Book Review: Has the West lost it? A Provocation

I met prolific author, public intellectual, former diplomat, and first dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (University of Singapore), Kishore Mahbubani, for an hour at the Conrad Hotel in Hong Kong, after a morning interview with CNN. He engages smoothly with a sweeping view of history, ready statistics, and savvy realpolitik.

The slim 100-page Penguin paperback can be read in two sittings. It is clear, concise, and easy to absorb for the general reader on how the West can convert a potentially catastrophic geopolitical clash into a win-win compact. All humanity will frizzle if the nuclear-terminators USA and China collide by misjudgment or Mr. Bean mishap.

“Minimalism, Multilateralism & Machiavellian” is Mahbubani’s prescription for the “West” to deal with the rising Rest. In the post-Cold War context, that refers primarily to the faceoff between the USA and China, with the Russian bear growling and India ambivalent in the background. The dicey re-balancing needs wisdom to manage.

Define superpower norms

By “minimalism,” Kishore counsels non-interference in conflicts except as part of a synchronized effort to restore peace, through multilateral consensus forged at the United Nations. He urges reinforcement of multilateral institutions, for a robust framework of rules that will constrain all superpowers tempted to solo adventurism.

That is the Machiavellian “strategic cunning” he urges the declining West to leverage while it still can, through multilateral engagement and rules-based behavior to lock the rising superpower into the same universal code. The cycle of history is spinning away from the West. Nothing can stop or reverse that. Kishore’s book is a wake-up call.

The anomalies in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) he feels should be redressed to reflect the new realities. He sees the permanent seats for the UK and France as “one of the manifest absurdities of our times.” He has argued in another book “The Great Convergence” for India to replace the UK, and France to share with the EU.

In Kishore’s perspective, the Tiananmen massacre on June 1989; the collapse of the Berlin Wall in Oct 1989; and disintegration of the USSR in 1990 made the West complacent. Western policy analysts missed the fact that China, instead of shuttering after Tiananmen 1989, continued opening up to international trade. India liberalized too.

China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. A billion Chinese entering the global labor force was a game-changer. Western corporations embraced lower costs and higher profits. The Western working class was abandoned. That intensified inequality and provoked distrust in ruling elites. Populism rose for Trump and Brexit.

More distraction

The 9/11 World Trade Center attacks in 2001 freaked the US into the “War on Terror” and ill-advised interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Mahbubani points out that the Islamic world is not the primary enemy. China is what the US should be focusing on as the prime economic competitor. There is strategic confusion.

US adventurism was funded by the “extraordinary privilege” of printing more dollars through persistent budget deficits, without gold reserves to back up. The greenback is the de facto currency of world trade. Globalization entrenched that “extraordinary privilege.” Will the American global trade dominance grow or recede?

Share power, coexist

While it may be painful for the US to adjust to the erosion of its post-Cold War status, framing how the next rising superpower behaves is a vital strategic calculus that Washington must master in its own interest. Kishore hopes his book will spark a deep review within the US establishment. The dysfunctional Trumpian twitter aside, he remains optimistic.

When I raised the cluelessness of the average American about international matters, Kishore replied “The American public is ignorant and disengaged from geopolitics. On the other hand, the American Security Establishment is ignorant and fully engaged.” The US squanders its wealth and goodwill on unnecessary wars abroad.

World history has reached a point, Kishore believes, of major economic and military disruption. It has turned the corner to a new reality. He refers to the “aberration” of the brief 200 years of Western colonization. From AD 1 to 1820, China and India dominated global economic wealth. The McKinsey historical chart of World GDP maps that starkly.

Another chart of national wealth from 1980-2022 measuring PPP (purchasing power parity) cited by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times shows China and India restoring their natural global leadership. That will revert the balance of world power to what was, as the ‘new normal.’ Kishore does not see this as necessarily a zero-sum game.

Not the end of history

The breakup of the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, in Kishore’s reckoning, led to a smug triumphalism for the US and its European allies. Francis Fukuyama’s celebrated essay, “The End of History?” further compounded that hubris, rendering the West “brain dead” in Kishore’s view. They fell asleep on Fukuyama opium.

Fukuyama declared the end of the Cold War as confirming the ideological superiority of Western liberal democracy and free market economics – which he argued would be the default global benchmark as the peak of governance. In the heady euphoria following the collapse of the Soviet threat, Fukuyama indeed seemed the final word.

The rocket-like rise of China, however, stumped the Fukuyama thesis. China showed the fastest developmental acceleration in 30 years from 1978, as Deng Xiaoping dumped the failed communist economic orthodoxy. It worked because of – not despite – an authoritarian, distinctly illiberal one-party state, with scant regard for human rights.

Kishore credits the West for showing former colonies the value of education, public health, efficient civil service, and rule of law. That is not enough. The developing world needs pragmatic models of growth, suited to their own sociopolitical evolution. They need to deliver tangible progress for internet-enabled societies with high expectations.

China’s meteoric rise is a seductive model for the developing worlds in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with large populations living in abject poverty. The new social contract that Deng defined was not about ideology but state accountability to deliver the basics. China raised an unprecedented 800 million citizens out of poverty. That is miraculous.

Machiavellian virtue?

I expressed reservations about promoting Machiavellian ideas to liberal Western thinkers. Kishore says that is a popular misreading of the man. Serious philosophers, he avers, like Isaiah Berlin, understand that Machiavelli equates rulership with the public good, which dictates pragmatic morality, not absolute idealism.

Machiavelli gained fame as an evil plotter when he advised the Medici prince on rulership, rejecting the idealized concepts of nobility, righteousness, ethics, and justice for a crass “ends-justify-the-means” power principle. He prioritized destroying enemies, to focus on effective rulership.

Far from just criticism, Kishore says his book is a gift to awaken his friends to the need of the hour, to re-position the West for the changing geopolitics. He has been elected to the distinguished American Academy of Arts & Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Michelle Obama is the other personality elected this year.