Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Summary by Richard C. Longworth

Kishore MahbubaniThe good news, according to Kishore Mahbubani, is that the rest of the world, left behind during the last two Western-dominated centuries, is fast rising to Western standards of middle-class wealth and governance. The problem, he said, is that America and the West must meet this new “convergence” by abandoning their dominance of world institutions and agreeing to a true system of global governance. 

For American presidents and other Western leaders, Mahbubani told a Chicago Council audience Wednesday evening, this policy switch is politically perilous. But he argued eloquently that the world today is no longer 193 separate nations, but 193 passengers on the same boat – and that boat is sailing without a captain. 

Mahbubani, the former Singapore ambassador to the United Nations, is now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. But as Council President Marshall Bouton said in his introduction, he occupies a unique role as the leading interpreter of Asia and Asian attitudes to Western audiences. He is a regular on American television and a frequent author, most recently of his new book, The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World

Bouton, an old friend, called Mahbubani “a global public intellectual, the intellectual herald of a rising Asia and what this means for the world.”

Much of what this means makes for uncomfortable listening for Americans, and Mahbubani frequently apologized for being “provocative” – before going on to be provocative.

Basically, he said, “we live in a world of two narratives.” One is the Western narrative, representing 12 percent of humanity. Once this was an optimistic narrative, but the West, especially America, used its dominance to weaken the United Nations and other world bodies and to enhance its economic and military power. 

Suddenly, he said, there’s another narrative, of the other 88 percent, not only Asia but Africa and Latin America, which have awakened in the past 20 years to close the economic gap and demand a voice in global affairs. 

“Now, if you need optimism, you have to go outside the West,” he said. “If you look at the world through the eyes of the 88 percent, things have never looked so good.”

All this is good news, Mahbubani said. It embraces a dramatic reduction in wars between nations, real progress toward UN Millennium Development Goal of halving absolute poverty by 2015, and “an explosion of the middle class globally.” Right now, he said, 500 million Asians enjoy a middle-class standard of life. Within only seven years, this will more than triple to 1.75 billion people, he said. By 2040, more than half of humanity will be middle class.

“The world has seen nothing like this before,” he said.” It’s an amazing transformation in the human condition.” 

Why is this happening? Because, he said, of the “great convergence.” 

“The whole world,” he said, “is converging on a consensual cluster of norms.” By this, he meant the global acceptance of modern science; the spread of reason and logic; the dominance of free-market economics, especially in China; the change in the “social contract between rulers and the ruled,” exemplified by the Arab Spring, with once-passive people rejecting dictatorial rule; and the growth of multi-lateralism in global governance.

But this governance hasn’t kept pace, he said, largely because of Western opposition, especially from the Washington. UN agencies that could deal with global problems – global warming, for instance, or the control of diseases and nuclear weapons – are deliberately kept weak.

Because of this, he said, “fixing the world is very easy. We only need to flip one switch.” That switch would reverse the traditional Western policy of keeping multilateral institutions as weak as possible, and work instead to strengthen those institutions.

This is in America’s national interest, Mahbubani argued. First, this “great convergence” is a convergence not only toward Western living standards but toward Western values, such as free-market economics, largely led by elites educated in American universities. Now that the rest of the world is catching up, Americans are “becoming a minority in the group of the rich. It’s in your national interest to strengthen multi-lateral institutions,” if only to seek protection from newly-dominant nations in Asia and elsewhere.

“The American project is succeeding,” Mahbubani said in an interview before his speech. “The rest of the world is moving in your direction, the right direction. But the advanced nations have to make adjustments.” 

Past presidents, such as Bill Clinton, recognized the need for America to adjust to a less dominant role in the world, but feared to say so while in office. Now it’s President Obama’s turn, Mahbubani said. 

“Obama has failed to educate the American people” to this epochal global shift, he said. “Obama should become braver. Initially, he’ll be vilified. But he has to tell the American people the truth.”

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy and global issues. Views expressed in event summaries are solely those of the author, not The Chicago Council, which takes no institutional positions.


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