The optimism of Kishore Mahbubani

Kishore Mahbubani, an academic and former UN-diplomat from Singapore, thinks world has never been better off. We are winning the fight against hunger and extreme poverty. The number of armed conflicts between states, the number of casualties and the child mortality rate have never been so low. MO* read Mahbubani’s latest book, ‘The Great Convergence: Asia, the West and the Logic of One World’ and interviewed him about his optimism.

  • CC Asia Society Kishore Mahbubani. CC Asia Society

Kishore Mahbubani is optimistic because on a global level we are converging towards each other. He puts this global success down to the fact that the majority of the world’s population share five values: modern science and technology, ratio and logic, a free market economy, a political model based on social contract and multilateralism.

‘In the past all 193 states sat on their own boat with their own captain’, Mahbubani explains. ‘Today all 193 nations have cabins on the same big boat.’ Mahbubani says this means that there’s nothing we can handle on our own anymore. Progress and success may be happening mostly outside the West now, but this still is reason for the West to be optimistic as it shows the popularity of the western model in the rest of the world.

Nevertheless Mahbubani does not subscribe to Francis Fukuyama’s idea of the-end-of-history, which states that the West has already found all solutions and that they only need to be applied correctly. ‘This end-of-history-view gave people in the West the idea that they could rest on their laurels, while the rest of the world faithfully copied them. My point is we are converging, getting ready to commence a new voyage together. We will have to work very hard and, above all, together, because we are in the same boat.’

Passengers and helmsmen

One wonders if this is the world vision of an optimistic thinker, or if he believes the world has really changed this much. ‘The world has experienced greater change in the past thirty years than it did in the previous three hundred’ states the second sentence of his book. Colonisation and slavery show international interrelation isn’t a recent phenomenon. ‘We have always been linked’ agrees Mahbubani. ‘Globalisation indeed goes back hundreds of years. However, two hundred years ago, the majority of world population was passive,’ he specifies. ‘Indians were ruled by the Brits, Africans by Europeans. It was a one-way stream. Today the rest of the world has evolved from fellow passengers to fellow captains on the ship called world history. Today’s degree of globalisation and mutual dependence is wholly incomparable.’

A striking example is the fact that when the crisis broke, the American president Bush was forced to call in the help of the rest of the world, via the G-20. ‘Before the Americans didn’t need the others, because they were powerful enough.’

The fast changes and the new captains force the West to adapt better. ‘For this Europe and America need wiser political leaders’, thinks Mahbubani. Those in charge today still cling too tightly to electoralism: they know which solutions they need to carry out, but they don’t know how to do this without putting their reelection at stake.

‘Europe still shows a lot of arrogance and a great sense of superiority’, says Mahbubani and he sees no reason for it because ‘the rest of the world doesn’t want a weak Europe. They want a strong Europe and they’re willing to help.’ Learning from the rest of the world would be a first step. ‘During the economic crisis in Asia the ASEAN-ministers came to Europe for ideas. This is madness, why wouldn’t Europe learn from the rest of the world?’ wonders Mahbubani. ‘Essentially a Christian club, the EU could learn a lot from ASEAN, which is a melting pot of religions. The world of the future won’t be a monoculture but a world of many cultures instead. Turkey has been knocking at Europe’s door for forty years. Only if they were to be let in would Europe get a view on the real world.’

Multilateralism and global governance

Mahbubani’s most practical proposal is the reorganisation of the UN-security council, because this system, which has been keeping in power the winners of WWII, is steadily losing its legitimacy. However, according to Mahbubani the principle of one land, one vote however is not feasible. ‘Veto is the only way to keep the most powerful countries on board. We have to strive for a better world, not Utopia.’ More specifically he proposes a 7-7-7 formula: firstly, seven permanent members (China, Russia, USA, Europe, Nigeria, India and Brazil) each representing the different regions. They would have to provide an extra financial contribution to compensate their greater power. In addition there would be seven semi-permanent members out of a group of 28 countries, based on their population and GNP. A final seven seats would represent the remaining 160 smaller countries.

According to Mahbubani the western countries have deliberately maintained the weakness of multilateral organisations. ‘It doesn’t make sense to keep them weak, when you only represent 12 percent of the world population’, he says, appealing to the self-interest of the West. Moreover he is convinced China too approves of this formula. ‘For the Chinese know that on equal terms, they can easily compete.’

For this to change much more international consistency is required. ‘One cannot say to the USA: “You can keep Guantanamo” and to China ‘But you can’t.” If the US violate the Sea Convention, they can’t expect China to honour it. Therefore it’s in America’s interest to stick to the international rules.’ In this respect he is very disappointed in the EU. ‘Europe is champion of multilateralism,’ says Mahbubani. ‘But not one EU member state openly criticized the US on Guatanamo. That’s appalling!’

During the presentation of his book at the Dutch Ministery of Foreign Affairs in April he had a last request for the Europeans, who have to delegate a UN secretary general within three years.’ Ever since Dag Hammerskjöld we haven’t had a brave European secretary general. It is important that you find another Hammerskjöld in three years’ time.