Today's date:
Summer 2008

Be Wary of Asian Triumphalism

Anne-Marie Slaughter is dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Washington — Kishore Mahbubani loves to play the provocateur, and his analysis of Asia's inevitable rise and America's imminent decline should be read in that light. He has already ruffled the feathers of many of his former colleagues in the Singapore foreign office, some of whom are giving speeches warning against "Asian triumphalism."

From my point of view, triumphalism goes before a fall in both East and West, so Mahbubani should be wary of Asia's catching America's disease.

But three quick points in response to Mahbubani. First, he talks about the "West," but what he really means is the United States. In his book he ignores Europe almost completely—that conglomerate of 27 nations, 500 million people, and a GDP of $16.8 trillion (although we should really now measure GDP in euros, fast becoming the world's second reserve currency)—an amount estimated to be 30 percent of the world's GDP.

When he does mention Europe, he dismisses it as yesterday's news. That's a huge mistake. The subtitle of Mahbubani's book is The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the Asian Hemisphere. But if the world is divided into two hemispheres, one of them Asian, then the other is the transatlantic hemisphere, which includes Europe (all the way to Russia and really to the Urals), North America, Central and South America and Africa. If I look down the decades of the 21st century, I wouldn't exactly count that hemisphere out, particularly as trade and investment increasingly flow north-south as well as east-west.

Second, although Mahbubani is right to say that it is essential to reform global institutions—the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the G-8—to give Asia full representation and say, he conveniently overlooks a critical fact. The vast majority of the calls for reforming these institutions are coming from Western scholars and officials. One of the key blockers of the last round of proposed Security Council reforms from 2004-2006, which would have finally brought in India, Brazil, South Africa, and other developing countries, was China— Mahbubani's number-one example of the power shift to Asia—because it could not countenance the idea of Japan joining the Security Council.

And whenever Western scholars ask their Asian counterparts what they would like to see in the way of reforms—do they want a G-13? A G-16, a G-20? What do they propose for the Security Council and the IMF, we get a cautious response that essentially asks the West to take the lead. At least from the Chinese perspective, as G. John Ikenberry has argued so persuasively in his last Foreign Affairs article, China wants to integrate into the current Western order, not create one of its own.

Which brings me to my third point and one of the deeper underlying problems with Mahbubani's argument. It is an argument that makes sense for Singapore, which is already completely developed and ready to play a much more powerful role in shaping global events. The problem is that it is tiny, so it must work through larger Asian institutions. Its government officials are the smartest and most competent I have ever met—a league in which Mahbubani belongs. Unfortunately, those great Asian powers that Kishore wants to take the reins of global domination in the 21st century are far from ready, other than Japan, which is neither psychologically ready nor suitable for historical reasons.

You need only to have lived in China recently, with the awful stream of pictures from the earthquake—pictures of soldiers trying to lift fallen buildings with their bare hands to unearth the tens of thousands of victims below in mountain villages so inaccessible that they have not been able even to reach the epicenter yet—to be reminded of how far China has to go. It has accomplished extraordinary things, but it has vast tasks ahead. A trip from Shanghai, China's most Western and in many ways most developed city, to Singapore quickly highlights the differences between developing and developed.

Mahbubani is frustrated, a frustration I understand, that "the West" does not seem to be paying enough political attention to the East. A book as provocative as his may help change the conversation. But the future of global power will not involve a zero-sum shift of power from West to East, but rather a negotiated, positive-sum integration [see Richard Haass's The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course] of many new powers, East and West, into a more effective, dynamic and representative global order.

P.S.: I deliberately wrote this before reading G. John Ikenberry's response to Mahbubani, just to see how I might come out differently. Not surprisingly, I see that we agree, as usual, on many key points. He is absolutely right about what the US now needs to do in terms of thinking through ourselves, and with others, about what kind of international order we all want in 2050.