“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.