March 26, 2013
A New Concert of Nations
In 1990, a billion people earned enough income to consider making discretionary purchases. By 2010, the figure had more than doubled.
The Indian scholar Brahma Challaney recently gave a talk at the Asia Society in New York about the coming global water-supply crisis. It was a dispiriting forecast: drought and pollution, even wars over water. That same morning brought dreary news from other fronts: a fresh threat from North Korea, another atrocity in Syria, a frightening smog alert from Beijing.
Anyone feeling the weight of the world’s woes will be grateful for Kishore Mahbubani’s “The Great Convergence,” a sweeping survey that proves to be, in large measure, a counterweight to global gloom and doom. Mr. Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, is under no illusions about the troubles we face, but he takes the longer view, reaching back a few decades to see an upward trend and to marvel at how far we have come.
Under Mr. Mahbubani’s lens, we see a plunge in the rates of extreme poverty and early-childhood deaths; a rise in literacy; a drop in the number of armed conflicts. “Major interstate wars,” says Mr. Mahbubani, “have become a sunset industry.” The good-news numbers are remarkable. In 1990, one billion human beings earned enough income to consider making discretionary purchases beyond mere necessity; by 2010, the figure had more than doubled. Mr. Mahbubani has lived this change. He was raised, he says, in “a typical third world city . . . [with] no flush toilets, some malnutrition, ethnic riots and, most importantly of all, no sense of hope for the future.” The city was Singapore, today an economic juggernaut with a per-capita income that outranks America’s.
Such statistics are presented as evidence of a “great convergence,” a phrase that Mr. Mahbubani first spotted in a Financial Times column by Martin Wolf, in which the columnist was describing a convergence of global interests, values and economic fortunes. Of course, nothing says “convergence” like the rush to connectivity, and while we know this story well, Mr. Mahbubani’s treatment still startles: Eleven million cellphone subscriptions, world-wide, in 1990; 5½ billion today. In 1985 the world’s fastest computer, the Cray 2, the size of a washing machine, was prohibitively expensive and required coolants to avoid overheating. Today the Cray 2′s match is the iPad 2, and it runs on 10 watts of power.
The Great Convergence
By Kishore Mahbubani
(PublicAffairs, 315 pages, $26.99)
Mr. Mahbubani is a big-picture writer and thinker, a Thomas Friedman with a strong Asian perspective, and like Mr. Friedman he is inclined toward the aphorism or analogy. When he eventually leaves his world-is-improving narrative to fret about future geopolitics, he does so with a maritime metaphor: “People no longer live in more than one hundred separate boats. Instead they all live in 193 separate cabins on the same boat. But this boat has a problem. It has 193 captains and crews, each claiming exclusive responsibility for one cabin. However, it has no captain or crew to take care of the boat as a whole.”
This passage sounds Mr. Mahbubani’s second theme: If we are gaining ground and converging in inspiring ways, we still lack an effective architecture for global governance. The need is critical, Mr. Mahbubani believes, because that metaphorical boat may soon run into an iceberg. The new arrivals in the Asian middle class, for example, will expect the trappings of success: a car, a refrigerator and so on, and our planet won’t be able to support them. For Mr. Mahbubani, the answer is some kind of global stewardship, one especially concerned with the environment, the economy and security. In short, we need a global referee.
But how to get there? Mr. Mahbubani skewers existing structures—the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the G-20—as either ineffectual or beholden to the great powers. The largest carbon emitters, to take a favorite example, have rejected global protocols (the U.S.) or signed them and pursued a “development first” strategy (China and India). It’s hard to argue with Mr. Mahbubani on that point but also hard to see how a new global architecture is possible when the great powers aren’t interested.
One great power, of course, is particularly uninterested, and in these pages Mr. Mahbubani casts the U.S. as an arrogant actor, a hegemon with no patience for multilateralism. Here his argument weakens from overreach. America’s frustration with the U.N. is not, as he argues, merely a matter of self-interest; it is also rooted in real concerns about mismanagement and certain U.N. policies.
As for Mr. Mahbubani’s charge that the U.N. acts only “when the residents of Park Avenue” (his phrase for the five permanent members of the Security Council) are affected, that just isn’t so. We have seen U.N. interventions in Somalia, Kosovo and Libya, none of which was exactly a “Park Avenue” interest.
But Mr. Mahbubani has a good idea for reforming the Security Council itself (a kind of staggered, tiers-of-influence plan), and he has good questions for Americans. Are we ready to accept being “No. 2″ on the global stage, at least by certain metrics? In fewer than five years China’s share of global income (only 2% two decades ago) will surpass that of the U.S., and yet the political discourse in America suggests an unwillingness to face that outcome, let alone plan for it. “The West will not lose power,” Mr. Mahbubani writes. “It will have to share power.”
In the end, he remains hopeful because he really believes it’s the long view that matters. If Southeast Asia—a war-torn, poverty-riven corner of the globe only a half-century ago—is today a region of peace and prosperity, then, Mr. Mahbubani believes, much else is possible. “In this rapidly changing world of ours,” he writes, “. . . miracles can happen.”
Mr. Nagorski is Executive Vice President of the Asia Society and the author of “Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack.”
A version of this article appeared March 20, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A New Concert Of Nations.