June 21, 2019

Has the West Lost It?

By Barend ter Haar.

The subtitle “A Provocation” of Has the West Lost It? will not surprise someone who has read other books of the Singaporean diplomat-scholar Kishore Mahbubani, such as Can Asians Think? (2001) and The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World (2013). Just as in those earlier books, he is friendly, but provokingly clear, not only about the accomplishments of the West and the Rest, but also about their flaws and blunders.

According to Mahbubani the West refuses to accept that humanity has turned a crucial corner in its history. For a short period of about two centuries, the West dominated the world. This extraordinary period is quickly coming to an end, because the Rest is catching up. In 1976 the combined GDP of the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and US) was still twice as big as that of the E7, the seven largest emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Turkey and Indonesia). Soon it will be the other way around.

We are returning to the situation that existed before 1820, when the two largest economies of the world were China and India. However, thanks to the “power of reasoning” that the Rest has taken over from the West, the human condition has improved enormously: in 1950 75% of the world lived in extreme poverty. Now that is less than 10%.

While Western elites prefer to look the other way, the populations of their countries “feel these large changes in their bones, and in the job markets”. The most consequential event of 2001 was not 9/11, but the entry of China into the WTO: “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”.

According to a report of the Bank for International Settlements, the introduction of new workers from China and Eastern Europe led in the West to declining real wages and a smaller share of labour in national output and this “naturally meant that inequality [within Western economies] rose”. Take for example the US: 63% of its population nowadays does not have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency. This is why Trump and Brexit happened.

What should Western countries do, according to Mahbubani? First of all, they should engage in deep self-reflexion and recognize the grave mistakes they made out of hubris, such as the invasion of Iraq and the humiliation of Russia. The United Kingdom should give its permanent seat in the UN Security Council to India and France should share its seat with the EU.

Secondly, they should become more “strategically cunning” in defending their interests. “For Europe, it is clear that the primary threat is not going to come from Russia. (..) Europe’s primary threat is spillover instability from the Islamic world. As long as North Africa and the Middle East are populated with struggling states, migrants will come into Europe, stirring populist parties.” Promoting the economic development of North Africa is a matter of even higher urgency because of the expected growth of the population of the rest of Africa. In 80 years, the population of Africa is expected to be 4,5 billion, against 450 million Europeans.

According to Mahbubani the West can continue to play a key role in the world, but only if it recognizes that the era of Western domination is coming to an end and if it seeks to influence the world rather than to dominate it.

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