States still com­pete in con­nected times

The Great Con­ver­gence: Asia, the West and the Logic of One World

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Switzer Tom Switzer,

By Kishore Mah­bubani Pub­lic Af­fairs, 315pp, $26.99

TWENTY years ago, the dis­tin­guished Amer­i­can aca­demic Sa­muel Hunt­ing­ton put for­ward a con­tro­ver­sial the­ory of the post-Cold War era. The fun­da­men­tal source of con­flict, he pre­dicted, would not be pre­dom­i­nantly ide­o­log­i­cal or eco­nomic but cul­tural.

The ‘‘ clash of civil­i­sa­tions’’ would dom­i­nate global af­fairs and the fault lines be­tween civil­i­sa­tions — es­pe­cially Is­lam and Con­fu­cian cul­tures against the dom­i­nant West — would rep­re­sent the strate­gic flash­points of the fu­ture.

Sin­ga­porean aca­demic Kishore Mah­bubani hardly men­tions the Hunt­ing­ton the­sis in The Great Con­ver­gence, but the mes­sage of his book is strik­ingly at odds with the Har­vard pro­fes­sor’s dour at­tempts to in­ter­pret the char­ac­ter of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions in the post-com­mu­nist world. In spite of the con­tem­po­rary doom and gloom in much of the Western world, Mah­bubani in­sists, the forces of progress, peace and pros­per­ity are re­shap­ing in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

Whereas Hunt­ing­ton be­lieved we were head­ing to­wards a par­tic­u­lar­is­tic world of civil­i­sa­tions in which dif­fer­ences would be stressed, not soft­ened, and which would al­low plenty of scope for con­flict and vi­o­lence, Mah­bubani is far more san­guine. The in­te­gra­tive and pa­cific con­se­quences of mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism and tech­no­log­i­cal progress, he says, are more likely to re­duce the civil­i­sa­tional dif­fer­ences and end national di­vi­sions of the past.

This is a global con­ver­gence, one that is driven by rapidly ris­ing liv­ing stan­dards. Never have there been less hunger and dis­ease or more lit­er­acy and pros­per­ity. Not­with­stand­ing the slug­gish US and Euro­pean economies, most de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are surg­ing ahead, and peo­ple are be­ing lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll in­flicted by armed con­flict and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters is also mer­ci­fully low.

Whereas in 1990 one bil­lion hu­mans earned enough in­come to con­sider mak­ing dis­cre­tionary pur­chases be­yond mere ne­ces­sity, by 2010 the fig­ure had more than dou­bled. Whereas in 1990 there were 11 mil­lion mo­bile phone sub­scrip­tions, to­day there are 5.5 bil­lion. And whereas 500 mil­lion peo­ple have emerged from poverty re­cently in Asia alone, that num­ber will in­crease to about 1.75 bil­lion by 2020.

Ac­cord­ing to Mah­bubani, na­tions are so in­ter­meshed and so in­te­grated that con­flict and com­pe­ti­tion are be­ing re­placed by con­ver­gence and com­ple­men­tar­ity. In­stead of the sep­a­ra­tion that once fos­tered ig­no­rance and in­se­cu­rity, there will be grow­ing fa­mil­iar­ity and un­der­stand­ing. ‘‘ To­day, the mas­sive forces un­leashed by glob­al­i­sa­tion are cre­at­ing a new global civil­i­sa­tion,’’ he writes. ‘‘ We are build­ing a new and bet­ter civil­i­sa­tion’’ where the ‘‘ logic of one world’’ is ‘‘ con­verg­ing to­wards peace’’.

The shift­ing power from West to East, he urges, strength­ens the case for re­form­ing global in­sti­tu­tions such as the UN, the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund and World Bank. Specif­i­cally, we need a ‘‘ global par­lia­ment’’ that, far from con­form­ing to the ex­pec­ta­tions of the five UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil pow­ers, truly unites re­gions and civil­i­sa­tions.

That means Amer­i­cans will not only need to come to terms with their na­tion’s sta­tus as No 2 be­hind China (whose share of global eco­nomic power is sched­uled to sur­pass the US by 2017), they will also need to learn to share power with the rapidly ris­ing nonWestern world.

A dis­tin­guished scholar and for­mer diplo­mat, Mah­bubani is one of the world’s most thoughtful and so­phis­ti­cated thinkers. But is he over­stat­ing his claim that eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal con­ver­gence will change the chem­istry of the world? Will a vastly greater vol­ume of in­ter­ac­tion be­tween na­tions and peo­ples lead to a more har­mo­nious and peace­ful world or­der? Or could it mean more frag­men­ta­tion and con­flict?

A cen­tury ago, English paci­fist Nor­man An­gell made sim­i­lar ar­gu­ments about the de­gree of in­te­gra­tion in Europe to main­tain war had be­come un­think­able. Yet World War I, which fol­lowed shortly af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of An­gell’s best­selling book, The Great Il­lu­sion, proved eco­nomic in­ter­re­la­tion­ships are some­times no match for national loy­al­ties and pri­mor­dial forces.

More­over, some of the most sav­age wars have been civil wars, and it’s a fair bet the peo­ple in­volved knew each other well. Th­ese days, no two groups know each bet­ter than the Sun­nis and Shi’ites of post-Sad­dam Iraq — un­less they are the Alaw­ites and Sun­nis of As­sad’s Syria. One could take the ar­gu­ment fur­ther and point out the most in­ter­de­pen­dent so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion is the fam­ily; and yet many mur­ders oc­cur in fam­i­lies. As most lon­glast­ing cou­ples will at­test, the key to a suc­cess­ful re­la­tion­ship is to give each other some space.

Mah­bubani rightly wel­comes the spread of democ­racy that rep­re­sents the birth of a global mid­dle class. As for his pro­pos­als for global so­lu­tions to global prob­lems, how­ever, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that le­git­i­mate demo­cratic sovereignty rests ul­ti­mately not with in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions or global gov­ern­ments but with the cit­i­zens of na­tion-states. And al­though the US has big prob­lems, no other power is ca­pa­ble of as­sert­ing it­self across the globe.

None of this is meant to dis­miss Mah­bubani’s sound ob­ser­va­tions on con­tem­po­rary global life. The world is in­deed liv­ing in a golden age. But one does not need to subscribe to Hunt­ing­ton’s the­sis to be scep­ti­cal of Mah­bubani’s new world. In a world of com­pet­ing states, in­se­cu­rity and clash­ing in­ter­ests are in­evitable.

Kishore Mah­bubani

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