The folly of East versus West, and the rise of ‘The Rest’

Singaporean author Kishore Mahbubani is reduced to generalizations in the ‘West’ versus ‘Rest’ analysis of his latest book

Originally published by Asia Times (May 17, 2018)

“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” goes the oft-quoted verse by Rudyard Kipling. Seldom mentioned, however, is his following negation: “But there is neither East nor West…when two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.”

Discussions on the irrevocable differences between the West and East are hardly original, but in recent years we’ve seen a slew of publications posing the question of whether the East has now overtaken the West, forging the so-called “Asian Century.”

With surprising speed, we have also seen the publication of books, such as Michael R. Auslin’s “The End of the Asian Century,” that argue such optimism is hasty, if not perilous, for the continent.

Kishore Mahbubani’s short polemical book, “Has the West Lost It?,” is a recent addition to his oeuvre but is by far one of his least interesting and most problematic. Fortunately, he makes the reviewer’s task easier by laying out most of his shortcomings in the opening pages of this book.

What Mahbubani is arguing is that “a cycle of Western domination of the world is coming to a natural end.” This is hardly an original observation, though it is one he fails to support with evidence.

The “Rest,” as he terms the non-West, is on the rise because its economies are growing at enviable rates and because it boasts three of the world’s four largest nations. While his “Rest” is composed of all non-Western nations, Asia tends to dominate his narrative, with Africa and Latin America playing only bit parts.

Moreover, the middle-class is booming in many non-Western nations while stagnating in the West, he notes, and the West is being dogged by terrorist attacks because of its intervention in the Middle East (though he conveniently ignores terrorist attacks in Asia.)

China’s economic clout is well-known, as is its growing political importance. No-one can deny that the West’s share of the global economy will contract, though not disappear, in the coming decades. Nor can one miss that most nations are now looking eastwards, from America’s “Pivot to Asia” to India’s “Look East” policy.

But one gets the sense that Mahbubani chose the wrong title for his book. His arguments would be more nuanced if it was instead titled, “Is the West Losing It?” This, then, would provide a far more warranted corollary question: is the non-West gaining it?

As it stands, however, one must assume that if the West has lost it, then the non-West must have already gained it. Nothing that he writes, except rising gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates and population figures, proves this to be true.

Mahbubani is one of those academics who considers GDP growth to be the real indicator of a nation’s health and well-being. He does write that rates of “extreme poverty” have fallen massively in most non-Western nations in recent years, which is to be lauded, but he doesn’t mention that most people who left this arbitrary indicator aren’t suddenly wealthy; many are perhaps only US$1 per day better off.

What Mahbubani doesn’t mention is conspicuous. He doesn’t note that, according to World Bank figures as of 2016, only two non-Western nations are in the top 30 countries for lowest levels of infant mortality (and that’s if you consider Israel to be non-Western, which many in the “Rest” don’t).

In terms of life expectancy the non-West does better, but still 24 of the top 30 countries for this indicator are found in the West, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures. Other indicators of a nation’s health, such as literacy or sanitation or gender equality, are barely mentioned at all.

At other times, he fails to make accurate comparisons that one would expect from an academic of Mahbubani’s experience and stature. He frequently mentions that wealth inequality is growing in America, which is causing considerable political and social problems.

Yet he doesn’t mention that wealth inequality is also widening in China, which could have vastly more political consequences for Beijing than Washington is currently experiencing.

When Mahbubani does make comparisons, they tend to nourish his taste for moral equivalency. He notes, for instance, that there are “no perfect democracies in Asia” before stating that Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential victory show “democracies in the West are deficient, too.”

This is simply dishonest. Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union is hardly a sign of democratic deficiency; the opposite in fact. And while Trump may be a problematic president — the opinion of many — by 2024 he must step down and, even before that, America’s still-strong democratic institutions may impeach him before he can be reelected. Could the same be said of any leader of China, Vietnam or Iran, for example?

Nonetheless, Mahbubani thinks that “Western theorists of democracy need to go back to their drawing boards to figure out where democratic processes have gone awry.” His only evidence of things going awry is Trump and Brexit; he doesn’t mention any other Western election (Macron’s presidential victory in France, for instance).

But if democracy is imperiled in the West, Mahbubani thinks things are markedly improving in Asia. “Most Asian leaders now recognize that they are accountable to their people,” he writes. How so is never really explained, other than stating that China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo “share a common conviction that good governance will transform and uplift their societies.”

One could be left with the opinion, after reading this book, that Asian citizens care little about whether they are governed by authoritarian or democratic governments, so long as the economy continues growing. The word “democracy” is notable for its absence in the book.

Xi Jinping, China’s president for life, if he wants it, is “exceptionally honest and competent,” according to Mahbubani. Moreover, he argues that the Western perception of “Chinese people as suffering because they are ruled by a repressive and harsh communist regime” is nonsense because “100 million Chinese people [are] able to travel overseas freely” and the majority choose to return home.

It would appear that he thinks a tenth of the population vacationing is a sign of a tolerant Communist Party.

Those who know Mahbubani’s work over the decades most likely understand that he has often been an apologist for authoritarian regimes in Asia. Now a professor of Practice in Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and before that a member of the Singaporean diplomatic service, including a stint as its UN ambassador, he was known as an intellectual spokesman for the “Asian Values” debate during the 1990s.

His earlier book, Can Asians Think?, published in 2001, provides a clearer insight into his political views than this short tract. What “Asian Values” essentially argued was that universal human rights and “Western” ideas of democracy were incompatible with the so-called cultural values of Asians.

More transparently, it argued that autocrats, including Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad (pre-2018) and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, knew what was best for their people and the people should accept that fate.

Some of Mahbubani’s arguments are simplistic because of the book’s length, 91 pages in hardback. Others are easily rendered as falderal. For instance, he asserts that Saudi Arabia’s decision in 2017 to allow women to drive is an indication that “modernity is seeping into all corners of the world.” If this is a sign of modernity, it’s modernity circa the early 20th century.

But special attention is warranted for his most reprehensible opinions. Much of this book is dominated by his critique of Western interventions, but solely those in the Middle East (no mention of Yugoslavia is made).

He promotes the “chickens-coming-home-to-roost” view of the 9/11 attacks on America, writing that “most thoughtful international observers saw [9/11] as an inevitable blowback against the West’s trampling on the Islamic world for several centuries.”

It would be good if Mahbubani had named who he thinks are these thoughtful observers. It would also be good if he was more honest; does he think that those who were immolated in that terrorist attack, including Muslim and Asian casualties, were also guilty of America’s supposed original sin?

Everywhere one looks, if you peek through Mahbubani’s binoculars, you find Western aggression. The Middle East is unstable because of the West. Putin’s election was the result of Western “triumphalism” after the Cold War; if the West had “shown respect for Russia instead of humiliating it, Putin would not have happened,” he writes.

Through the same binoculars, however, one doesn’t see China’s march across the world thanks to its Belt and Road Initiative, nor its aggression in the South China Sea, which doesn’t even get a mention. He bemoans Western intervention in the Middle East, but not Russia’s in Syria or Iran’s in Iraq.

Moreover, he even defends the Russian invasion of Ukraine, commenting that “Putin felt that he simply had no choice but to take back Crimea.”

His one conclusion, revealed in the final chapter, is that “the world will face a troubled future if the West can’t shake its interventionist impulses … or decides to become isolationist and protectionist.”

How to square this circle (how does a non-isolationist nation be non-interventionist in global affairs?) becomes the paradox of most of this slim volume. He appears to think that China’s “no-questions-asked” style of diplomacy, which is now proving to be less standoffish than some once thought, ought to be adopted by Western nations.

As for the book’s portentous subtitle, “A Provocation,” Mahbubani’s writing becomes finer when he moves from a polemical to an academic style, which he unfortunately does only towards the end. The chapter, “The West on Autopilot,” has some interesting policy observations.

But the main problem of Mahbubani’s book is that it falls into the same trap that most writers do when writing about West and East, which is even more vexed when factoring in the other continents that make up his “Rest.” He simply lumps together dozens, if not hundreds, of nations and hopes to find meaning.

But given the scale of these opposites and the book’s brevity, his writing lacks nuance and he winds up treating both geographical areas as simply homogeneous.

When it comes down to it, what Mahbubani really means by the “West” is the United States — he mentions only five Western nations by name, most only once. He has more to say about non-Western nations but China is clearly representative of his preferred “Rest.”

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