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 / Spring 2008 / Issue 50(originally published by Booz & Company)


Ambassador for the Asian Century

Mahbubani sealed his reputation as a straight-shooting interpreter between East and West with the 2005 publication of his second book, Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust between America and the World (Public Affairs). As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted with approval, “Kishore Mahbubani adores the United States and explains why the rest of the world does not.” Beyond the Age of Innocence gained him the paradoxical reputation of being a critic of the U.S. in Western eyes, and a defender of the U.S. to much of the rest of the world. “Many people think I’m anti-Western because I’m telling you the way you look at the world is wrong,” he says. “But at the same time, in Asia I’m perceived as Western.”

March to Modernity
The New Asian Hemisphere promises to be Mahbubani’s most provocative book to date. It sets out a blueprint for the Western response to Asia’s rise. “It was the West that triggered the Asian march to modernity,” he writes. “It should be cheering this positive new direction of world history.” In other words, the West should stop viewing Asians as outsourcing bogeymen, voracious consumers of the world’s dwindling resources, and abusers of human rights and the environment. Rather than lecturing the Asian nations on how to conduct themselves as novice members of the international community, the West needs to rethink its own conduct in the face of a fundamental power shift.

Mahbubani argues that the most prominent international institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the G8, and the United Nations — all currently dominated by Western countries — must keep step with Asia’s new dominance. The World Bank and IMF in particular need to reconsider the way they do business: Their own rules, which dictate that they be headed by Americans and Europeans, respectively, will lead to those institutions’ irrelevancy. Already, China is emerging as the largest economy in the world, and India will be the third largest, just behind the U.S., by 2050, according to the widely cited Goldman Sachs BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) study. “I’m an early-warning tremor, because after me the earthquake is coming,” Mahbubani says with a grin over a lime soda on a Sunday afternoon at his golf club. He calls the G8 “a joke,” and he has argued for India’s admission as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

Recognizing these power shifts and adapting international institutions accordingly will give those organizations greater global credibility and ultimately make the world more stable, he claims. A fusion of values, of “the best of the East and the best of the West,” will emerge, he says. He asserts that Asian cultures have more tolerance for diversity, as in the case of India’s generally harmonious society of Hindus, Muslims, and hundreds of ethnic groups. “The West will remain the single strongest civilization for many years to come, but the challenge is to convince them that although they’ve been part of the solution in the past, now they are part of the problem,” Mahbubani says. “The rise of Asia is not going to kill the West. Asia doesn’t want to dominate, it wants to replicate — it wants middle-class societies, peace, great universities, all the things you find in the West.”

But there’s one big difference: With the growth of China, nations with democratic governments will no longer be the largest actors in the global economy. “When Asian countries succeed, are they going to become cultural clones of the West?” Mahbubani asks. “No! The cul­tural domination of the world by one civilization is going to end. There’s a movement toward a ‘multi-civilizational’ world.”

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  1. Sven Behrendt, “The Statecraft of Business,” s+b, Autumn 2007: Demonstrates that corporate strategy can be based on international relations theory.
  2. Art Kleiner, “Carlotta Perez: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Winter 2005: This influential long-wave theorist sets a context for the Asian century.
  3. Kishore Mahbubani, Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust between America and the World (Public Affairs, 2005): Argues that U.S. imprudence toward two huge populations — the Chinese and Muslims — led to the United States’ diminished global authority.
  4. Kishore Mahbubani, Can Asians Think? (Times Books International, 1998): A wake-up call to Asians and Westerners alike.
  5. Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (Public Affairs, 2008): How a new type of partnership can help the West and East avoid conflict.
  6. Edward Tse, “China’s Five Surprises,” s+b, Winter 2005: Explains why in the world’s fastest-growing economy, the last 10 years are not the best guide to the next 10 years.
  7. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed.
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