The Debate on East vs. West Continues: Anne-Marie Slaughter Challenges Mahbubani


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This is the third installment in a debate that The Washington Note is hosting between Kishore Mahbubani and other of the world’s premier intellectuals on international affairs — including G. John Ikenberry, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Parag Khanna, Michael Lind, and others.
In response to Mahbubani’s latest book,
The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, I attempted to trigger a debate between Mahbubani, on one hand, who said that the rest is going to have to come to terms with its declining role in global affairs and the fact that it will no longer have a monopoly on writing the world’s history and on the other, G. John Ikenberry and others. Ikenberry thinks that America and the West still possess a disproportionate share of global power.
G. John Ikenberry offered his first response to Mahbubani here. Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter’s response follows below — and Mahbubani’s response to both will be posted tomorrow.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.
The following is a guest post by Anne-Marie Slaughter.

I will forgive Steve Clemons for trying to find a new job for one of my most valued faculty members, John Ikenberry – Steve may think he would be perfect to be the next head of the Carnegie Endowment, but we at Princeton are very happy to have him right where he is.
Turning to the matter at hand, however, I will second John in my personal admiration and friendship for Kishore Mahbubani. I will add that Kishore loves to play the provocateur, and his analysis of Asia’s inevitable rise and America’s imminent decline should be read in that light. He has already ruffled the feathers of many of his former colleagues in the Singapore foreign office, some of whom are giving speeches warning against “Asian triumphalism.”
From my point of view, triumphalism goes before a fall in both East and West, so Kishore should be wary of Asia’s catching America’s disease.
But three quick points in response to Kishore. First, he talks about the “West,” but what he really means is the U.S. In his book he ignores Europe almost completely – that conglomerate of 27 nations, 500 million people, and a GDP of $16.8 trillion (although we should really now measure GDP in Euro, fast becoming the world’s second reserve currency) – an amount estimated to be 30% of the world’s GDP.
When he does mention Europe, he dismisses it as yesterday’s news. That’s a huge mistake. The subtitle of Kishore’s book is “The Irresistable Shift of Global Power to the Asian Hemisphere.” But if the world is divided into two hemispheres, one of them Asian, then the other is the transatlantic hemisphere, which includes Europe (all the way to Russia and really to the Urals), North America, Central and South America, and Africa. If I look down the decades of the 21st century, I wouldn’t exactly count that hemisphere out, particularly as trade and investment increasingly flows north-south as well as east-west.
Second, although Kishore is right to say that it is essential to reform global institutions – the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, the G-8 – to give Asia full representation and say, he conveniently overlooks a critical fact. The vast majority of the calls for reforming these institutions are coming from Western scholars and officials. One of the key blockers of the last round of proposed Security Council reforms from 2004-06, which would have finally brought in India, Brazil, South Africa, and other developing countries was China – Kishore’s no 1 example of the power shift to Asia – because it could not countenance the idea of Japan joining the Security Council.
And whenever Western scholars ask their Asian counterparts what they would like to see in the way of reforms – do they want a G-13? A G-16, a G-20? What do they propose for the Security Council and the IMF, we get a cautious response that essentially asks the West to take the lead. At least from the Chinese perspective, as John Ikenberry has argued so persuasively in his last Foreign Affairs article, China wants to integrate into the current Western order, not create one of its own.
Which brings me to my third point and one of the deeper underlying problems with Kishore’s argument. It is an argument that makes sense for Singapore, which is already completely developed and ready to play a much more powerful role in shaping global events. The problem is that it is tiny, so it must work through larger Asian institutions. Its government officials are the smartest and most competent I have ever met — a league in which Kishore belongs. Unfortunately, those great Asian powers that Kishore wants to take the reins of global domination in the 21st century are far from ready, other than Japan, which is neither psychologically ready nor suitable for historical reasons.
You need only live in China this last weeks, with the awful stream of pictures from the earthquake – pictures of soldiers trying to lift fallen buildings with their bare hands to unearth the tens of thousands of victims below in mountain villages so inaccessible that they have not been able even to reach the epicenter yet, to be reminded of how far China has to go. It has accomplished extraordinary things, but it has vast tasks ahead. A trip from Shanghai, China’s most Western and in many ways most developed city, to Singapore quickly highlights the differences between developing and developed.
Kishore Mahbubani is frustrated, a frustration I understand, that “the West” does not seem to be paying enough political attention to the East. A book as provocative as his may help change the conversation. But the future of global power will not involve a zero-sum shift of power from West to East, but rather a negotiated, positive-sum integration (see Richard Haass‘s The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course) of many new powers, east and west, into a more effective, dynamic, and representative global order.
PS: I deliberately wrote this before reading John Ikenberry’s response to Kishore, just to see how I might come out differently. Not surprisingly, I see that we agree, as usual, on many key points. He is absolutely right about what the U.S. now needs to do in terms of thinking through ourselves, and with others, about what kind of international order we all want in 2050.
— Anne-Marie Slaughter


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