The New Asian Hemisphere
Kishore Mahbubani
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Buy *The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East* by Kishore Mahbubani online

The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East
Kishore Mahbubani
336 pages
January 2008
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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According to Kishore Mahbubani, we live in an age characterized by both great hope and some fear.

The great hope stems largely from the fact that a disproportionate share of the world's population that lives in Asia has embraced modernity and "best practices" from the West and is hence eager to be thought of as subjects - as opposed to objects - in global discussions concerning the vital issues of our times.

The fear arises from the fact that the West, so used to dominating discussions about virtually every aspect of world affairs, appears not to be celebrating the rise of Asia but, instead, to be getting into a combative mood in which it is unwilling to share the international stage with today's nascent Asian powers. How did we get to this present state of affairs? What lessons does the West need to learn from its past errors of both commission and omission concerning the ways in which it has dealt with lesser powers? Finally, what steps must both the West and Asia take to increase the likelihood of the future being both peaceful and prosperous for all concerned? These sorts of questions are addressed by the author in this book.

After noting the very recent rise of the West, Mahbubani does a good job of delineating the "seven pillars of Western wisdom" (p. 52) that, if embraced, have the potential to dramatically alter Asian nations for the better: free market economics, science and technology, meritocracy, pragmatism, a culture of peace, the rule of law, and education. Two interesting points emerge in this discussion. First, the author notes that the Chinese Communist Party is now applying the principle of meritocracy as systematically as Harvard or McKinsey. As a result, the American private sector is far more dynamic and vibrant than the Chinese private sector. In contrast, the Chinese public sector, claims the author, is a lot more dynamic and vibrant than the American civil service. Second, Western nations have now reached "the highest peak of human achievement" (p. 79) in the sense that not only are there no wars between Western nations, but even the prospect of such wars is essentially zero.

Mahbubani has a number of thought-provoking things to say about why the West is not celebrating the rise of Asia and, more generally, about the attitude of the West toward non-Western nations. Once again, two points are worth stressing. First, he helpfully points out that despite vast changes in the contemporary international landscape, Western intellectual life is dominated by those who "continue to celebrate the supremacy of the West..." (p. 125). Further, because many intellectuals in the West believe that "Western civilization represents the apex of human civilization..." (p. 125), it will be difficult for the West to give up its global domination and share power with other nations in general and with the rising Asian nations in particular.

Second, Mahbubani's critique of the Western "all or nothing" perception of freedom is thoughtful. With regard to China, he rightly notes that freedom from want is a "fundamental layer" of human freedom and in this regard, "Chinese people have never enjoyed greater human freedom" (p. 134). In addition, China has now created higher conditions of security; in this sense, the Chinese have seen significant improvements in the "real and practical freedoms" (p. 135) they actually enjoy.

So far so good but, unfortunately, the author lets his obvious zeal get the better of him and therefore several aspects of the analysis in this book can be questioned. For instance, there is some terminological confusion. Which nations comprise the West? Japan is sometimes referred to as an Asian nation - which it obviously is - but at other times it is referred to as being a member of the Western club. Similarly, Mahbubani is confusing in terms of the national affiliations he applies to individuals. In particular, the noted economist Jagdish Bhagwati is an American citizen of Indian origin. This notwithstanding, Bhagwati is referred to as a citizen of an Asian society. In contrast, Harvard professor Tarun Khanna, who is also of Indian origin, is referred to as an "American academic" (p. 139).

A particularly contentious point concerns Mahbubani's claim that in the realm of recent international events, the West has been incompetent and Asia has been competent. By way of evidence, he refers to the easy-to-attack Iraq war, the West's failure to maintain the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, the West's failure to prevent atrocities in Rawanda and war in the Balkans, and the West's failure to complete the Doha round of trade liberalization talks. This "evidence" is not compelling. For instance, it is certainly true that the global nuclear non-proliferation regime has been performing poorly but this is not exclusively the West's fault. China, clearly not a Western nation but a nation to be revered nonetheless according to Mahbubani, played an active role in helping North Korea and Pakistan - both Asian nations - acquire nuclear technology.

Mahbubani also claims that, relative to the West, Asia has been much better at keeping the peace in its part of the world. Anyone who is even cursorily familiar with contemporary international affairs knows that this claim is specious. China has not handled its problems with either Tibet or with the Muslim Uighurs very well. Similarly, India continues to have problems in Kashmir, Pakistan continues to have problems in Baluchistan and in the tribal areas on its western border with Afghanistan, Sri Lanka has been battling an internal insurgency led by the Tamil Tigers for over two decades, and Indonesia made a complete mess of its dealings with East Timor. Given this unsavory record, it is difficult to see how a seasoned diplomat like Mahbubani could make a serious claim that is so easily debunked.

In conclusion, this book is very much a mixed bag. Mahbubani makes some interesting points, and this book contains some useful suggestions for improving international governance in general and for reforming international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF. However, if this book is not widely read or admired, it will be because of the clearly untenable claims the author makes that ultimately detract from his central point that the world has now changed and that, in this changed world, the West will have to share power with other nations, many of which happen to be Asian.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Amitrajeet A. Batabyal, 2009

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