Thursday, April 17, 2014
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America’s Blinders

SINGAPORE – The time has come to think the unthinkable: the era of American dominance in international affairs may well be coming to an end. As that moment approaches, the main question will be how well the United States is prepared for it.

Asia’s rise over the last few decades is more than a story of rapid economic growth. It is the story of a region undergoing a renaissance in which people’s minds are re-opened and their outlook refreshed. Asia’s movement toward resuming its former central role in the global economy has so much momentum that it is virtually unstoppable. While the transformation may not always be seamless, there is no longer room to doubt that an Asian century is on the horizon, and that the world’s chemistry will change fundamentally.

Global leaders – whether policymakers or intellectuals – bear a responsibility to prepare their societies for impending global shifts. But too many American leaders are shirking this responsibility.

Last year, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, two US senators, one member of the US House of Representatives, and a deputy national security adviser participated in a forum on the future of American power (I was the chair). When asked what future they anticipated for American power, they predictably declared that the US would remain the world’s most powerful country. When asked whether America was prepared to become the world’s second-largest economy, they were reticent.

Their reaction was understandable: even entertaining the possibility of the US becoming “number two” amounts to career suicide for an American politician. Elected officials everywhere must adjust, to varying degrees, to fulfill the expectations of those who put them in office.

Intellectuals, on the other hand, have a special obligation to think the unthinkable and speak the unspeakable. They are supposed to consider all possibilities, even disagreeable ones, and prepare the population for prospective developments. Honest discussion of unpopular ideas is a key feature of an open society.

But, in the US, many intellectuals are not fulfilling this obligation. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested recently that the US “could already be in the second decade of another American century.” Likewise, Clyde Prestowitz, the president of the Economic Strategy Institute, has said that “this century may well wind up being another American century.”

To be sure, such predictions may well prove accurate; if they do, the rest of the world will benefit. A strong and dynamic US economy, reinvigorated by cheap shale gas and accelerating innovation, would rejuvenate the global economy as a whole. But Americans are more than ready for this outcome; no preparation is needed.

If the world’s center of gravity shifts to Asia, however, Americans will be woefully unprepared. Many Americans remain shockingly unaware of how much the rest of the world, especially Asia, has progressed.

Americans need to be told a simple, mathematical truth. With 3% of the world’s population, the US can no longer dominate the rest of the world, because Asians, with 60% of the world’s population, are no longer underperforming. But the belief that America is the only virtuous country, the sole beacon of light in a dark and unstable world, continues to shape many Americans’ worldview. American intellectuals’ failure to challenge these ideas – and to help the US population shed complacent attitudes based on ignorance – perpetuates a culture of coddling the public.

But, while Americans tend to receive only good news, Asia’s rise is not really bad news. The US should recognize that Asian countries are seeking not to dominate the West, but to emulate it. They seek to build strong and dynamic middle classes and to achieve the kind of peace, stability, and prosperity that the West has long enjoyed.

This deep social and intellectual transformation underway in Asia promises to catapult it from economic power to global leadership. China, which remains a closed society in many ways, has an open mind, whereas the US is an open society with a closed mind. With Asia’s middle class set to skyrocket from roughly 500 million people today to 1.75 billion by 2020, the US will not be able to avoid the global economy’s new realities for much longer.

The world is poised to undergo one of the most dramatic power shifts in human history. In order to be prepared for the transformation, Americans must abandon ingrained ideas and old assumptions, and liberate unthinkable thoughts. That is the challenge facing American public intellectuals today.

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  1. CommentedKir Komrik

    Another great one, thanks,

    "Americans need to be told a simple, mathematical truth. With 3% of the world’s population, the US can no longer dominate the rest of the world, because Asians, with 60% of the world’s population, are no longer underperforming. But the belief that America is the only virtuous country, the sole beacon of light in a dark and unstable world, continues to shape many Americans’ worldview."

    There is something deep there. Yes, that word "virtue". Most Americans still live in Wonderland and think they live in a corrupt-free country with the rule of law. What they don't realize is that the corruption, moral hazards and circumvention of rule of law has been accomplished here, behind closed doors and in a way hidden from public view, by both normative and legal means that go all the way back to Madison and Hamilton. But I digress.

    Perhaps the greatest achievement of western law has been its amazing ability to enable organic power structures in societies (read oligarchy) to essentially always get their way without the public realizing that it is happening. It's brilliant, clever and innovative. I must say I am still in awe whenever I think of it. But the information age is ripping that to shreds now. It took 70 years for the courts partiality against African-Americans to become obvious to most of white America, and that's just one lie in a tome of lies. Now, the information is exposing hundreds and hundreds of those lies on the order of just a few years.

    The moral of this story is simply that this kind of thing goes on all over the world and "Amerikuh" is more like the rest of the world than most are willing to acknowledge just yet.

    Besides that, I disagree with the article, pretty much. I'm afraid PRC is not going to fare well in the near future. Listen to me now, hear me later. but I've spread too much doom and gloom for one day, so I'll leave it at that.

    - kk

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    Asia would be confounded and dumbfounded if it was catapulted to global leadership or if it was called on to steer the world; it would be in confusion and at a loss, not knowing what to do with it.

    As I said in my comment to Chiristopher R. Hill/The Asian Tigers of Nationalism, Oct. 22, 2012, East Asia is a geographical concept but it is a myth as a cultural and political unit while Europe has been a unit geographically, culturally and politically

    In passing the Japanese have mostly had China in mind by ajia (Asia) since the beginnign of its modern times.

    Prof. Lehmann said in his comment above, "The Japanese attempted to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." Japan did not attempt to create such a noble zone; the United States imposed an oil embargo in August, 1941 and so, as was timely as France (Vietnam) and the Netherlands (Indonesia) had been defeated by Germany, the Japanese military insisted , foolishly enough instead of de-escalating the war in China, on going to the south in search of oil. I do not mean to say, however, that Japan, therefore, was not an aggressor-nation nor that the United States started the war. Japan had wanted to retain and create some special interests in Northern China. This was, in a nutshell, all about the Sino-Japanese War and all about why Japan and the United States started brawling.

  3. Portrait of Jean-Pierre Lehmann

    CommentedJean-Pierre Lehmann

    The concept of “the West” corresponds to reality. Though there are vast differences between, say, Moldova and Finland, all the West is united by the three main pillars of its civilisation: Greek philosophy, Roman law and the Judeo-Christian religion. It also conforms to reality to say that for most of the 19th and 20th centuries “the” West dominated the world, in that with the single exception of Japan, all the powers during these two-hundred years were either European or European colonial offshoots, namely the USA. It may also be true that in the early 21st century, following its extended period of global hegemony, “the” West is in relative decline.

    In the early 19th century, Asia’s share of global GDP stood at about 60%, while that of the West (Europe + US) was 22%. By mid-20th century, Asia’s share had dwindled to 16%, while the West’s had ballooned to 55%. The rise of the West during this era was incontrovertible, even if not all Western nations participated.

    In the early 21st century, Asia’s share has significantly increased to 42%, while the West’s has decreased to 37%. This would clearly seem to indicate a trend. Demographics tell a starker narrative of decline. At its apogee in 1900 Europeans represented 25% of world population; by 2000 it was less than half that figure and according to projections will dwindle to 7% by 2050. (Asia remains constant at 60%, though with some major realignments within the continent, especially between a demographically booming West, Central and South Asia, and a rapidly aging East Asia.)

    Thus, while it would seem to be a fact that the West is declining, the concept of an “Asia rising” is elusive. One would have to ask: “what Asia?” From Syria to Thailand to Korea, to cite only three Asian destinations, it is abundantly clear that while the West corresponds to a reality, Asia, outside a purely geographic delineation, does not. This is not surprising. “Asia” is a termed coined by the West. It is derived from the Ancient Greek "Ἀσία", believed to have been coined by Herodotus (484–425BCE) to refer to Anatolia, the “Asian” part of Turkey. In the course of time the words “Asia”, “the East” and “the Orient” became synonymous, but all sharing the characteristic that they define not so much “what is”, but “what is not”: Asia is not Europe, the East is not the West, the Orient is not the Occident. In Eurocentric parlance Asia was divided in respect to its proximity to (the “Near East”) or distance (the “Far East”) from Europe. The word “Asia” does not exist in any indigenous Asian language. In Japanese, for example, “Asia” is Japanised to “ajia” アジア, in the katakanascript used to transliterate foreign words.

    Although through history there were encounters and exchanges between the various kingdoms of Asia, notably through the Silk Road and the Spice Route, since the rise of the European Seaborne empires in the late 15th century onwards, increasingly exchanges were between Asia and Europe rather than within Asia. The Japanese attempted to create a “greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, but that failed and is hardly remembered with nostalgia by those who were subjected to it.

    Today, if one imagines a contemporary Marco Polo setting out from Venice to discover “rising Asia”, travelling through West and Central Asia, with the possible exception of the countries of the Gulf, he would be struck more by turmoil and deprivation (eg the plight of the 1.5 million Syrian war refugees in Jordan). Coming to South Asia and to its principal country, India, he would note the progress and impact of recent growth, yet he would also be distressed to find that some 40% of Indian children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition and that there are more illiterate women in India than in the rest of the world combined. India may be “rising”, but it still has a long way to go.

    Getting to “East Asia” he would find that this region had indeed come a long way over recent decades. Southeast Asia, notorious as one of the world’s bloodiest battlefields in the 1960s, has been transformed into a thriving market place. While Japan would seem to have not only joined the West in its erstwhile rise, but stayed with it in its decline, he would find risen South Korea – a really very successful story – had replaced it as regional economic and high tech powerhouse. But it would be in reaching China, about which his 13th/14thcentury namesake had written so effusively, that he would finally see “the great rise”.

    Where China is headed over the next few decades obviously remains to be seen, but it would seem another incontrovertible fact that in the early 21st century the Middle Kingdom is back – big time! Not only is it pre-eminent in East Asia, but its global economic clout extends literally to the four corners of the earth. China is the global Asian power to be reckoned with.

    So China has risen economically and geopolitically. But China is not Asia and Asia is not China. Not only that, but what would strike our contemporary Marco Polo is how much regional tension China’s rise, which includes numerous acute territorial disputes, seems to have generated. China’s neighbours, including South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, among others are rather nervous about China’s rise. Marco Polo would shake his head in wonderment at the attempts of Vietnam to secure closer defence relations with the US to withstand the Chinese menace. The Economist (“India and China: Parsnips unbuttered”, 25 May 2013) reports that opinion polls demonstrate that “more than four-fifths of Indians consider China to be a security threat. Three-quarters want closer ties with America”.

    Furthermore, the four billion Asians hardly know each other. While the US’s hard power may be declining, it remains global supremo in soft power. Hundreds of thousands of bright young Asians flock en masse to American universities to study, compared to which intra-Asian student exchanges are a mere trickle. Asia per se is not rising and Asians are not rising in concert. There are some countries in Asia that are rising, a few spectacularly so, but there are also many that remain poor, backward and torn by strife.

    The key question of the 21st century is whether Asian countries will rise in an environment of order, harmony and peace, or in disorder, disharmony and conflict. One feature that all Asia shares, from West (Israel and possibly Iran), to Central (Pakistan), to South (India), to East (China and possibly North Korea), is heavy nuclear armament. The stakes in Asia are very high.

    1. Portrait of Kishore Mahbubani

      CommentedKishore Mahbubani

      Jean-Pierre Lehmann has, unsurprisingly, offered a brilliant response to my commentary. He agrees that “the West” is in relative decline, and poses the key question, “what Asia?” Isn’t Asia simply a term that Europeans use to describe “not the West,” leaving the concept of being “Asian” devoid of internal unity or coherence?

      Lehmann may well be right. But personal experience has taught me that an Asian identity does exist. People living in different corners of Asia do feel some sense of cultural or emotional connection. Although I have never felt a cultural connection when traveling to Africa, Latin America, Europe, or North America, I have felt it in most areas of Asia, even across sharp religious and ethnic divides.

      I was born a Hindu Sindhi in Singapore, after my Hindu parents’ traumatic escape from a bitter Hindu-Muslim conflict in Pakistan, where millions were killed. Consequently, as a child, I ascribed a lot of antipathy to the Islamic world.

      As a young man, I was shocked to discover that my name, “Mahbubani,” has Arabic/Persian roots (it is derived from the word mahboob, meaning “beloved”), and to realize that the Sindhi script that I used as a child was the Arabic script. When I travelled to Tehran for the first time, I found connections in culture and cuisine. Our cultural DNA clearly had common elements.

      As an ethnic Indian, I obviously have deep cultural connections throughout South Asia. What is surprising is that I feel a similar connection throughout Southeast Asia. Nine out of ten ASEAN member states have an ancient Indian cultural bedrock. This explains why the Ramayana is also part of the traditional mythology of Indonesia and Thailand. The Islamic overlay added another level of cultural connection.

      Northeast Asia might seem culturally remote from my Indian origins. But when I travel to China, Japan, or Korea, I feel an immediate cultural connection with the Buddhist streams in their societies, because, when I was a child, my mother would take me to both Hindu and Buddhist temples to pray. I was not surprised in 2000, when the young, modern South Korean woman I met in Kolkata airport told me that she had decided to visit India to connect with her Buddhist heritage. She is undoubtedly among the first of many more pilgrims to travel from Northeast Asia to India.

      As I grow older, I increasingly recognize that the 200 years of European colonial domination did “chop up” Asia, creating artificial boundaries that destroyed old patterns of cultural connectivity. As Western influence recedes, the old “natural” pattern of Asian cultural connectivity will resume.

      One bellwether project to watch is the effort – spearheaded by Amartya Sen and Singapore’s former foreign minister, George Yeo – to revive Nalanda University. If East, South, and Southeast Asia can cooperate to revive what was the world’s greatest university from 500 to 1200 AD, where the legendary Chinese monk Xuanzang spent two years, we might see the revival of old patterns of Asian connectivity. The world will then come to discover that Asia’s identity may be far more complex than just “not Europe.”

  4. CommentedCraig Stevenson

    I applaud a rising Asia that becomes more responsible for the global commons, of which whose mass of humanity has and will come to influence and shape. I look forward to more responsibility and maturity in solving the many problems that exist globally toward creating as nice a place as is possible for humans, with all their foibles, to reside on.

    Yet, Kishore, a few small points, if the US is only 3% of the worlds population than the worlds population is over 10 billion; if 4% than the worlds population is 8 billion....

    I am not sure sure that I agree with your perspectives as to how far Asia has come, as one who has lived in the region, I have always perceived Americans believing Asia, and elsewhere in the developing world to have come further than it has. I don't know which would be a bigger concern, if you or I am right.

    Personally, I would not be opposed to more burden sharing in the global governance, because, there are too many free-riders in the system at present, and no, non-interference, isn't not a policy, it is shirking. But, then so many competing interests, Germany (Croatia) and France (Serbia) during the Balkan conflict, thus Europe failed to handle a regional disturbance. the African Union, Ethiopia and Kenya in Somalia is comforting.

    As tro size of the economy, no serious reviewer isn't concerned that China hasn't expanded too rapidly, M2 at 200% and nearly tripling the economy during 5 years, all during a global (demand contraction) downturn. All can do as such, but that part of the story fades, Japan trying to kick-start, so much of inter-Asian trade in commodities and intermediate goods, and not for final user.

    At the onset of the downturn I rgued for a 25% across the board rise in Asian currencies against the dollar, to alter the structural surplus taking mechanisms creating after the 1997 crisis, as par tof the ADM, and also so they wouldn't put themselves at a disadvantage against each other. Which really speaks to the nature of trade in the region. Countries must work to raise wages in Asia, so that real markets can eventuate where common people can buy goods. Right now is a plethora of export platforms across the region, and while local workers do better than they would otherwise, other regions rise ion importance (MENA and AFRICA) who also want to develop, and manufacture, and produce, etc....


    So, in real and meanignful ways, authoritarian and paternalistic governments in the region need to shift more of the income to workers, so that real markets eventaute. Although some recent economic philosophy might have otherwise, it wasn't they way that wealth enabling, sustaining, and generating structures were built elsewhere.

    When I look to Asia, even MENA, AFRICA, and elsewhere, I see many grave problems from institutional structures, through social systems, through land and pollution, through lack of pension systems, and similar in addition to lessor stable borders, unevolved inter-state strctures and some parochial nature to inter-actions. I suspect, that recent trajectory, to be part of the longer trajectory, but that recent 2000's growth to be an anomaly, once china in all its difficult to change excess, has run its course.

    Then the US can actually print money (as it is often accused, funny enough), run its M2 to the moon like some Asian countries, structurally interfere in its markets, and similar. Further, those who get ME oil (Asia and EU) can protect it, police the area between, and similar. First thing I would do is tax foreign owners of bonds, to encourage them to sell them and to buy goods that will eventuate from the US dollar weakening and America refocusing its efforts on business and trade (more than it already does).

    Really these are the unthinkable and unspeakable. Much of this otherwise is simply rehashing of the implications of long-term trends.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I think the whole notion of talking about "dominant forces" in a global world is mistaken.
    What we realize today, especially through the daily events of the ongoing and deepening global crisis is that we reached such interconnections, that all nations are fully dependent on each other, the next decades will be the era of mutual responsibility and cooperation.
    In that respect not only Americans but each and every human being will have to learn completely different attitudes, making relationships, shift from damaging, exploitative competition to mutually complementing cooperation.
    There is no point in taunting each other about who is declining, who is gaining, when in fact we are all sitting on the same boat, and the boat at present is sinking.
    Instead we all have to figure out together, what the best way is to educate ourselves to realize and put into practice this mutual existence for the sake of the whole, above personal profit and benefit.
    It is of course a gradual process, but the sooner we start the smoother it will go.
    The negative motivation is the unsolvable global crisis that is threatening to bury everybody underneath in a very unpredictable and volatile way.
    The positive motivation is the potential possibilities, completely different level of existence in case we learn working together, perfectly complementing each other, becoming conscious partners with the surrounding natural system that is working on the same principles of mutuality and complementation.

    1. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      We've a world awash with evermore countless, nonlinear interconnects of ever-increasing coupling constants. It is of course rampant with secondary, tertiary, and higher order cross-coupling terms -- individually well within the order-of-magnitude of, and rapidly approaching the supposed dominant forces. And of course in combination...

      Indeed, the matter is evermore the blind attempt to jam square pegs into ever-shrinking round holes.

      There is no direct top-down analytic model anymore, and solution can only occur through the auto-emergence of a fractal homeostasis of the system as a whole -- like that of the healthy biological heart and circulatory system. This in turn requires the integral education and environmental tools (available when we finally wish to use them) to establish a basic mutual responsibility network per exactly the economic model that will work -- behavioral.

      As the saying goes, "Birds do it, bees do it, ..." And if we final join them with the power of our minds and hearts, the winter can end and we will see the Springtime of that song once more.

  6. CommentedHugh Fullerton

    With relief, I greet an era where the USA is not called on to be the economic engine and peacekeeper of the world. I don't think we ever sought this status and its attendant responsibilities, but rather, gained it by default. I only hope that the country or region that assumes the mantle will attempt to wear it benignly, as I think the USA, by and large, has tried to do. The loss of such dubious status will allow Americans to concentrate on what is best for their nation, and participate as only one of the large family of nations. It will be interesting to see who steps forward to fill our large shoes.

  7. CommentedSigurd Regnavald

    America will still be the most powerful country in the coming decades through the mid-century. Predictions further out are meaningless.

    While China may have a larger economy, they will be less powerful than the Americans because of their very low GDP per capita and their fertility rate of 1.4.

    Power projection is still a pipe dream in China, who do not even have the air power to make a successful amphibious landing on Taiwan.

    The truth is the Han Chinese will in fact be hard pressed to keep China together as one country going forward.

  8. Commentedhari naidu

    I've argued with this Singaporean elsewhere...

    Let's understand that no one can extrapolate strategic developments during the rest of 21st century let alone single out winner and losers, like he always tries do from his isolated island.

    US military is not going away any time soon...Nor is US Congress going isolationist because of constraints of
    global realpolitik.

    However, if Sino-Indian relations can become a motor of regional economic development and strategic cooperation, Asia will emerge as a regional power and influence global politics.

  9. CommentedNirav Desai

    I think India with a GDP which is close to 1.873 trillion US Dollars, needs to find opportunities for growth as the GDP itself is quite large. However, India's per capita GDP is only 1528 US Dollars and is way behind the rest of the world. India ranks 144 on the per capita GDP front. There are thus a lot of opportunities in the per capita GDP growth of India as it is very low. Per capita GDP growth would mean each person is able to produce more and live better. India ranks in the top 5 countries in the world in GDP value but it ranks at 144 on the per capita GDP value.

  10. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    The idea that a century "belongs" to a particular country is crude at best and risible in general. The thought that history comes in such precise packages that start and end on convenient says much about oversimplification.

    We are always in an era of change and the dominant powers usually stand against that change. Events betray the predictions more often than not.

    The imbalance between the predicted American decline in relative economic standing and their overwhelming military status will be the defining issue of the next decades.

  11. CommentedKen Fedio

    "The US should recognize that Asian countries are seeking not to dominate the West, but to emulate it."

    I'm not sure how this "model" can duplicated in Asia. Granted, I know nothing about Asia, but I see the American Socio-Economic model as something for the history books, not the future. Even on the streets of America you see more and more people who can't ride the globalization horse: more competition for work; less social capital for programs, education, entitlements; crumbling infrastructure. Perhaps most troubling is the stratification of society, where access to the middle class is effectively thwarted by special interests working the levers of government in rent-seeker fashion.

  12. CommentedCraig Hardt

    If this is the dawn of the Asian century and American power is on the decline I would simply ask what institution or government will take the leadership mantle from the U.S. and how do they presume to do so? While the economic rise of Asia matters, we can't make the mistake of defining "Asia" as some monolithic entity. There is a long history of conflict between Asian nations, which has created a dynamic in Asia where many countries prefer the continued presence and power of the U.S. in the region to the potential of Chinese hegemony. The great power of the United States is its ability to harness it's economic and military might to achieve lasting influence around the world. This is possible because of its unique political unity in spite of its tremendous diversity.

    Until people cease to gravitate towards the U.S. for education, opportunity, and leadership, the U.S. will remain the preeminent world power. The combination of their economic and military power, coupled with their ability to coordinate action in the foreign affairs arena, is still unmatched by any individual nation in Asia.

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