Kishore Mahbubani is a former diplomat from Singapore and is currently dean and professor of public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School at the National University of Singapore. He spoke to the The WorldPost from Singapore in a wide-ranging interview about globalization, immigration, rising China, U.S. President Donald Trump and Brexit.
For all its benefits, where has globalization failed key domestic constituencies and why?
Globalization has not failed. All discussions on globalization are distorted because Western analysts focus on the roughly 15 percent of the world’s population who live in the West. They ignore the 85 percent who are the rest. The last 30 years of human history have been the best 30 years that the rest have enjoyed. Why? The answer is globalization. The rise of the middle class in Asia has spread wealth, faith in the possibility of fair international institutions and a stabilizing rules-based system that benefits the majority of humanity.
So why is there a perception that globalization has failed? The simple answer is that Western elites who enjoyed the fruits of globalization did not share them with their Western masses. Even worse, they did not prepare their populations for the disruptive change caused by the spread of globalization. In a forthcoming book, I explain how Trump and Brexit are the result of this failure. In it, I write:
Instead of reacting thoughtfully and intelligently [to the 9/11 attack in 2001], the prevailing intellectual hubris led to the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. America has the world’s best universities and think tanks, as well as the most globally influential professors and pundits. Yet none of them told their fellow citizens that the most important event in 2001 was not 9/11. It was China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. The entry of almost a billion workers into the global trading system would obviously result in massive ‘creative destruction’ and the loss of many jobs in the West.
This, to cut a long story short, was one major reason why Trump and Brexit happened 15 years later in 2016. The working-class populations could feel directly what their elites couldn’t feel. Their lives were being disrupted by fundamental changes taking place in the world order, and their leaders had done nothing to explain to them what was happening or to mitigate the damage.
Given this, there is a solution. We need honest and courageous leaders in the West who tell their populations hard truths, like Lee Kuan Yew did here in Singapore. The West, both America and Europe, can certainly compete. However, they have to make major adjustments. For example, no more 35-hour week in France; no more agricultural subsidies in Europe; no more lifelong pension benefits after 55. You get the message.
“The West can certainly compete. However, no more 35-hour week in France; no more agricultural subsidies; no more lifelong pension benefits after 55.”
Without borders that affirm cultural affinity, walls are rising as people feel their identities are threatened. How can political leaders and parties respond to concerns over immigration without closing their societies?
It is absolutely true that globalization has challenged cultural identities. This also explains Trump and Brexit. America wants to remain an Anglo-Saxon country, not a bilingual country with equal space for the Spanish-speaking population from south of the border. The British want to see an Anglo-Saxon country, not one with Polish and Muslim immigrants. One of the most shocking columns I have read in my life was a column by a lifelong liberal, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, arguing against multiculturalism. Even he wanted to turn the clock backwards.
But you cannot turn the clock backwards. With the end of the era of Western domination, we are moving from a mono-civilizational world dominated by the West to a multi-civilizational world. This is so obvious. Yet, I cannot find a single Western politician who is prepared to state the obvious. This is why Western populations are confused. They have not understood that in this new era of world history, they have to accept multiculturalism, even at home.
To be fair, it is not just Western societies that are facing this challenge. Singapore had a Brexit moment in 2011. One reason why George Yeo, Singapore’s foreign minister at the time, lost his parliamentary seat in the 2011 elections is because there was a backlash against immigrants in Singapore. In an effort to fuel economic growth, the government brought in too many migrants too quickly. It learned its lesson fast. The taps were carefully tightened after 2011. In short, each society will have to find the natural balance between reducing migrants to protect cultural identity and increasing migrants to promote economic growth. Good political management can solve this.
“We are moving from a mono-civilizational world dominated by the West to a multi-civilizational world.”
With the U.S. relinquishing the global leadership role it has played for decades, China yet unable or unwilling to fill the vacuum and Europe facing internal turmoil over its own integration, what forms of global cooperation can prevent the return to an era of spheres of influence?
Bill Clinton hit the nail on the head in a speech he gave at Yale in 2003:
If you believe that maintaining power and control and absolute freedom of movement and sovereignty is important to your country’s future, there’s nothing inconsistent in [the U.S. continuing to behaving unilaterally]. [The U.S. is] the biggest, most powerful country in the world now. ... But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military political economic superpower in the world, then you wouldn’t do that. It just depends on what you believe.
As America proceeds toward becoming number two in the world (and this is inevitable), it should abandon its destructive policies of unilateralism and start a new era of constructive policies of multilateralism. It is that simple. Unfortunately, no American leader has the courage to defend multilateralism. The root cause of many of the problems in the West is political cowardice of the first order.
There will be no return to exclusive spheres of influence. Each region will have multiple choices. Latin America can no longer be subject to the Monroe doctrine. China’s trade and investment links with Latin America will become as large as those of the U.S. Africa will receive many suitors, including China and India, Europe and Japan. The disappearance of exclusive spheres of influence is a result of growing globalization and the resulting reality of living in a small interdependent world.
“As America proceeds toward becoming number two, it should abandon its destructive policies of unilateralism.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping has said “technology is the new economic battlefield” and pledged to shift the Chinese economy away from the export model toward domestic consumption and production with his internet-plus program called “Made in China 2025,” which seeks to reach the global tech innovation high ground. China is also expanding regional trade ties and pushing out the “One Belt, One Road” strategy to link up markets from Beijing to Istanbul. By contrast, Trump’s “America First” policy has been called “Made in America 1955” by critics since it seeks to protect industrial manufacturing markets. He has also pledged to retract global trade deals. How might these two strategies complement instead of conflict with each other?
An economic partnership between America and China is a marriage made in heaven. America is rich in technology, it has an affluent middle class despite the recent stagnation, and it has a desperate need for new infrastructure. China is rich in capital and has developed world-class infrastructure-building capabilities. If the U.S. and China were two companies, instead of two countries, they would naturally forge an economic partnership with each other. Unfortunately, they are countries, not companies. Hence, geopolitical zero-sum games prevent the natural positive-sum economic cooperation that should happen.
Most Americans think that China is the irrational and illogical player in the America-China equation. To be absolutely fair and objective, China is rational and predictable. America is not. Common sense often does not prevail in American political discourse. Any American politician who even dares to suggest that it would be logical to forge a new U.S.-China infrastructure partnership would be excoriated immediately. The big question therefore is: can the U.S. be rational with China?
What bridges can be built to prevent hostility or even outright conflict between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies?
A new U.S.-China infrastructure partnership is the best bridge to build between the two countries. At the same time, all the current strong and positive points in the relationship must be sustained. The U.S. can remain a major market for Chinese products. China should continue to send hundred of thousands of young Chinese to study in American universities. Both should also collaborate on geopolitical issues, like North Korea.
The recent trade agreement between the U.S. and China was a big plus. So too was the American decision to upgrade its delegation to the Belt and Road summit in Beijing. If the U.S. wants to be really cunning, it should seize the many business opportunities that the “One Belt, One Road” initiative will eventually offer. Pragmatism and common sense should replace ideology and pride in American thinking of China.
Quite amazingly, China is now speaking the language of most American leaders. At the summit, Xi Jinping said, “Trade is an important engine driving growth. We should embrace the outside world with an open mind, uphold the multilateral trading regime, advance the building of free trade areas and promote liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment.” Surely, any sensible American leader would agree with every word in this statement.
“If the U.S. wants to be cunning, it should seize the business opportunities that the 'One Belt, One Road' initiative will eventually offer.”
Overall, how can the imperative of global cooperation be reconciled with the winning political narrative articulated so clearly by Trump, who has said, “there is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency or a global flag”?
The big question is whether nationalist leaders like Trump show a deep understanding of the small integrated world that is coming or whether they reflect a last-ditch attempt by two leaders to recreate historical glories that have long gone. When Trump says consistently that he wants to “make America great again,” it shows that he is driving America into the future by looking at the rear-view mirror. No new forward-looking policies will be possible under Trump. However, the political pendulum will swing again in the U.S. ― just as Stephen Harper was replaced by Justin Trudeau in Canada and Francois Hollande replaced by Emmanuel Macron in France, the same could well happen in the U.S. We must be patient and wait for change.
The paradoxical result of Brexit is that the United Kingdom will have to rebuild its economic links with the rest of the world and look for new global markets to replace the lost economic opportunities in the EU. Hence, British Prime Minister Theresa May, despite her efforts to rebuild a strong British identity, will end up creating a U.K. that is more globalized than the the U.K. was as a European Union member. The need to develop stronger economic engagement with the rest of the world will lead to a necessary tempering of the nationalist rhetoric. Over time, the U.K. could also produce a figure like Trudeau or Macron.