Friday, October 22, 2010

A Talk with Kishore Mahbubani

This past Tuesday, Kishore Mahbubani came to talk at Yale. He was the Singaporean permanent representative in the UN Security Council and currently he is the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Mr. Mahbubani is extremely forward thinking and has written articles and books about the idea that the West in in decline while Asia is rising. I found his speech fascinating. Here were his main points:

  • Historical eras change rapidly. Power and dominance can decline in the blink of an eye. For example, he has lived through the fall of the British colonial empire, the Cold War era, and the rise of America.
  • Western dominance has actually been an anomaly in history. Before the year 1820, for thousands of years, the two largest economies in the world were China and India. The last two hundred years of Western rise has been a historical aberration.
  • The coming era will signify the end of western triumphalism. America reached its peak in the 80's and 90's - now we have to manage our decline. What is happening today in Asia is analogous to the Industrial Revolution in Europe - but look at the scale. In Europe, living standards increased by 50% in one lifetime. However, in Asia today, living standards are jumping by 10,000% during one lifetime.
  • Why is the change occurring now? Asia is adopting what Mahbubani calls the "7 Pillars of Western Wisdom": free market economics, mastery of science and technology, culture of pragmatism, meritocracy, culture of peace, rule of law, and spread of education. These factors build upon each other to create te massive rise and development of Asia.
The challenge today is to find a way to reshape the global order without conflict. For example, right now global institutions are very western-dominated. The IMF and the World bank have requirements that the leaders must be European or American. France and the U.K. are permanent members of the UN Security Council though they are no longer major players on the world stage.

What about democracy? Mr. Mahbubani also warns us to "be careful what you wish for." Right now everyone wants democracy to spread all over the world. However, there are 5.8 billion other individuals out there. If they all got a say, the world may not be as friendly to Americans as it now is. For example, he claims that a completely democratic China would be an extremely nationalistic China, and that right now the Communist Party is carefully controlling its population and keeping it stable. Democracy will come later when the country itself is ready for it. He provides the example of the U.S. - we took 200 hundred years to reach full democracy.

These are all fascinating ideas that really bring us a new perspective. What do you think of the rise of Asia? Is it inevitable? Will it be bad news for the U.S.?

The image is courtesy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.


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  2. I actually briefly met Mr. Mahbubani once; he seemed like a nice fellow. The rise of East Asian nations has been very dramatic. It's amazing to think that Korea 50 years ago was in the bottom 20 economies if the world. At one point they were so poor they were receiving emergency food aid from countries like Vietnam and Laos. Now they're in the G20. It's also interesting to think how much China is going to grow as well. When I went there with my mom, she remarked how similar China is now to how Korea was about 20 years ago. I imagine that in 20 years China will be a full-fledged industrialized nation rivaling the U.S.
    I also liked Mahbubani's point about Asia's adaptation of free market economies. I would argue that China is actually more capitalist than the U.S. China nationalizes its entire industry, whereas the U.S. only nationalizes its failing ones (GM, Amtrak, etc.) As history has shown, the big world powers fall not because of military defeat, but because of economic collapse. Unless the U.S. makes some big changes regarding the national debt, I think it's only a matter of time before we succumb to what the Soviets and the British Empire went through.

  3. As a response to Aaron - I don't think you are accurate when you mention that only a few people are actually gaining power. While it's true that many people at lower economic levels are hurt by modernization (think of destroying homes to build skyscrapers), there is a definite rise of the middle class in China, and they have a growing economic power. Many more people are demanding cars, electronics, washing machines; more people have access to the internet. More people are becoming college-educated and have opportunities to study or work abroad. China is increasingly aware of its role in the world. The rest of Asia is experiencing a similar phenomenon. When you have a continent of a huge population of people starting to rise to the same living standards as the West, it will be difficult to not see any shifts of political or military power.

    Also, I don't understand your point about how the U.S. and Britain didn't follow the 7 pillars? In what way?

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  6. I grew up with people crying all around me, "It's the century of the Chinese! It's the century of the Chinese!"

    I HATED it. The way it is spoken, it's like the Chinese are dominating the world, and that kind of scared me, and also I couldn't help thinking, "What about Koreans, damn it? And poor Americans!"

    But honestly, I think there isn't really gonna be a clear dominance. This world is getting flatter and flatter, and while rivalry between countries are getting stiffer and stiffer, the world has become such that there will be a balanced global dependence on each other. At least, that's what I hope. I'm sick of "eras".

    Though...the fact that that guy lived through the fall of the British colonial empire, the Cold War era, and the rise of kinda cool.

  7. Ben - what do you mean that China is actually more capitalist if it nationalizes its whole economy? Wouldn't that make it more socialist? It's really cool that you got to meet Mr. Mahbubhani though.

  8. Sorry for spamming the wall. My night-writing looked like gibberish. The gist of my view is that Mahbubhani is taking a Western-biased and neoliberal stance, which ignores how wealth is created and concentrated. His description of power as simply changing hands over time through anomalous events lacks persuasion, especially when historical records can show how, for example, the British losses during the World Wars made maintenance of their empire an impossibility. I would like to see more scientific reasoning needs to be applied. Also, his point about Pillars of Western Wisdom, basically a plug for the Free Market, is historically inaccurate. I would recommend Ha-Joon Chang, an economist from Cambridge: . I think his logic is sound.

  9. Aaron - I think you definitely bring up credible points. It's true that it's ironic how Mr. Mahbubhani emphasizes the 7 pillars of western wisdom as the cause for Asia's rise while he also maintains that the East has been the dominant power for most of world history. If you are interested, you should read his book, as I'm sure he makes much more nuanced points about the topic, whereas I am just providing a very concise summary.

  10. Thanks Molly, I think I might check out his book. And I'll try to make more focused points in the future.