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


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

  1. Lurker says:

    Thanks to all for the excellent exchange above. These comments and the posts that Ikenberry, Slaughter, and Steve Clemons have done in reaction to Ambassador Mahbubani or top class.


  2. alan says:

    So Dean Slaughter has spoken with Kishore’s former colleagues in the Singapore Foreign Ministry. Great. His own people don’t support him. For all the rationalisations Slaughter cannot give up American leadership in all matters involving change.
    Surely the point is that in China, India, Brazil, the Gulf States and other smaller countries there is a realisation that American leadership in world affairs is posited on what is best for America. The Asians are coming to realise that that is not necessarily best for them. American decline, morally, economically and intellectually began some time ago, and Bush has given it a rather hefty push. In Delhi recently I was surprised by the opposition to US efforts to discourage the Iran – Pakistan – India pipeline. We are still telling others to do things that serve our interests.


  3. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    The newly and seemingly changing pattern of the present day international relations in which the global power politics seems to have been shifting from the Atlantic- based power group- the USA and Europe towards the Pacific rim is an irrefutable reality of the future geoplotics.


  4. rich says:

    I find Ms. Slaughter to be unpersuasive at best. Beyond relying on dismissals of Mahbubani’s thesis as over-the-top and of Mahbubani himself as frustrated and needing attention, it’s not terribly clear where Slaughter stands on his Eastern Shift of Global Power thesis.
    This inability to grapple with the main issues casts in a prophetic light Mahbubani’s critique that:
    “There is a fundamental flaw in the West’s strategic thinking. . .. the West assumes that it is the source of the solutions to the world’s key problems. In fact, however, the West is also a major source of these problems.”
    Slaughter can recognize “triumphalism” as “America’s disease”—confirming Mahbubani’s statement that “Western commentators can readily identify specific failures.” And Slaughter’s eagerness to assert the “calls for reforming these institutions are coming from Western scholars and officials”—has her inadvertently “engaging in an extraordinary act of self-deception by believing that [the West] is open to change,” which Mahbubani’s critique brings to light.
    The reforms Slaughter refers to are not designed to be constructive.
    When Ikenberry and Slaughter deny Mahbubani’s observation that there’s “a deeper structural problem: the West’s inability to see that the world has entered a new era,” they forget the American people have been telling them the same thing for many years now.
    As to the rhetoric Slaughter does put forth (haven’t read his book, so can’t speak to that)—it doesn’t seem to bear scrutiny.
    1. Europe. Splitting hairs over whether “The West” means the USA, the Occident generally or begins at the Prime Meridien does not stabilize Slaughter’s complaint, and serves to point up the evident compulsion to not face up to the issue. Particularly when the ‘transatlantic hemisphere’ suddenly shifts East to the Urals so Slaughter can cite omitting Europe as the basis of her critique.
    I doubt very much Mahbubani hasn’t taken Europe into account. He hones in on the US because of our unilateral/rogue role in sidelining Europe in invading and occupying Iraq. Surely Slaughter & Ikenberry vividly remember John Bolton screaming into the cameras that “the French and the Germans should just shut up and follow orders!” pre-invasion.
    An unmmistakable signal, given 20th century history, of the status of those two countries in our eyes; those are not words worthy of consequential allies. Slaughter does not view the EU as important either, I think, merely a convenient shield for American power and fig leaf for American responsibility. The EU just doesn’t see the world through the American lens, which directly confirms Mahbubani’s judgment in focusing on teh US. We presume to act as proxy for EU interests—much to their chagrin.
    (& EU GDP & low birth rates can’t offset rising Asian popn growth & devt., as Slaughter knows)
    2. Reform. Playing within prevailing rules of governance does not in any way preclude Eastern Ascendancy. The West calls for reform because it can’t win, or at least it can’t win all the time as it used to.
    Ikenberry & Slaughter’s call for a ‘Concert of Democracies’ is an attempt to remove barriers to offensive wars of choice by kiling the veto power of UN Security Council members China & Russia. Not smart. Not centrist, either.
    Who said we actually had that power, anyway?
    Don’t like the process? LOSING POWER to Asian players on your own home field? Change it!
    Think how reckless that is. Slaughter & Ikenberry would actively abandon the original & sound Realpolitik of having China & Russia on the Security Council. They’re not permanent members with veto power b/c theyr’e nice. or allies. They’re on b/c of sheer mass, scale of resources, and raw might.
    Better, in short, to give a hated and monstrous adversary the opportunity to veto a move to war, than stumble into a hot war that can’t be controlled or stopped.
    Like Niceness, Democracy is not what confers legitimacy in the international arena.
    So Slaughter’s ‘Concert of Democracies’ must be intended to open the door to another unprovoked war—one with no international support, one that can’t be stopped by UN Security Council veto—and suggests a willingness to risk unpredictable and massive responses from hefty global players.
    Tone-deaf language on the heels of Bush’s failed rhetoric about Defending Our Freedoms.
    3. Singapore is small; Asia’s not ready. The business acumen required to put 21st century technology together with low-wage labor across Asia isn’t, well, rocket science. Slaughter’s patronizing tone doesn’t lend her any credence.
    Unfortunately for Slaughter, Asian megaregions don’t have to wait for the hinterlands to buy a clue before functioning in in the global economy.
    Have we worked to keep Asia down? In 1945 we kept Vietnam down when Ho quoted Thomas Jefferson and appealed for assitance.
    “Vietnam threw off its centrally planned economy in 1986 . . . . Growth was 8.5% last year when it joined the World Trade Organization fraternity and saw the U.S. finally normalize trade relations.”
    Yeah, lifting up hasn’t been job one.


  5. JohnH says:

    So it sounds like the major evidence for continued Western pre-eminence is the existence of the insititutional system designed by the West. Yes, institutions can far outlast their founders. That is their beauty. Run properly, they can accommodate themselves to shifts in power.
    Unfortunately, many of these institutions–the World Bank and the IMF in particulary have served as surrogates/extensions of United States power. Now they are struggling to find their places in the changing world landscape. And the United States has damaged the United Nations, supplanting it with its own unilateralism and with NATO. As for the dollar, I cannot believe that it can long survive the rise in economic power of Asia and commodity producers–those with economic power ultimately set the terms of trade and the currency of trade.
    So why would the East perpetuate struggling institutions that did not automatically themselves to the new realities free of an overbearing founder? Why would they not prefer to instead create new structures like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that are free of American historical baggage and mindset?
    Yes, it would be nice to keep an well functioning international system that was truly independent from its sponsor and greater than it. But the system’s close association with its sponsor is ultimately what will doom it.


  6. Matthew Myers says:

    Good discussion, as always. However I would urge those who are quick to point to the decline to not confuse this administration with overall American or Western power. People seem quite quick to do that, thus overlooking the fundamentals.
    Speaking of fundamentals. Following the money will also lead one to wonder what currency is that money held in. The vast majority of foreign reserves will be in Dollars or, increasingly, in Euros. Thus the West has, by default the stronger position, unless the Yuan or Yen for some reason starts becoming the currency of trade.
    Additionally, I agree that Europe is force adverse, but it need not be pro force. The Western system cited by Ms. Slaughter is precisely what makes that so. As long as Europe can rely on the United States, which it can because, despite relatively minor differences, the interests remain much the same, it does not have to augment its soft and sticky power with hard power.
    My thoughts are that the United States is undergoing a re-balancing of its place in the world. This does not mean a retreat into a Fortress America. It likely means a turn to a more institution-based diplomacy and more effort towards reform of international institutions.
    Furthermore, it is important to separate they hype of the east from the reality. It was not too long ago that many went on and on about the rise of Japan and the Asian Tigers. That has proven to be a mirage at best. China is rising from a very low place and has very, very far to go. They have no civil response mechanism, they were, despite the propaganda, slow to respond to the earthquake. They are overly reliant upon the PLA for disaster management. There are income discrepancies in that country that are truly breathtaking. The environmental damage alone should give anyone pause before they declare the East to be rising. I would be careful when stating that the East is rising without pointing to some truly fundamental strengths.


  7. TonyForesta says:

    Your point about the “bad” consequences of “increasingly intense resource wars” is poignant and critical Dan Kervick. Oil and energy issues are the most notable, but food and drinkable water issues are also on the near horizon as potential causes of “increasingly intense” conflicts.
    Europe and the US are on diverging paths in terms of environmental and ecological issues, the use of, and financial commitment to, military force, social remedies, health care, and respect for the rule of law. The days of American empire are over. The Bush government spiked the finals nails in the coffin over the last seven years driving the American economy to brink of calamity, shaming and tarnishing America’s image globally, and perverting and betraying the rule of law and our own Constitution.
    America is no longer the champion of freedom and democracy, – but has devolved into an authoritarian dictatorship advancing the interests of the predator class and the fascist tyrants and wanton profiteers commandeering the government exclusively, divided the nation wildly between thehaves and thehavenots, and perverted, dismembered and reengineered the rule of law and again our own Constitution. We have no more credibility or legitmacy in the community of nations. America’s hypersuperior military still demands respect and fear, but America’s days as the political leader of the free world, and the shining example of freedom, justice and equality for all are over.
    China’s response to the disaster in Seschuan as AE reminds us, shames the Bush governments lack of respone to the disaster in New Orleans. We will see in three years how this region China recovers from this terrible earth quake, but we also know for certain the rank failure of the recovery in New Orleans which continues to struggle today.
    While emerging nations and blocks of emerging nations in the 1st and 2nd world are methogically moving forward politically, economically, and socially – America on virtually every front is moving in all the wrong directions at breakneck speed.
    Perhaps, intelligent leaders can glean the courage and support to right America’s wayward course, but it seems the structural problems ($600bn a year warmachine and the rabid lust for, and glorification of warmaking – trillions of dollars in debt and deficits, – wild and increasing divides between thehaves and thehavenots, – tectonic internal political divisions, – systemic and endemic lawlessness in our political and financial
    leadership, – social decay, – ecological and environmental irresponsibility, – decreasing education standards – manifold loss of labor rights, labor bargaining power, decent paying jobs, and job security – one party, one cabal authoritarian tyrannical rule, – total lack of accountability from leadership – the grievous loss of the peoples wealth, home values, and access to healthcare or higher education, – the manifold increase in the peoples core cost of living outlays, – and the radical perversion, betrayal, dismembering and reengineering of the Constitution by fascist cabals with the government) could prove too daunting a task for any mere mortal or any group of wise leaders to correct or surmount.
    The rest of the world moving into the global future, while America is stuck in the supremist past.


  8. JohnH says:

    Mahbubani may have forgotten Europe, but it appears that Slaughter has forgotten OPEC, which, if I recall, is centered in Asia in the Middle East. If I had to describe the power players today, I’d put the United States, Europe, China, and the Gulf States at the top of my list, not necessarily in that order.
    It’s hard to contest that power has significantly shifted to Asia. Just look at Asian countries’ foreign currency reserves, or, as they say in politics, “follow the money.”


  9. Dan Kervick says:

    Dean Slaughter,
    This is a fairly persuasive argument, although I would emphasize that the claims that (i) both US and Western power are declining and that there is a power shift toward Asia, and (ii) that the West remains very powerful, and may well remain the focal point of global power for quite some time, are logically consistent, and might both be true.
    Do you know of any place online which serves as a forum or clearing house of sorts for proposals to reform international institutions? I’m interested both in both proposals to reform existing institutions and proposals to build entirely new institutions. There are no doubt a lot of proposals out there, but the discussion here in the US tends to be limited to just a few, and tends to promote false dichotomies such as either creating a concert or alliance of democracies, or standing pat entirely.
    I’m especially interested in proposals related to the energy field. My worry is that if we continue to treat the global energy economy as a realm for relatively unfettered competition among private and state-owned corporations, backed up where needed by the military muscle of the states that are fortunate enough to possess this muscle, we are condemning ourselves and our posterity to generations of increasingly intense resource wars, which will be bad both for the countries that fight them and for the people who happen to live in the palces where the resources are located.


  10. WigWag says:

    “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.”
    Shouldn’t we remember that that conglomerate of 27 nations and 500 million people couldn’t even put together the small constabulary force that it promised to patrol the border between the Serbs in Northern Kosovo and the rest of the country (or whatever it is). They promised 1,500 police officers by May 15th and couldn’t even muster half that many.
    And when the Israelis and Syrians decided they needed an interlocutor, did they turn to the quartet or any indivdual quartet member? No, they turned to Turkey.
    No one doubts that Europe will retain soft power for decades to come. But what about military power? Does anyone really think that we are evolving towards a world where military power is less relevant? The Europeans are force averse. As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in his recent book, the American political system needs reforming and is leading to paralysis. Americans, burned by the experience in Iraq, are much less likely to engage in military adventurism in the forseeable future (thank goodness). What about China? Their willingness to use force as a tool of diplomacy was brutally displayed by their behavior in Tibet.
    Compare the growth of military budgets in the East versus the West. Scrutinize European military budgets particularly carefully. It’s hard to see how anyone can claim that the East isn’t rising.


  11. EA says:

    “You need only live in China this last weeks, with the awful stream of pictures from the earthquake…to be reminded of how far China has to go.”
    You need only to have lived in New Orleans with the awful stream of pictures from the HURRICANE to be reminded of how far America has to go…


  12. lurker says:

    What a great set of posts. I really look forward to Mahbubani
    tomorrow. Thanks to Anne-Marie Slaugher and G. John Ikenberry
    for taking part in this important discussion.


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