minority in the global village, as 88% of the world’s population is outside the West. It is unwise for 12% of the world’s population to try and dominate the world on its own.

The third prong of a new Western strategy must be a Machiavellian approach. Former US President Bill Clinton gave a speech at Yale in 2003 in which he said that if the US has to be the world’s number one country, it can keep doing what it’s doing, and it can keep being unilateral. But if the US can conceive of a world where it’s no longer number one, and China is the number one economy, then it is surely in the US’ best interests to strengthen multilateral institutions than constrain the next big country, which is China. So, if [the West] wants to be Machiavellian and constrain China, it must strengthen multilateral institutions.

Mukhopadhyay: In your latest book, you argue that the lack of democracy in much of Asia will not hinder its rise. Asia’s economic growth and collective belief in efficient governance will enable the East to overtake the West. What about the risk of non-democratic and non-accountable institutions holding Asia back in the long run?

Mahbubani: In my view, in the long run, all countries will eventually become democratic. I don’t visualize a possibility that China will never become a democracy. The West is mistaken in wanting to make the world democratic overnight. The lesson of history is that countries have faced a disastrous situation when they tried to become democratic overnight. A good example is the former Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia became a democracy overnight. The Russian economy imploded, life expectancy in Russia went down, infant mortality went up. A lot of people suffered because of this sudden advent of democracy.

It’s always better to move to democracy slowly and gradually. China is doing the right thing in transforming society slowly. Even though China is not a democracy, the amount of personal freedom Chinese people enjoy has grown significantly. When I first went to China in 1980, Chinese people couldn’t choose what to wear, where to live, where to work, where to study, where to travel — the list of restrictions goes on. Today, the Chinese people can choose where to live, what to wear, where to work, and over a 100 million people freely travel overseas. There’s been an explosion of personal freedoms even under the Communist Party of China. China is transforming itself gradually and successfully — and China should be allowed to do so, instead of disrupting the process.

Mukhopadhyay: You spent many years working in the Singaporean government as a diplomat and were Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations. The UN is one of the West’s most powerful creations since World War II, but arguably it might also be its weakest link. What reforms must the West bring to institutions like the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to retain its pole position in the world order?

Mahbubani: I frequently speak about the East and West dynamic because the West has been trying to control the world for too long. I think this a strategic mistake. For example, you referred to the World Bank and the IMF in your question. Why is it that the World Bank, founded over 70 years ago, still insists that it must be led by an American, and why does the IMF insist that it should be led by a European — disqualifying 80% of the world’s population? Are they saying that there are no good Indians or Chinese who can run the World Bank? I think Raghuram Rajan, of India, will make a great head of the IMF. Ex-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or Montek Singh Ahluwalia could run the World Bank.

It’s crazy that you have this condition, which is, in some ways, racist. Basically, it means that if you don’t belong to the Western nations, you can’t run these institutions. The time has come for the West to stop insisting that these institutions be controlled by the West. They should learn to be more democratic and offer the remaining 88% of the world an opportunity to manage these institutions. By the rest of the world, I don’t mean just China. China doesn’t make up the majority of Asia. Of the 3.5 to 3.6 billion Asians, China makes up only 1.4 billion. The rest of Asia can also have a say in managing these global institutions.

Mukhopadhyay: So, having Western powers dominate integral institutions like the UN Security Council (UNSC) really hinders world progress?

Mahbubani: Definitely, and it’s absurd! Singapore served for two years in the UNSC when I was an ambassador to the UN. I know the UNSC very well. In theory, it has 15 members — five permanent and 10 elected members. But this dynamic also shows you how distorted the UNSC has become. It is not controlled by the elected members, it is controlled by the five permanent members — the US, UK, China, Russia and France. And you can’t remove them because they can veto their own removal.

It is absurd that the only criteria for a permanent representation in the UNSC is that you must have won World War II in 1945. Over 74 years have gone by since 1945, so why do we still see the domination of these five countries in the UNSC? I don’t object to the veto. I believe that the UNSC should have the veto, but it should not belong to yesterday’s powers — it should belong to tomorrow’s powers.

Embed from Getty Images

For example, the United Kingdom, which is slowly becoming the disunited Kingdom, should give up its permanent membership to India, because India has a bigger claim to the seat given that its economy is bigger than that of UK’s. India’s population of 1.3 billion is about 20 times larger than that of the UK. It’s absurd that the UK has given up its colonial rights in many ways but it still wants to preserve its permanent seat in the UNSC. A change is necessary.

I proposed a 7-7-7 formula for reform of the UNSC in my book, “The Great Convergence.” I also refer to this formula in “Has the West Lost It?” I have proposed that the new seven permanent members of the UNSC should be the US, Russia, China, India, Brazil and Nigeria (the latter three are the most populous states in the world), and one seat should be reserved for Europe, because it mainly operates as one economy. Therefore, the UNSC will not be dominated by the West anymore.

I have also proposed seven semi-permanent members, because when a country becomes a permanent member of the UNSC, its neighbor can object. For example, when Brazil wants to become a member, Argentina can object. If Nigeria wants to become a permanent member, South Africa can object. In the case of India, Pakistan blocks the claim. I propose a new scheme by which countries like Pakistan will become semi-permanent members of the Security Council, and they would have a permanent seat every eight years. Then there will be seven elected members from smaller states. This 7-7-7 formula will make the Security Council more representative of the 7.5 billion people of the world and not primarily the 12% who live in the West.

Mukhopadhyay: The Western media focus a lot on the political problems in Asian countries such as China, India and Pakistan. Recently, the UN Security Council discussed the revocation of Article 370, which granted special autonomous status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. What are the biggest political challenges for China and India in the long run?

Mahbubani: As I mentioned earlier, in PPP terms, the number one economy in the world is China, number three is India. By 2050, number one will be China, number two will be India, and number three will be the US. India is about to enter a geopolitical sweet spot. India will now be courted actively by both the US and China. In my book, I suggest that it’s time for India to be Machiavellian and to work out where its interests lie. Imagine a see-saw. On the see-saw, you have US and China sitting on opposite sides. The best place for India is to stand in the middle. If India puts its foot on the see-saw, it will affect the balance. For India to achieve this middle position, it needs to have equally good relations with both countries. India is capable of doing that, and if it does so, it will enhance its geopolitical usefulness, and its geopolitical weight will be far greater than that of Pakistan.

I love the Anglo-Saxon media and I think the Financial Times and The Economist are great newspapers. Nonetheless, they still reflect an Anglo-Saxon point of view. The Anglo-Saxon population of the world is confined to five countries: US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If you add up the total numbers of Anglo-Saxon population in the world, it’s about 425 million. That’s just 5% of the world’s population. But this 5% dominates the global airwaves, and they usually give you all the bad news about India and Pakistan. They will never give you the good news.

In my new book, I talk about the success stories such as the startling fall in global poverty rates. A lot of the poverty reduction has taken place in Asia. Even countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have a bad image in the Western media, have improved their economies significantly. They have achieved over 5% growth in 20 years! It’s shocking to see how these countries have improved. In the case of Malaysia, the improvement is quite stunning: Its poverty rate went down to 1.7% in 2012 from 51.2% in 1958.

Mukhopadhyay: In June 2018, Joseph Nye criticized your book in the Financial Times for making an “easy target” of the West, while giving China a “free ride.” You have repeatedly chosen to defend China and highlight the advantages of Xi Jinping’s “rational good governance.” Why did you call Xi Jinping an exemplar of good governance?

Mahbubani: Joseph Nye is an American social scientist and he believes in data. The data tells me that the only developed country where the average income of the bottom 50% has gone down over the last 30 years is the US. The country where the average income of the bottom 50% has gone up the fastest is China. You must judge good governance not in terms of good ideology, but in terms of results and its impact on the bottom 50%.

Clearly, I am not giving Xi Jinping a “free ride” — I am just providing the data. The data shows that the US has neglected its bottom 50%, and China has improved the well-being of its bottom 50% faster and more comprehensively than any other country. That’s what good governance is about. If you go by any indicator — poverty reduction, life expectancy, infant mortality — the data will show you that life expectancy is going down in the US. In China it’s the opposite. My next book, which I hope to produce next year, gives data on how the American elites have failed their working-class population. That’s why the US has elected an irrational leader, while China is lucky to have a rational leader like Xi Jinping.

Trump is attacked very much in the West for everything he does. In this case, however, I think that Trump should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for talking to Kim Jong-un.

Amartya Sen once said that if you are going to have proper development, you need the invisible hand of the free market and the visible hand of free governance. What has gone wrong in the US is that you have the invisible hand, but not the visible hand. You can find a lot of data that will show you that the US today is no longer a democracy — it’s a plutocracy, where all the wealthy make the decisions. By contrast, in both India and China, the government continues to play a significant role in the governing. That’s why the bottom 50% in India has experienced a significant improvement in the standard of living.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong suffers from the American problem where the bottom 50% of the population has not seen an improvement in their standard of living because it has become a plutocracy like the US. Good governance isn’t a fight about which country is a democracy and which isn’t. It is about which societies are taking care of the bottom 50% of the population.

Mukhopadhyay: Europe is undergoing a period of economic stagnation. Italy is on the brink of a major debt crisis, Greece has forced other European countries to question the existence of the eurozone. Post-Brexit, the UK’s economy is shrinking, and even the German economy is teetering on the brink of recession. How will the European slowdown affect the global economy? Will Asia suffer or will Europe’s loss be Asia’s gain?

Mahbubani: Both Europe and the US have to make strategic adjustments with the world to become more competitive. When India and China developed, they put in millions of workers into the global free-market system. Joseph Schumpeter calls this “creative destruction,” which is inevitable when you put new workers into the market, and other workers lose their jobs.

Europeans can still do well, but the European governments must help their people learn new skills, different from those China and India are strong in. European governments have failed to provide skills training, and this failure to take care of the working classes is the reason why the US now has a leader like Donald Trump, and in Europe populist parties are taking power. The Europeans can adjust and work with Asia, and that can be a great future for the world. I want the West to do well — I don’t want the West to fail. My book is intended to be a gift to the West and not a condemnation.

Mukhopadhyay: By imposing its version of democracy in places like Iraq, the West has caused much conflict. Does the West need to stop intervening, or should it make human rights, not geopolitics, the basis of its foreign policy?

Mahbubani: Before intervention, there’s one thing we need to address — bombing. The West needs to stop dropping bombs. China hasn’t fought a major war in 40 years, it has not fired a bullet across its border in 30 years. In contrast, even under the rule of Barack Obama, who was a peaceful American leader, in the last year of his presidency, the US dropped over 26,000 bombs on seven countries. We have to stop dropping bombs. Look at Libya. France went into Libya, the US went into Libya, and now that the country is broken, they have left.

I would like to cite a quote in my book, by an Indian diplomat, Shyam Saran, on Western intervention: “In most cases, the post-intervention situation has been rendered worse, the violence more lethal, and the suffering of the people who were supposed to be protected much more severe than before. Iraq is an earlier instance, Libya and Syria are the more recent ones. A similar story is playing itself out in Ukraine. In each case, no careful thought was given to the possible consequences of the intervention.”

All I am saying is, Why waste money and resources to kill people and make countries worse off?

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Mukhopadhyay: However, US involvement in North Korea was a positive move to curb nuclear weaponry. How can the West continue to involve itself constructively in world affairs, particularly in countries like North Korea?

Mahbubani: Here I am going to say something surprising. Trump is attacked very much in the West for everything he does. In this case, however, I think that Trump should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for talking to Kim Jong-un. And he did the right thing in doing so, because he employed diplomacy. It’s a pity that Obama didn’t go to Iran, and Clinton didn’t go to Cuba to talk to Castro. I think Donald Trump is braver than his predecessors in talking to an enemy.

Even though Trump did the right thing, he was surrounded by advisers like John Bolton, who, instead of negotiating a deal with North Korea, wanted to strong-arm the country into acceding to all US demands, without offering anything in return. Now that Trump has sacked Bolton, I hope that he goes back to North Korea. I am convinced that the North Koreans are rational people. If you give them a win-win deal and reduce sanctions, they will begin to work with the rest of the world and begin to scale back on their nuclear weapons.

Mukhopadhyay: How can the West change its misunderstanding of the East?

Mahbubani: The West needs to stop being arrogant and start listening to the East. I have published seven books and realized that there is a great paradox about the US: It has the world’s most open society, but it has a closed mind. The Americans don’t like to listen to foreign voices. There’s a kind of a bubble that American intellectuals are caught in, in which they don’t listen to foreign voices. I write sharply to break through this bubble so that they listen to foreign voices.

If the US and Europe can learn to listen to the world and break through their bubble, they will learn to listen to foreign voices. I will give you an example. When Europe and India were negotiating a free trade agreement, Europe told India that you must respect the European human rights provisions. Shashi Tharoor, a member of Parliament in India, gave a brilliant response and said: “I am convinced that if Europe were to insist on imposing conditionality of such a sort on the FTA, then India would refuse to cooperate. You can’t forget history, you can’t forget that for 200 years others have led India’s business and politics, and it is much more important for us to insist on our own rights than to strike an FTA. As simple as that.”

Therefore, it’s time for the West to stop being arrogant toward the East and start listening.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member