NPR.org, May 2, 2008 · Introduction
The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.
—JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES, ENGLISH ECONOMIST (1883–1946), IN THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST AND MONEY
The rise of the West transformed the world. The rise of Asia will bring about an equally significant transformation. This book describes why Asia is rising now, how it will alter the world, and why the West, even though it should celebrate Asia’s rise, will have great difficulties adjusting to these changes. It will also suggest some prescriptions for managing the obvious new challenges coming our way.
The rise of Asia will be good for the world. Hundreds of millions of people will be rescued from the clutches of poverty. China’s modernization has already reduced the number of Chinese living in absolute poverty from six hundred million to two hundred million. India’s growth is also making an equally significant impact. Indeed, one key reason why the United Nations (UN) will actually meet one of its Millennium Development Goals of reducing global poverty by half by 2015 will be the success of China and India in reducing poverty significantly. By the standards of any Western moral philosopher, from the British utilitarian philosophers of the nineteenth century to the moral imperatives of Immanuel Kant, it is clear that the rise of Asia has brought more "goodness" into the world. In purely ethical terms, the West should welcome the transformation of the Asian condition.
But the benefits of Asia’s rise are more than ethical. The world as a whole will become more peaceful and stable. In September 2005 Robert Zeollick, the new president of the World Bank, called on China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. Since then, China has responded positively to this call. Indeed, most Asians want to become responsible stakeholders in the international system. Recent decades have demonstrated that Asians have become among the greatest beneficiaries of the open multilateral order created by America and the victors of World War II in 1945. Few Asian societies today want to destabilize a system that has helped them.
The word "modernization" will be used frequently in this book and will be defined fully in chapter 1. But any Western reader should intuitively understand what this term means. It describes both the physical and the ethical universe of Western societies. The really good news for the world is that the modernization of Asia is beginning to spread to all corners of the continent. Half a century ago, there appeared to be only two modern societies in Asia, at its eastern and western extremities: Japan and Israel. Between them lay a sea of humanity that seemed indifferent to modernization and growth. But Japan’s example triggered a whole series of Asian success stories. First Japan was emulated by the four economic tigers: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. When China began to be aware that countries on its periphery were doing better than it was, it decided to join them by launching its own "Four Modernizations" program. For the past three decades, China has had the fastest growing economy in the world.
China’s success has in turn also inspired the rise of India. Now, billions of Asians are marching to modernity.
The even better news for the world is that this March to Modernity is poised to enter the Islamic world of Western Asia too. It is only a matter of time before it spreads from India to Pakistan and then to Iran. All of Asia may well be modernized in the twenty-first century. If this happens, Israel will not be left as a lonely outpost of modernity in
Western Asia. It could eventually have equally modernized neighbors. This may seem like a wild dream, but it is vital to understand that Asia’s growth and success in the past few decades have exceeded most Asians’ wildest dreams. This book, written by a realist, is underpinned by optimism about Asia’s role in the global future. Generally Asians today do not have to be convinced to be optimistic. This creates a new global paradox: up until recently the most optimistic societies of the world have been Western societies, but they seem to be losing their optimism, at a point in time when they should be celebrating the galloping modernization of the world.
The term "the West" will be used frequently in this book. Often, when I refer to Western policies, some will respond that I am speaking primarily of American policies. Given the enormity of U.S. power, American policies naturally dominate. But there is also an implicit compact between America and Europe as well as with the Anglo-Saxon states of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand on global policies. One of the least understood (and surprisingly least studied) phenomena is how the West often functions as a single entity on global issues. On fundamental challenges Western nations work together. Witness, for example, how the West came together on Afghanistan. Canadian and European soldiers are dying in defense of policies initiated by America. This is powerful solidarity.
When many Western eyes peer into the twenty-first century, they see only dark images, not a new dawn in the history of human civilization. This is a strange development. For the past few centuries, the West has been by far the most open and resilient civilization, during which it has largely carried the world on its shoulders. It was the West that triggered the Asian March to Modernity, so it should be cheering this positive new direction of world history. Instead, leading Western minds are filled with dread and foreboding. I hope to explain this reversal.
Evidently, Asia and the West have yet to reach a common understanding about the nature of this new world. The need to develop one has never been greater. We are now entering one of the most plastic moments of world history. The decisions we make today could determine the course of the twenty-first century. Never before have we had as much potential as we have today to create a better world for the 6.5 billion people who inhabit our planet. The explosion of knowledge, especially in science and technology, has delivered this opportunity. It is also clear that the mental maps of the leading minds of the world, especially in the West, are trapped in the past, reluctant or unable to conceive of the possibility that they may have to change their worldview. But unless they do, they will make strategic mistakes, perhaps on a disastrous scale.
The decision by the United States and the United Kingdom to invade Iraq in March 2003 was one such mistake. It is possible to argue convincingly that the Americans and British intended only to free the Iraqi people from a despotic ruler and to rid the world of a dangerous man, Saddam Hussein. Neither Bush nor Blair had malevolent intentions, yet their mental approach was trapped in a limited cultural context: the Western mindset. Many leading American minds truly believed that invading American troops would be welcomed with rose petals thrown on the streets by happy Iraqis. Yet the grain of history had been irrevocably changed in the second half of the twentieth century: no country today welcomes foreign invaders. The notion that any Islamic nation would welcome Western military boots on its soil is ridiculous. The invasion and especially the occupation of Iraq will be remembered as a colossally botched operation. Even if it had been well-executed, it was doomed to failure because while the British could successfully invade and occupy Iraq in the early twentieth century (in 1921 to be exact), no Western army could successfully repeat this in the early twenty-first century. In 1920, as secretary for war and air, Winston Churchill had responsibility for quelling the rebellion of Kurds and Arabs in British-occupied Iraq, which he achieved by authorizing the use of poison gas. Churchill said, "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes." If Blair had tried the same actions in 2003, he would have been crucified. The world has moved on from this era. Western mindsets have not abandoned the old assumption that an army of Christian soldiers can invade, occupy, and transform an Islamic society.
For most of the previous three centuries, the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were objects of world history. The decisions that drove history were made in a few key Western capitals, most often London, Paris, Berlin, and Washington, DC. The misnamed World War I and World War II were carried out without consulting the majority of the world’s populations. They were co-opted into fundamentally European wars—at least until Japanese aggression appeared in China and the Pacific. Today, the 5.6 billion people who live outside the Western universe will no longer accept decisions made on their behalf in Western capitals.
So, will the twenty-first century be seen as a moment of historical triumph for the West or a moment of historical defeat? The answer cannot be given now. It will depend on how the West reacts to the rise of Asia. The number of people in the world who are seeking the Western dream of a comfortable middle-class existence has never been higher. For centuries, the Chinese and Indians could not aspire to it. Now more and more believe that it is within their reach. Their ideal is to achieve what America and Europe achieved. They want to replicate, not dominate, the West.
The universalization of the Western dream should therefore represent a moment of triumph for the West. Yet many Western leaders begin their speeches by remarking how "dangerous" the world is becoming. President Bush said in August 2006, "The American people need to know we live in a dangerous world." Other Western leaders have made similar statements. The French minister of foreign affairs, Michel Barnier, stated in February 2005, "We have so many challenges to take up at the same time, in this world which is dangerous, unstable and in disarray." The Canadian ambassador to the United States, Michael Wilson, said, "In an age where the world has become a smaller, more dangerous place, Canada is stepping up to the plate, refocusing our efforts on the new threats facing our people." These statements reflect a new Western zeitgeist: the belief that the world is becoming more dangerous.
One of the great strengths of Western civilization is its belief that societies progress best when they do not become trapped in any ideology.This is how the West believed it achieved one of its greatest triumphs: the Soviet Union imploded because it was trapped in a dead ideology. Western societies, by contrast, were more rational and open to new ideas, never trapped in any ideological straitjackets.
Paradoxically, in the post–Cold War era, the West seems to have become an ideologically driven entity. The iconization of democracy—an unquestionably virtuous idea—became an ideological crusade that insisted democracy could be exported to any society everywhere in the world, regardless of its stage of political development. Disasters followed in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. A conservative Republican, Congressman Henry Hyde, bluntly pointed out that ideological ambition had been allowed to trump common sense and experience: "We also have a duty to ourselves and to our interests, the protection and advancement of which may sometimes necessitate actions focused on more tangible returns than those of altruism. Lashing our interests to the indiscriminate promotion of democracy is a tempting but unwarranted strategy, more a leap of faith than a sober calculation." He further added, "We can and have used democracy as a weapon to destabilize our avowed enemies and may do so again. But if we unleash revolutionary forces in the expectation that the result can only be beneficent, I believe we are making a profound and perhaps uncorrectable mistake. History teaches that revolutions are dangerous things, more often destructive than benign, and uncontrollable by their very nature."
The great paradox about failed Western attempts to export democracy to other societies is that in the broadest sense of the term, the West has actually succeeded in democratizing the world. One key goal of democracy is to empower its citizens and make them believe that they are the masters of their own destiny. The number of people in the world who believe this has never been higher. Even in the "undemocratic" society of China, citizens have seized the opportunities provided by the new economic freedoms they enjoy to completely change their lives. The same is true in India: the government has now increased the list of economic freedoms. In global terms, there has been a huge democratization of the human spirit. The West should be celebrating this, not berate countries about imperfect voting practices.
One reason above all explains why the West hesitates to celebrate the great democratization of the human spirit. It is keenly aware that if this trend continues, a great day of reckoning must come. As the spirit of democratization gathers strength and more and more human beings take charge of their own destinies, they will increasingly question the undemocratic world order they live in. Samuel Huntington effectively described this world order. Two sentences from his famous essay "The Clash of Civilizations" explain the current situation: "In the politics of civilization, the peoples and governments of non-Western civilization no longer remain the objects of history as targets of Western colonization but join the West as movers and shapers of history." He then adds, "The West in effect is using international institutions, military power and economic resources to run the world in ways that will maintain Western predominance, protect Western interests and promote Western political and economic values." He’s right. The rest of the world is beginning to realize it. Left unchanged it’s a recipe for disaster.
From The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East © 2008 by Kishore Mahbubani
Topic: The Rise of Asia and the Decline of the West (60 minutes )