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CommentInsight & Opinion

Americans ill-served by the blinkered view of US dominance

Kishore Mahbubani says US public intellectuals have a duty to recognise America's decline, vis-à-vis Asia's inexorable rise, and help its citizens prepare for the dislocations of the power shift

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 6:16am

The time has come to think the unthinkable: the era of American dominance in international affairs may well be coming to an end. As that moment approaches, the main question will be how well the US is prepared for it.

Asia's rise over the past few decades is more than a story of rapid economic growth. It is the story of a region undergoing a renaissance in which people's minds are reopened and their outlook refreshed. Asia's movement towards resuming its former central role in the global economy has so much momentum that it is virtually unstoppable. While the transformation may not always be seamless, there is no longer room to doubt that an Asian century is on the horizon, and that the world's chemistry will change fundamentally.

Global leaders - whether policymakers or intellectuals - bear a responsibility to prepare their societies for impending global shifts. But too many American leaders are shirking this responsibility.

Last year, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, two US senators, one member of the US House of Representatives, and a deputy national security adviser participated in a forum on the future of American power (I was the chair). When asked what future they anticipated for American power, they predictably declared that the US would remain the world's most powerful country. When asked whether America was prepared to become the world's second-largest economy, they were reticent.

Their reaction was understandable: even entertaining the possibility of the United States becoming "No 2" amounts to career suicide for an American politician. Elected officials everywhere must adjust, to varying degrees, to fulfil the expectations of those who put them in office.

Intellectuals, on the other hand, have a special obligation to think the unthinkable and speak the unspeakable. They are supposed to consider all possibilities, even disagreeable ones, and prepare the population for prospective developments. Honest discussion of unpopular ideas is a key feature of an open society.

But, in the US, many intellectuals are not fulfilling this obligation.

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested recently that the US "could already be in the second decade of another American century". Likewise, Clyde Prestowitz, the president of the Economic Strategy Institute, has said that "this century may well wind up being another American century".

To be sure, such predictions may well prove accurate; if they do, the rest of the world will benefit. A strong and dynamic US economy, reinvigorated by cheap shale gas and accelerating innovation, would rejuvenate the global economy as a whole. But Americans are more than ready for this outcome; no preparation is needed.

If the world's centre of gravity shifts to Asia, however, Americans will be woefully unprepared. Many Americans remain shockingly unaware of how much the rest of the world, especially Asia, has progressed. Americans need to be told a simple, mathematical truth. With 3 per cent of the world's population, the US can no longer dominate the rest of the world, because Asians, with 60 per cent of the population, are no longer underperforming. But the belief that America is the only virtuous country, the sole beacon of light in a dark and unstable world, continues to shape many Americans' worldview.

American intellectuals' failure to challenge these ideas - and to help the US population shed complacent attitudes based on ignorance - perpetuates a culture of coddling the public. But while Americans tend to receive only good news, Asia's rise is not really bad news. The US should recognise that Asian countries are not seeking to dominate the West, but to emulate it. They seek to build strong and dynamic middle classes and to achieve the kind of peace, stability and prosperity that the West has long enjoyed.

This deep social and intellectual transformation under way in Asia promises to catapult it from economic power to global leadership. China, which remains a closed society in many ways, has an open mind, whereas the US is an open society with a closed mind.

With Asia's middle class set to rocket from roughly 500 million people today to 1.75 billion by 2020, the US will not be able to avoid the global economy's new realities for much longer. The world is poised to undergo one of the most dramatic power shifts in human history. In order to be prepared for the transformation, Americans must abandon ingrained ideas and old assumptions, and liberate unthinkable thoughts. That is the challenge facing American public intellectuals today.

Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and author of The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World. Copyright: Project Syndicate


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This article is now closed to comments

I once had to suffer listening to the insufferably pompous Mahbubani speak for an hour, never again. This is a moderate piece by his standards, still utter rubbish though, making wide generalisations about what 300m Americans think and using a couple of examples to vilify a nation's thinkers.
Predictions for when China's GDP will exceed that of the US are moving out all the time. And of course it will mean zip when it does. What counts to Chinese people is GDP per capita; only a few nationalist idiots and KB give a damn about gross GDP.
Does anyone else see the irony in a Singaporean [admittedly with a track record of similar pronouncements] lecturing others on the need to accept second-best? Prof. Mahbubani apparently doesn't want to focus on his own countrymen's kiasu tendencies.
Healthily Cynical
When the British empire ended there were a number of equal military powers. Today, the US has ten aircraft carriers (in service) whilst China only has 1 (almost in service). There are currently no countries that can seriously threaten the US. So let's be honest, if / when it comes down to a fight over scarce resources, over a default on the trillions owed by US, do we really think anyone can threaten Americas position within the next 30 years?
It would be great for the world if China and India could get their economic act together. They have removed the most obvious impediments to growth and have progressed from desperately poor to just relatively poor. Now comes the hard part: fostering innovation and reducing the size and scope of their governments. Growth in both countries are tanking. India is facing low growth and China perhaps economic collapse through massive malinvestment.
The U.S. has its share of problem, not so unlike the problems America seemed to face in the 1970s under President Carter, but America can and probably will rebound with better leadership as the U.S. did in the 80s, 90s and 2000s.
Intellectual leadership? No offense meant here, just facts.
The United States of America is the intellectual heir to (amongst other things): the European innovations of Periclean Athens, Republican Rome, The Magna Carta, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man.
By that account, Asia's socio-political development in terms of universal human (social, political, economic and civil) rights, direct democracy, rule of law, separation of powers, freedom of speech and assembly, free press, evidence-based decisions grounded in reason and logic, open debate and tolerated dissent is at worst, in some places - approximately 2500 years behind, so still some way to go.
It is going in the right direction at least - witness the reforms in Burma (if not yet in Singapore).
Two artists reinforce the point regarding (for example), relative tolerance of dissent in Asia and in Europe:
GDP is not the measure of 'supremacy' so Mahbubani's point is meaningless. He also gives away a slight sense of childish, chip on the shoulder resentment. America will become no.2 only if China stops intellectual property and technology theft, stops the rampant corruption of its businessmen and officials and becomes a nation of innovators and original thinkers. Not any time soon.
I do not have the patience to read through this article either. The United States is indisputably the world leader in every aspect of human life on this planet. To the extent that students around the globe flock to the US for education, US supremacy remains unassailable and no sign of decline is in clear sight. So stop babbling about the rise of Asia, not in this century!
Self serving prediction?


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