Book review: The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World by Kishore Mahbubani

'The Great Convergence' by Kishore Mahbubani.
‘The Great Convergence’ by Kishore Mahbubani. Source: Asia Society.

Kishore Mahbubani is the Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore, former Singapore diplomat, and former ambassador of Singapore to the United Nations (UN). This book is about the reemergence of Asia (China and India), threats to USA and the importance of multilateral organization such as United Nations.

Kishore Mahbubani served at the United Nations for many years and have seen the workings of United Nations and the various under-the-table actions of United States and other countries. It gives a good overview of what motivates the actions behind countries like United States and China which can benefit readers who want to know what is going on in the political scene.

In the first chapter, Kishore Mahbubani argues that the world is the best it has ever been, with fewest casualties in war and conflict since history, the most educated population, lots of people joining the middle class. The world, despite their diversity and differences, all believe the same thing, such as science, logical reasoning (business, strategic thinking in politics), free-market economics, social contract (the ruler gets their power from the people), and multilateralism. Multilateralism, means stronger rules-based multilateral institution such as United Nations.

For now, the sole superpower in the world is United States. This is the case for the last 200 years plus. But, China economy is growing fast and going to exceed USA in GDP terms soon. Following history, there always has been conflict between the greatest power in the world and the greatest emerging power in the world. In our case, is the conflict between the USA and China.

The last time this happens is between USA and Great Britain. The transfer of power from one Anglo-Saxon power (Great Britain) to another Anglo-Saxon power (USA) causes less conflict. This time however, the transfer of power is from a western power (USA) to eastern power (China). Conflict should be strong, however, war does not break out. This is because of the interdependence in area of economics between China and USA. It is not an interest for both sides to go for war.

Ex-USA president Bill Clinton had said:

If you believe that maintaining power and control and absolute freedom of movement and sovereignty is important to your country’s future, there’s nothing inconsistent in that [the US continuing to behaving unilaterally]. [The US is] the biggest, most powerful country in the world now. We’ve got the juice and we’re going to use it. . . . But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military political economic superpower in the world, then you wouldn’t do that. It just depends on what you believe.

Kishore Mahbubani praised that Bill Clinton had the wisdom to see what is coming. So far, USA had been trying to weaken multilateral institutions such as UN because they don’t want UN to put handcuffs on USA on what it should do, they can act unilaterally. They chose UN leaders that would not criticize them or bring about changes. However, Bill Clinton said that, if China were to rise, and become Number One, it is not the national interest of USA to weaken UN, but to strengthen UN, because this will put handcuffs on China, and make it a fair playing field in the world. It is in the interest of USA to strengthen international rules because soon China will be more powerful and the rules that are weaken that benefits USA will soon benefit China.

Despite knowing that multilateralism is important, no politician in USA dares to put global interest above national interest as it is political suicide if any politician in USA were to tell the USA citizens that they will be number two in the world.

He also criticize that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank for being too european centric. The head of IMF can only be European and World Bank can only be American. This is not how a global organization should work. The IMF is used by USA for their own national interest even though it is a global organization.

Another organization is the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC consists of 5 core members, UK, USA, France, Russia, and China, which is called the P5. The P5 comes and discuss global issues, and each member has the veto power, this means that even if one member veto an issue, the issue will not be passed, issues such as action to condemn genocide at certain countries. This gives UNSC a great power.

The decision-making of P5 is very secretive and not open to debate. Kishore Mahbubani suggests a 7-7-7 systems. 7 top members, 7 middle members, and 7 bottom members for great power, middle power, and lower power, so that the UNSC can be more balanced. If the P5 does not heed the recommendation, it may risks becoming less legitimate in the eyes of the world.

He praised the European Union as an organization that has peace among its members and zero prospect of war, this is a historical anomaly. He also says that asian countries had a similar organization called the ASEAN. In fact ASEAN had done more, because it unites many countries in South East Asia, which was called the Balkan of the Asia, with diversity, unlike EU which consists of mostly Christian countries.

The book also discusses geopolitics such as the America-China relationship, China-India relationship, Islam-West relationship. America-China relationships includes the economic ties between the two countries, China’s red lines (Taiwan South China Sea territory dispute, legitimacy of Communist Party of China, crisis of USA becoming number two, China joining WTO, etc). China-India relationships include shared interest in global warming, both shared rapid growth in economy, global access to natural resources, and secure sea lanes. Islam and the west includes the Israel-Palestine issue.

Using a boat metaphor, Kishore Mahbubani illustrates how the world had gone global. In the past, countries live in their own boats. Now, countries live in their own cabins in the same boat. The challenges the countries face now is global issues such as terrorism, health. Things happening in one part of the world can affect the other part of the world, such as the financial crisis in 2008.

Here are some podcasts where Kishore Mahbubani talks about China and the USA, Kishore Mahbubani by HARDtalk (March 25, 2013China and the United States by Experience ANU (21 June 2016).

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