“Today, the massive forces unleashed by globalization are creating a new global civilization,” Mahbubani writes in the introduction to his new book. “We are building a new and better civilization.”
Such claims leave the reader wondering what part of the world he is seeing. Global civilization is little in evidence these days in conflicts or potential conflicts from Syria and Mali to Israel and Iran. In fairness to Mahbubani, he does sometimes add the narrowing qualifier that he is referring to “major interstate wars,” and so perhaps Mali doesn’t count. But a considerable number of people have been worrying in recent weeks about war breaking out between China and Japan, and that would certainly count. So where is Mahbubani’s comfortable optimism coming from?
There is a short answer to that question: He brings the perspective of Davos, the annual session of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland where the world’s business and political elites gather for informal discussions of the future of the world. In those confines, prime ministers, business leaders and bankers can look at those around them from other parts of the world and plausibly conclude that they are becoming more and more alike. From this lofty perspective, what happens in Syria may seem of little consequence in the worldwide rush to convergence. Mahbubani refers to Davos and to his panels there for his evidence of how the world works.
The elitism is similarly explicit. “It helps enormously when leaders of different countries have been trained at Harvard or Yale, Columbia or Stanford,” he writes. “Today, getting into Harvard and Yale represents the aspirations of elites all over the world.”
One would think that, if true, this would raise a lot of questions. There is a long-standing debate, outside of this book, on whether attendance at elite Western educational institutions makes students from abroad more inclined to want to be like the West or to become resentful of it. Mahbubani seems to assume that the former is true, but he personally exemplifies the latter.
For underneath his benign theme of “convergence” lie some of the older, angrier, more provocative ideas he put forward in the past. Mahbubani, who served as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations, was, in the 1990s, a leading proponent of the notion of “Asian values.” He fumes at the arrogance of the West. In his earlier writing, including a book called “Can Asians Think?,” he argued that the West places too much value on freedom, democracy and individualism. Asians, he contended, think differently; they place a higher value on order, stability and authoritarianism.
Mahbubani seems reluctant to revive the old Asian-values debate in “The Great Convergence.” Indeed, responding to an Economist article that described his earlier book as an “anti-Western polemic,” he asserts that “I have always been and I will always remain a great friend of the West.”
Yet at times his old ideas, which also display a deep sympathy for the Chinese leadership, show through. “Although China is still a somewhat politically closed society, it is a closed society with an open mind,” he writes. “America may be an open society, but it is an open society with a closed mind.” He remains convinced that it is possible to speak of an entire continent such as Asia as having a “mind,” glossing over the question of whether, say, Chinese or Singaporeans have the same “mind” as Indians, Japanese or Koreans. “It will take some time — perhaps a century or more — before we understand the full difference between Asian and Western minds,” he asserts.
This stress on fundamental, enduring differences would seem to contradict to Mahbubani’s theories of convergence. Yet it turns out that when he talks about convergence, he has a particular meaning in mind. He doesn’t really mean two forces moving equally toward one another, but rather the West changing its attitudes and behavior. “The West,” he writes, needs to “get off the proverbial moral ‘high horse’ and notice that it’s walking on the same moral ground as the rest of the world.”
His intense preoccupation with the Asian mind and with the failings and decline of the West drowns out the more programmatic portions of Mahbubani’s book. He complains that the world’s international organizations are unfairly skewed in the West’s favor. There is no reason that the managing director of the International Monetary Fund should always come from France or that the World Bank president should always be an American. He thinks the U.N. Security Council’s permanent membership should be reshaped and expanded from five countries (the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom) to seven (the United States, China, Russia, the European Union, India, Nigeria and Brazil). He ignores Japan and Germany, and breezes past the huge problem of whether and how to persuade the British and French to give up their seats.
“The one irrefutable lesson of thousands of years of geopolitics is that no great power is benign,” he declares. “It will always seek to pursue or secure its interests.” But if this is true — if nations refuse to give up their interests — then the “great convergence” and “one world” of which Mahbubani writes will not amount to much.
is an author in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is “The Obamians.”