There are two aspects to this book. On the one hand, the book does a very good job of narrating exciting history that is unfolding here and now. It lucidly tells how both India and China have adopted free market reforms to jumpstart their economies. It talks about the modernizing effects of the free market in terms of dramatic improvements in physical comforts of billions of Asians like flushing toilets, cell phones, cars ,etc. On the other hand, the book also offers a prescription for the West (U.S.A. and Europe) to fix their inability to continue to lead the world in peace and prosperity.
I have no problem with the first aspect of the book. I agree wholeheartedly that free market principles, even when applied from the top down in a previously command economy, can work. My beef is with Mahbubani’s prescription for the West. He advocates what he calls “geopolitical pragmatism”. In Mahbubani’s view, the West is intellectually stuck in its superiority complex and cannot put aside its ideology even for a moment. The foreign policies of China and India, on the other hand, are held up as exemplars of effective geopolitics.
The book was written in 2008, the dawn of the Obama regime in the U.S. Let’s review some of the more important policy prescriptions recommended by Mahbubani, determine whether Obama is following each one or not, and check the results so far:
Engage with Muslim Fundamentalists
India is more effectively dealing with the problem of Muslim fundamentalism by its humility (although it has not been spared from Muslim terrorist attacks). China has been equally silent in its diplomacy towards fundamentalist countries, eschewing the use of any propaganda construct such as Bush’s “axis of evil”.
Obama’s foreign policy is 180 degrees out of phase with that of Bush. As Mahbubani has prescribed, “Obama has consistently said he is willing to meet, without preconditions but with preparation, the leaders of Iran” (source: Obama-Biden website). He delivered a speech in Cairo in June of last year that was clearly in line with what the book says America should do: admit the West’s failings, praise the merits of the Muslim faith, and even sprinkle the speech with quotes from the Koran.
There is no evidence that Obama’s foreign policy is improving relations with Muslim countries. In fact, there is evidence for the opposite effect: a couple of polls have indicated that hatred for America among Muslims has not abated. Terrorist attacks have not decreased either. Could it be that the Muslim religion is irreconcilably incompatible with prevailing Western ideals? Mahbubani, like Obama (and even Bush himself), would not even entertain this possibility.
Strengthen the United Nations
Mahbubani reminds the West that it is the bearer of the wonderful gift in the form of the U.N. Charter, and that it only makes sense for the West to continue to uphold the charter and strengthen the U.N. The West has instead ignored the U.N. Charter by imposing its will through the Security Council.
Obama is also in favor of strengthening the U.N. and agrees with Mahbubani that the U.S. has been inconsistent with regards to its objective of spreading democracy. In a September, 2009 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama declares that “Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside. Each society must search for its own path, and no path is perfect. Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people and in its past traditions. And I admit that America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy. But that does not weaken our commitment; it only reinforces it. There are basic principles that are universal; there are certain truths which are self-evident — and the United States of America will never waver in our efforts to stand up for the right of people everywhere to determine their own destiny.”
Bush has left the Iraq war in much better shape for America than at any time during his tenure. When Obama took over, out of respect for the sacrifices made by American soldiers, Obama should have used America’s unquestionable influence in Iraq and made sure that the last election resulted in a stable government. Instead he focused on drawing down the number of troops (as he promised) and so until now there is no clear leader in the Iraqi government. Terrorists have taken advantage of the situation and have killed scores of civilians while the draw-down is occurring. Obama’s policy here is consistent with standing up “for the right of people everywhere to determine their own destiny”. However, he is himself inconsistent in this regard because he has clearly intervened in the case of the Honduran coup d’etat when his administration sided with Zelaya and ignored the judgment of the Honduran supreme court.
Give Up Stranglehold on the IMF and the World Bank
The capital initially used for IMF and World Bank loans came from the West, and so it made sense for the West to require that the heads of these institutions be either European or American. However, Mahbubani claims, after borrowing countries have repaid their loans, leadership of the IMF and the World Bank should now be based on meritocracy without regard for country of citizenship. The money in these banks now consist mostly of interest paid, and the original capital has diminished its ratio with respect to the total, thereby also diminishing the right of the West to assign executive leadership.
Judging from how much importance the Obama administration has given to the G-20, we can surmise that they are in favor of this policy prescription.
This has not happened yet, and so the result is unknown at this point.
Mahbubani subscribes to the ideas of Amartya Sen. He views freedom in layers, with freedom from want elevated as the most fundamental freedom: “A human being who cannot feed himself or his family cannot possibly be free.” This view is clearly the neo-liberal view, at odds with the classical liberal definition of freedom: basic individual rights protected by the state. Before any human being can feed himself or his family, the food he needs has to be produced first. History has shown us that if the state is given the power to distribute the fruits of labor in any society, production can diminish to famine levels.
Obama is a neo-liberal and likewise can certainly agree with Amartya Sen.
The result of this policy, although applied domestically in the U.S. and not as part of foreign policy, is Obamacare. Obamacare is a horrible usurpation of one-sixth of the U.S. economy by the government. It will eventually lead to rationing of health care.