Kishore Mahbubani on The Great Convergence
Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.
“The Good, the Bad, and the Solution”
Brookings India hosted Professor Mahbubani to discuss his book, “The Great Convergence”.
The Good News
Professor Mahbubani, a prevailing optimist, began with the declaration that “War, after centuries of being a scourge for humanity, is now becoming a sunset industry.” Defense budgets in the US and Europe are declining rapidly and while peace has come in our time, there is a reluctance to acknowledge it. He asserted that the populations of all those countries experiencing conflict are a drop in the ocean of the global population.
The world is growing closer to achieving eradication of global poverty and experiencing an explosion of the middle classes. The size of the Asian middle class has been rising, “leading to ever-greater conditions for convergence between nations”. The numbers of people crossing borders is staggeringly high and indeed, the Great Convergence is made possible by huge sections of humanity making it to the middle class. This can be attributed largely to the effects of education, the elites changing their mindsets, and fewer people subscribing to a zero-sum-game attitude. Nations and their people are looking for win-win solutions in South-East Asia while they share modern science and technology, ratio and logic, a free market economy, a political model based on social contract and multilateralism. Humanity is climbing the escalator of education and civilization, hence becoming far less violent in its interactions.
The relationship between rulers and ruled has changed dramatically, he notes. Increasingly, governments are realizing that they have to be accountable to their people. It is this responsibility to be accountable that has led to leaders empowering their people.
The Bad News
The bad news, however, is a fundamental problem with the way nations are interacting with one another. “In the past, all 193 states had their own boat with their own captain. Today, all 193 nations have cabins on the same big boat. While this has resulted in responsible governments and people taking care of their own cabins, it has also resulted in isolation between cabins.” When there is a global crisis, such as the financial crisis a few years ago, leaders rush out of their cabins to help one another – but when the crisis is over, they simply return to their individual cabins. Essentially, everyone is taking care of their cabins while no one is taking care of the global boat. “If something goes wrong in the global boat, a clean cabin is useless.”
In response, a member of the audience argued that the South-Asia region is experiencing increasing insecurity and militarisation. While the region may be converging in some arenas and promoting cross-border movement, we are still a long way off from converging on a world-view. Mahbubani assured that while this may be a matter of concern, no two countries will go to war: “the geopolitical games will continue but the nature of the games will change. I can predict with great certainty that no two great powers will go to direct war with each other.”
Mahbubani’s declaration that China will grow to be most-powerful was also questioned, citing that despite economic power, the US will still be the most powerful in terms of its military resources. In response, Mahbubani asserted the importance of the trend-line – “it is indisputable that the US will not be the most powerful force in the world in the coming years. Whatever we do will either strengthen one voice, or another voice.”
The solution, then, is one policy switch. Mahbubani argued that it has, thus far, been Western policy to keep multilateral organizations weak, as strong multilateral institutions would constrain American power. However, with shifting geopolitical dynamics and China rising to global supremacy in the next few years, America’s interests lie in strengthening multilateral institutions. In 1980, in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, the US share of global GNP was 25% when China’s was only 2.2%. By 2017, the US share will diminish to 17.6% while China’s will rise to 18%. Hence, in PPP terms, China will become the number one economy and the US will become the number two economy. However, the US and China have far greater common than competing interests – “their legacies will be defined by the economic growth they deliver rather than the wars they win.” The idea that the West can rest on their laurels while the rest of the world faithfully copies them is faltering. The US must alter its position to keep multilateral positions strong in order to constrain China; “every loophole that America creates in international law today is a loophole China will walk through tomorrow.” The UN Security Council, IMF and the World Bank are neither democratically selected nor democratically representative – they need to be restructured to maintain legitimacy.
India’s need to exert itself through its foreign policy was explored during the discussion. Mahbubani asserted that India needs to be more proactive with its foreign policy. It needs to seize its opportunity while it is in the ‘geopolitical sweet spot’ before sailing through it. The role of leadership and a strong, unanimous government will be crucial. Like China, India will benefit even more from the existing order. India needs to play a greater role in areas where there are not international norms and agreements in place, such as climate, energy, food, cyber and space.
There is currently a triangular relationship between the US, India, and China – and the country in the middle will have advantage over the two at the ends. “When I say that India needs to adopt a foreign policy that is more cunning, I mean that it needs to take advantage of its current position and place itself firmly in the middle of the triangle.” However, it was also raised that this leads to an inherent contradiction between mediating and/or converging the global powers vs. competing with them.
“If we want to reform the global order, we have to take on board the contradictory considerations of greater democratisation and greater weight being given to the great powers of the day. In theory, this cannot be done. In practice, the 7-7-7 formula for UNSC reform can find the right formulas to achieve this.”
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