When Western Interests Trump Values
Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is author of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East.
Singapore — G. John Ikenberry is spot on when he stated at the outset "Mahbubani and I clearly have major points of agreement." Indeed, I may agree with Ikenberry more than he thinks. In addition to agreement on the seminal importance of the rise of Asia, I also agree that we should reaffirm and strengthen the Western-led postwar global order, that China will be tomorrow's (if not today's) greatest supporter of this order, and that America should prepare well for a post-American world order.
I deeply respect and admire both Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter. They are formidable scholars who have the right instincts and approaches toward current global challenges. I hope that their voices will be the dominant voices of the next Obama Administration. If that happens, the world will be a safer and better place. I want their voices to become stronger in our world.
Given these many agreements, where are the points of disagreement? In the interest of a good debate, let me state three major points of disagreement as bluntly as possible (while emphasizing that I would nuance many of these points if I had more time and space to do so).
The first point of disagreement is over the nature and impact of Western power on the world. The post-1945 liberal international order created by the West has been benign. This does not necessarily mean that Western power has been or is inherently benign. There is increasing evidence that, given a choice between promoting Western values (at some self-sacrifice) and defending Western interests, interests inevitably trump values.
The West incessantly preaches its noble goal of eliminating global poverty. But when America or the European Union have to reduce or eliminate agricultural subsidies that clearly harm the poorest people on the planet, no Western politician dares to advocate this. Similarly, the West has provided the moral and intellectual leadership in educating the world on the dangers of global warming. Yet the West remains the single biggest obstacle to addressing the challenges of global warming because of its refusal to accept moral and political responsibility for the "stock" of greenhouse gas emissions the Western industrialized economies have put into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.
How can China and India, which are still relatively poor, be expected to pay an economic price for the new "flows" of greenhouse gas emissions, if the West refuses to pay an economic price for the "stock" it is responsible for? In short, the rest of the world clearly perceives Western power as acting to defend the sectoral interests of the West against global interests while the West continues to nurture the illusion that it is only defending the global interests of humanity.
The second point of disagreement is about the impact of Western double standards. Many Western intellectuals (including, I believe, G. John Ikenberry) are anguished by America's betrayal of its human-rights values in places such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. But they believe that they are exceptions reflecting the aberrations caused by the Bush Administration. Once this administration leaves office, all will be well again. The rest of the world does not believe that such double standards were invented by the Bush Administration. Nor will these double standards disappear with it.
The liberal internationalists were at the forefront of calls to hold Sudan and China accountable for the misery in Darfur under the concept of "responsibility to protect." Yet, many of these same voices did not bring up the concept of responsibility to protect when collective punishment was imposed on the people of Gaza. There is one point that needs to be emphasized here: There is always a litmus test to assess a person's intellectual and moral courage. In the West, especially in America, this litmus test is provided by the Middle East issue.
The intellectual and moral cowardice of Western intellectuals on this issue is stunning. Paradoxically, by censoring their views on Israel, they have done great damage to Israel by failing to point out to it the sheer folly of remaining in perpetual conflict with its neighbors. The next time any Western intellectual calls upon the rest of the world to show courage by speaking "truth to power," he or she should lead the charge by speaking "truth to power" on the Israel-Palestine dispute.
No liberal international order can be sustained if it is not seen to be responding to key challenges of the day. If we believe in the United Nations (as I believe we should), we cannot ignore the resolutions of the UN, especially the critical UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, on the Middle East. These resolutions serve the interests of Israel. By walking away from them, American administrations have both damaged Israel and undermined the UN. It is our response to the hard cases which determine where we really stand on the liberal international order.
The Arab-Israeli issue is not the only area where double standards surface. China has been given a hard time on the Darfur issue (and here I agree that China should be doing more to help alleviate the plight of the poor people of Darfur). However, the premise on which China is criticized is that it is immoral for China to buy oil from Sudan. When my Chinese friends hear this, the question they ask is: "Does the West only buy oil from moral regimes? If not, why should China be subjected to a higher standard than the West in the purchase of oil?"
The third point of disagreement is about the nature of the dialogue between the West and the rest on the nature of our international order. Many in the West believe that they are open and listening to the voices in the rest of the world. However, what the 5.6 billion people living outside the West see is an incestuous, self-referential and self-congratulatory dialogue which often ignores the views and sentiments in the rest of the world.
This can lead to a dangerous disconnect between the West and the rest.
The most recent example of this divide was seen over the Olympic torch protests. Many in the West believed that the protesters were justified in trying to protect the interests of the oppressed Tibetan minority. Western leaders, such as Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, were applauded for saying they might boycott the Beijing Olympics. The universal Western refrain was "what political courage!"
Actually, these Western leaders were showing political cowardice because they were only interested in looking good in the eyes of their own populations, without worrying about the impact of their actions on the liberal international order. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China has committed itself to rising peacefully and to become a "responsible stakeholder."
However, by stoking the fires over Tibet, the Western protesters may unleash a virulent form of Chinese nationalism which may veer China away from the liberal international order. In short, we are at a very plastic moment of history. If the West mishandles it, it could destroy the liberal international order which has benefited humanity. The tragedy here is that few in the West can see how the West is now jeopardizing it more than the rest.
The Western refusal to cede and share power with the rest as well as the growing Western geopolitical incompetence pose the biggest threats to our international order.
In short, there is a real divide between the West and the rest. The challenge for the West is to both understand the nature of this divide and figure out how to handle it. The good news here is that the rest is willing to work with the West in bridging this divide.