Today's date:
Spring 2008


Globalization has so thoroughly transformed the world that we may now be entering a new phase: post-globalization. This phase is characterized less by a flattening of old differences than the appearance of new ones.

First, we are witnessing the end of "the end of history" as a distinct pattern of "non-Western modernization" is beginning to take shape. Second, two decades after the defrosting of the Cold War order, the world is once again dividing into democratic and non-democratic camps. Third, it is increasingly clear that export-oriented emerging markets such as China or Brazil are achieving a sufficient level of domestic consumption that they can "decouple" from the rich economies, continuing to grow even as the United States teeters toward recession and, indeed, even providing the influx of cash required by US financial institutions to weather the current crisis.

The most prominent chronicler of non-Western modernization is Kishore Mahbubani, the irascible former envoy of Singapore to the United Nations and now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. In his just-published book The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, Mahbubani writes that "many in the West want to believe that this current bout of anti-Americanism is just a passing phase caused by the harsh and insensitive policies of one administration. When Bush leaves, all will change and the world will go back to loving America. The West will be revered again. All will be well. This is a mirage." Where once the Chinese, the Muslims and the Indians "happily borrowed Western lenses and Western cultural perspectives" to see the world, now "with growing cultural self-confidence their perceptions are growing further and further apart."

As evidence of this shift, Mahbubani not only marshals the well-known economic statistics about growth in India and China but also cites the increasing quality and number of world-class Asian universities, the credible rise of the "Chinese dream" as a model for the developing world as well as the eclipse of the once ubiquitous American I Love Lucy or Dallas-type entertainment by Qing dynasty dramas, wildly popular modern-day Korean soaps or Bollywood epics that are attractive in the Muslim world because of "the spirit of inclusiveness and tolerance" that pervades the Indian mindset. While the West sees the world in black and white, "evil empire and axis of evil" terms, writes Mahbubani, "the Indian mind is able to see the world in many different colors," making Easterners more properly "the custodians of human civilization" than Westerners.

The road to this new East may well have been through the West, but now that the East has arrived at its destination the future will be built on its own terms. In one of his most insightful passages Mahbubani writes that "the great paradox about failed Western attempts to export democracy to other societies is that, in the broadest sense of the term, the West has actually succeeded in democratizing the world." For this Singaporean diplomat, even "undemocratic China" has empowered its citizens and made them "masters of their own destiny" thanks to new economic liberties. Yet, instead of celebrating this "democratization of the human spirit," the West berates them "for imperfect voting practices" because it fears the inevitable: real democracy on a global scale would topple the West from its reigning perch.

Obviously much turns here on the differences between liberal and illiberal democracy, but Mahbubani is certainly right on the broader historical shift taking place.

Closely related to the new cultural self-assertion of the East is what former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sees as "the hardening of the cement between democratic and non-democratic worlds."

"The phony democracies or autocracies of Putin and Chavez," she lamented in a recent conversation, "may point to the future rather than the likes of Walesa, Havel or Mandela who were harbingers of democracy in their time." For now oil is the ingredient that is hardening the cement, but one wonders, as the futurist Alvin Toffler did on a recent visit to Moscow, how Russia can advance through centralizing the state and restoring the nomenklatura in an information age where distributed power and decentralization are the keys to success.

In any case, Albright's answer to stemming this new global rift is to reinvigorate US-European alliances in promoting democracy "because we have the most in common." For Russia and China, the whole point of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, which now ties them together, is to stand firm against such initiatives by the fading hegemon and its formerly colonialist allies trying to hold on as power moves East.

Finally, those crying over their sorry portfolio returns from US versus international markets can't but note the growing differential between slowdown and take-off.

Some economists argue that China has passed a critical threshold where it can "decouple" its economic fate from the West's financial tribulations, sustaining its pace of growth and investment despite a recession in the US. Some go further, believing the emerging economies, China in particular, can become the "locomotive" of the global economy the US once was.

Indeed, emerging markets are supplying liquidity as well as demand, having injected $60 billion through sovereign funds into banks hit by the US subprime crisis. "Emerging markets have lived up to their name and are now a greater economic bloc than the US. These are countries that are giving emergency aid to the world's rich countries," says Filip Weintraub, portfolio manager at Norway's Skagen Global.

At the recent Davos conclave at the end of January, this "decoupling" thesis was hotly debated. Fred Bergsten of the Institute for International Economics insisted that what we were really seeing with the cash infusions of sovereign funds in ailing Western financial institutions was "reverse coupling." While that may be so, George Soros argued, it nonetheless means "a radical realignment of the global economy, with a relative decline of the US and the rise of China and other countries in the developing world."

For the moment, the World Bank seems to have the last word. Its adjusted forecast reduces Chinese growth projection to 9.6 percent this year from 10.8, but says China "is well-placed to manage the knock-on effects of any global slowdown because of a strong domestic economy and the government's relatively buoyant fiscal position."

To be sure, a contagious global recession would slow down this tectonic plate shift as the 21st century unfolds, but it would no more derail it than did the Asian financial crisis a decade ago.

None of this means globalization is coming apart at the seams. It means the seams are becoming ever more apparent culturally and politically as well as economically. As has happened so often in history from the time of the Tower of Babel, beyond a certain threshold of homogeneity humanity once again discovers diversity.

Nathan Gardels, editor