The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East

  • Published

The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East by Kishore Mahbubani. Public Affairs, 2008, 336 pp.

Americans are accused of not understanding the rest of the world and of believing the world interprets events as they do. For strategists and policy makers, this can be a tragic mistake. The ability to view oneself through the eyes of others is critical to helping formulate effective strategies for the full gamut of national interests.

Kishore Mahbubani’s latest book, The New Asian Hemisphere, brings the non-Western perspective to one of the most hotly debated topics since the end of the Cold War, namely, what does the future hold for the balance of world power? For Mahbubani, the future is decidedly on the side of Asia—namely China and India. These Asian powers have learned the principles of success from the West (which includes America and Western Europe) and are working quickly to put those ideas into practice. Mahbubani argues persuasively that rather than despairing about the inevitable rise of the Asian giants, the West should modify their policies so they do not conflict with the rise of the Asian hemisphere.

The belief that a unipolar world is unsustainable has roots in traditional European balance of power politics. If a nation-state becomes too powerful, other nations-states will rise, either independently or through the formation of alliances, to challenge the dominant nation-state. Those who hold this view see the growth of the European Union, China, and India, as an inevitable consequence of the end of the Cold War that saw America as the sole remaining superpower in the world. For these theorists, America must accommodate the rise of other powers rather than try to impede their development.

The author is firmly in this camp. However, Mahbubani, a dean at the National University of Singapore and previously Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations, takes the analysis further than other recent authors such as Fareed Zakaria, Thomas Friedman, and Fred Kagan. First, Mahbubani’s analysis is based on economic strength, not military strength. He sees the future political power vested in countries with strong economies, not necessarily those with powerful militaries. Second, he sees the whole West as part of the same economic and ideological alliance. This alliance, he believes, is continuing the political domination that much of the world was subjected to during the colonial era. Third, and most importantly, he adds the crucial Asian perspective to the analysis that most other authors who tackle this topic completely miss.

One of the key insights The New Asian Hemisphere brings to the forefront is why Asia’s economic power is rising. For Mahbubani, Asian societies are simply returning to their natural place as some of the great powers of the world. The inner desire in these societies to be free of the West’s political and economic domination is a drive that cannot be stopped. But having the desire is one thing while having the ability is quite another. Mahbubani explains that the Asian societies that are thriving, such as Japan, China, and India, did not gain the ability for greatness by rediscovering some magical formula from their past. Rather, they discovered the pillars of Western wisdom that helped the West become so successful for the past two hundred years. For Mahbubani, these pillars are free market economics, pursuit of science and technology, strict adherence to meritocracy, the culture of peace, rule of law, and an embrace of education.

Though much of the book is devoted to exploring how the Asian hemisphere has adopted many of the qualities of the West, Mahbubani also explores the frustration of Asian nations. He believes these frustrations revolve around the continued political domination of the international system by the West. His sharpest criticisms are reserved for America. These portions of his book might be the most uncomfortable for Americans to read. They are, however, also the most important. The yearly Pew Global Attitudes Project surveys show the decline of world opinion towards the United States. Many writers tie the decline to simplistic notions of the negative views of the Bush presidency and the Iraq war. However, Mahbubani takes the analysis to the next level. He theorizes that the root of the decline in the positive opinions of America is the country’s inability to come to grips with the fact that it cannot dominate the international system and act unilaterally.

Mahbubani posits that despite the perceived Western hubris, all is not lost. The New Asian Hemisphere lays out a series of four proposals for the West, especially America, to adopt to fit into the new world order created by the rise of the Asian giants. First, adopt global governance, not global government, as one of the foundations of the new global society. He advocates for the strengthening of existing global institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, which should also include the emerging Asian powers. Second, he advises that the world system will be much better if all nation-states are subject to the rule of law. He further stipulates that no country, including America, should be exempt from these international norms. Third, Mahbubani argues that the concept of social justice must be embraced by all nations. By this he means that more prosperous nations have an obligation to help those at the bottom of world society. And fourth, he believes that if the West has any hopes of trying to shape the future global political structure, it must do so through partnership with non-Western nations and be guided by pragmatism, not ideology.

It is easy to dismiss a book such as this one, since it shatters so many myths and beliefs that we have of ourselves, our society, and our place in the world system. It is far easier to listen to those who agree with our own perception of the world. However, Mahbubani is one of the most respected international diplomats and one who has thought deeply about the Asian viewpoint and how emerging Asian economic giants will fit into the future world order. Only time will tell whether the Asian hemisphere will grow to dominate the international system, but what is certain is that the West in general and America in particular must look at how our actions play out on the international stage. It is only by looking at alternative perspectives will we be able to implement the right policies to meet our national interests.

Col Rizwan Ali, USAF

United States Strategic Command

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."