Book review: “The Great Convergence” by Kishore Mahbubani (International Affairs)

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IA

November 2014
Volume 90, Issue 6
Pages iii–xi, 1255–1516

‘The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World’ by Kishore Mahbubani (PublicAffairs, 2013), 328 pages, R$ 22,49 (Kindle, www.amazon.com.br)

"The twenty-first century has seen a rise in the global middle class that brings an unprecedented convergence of interests and perceptions, cultures and values."

The world, according to Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and one of Asia's most visible pundits, is becoming a safer, richer, more equal and overall better place. In addition, "a consensual cluster of norms has been sweeping the globe and has been accepted by policymaking elites around the world." The reader is bombarded with a string of seemingly never-ending good news: "Policy makers in all corners have essentially developed the same set of perspectives on how to improve and develop their societies." His overall point is that despite a sense of crisis in the West, the remaining 88% of the world is very optimistic about the future. 500 million Asians have recently emerged from poverty, and that number will rise to 1.75 billion by the end of the decade.

The remaining problems, Mahbubani says, can all be solved through stronger and reformed international institutions. "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."

Mahbubani is an impatient, somewhat rancorous big-picture writer, using many analogies and aphorisms, so he dedicates very little time to explain how exactly the changes he proposes should take place. Few would disagree that the UN needs reforms, but how can we overcome the many obstacles to get there? He proposes making Brazil, India and Nigeria permanent Security Council members and replacing the UK and France with a joint EU seat - an excellent proposal - yet are there any historic examples of great powers giving up institutional privilege without losing a war? 

In many ways, The Great Convergence sounds eerily like Norman Angell's The Great Illusion, which argued that economic interdependence had made war all but impossible. Soon after its publication, however, World War I broke out in a profoundly interconnected Europe. Why exactly should things be different this time around? Why is the author so sure that a conflict between China and Japan is unthinkable?

His answer shows a worrying degree of elitism and unworldliness. Mahbubani simply reports how, during his debates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, global elites increasingly think alike. “It helps enormously when leaders of different countries have been trained at Harvard or Yale, Columbia or Stanford,” he writes.

That misses the point in four important ways. First of all, the governing elites of the majority of countries have not studied at US-American Ivy League Schools. Secondly, the idea that the world's elites should all learn the same ideas is problematic: It is precisely the Cambridge, Massachusetts-centric worldview of many international institutions that has kept them from understanding diverging local perspectives. Thirdly, even a Yale-educated leader will have to consider the immediate interests of domestic constituencies that empower them, which are usually not aligned with those of the champagne-sipping elites of Davos that have the capacity to look at global challenges from a long-term perspective.

Finally, Mahbubani himself is a perfect example of how a non-Western elite trained in the United States may very well disagree with many Western values. He (rightly) criticized the United States for its lack of enlightened leadership, yet fails to mention the many shortcomings of China's policies. The author has been one of the most forceful proponents of "Asian Values" (emphasizing order, stability and authoritarianism), arguing that the West places too much value on freedom, democracy and individualism. While he no longer explicitly supports these ideas, he continues to speak of Asia as if it were a single, cohesive unit. Yet how exactly do the values India cherishes align with those of China's society? Many thinkers in Asia would disagree with the notion of a unified set of Asian values.

Few of the ideas presented in The Great Convergence are truly original and the book is filled with truisms and soundbites that, at closer inspection, make little sense ("We will increasingly realize that our village is a world and not that our world is a village").

And yet, given the scarcity of books on global order written outside of Europe and the United States, it is likely to gain a considerable readership around the world. Rightly so: Despite its flaws, The Great Convergence may help Western scholars obtain a glimpse at non-Western perspectives, which continue to be greatly underrepresented in the international debate.

Read also:

Book review: “The End of American World Order” by Amitav Acharya

Book review: “Liberal Internationalism: Theory, History, Practice” by Beate Jahn

Book review: “Liberty’s Surest Guardian” by Jeremi Suri