Singaporean ex-diplomat and author Kishore Mahbubani speaks at an Asia Society event in a file photo. Photo: Flickr Commons

In 2018, Singaporean scholar, author and ex-diplomat Kishore Mahbubani published one of his more provocative essays as a small book. Has the West Lost It? addresses the question of why the West “refuses to accept or adapt to” its own relative decline and the rise of China, India and the rest of the non-European world.

It is instructive to re-read it now. Some of his views have become widely accepted – China will be the world’s largest economy (it already is, in purchasing power parity terms) and the economy of Asia as a whole will “far surpass that of the West.” The Middle East, Africa and Latin America are also catching up.

“The West has been at the forefront of world history for almost 200 years,” he writes. “Now it has to learn to share, even abandon, that position and adapt to a world it can no longer dominate. Can this be done? So far, the West has failed to produce a coherent and competitive global strategy to deal with the new situation.”

Mahbubani warns against the Western triumphalism expressed by American scholar Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 essay The End of History?, postulating “the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Instead, Mahbubani recommends “A New Strategy: Minimalist, Multilateral and Machiavellian”: an end to frequent, far-flung and often violent intervention in the affairs of others; support for the United Nations (he is a former ambassador to the UN); and “strategic cunning” to take advantage of the economic and other opportunities presented by the historical change in the relationship between the West and the Rest.

 “A Machiavellian leader must,” he points out, “always choose pragmatic morals over idealistic and dogmatic ones” in order to “generate a better society that would enhance the well-being of its citizens.”

That means setting priorities: focus on the primary strategic challenge (China in the case of the United States, the Islamic world in the case of Europe); defuse the secondary challenge (Russia); and respond to economic and demographic challenges with economic, not military, means.

“The biggest mistake that America could make is to step up its military deployments in East Asia to balance a resurgent China.”

US Marines assist evacuees at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 29, 2021. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

Why the pessimism?

These views have been overtaken by events.

Mahbubani is essentially an optimist – or at least was at the time of writing. He wonders why Westerners have become pessimistic at a time when most of humanity has been lifted out of poverty and when education, health care and confidence in a better future has spread to most of the world – due, in large part, to the adoption of Western rational thinking. He explains why this does not need to be the case.

“It would be a great tragedy,” he concludes “if the West were to be the world’s primary instigator of turbulence and uncertainty at the hour of humanity’s greatest promise.” (page 91)

Of course, he was writing before Covid-19, before America’s chaotic retreat from Afghanistan, before the war in Ukraine – and before America and the West made it clear that they have no intention of giving up their dominant position without a fight.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought things to a boil, highlighting the issues, accelerating trends and raising questions – among them: What is the West and what does it stand for?

In the words of its leaders, the West stands for freedom against tyranny, for democracy against autocracy. But does it stand up for its “friends”? Recent history suggests not.

In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, America and NATO stood back and watched. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, America and the EU imposed economic sanctions, but they had no decisive impact. In 2021, President Biden abandoned Afghanistan. And in February, just before the fighting started, the British and Americans withdrew their troops from Ukraine.

On the other side of the world, Presidents Obama and Trump criticized China’s fortification of the South China Sea, but allowed it to become a fait accompli.

What are the Taiwanese supposed to think now?

At a press conference on March 16, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg explained NATO’s position on Ukraine: “Allies are united both in providing support to Ukraine, to support Ukraine to uphold the right for self-defense. But allies are also united when it comes to that NATO should not deploy forces on the ground or in the airspace of Ukraine. Because we have a responsibility to ensure that this conflict, this war, doesn’t escalate beyond Ukraine.

“We see death, we see destruction, we see human suffering in Ukraine. But this can become even worse if NATO took actions that actually turned this into a full-fledged war between NATO and Russia. So allies are united when it comes to the issue of how to provide support to Ukraine.

“Ministers addressed this today, they reinforced the message of the importance of providing support with equipment, advanced equipment, air defense systems, anti-tank weapons and many other types of support, but no NATO deployment of air or ground capabilities in Ukraine and that’s the united position from NATO allies.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gives a press conference during a NATO summit in Brussels on June 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet

NATO and its failings

As well-considered as this might sound, it implies that NATO is prepared to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian.

The previous day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in one of his now-famous video conferences that “Ukraine is not a member of NATO. We understand that. We have heard for years that the doors were open, but we also heard that we could not join. It’s a truth and it must be recognized.”

On March 4, he said: “Unfortunately, today there is a complete impression that it is time to give a funeral repast for something else: security guarantees and promises, determination of alliances, values that seem to be dead for someone.”

And: “The NATO summit took place today – weak summit, confused summit, summit which shows that not everyone considers the struggle for freedom to be Europe’s No 1 goal.”

What is the No 1 goal? To stay safe? Or to reinforce NATO, which was derided by Donald Trump and declared brain dead by Emmanuel Macron?

Even if that is an overstatement, European defense budgets will almost certainly go up, piling more expense on economies already burdened with high energy prices, chronic low growth and the loss of markets in Ukraine and Russia. This is the price of waking up to reality.

Then there is the issue of White Lives Matter. Comparisons are being made – mostly but not entirely by non-Europeans – between the West’s wall-to-wall outrage over events in Ukraine and its relative lack of interest in the victims of its own wars in the Middle East.

Chandran Nair, the founder and CEO of Global Institute for Tomorrow, a think tank based in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur and a member of the Executive Committee of the Club of Rome, writes in Japan’s Nikkei Asia: “Wars are only evil when Westerners are the victims – Deep-seated belief that white lives are more precious is stronger than ever.”

He continues: “These [the West’s] interventions have spanned the tragedies of the 21st century, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Yemen, yet these did not elicit the pious posturing of Europeans and Americans as Russia-Ukraine has … For the first time, this duplicity has been exposed to the global majority by social media and other tech-enabled forms of communication. 

“Hundreds of thousands of videos and messages have reached every corner of the world, as Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Africans, South Americans have the scale of this hypocrisy made crystal clear.”

Ukrainian refugees crossing into Poland. Photo: WikiCommons

‘Years of dehumanization’

Ahmed Twaij, a British doctor, freelance journalist and filmmaker, writes in NBC News’ THINK newsletter: “How coverage of the Ukraine-Russia conflict highlights a racist double standard – the wave of solidarity with Ukraine is inspiring, but it shows how years of dehumanization have made the deaths of people in the Middle East seem more tolerable.”

Ukraine does not get off lightly either. Italian freelance journalist Virginia Pietromarchi writes in Al-Jazeera: “More African students decry racism at Ukrainian borders – as at least half a million refugees flee Ukraine, more reports of mistreatment by Ukrainian border guards surface.”

Mahbubani wrote: “Iraq was a disaster. What made it worse was that it reinforced the conviction among 1.5 billion Muslims that the loss of Muslim lives did not matter to the West.” That conviction has now been reinforced.

While doing a good job of convincing its own citizens that Vladimir Putin is evil incarnate, the West seems to be defeating itself in the worldwide propaganda war.

On March 2, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution demanding that Russia “immediately end illegal use of force in Ukraine” and withdraw its troops. The resolution passed by a vote of 141 for to 5 against, with 35 abstentions. But the lists of nations that have and have not imposed economic sanctions on Russia tell a different story.

Those that have sanctioned Russia include the US, EU, UK, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand. Those that have not include China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa put the blame on NATO: “The war could have been avoided if NATO had heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region,” he told Al Jazeera on March 18, 2022.

This is more like a throwback to the Cold War than Mahbubani’s view of the UN as a cooperative forum for all the world’s inhabitants. It seems that a vote in the General Assembly is a cheap way to make a statement without incurring practical consequences and to avoid antagonizing the US.

On the economic front, possibilities become realities. The confiscation of Russia’s dollar reserves casts doubt on the reliability of the American currency as a safe store of value.

The exclusion of Russian banks from SWIFT politicizes the international financial messaging network and inadvertently promotes the alternatives, CIPS and SPFS, developed by the central banks of China and Russia.

The SWIFT logo and US dollars. Could both be on the way out? Photo: Agencies

Switching currencies

Talks between Saudi Arabia and China aimed at pricing oil in yuan (renminbi); trade between India and Russia settled in rupees and rubles; trade between Turkey and Russia settled in rubles, yuan, euros and gold; trade between China and Russia priced in yuan, rubles and euros; and the launch of China’s digital yuan all point to the de-dollarization of significant parts of the world economy and a substantial weakening of America’s ability to impose economic sanctions.

So has the West lost it?

If “it” means the full spectrum dominance seen as almost within reach by some American military strategists and politicians, the answer is yes. But that was never possible. The practical answer is no.

Not only is the combined GDP of America and its allies twice as large as that of China and Russia (on a purchasing power parity basis, which favors the latter), they are technologically more advanced and far more able to attract talented immigrants. They also control an enormous amount of territory and resources.

And we must ask another question: What is the West?

The West is more than the English-speaking countries and Western Europe. Are Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and India not Western where it counts, in their commitment to democracy, freedom and human progress? Are Latin Americans not Westerners?

In fact, most of the world is committed to Western ideals. Even countries that are not democratic usually claim to be or are headed in that direction. The American economic model is not sweeping the globe, but Western values have won the ideological battle.

The issue, rather, is whether or not America and its allies can adapt to what has already become a much bigger, more diverse and more competitive world.

To return to Mahbubani, if this doesn’t happen, if the West retreats into isolationism and protectionism, “future historians will be puzzled that the most successful civilization in human history failed to exploit the greatest opportunity ever presented to humanity.” (page 91)

Scott Foster is an analyst with LightStream Research, Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottFo83517667