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Review by John Coffey

The Great Convergence:  Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World by Kishore Mahbubani, New York: Public Affairs, 2013, ISDN 13: 978-1610390330, 328 pp., $26.00 List, $12.99 Kindle

“But,” said Alice, “the world has absolutely no sense, who’s stopping us from inventing one?” In The Great Convergence, Singaporean diplomat and writer Kishore Mahbubani, currently dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore invents the emergence of one world at peace.  Like all utopian dreamers, Mahbubani ignores the world as it exists and is likely to become because he fails to understand human nature and the roots of human conflict.  Three times celebrated as one of Foreign Policy’s “top 100 global thinkers,” the author likes to think “in his guts.”  What intestinal urgings give rise to his one-world reverie?

We all know “deep in our guts,” Mahbubani declares with a flourish of modernist pretension, that the world has undergone “greater change in the past thirty years than it did in the previous three hundred.”  He calls this transformation a “great convergence” that is creating “a new global civilization.”  The economic pattern of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries favoring the West over the rest of humanity has been reversed to produce “convergent incomes and divergent growth.”  Unprecedented numbers of people have escaped poverty to form a global middle class.  Not only has an age of widespread economic prosperity emerged, but also a long global peace has arrived as well with the absence of “major interstate wars” (the result of hot and cold wars against utopian totalitarian regimes the author neglects to mention).  With breathtaking hubris he proclaims the dawn of “a new and better civilization” of plenty and peace.

There is a fly in the ointment, however – the stubborn persistence of the obsolete nation-state.  While conceding that most people still identify primarily with their particular nation-states, Mahbubani senses a growing awareness among the planet’s seven billion people that we’re all in the same boat.  In Mahbubani’s materialist conception of human nature, people’s desire for the things of middle-class life (e.g., TV, cellphone, flush toilet, refrigerator) will overcome their “ideological or religious aspirations” and motivate them to work together.  The work of erasing vestiges of cultural diversity with a proper consciousness of convergence will benefit from the presence among world leaders of so many graduates of the Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford bastions of value-free multiculturalism.

Although we’re all in the same boat, the vessel lacks a captain and crew to run it.  Mahbubani’s solution is “global government” with mandatory powers.  Since this is unlikely any time soon, he would strengthen existing institutions of global governance in the interim.  He advances a set of measures to reform (by diluting Western influence) the UN, IMF, and World Bank to give more clout to the 88% of the world’s people, who desire only to live like middle-class Westerners.  Europe, Mahbubani says, serves as a “microcosm” for his brave new world.  The EU has achieved economic integration and a “zero prospect of war.”  In Southeast Asia, the “Balkans of Asia,” ASEAN has played a similar role in promoting regional peace and prosperity.  Multilateralism, “one of the fastest-growing sunrise industries in our world,” will pave the way to the future.  NGOs, says Mahbubani, are today the driving force in international life.  He hails Davos meetings, where the world’s politico-financial elites shed parochial identities and interests to focus on how capitalism works, as a model for running the one-world order.

The greatest barrier to convergence is the West’s morally arrogant rejection of human equality (actually a Western notion) in the belief it is a “morally superior civilization.”  Western countries need to get off their moral “high horse” and recognize they have not been a benign force in history, but instead, merely “normal” countries like all others.  Mahbubani finds especially galling the notion of “American exceptionalism,” an outmoded, “destabilizing anachronism” in the era of convergence.

Once the age of global governance arrives, its rulers will have their hands full rooting out politically incorrect behavior.  Mahbubani believes the 2005 UNGA declaration of a “responsibility to protect” all citizens oppressed by their own governments embodies the growing global moral consciousness.  No limits can be set on protecting peoples from “all harmful actions,” including domestic practices.  Thus does immoderate humanitarian compassion lead to a tyrannical dystopia.

It is difficult to know what to make of this farrago of misconception and “globaloney.”  To begin with, global governance is a myth.  Naazneen Barma shows how global problem-solving on significant issues – nuclear proliferation, climate change, international development, the global financial crisis –  has failed and that the “rise of the rest” has not helped.  As a result, “Today we have an international political landscape that is neither orderly nor liberal.”1  The “color revolutions” of East Europe/Central Asia have brought little opportunity for citizens.  The “Arab spring” has turned into a winter of anarchy and authoritarianism in North Africa.  ASEAN has fostered trade liberalization, but has served primarily as a barrier to “interference” in internal affairs.  In Africa’s Great Lakes region, over five million people have died during fifteen years of civil conflict.  Sudan has witnessed genocide, and Syria’s civil war threatens to spill over into regional sectarian war.  Due to a weak regional order, a real possibility of military conflict exists in the South China Sea between China and its neighbors.

The “rest,” moreover, have stopped rising, and a process of “deglobalization” is occurring.  The much-touted BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are economically broken, and any new global order will look much like the old.  Ruchir Sharma states, “The notion of wide-ranging convergence between the developing and the developed worlds is a myth.”2 If Mahbubani fails to see the world as it is, he is oblivious of the dark side of globalization.  Francis Fukuyama argues that technological developments and globalization have undermined the Western middle class, the bedrock of liberal democracy.  In the U.S., median income in real terms has stagnated since the 1970s, while inequality has massively increased.  The new global order disproportionately benefits the very small number of people in finance and high technology, those who frequent Davos conclaves.3

Mahbubani does not acknowledge the major power that built and has sustained for seventy years the liberal international order preventing “major interstate wars,” and his notion of a rising consciousness heralding an age of amity and peace is as illusory as his fantasy of global governance.  We live in a world riven by the centrifugal forces of nationalist, sectarian, and ethnic divisions.  The Euro debt crisis has revived old nationalist and ethnic antagonisms, particularly anti-German sentiment.  Extreme right wing political parties have mushroomed across Europe, due to a loss of public faith in the “European dream” that unification would bring shared prosperity.  These movements also draw on mistrust of leaders who cultivate transnational associations over national loyalties.  As Samuel Huntington once noted, global elites ‘”have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elites’ global operations.’”4 Ordinary European citizens have had enough of the EU project and enough as well of the of the convergence of Muslim immigrants who have failed to integrate into European society.5 Prime Minister David Cameron has called for a national referendum on Britain’s EU membership by 2017.  In wealthy, cosmopolitan Singapore itself, the government’s plan to increase the population from five to seven million people by 2030 through immigration provoked strident public opposition.  Singaporeans call wealthy immigrants “rich Chinese locusts,” and one observer complains about “the ascendancy of a wealthy ‘plutocrat’ class and the slipping status of the middle class,” just as in America and Europe.6

The Mideast is engulfed by Sunni-Shiite animosity, and the Syrian civil war threatens to ignite a regional conflict.  Meanwhile, despite stringent sanctions, Iran presses ahead to build a Shiite bomb.  In the Asia-Pacific, China’s aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas over island territory and natural resources has been fueled by virulent popular nationalism in China and Japan, raising the possibility of regional military conflict.7 Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.S., Nguyen Quoc Cuong, seems to know something Mahbubani does not.  Recently, Nguyen publicly called the U.S. military presence in the Pacific a “stabilizing factor” in world politics.8

We live, in fact, in an age of divergence, not convergence, and anyone who believes that men are motivated only by a desire for TVs and toilets will never understand why.  The character and conduct of peoples reflect the elements of the human soul.  As Robert Kagan has wisely said, “Nations are not calculating machines.  They have the attributes of the humans who create and live in them, the intangible and immeasurable human qualities of love, hate, ambition, fear, honor, shame, patriotism, ideology and belief, the things that people fight and die for, today as in millennia past.”9 Mahbubani does not understand the passions rending the world because he does not understand human nature.  Who, in any case, would want to live in his dystopia ruled by the likes of China, India, or Russia, not to mention even less savory regimes of the “rest”;  or, for that matter, by Kishore Mahbubani and the high priests of Davos?  Mahbubani’s global regime is unmindful of the greatest anti-utopian critique ever written, Plato’s Republic, which teaches that the perfect city is a perfect impossibility because of the terrible tyranny it would require.  The proper spirit of reform, therefore, is one of moderation in recognition that injustice will always remain in human affairs.  The best city, Socrates explained to his student Glaucon, will be impossible until political power and philosophy coincide, until philosophers are kings and kings are philosophers.  Only Alice gets to invent a world.End.


  1.  Naazneen Barma, Ely Rattner, and Steven Weber, “The Mythical Liberal Order,” National Interest (March/April, 2013), p. 56.
  2. Ruchir Sharma, “Broken BRICs:  Why the Rest Stopped Rising,” Foreign Affairs (Nov./Dec., 2012), p. 3; see also Robert J. Samuelson, “The BRIC Rescue That Wasn’t,” Washington Post, 10/15/12; and “Can Globalization Survive 2013,” Washington Post, 12/31/12.
  3. Francis Fukuyama, “The Future of History:  Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?” Foreign Affairs (Jan./Feb., 2012), 53-61.
  4. Quoted in Nikolas Gvosdev, “”Nationalism Returns to Europe,” National Interest, 11/5/12, p. 2; see also Robert J. Samuelson, “The Return of the Euro Crisis,” Washington Post, 3/1/13.
  5. See Eliza Griswold, “Dawn of the Dead:  The Terrifying Rise of Greece’s Nazi Party,” New Republic, (Nov. 8, 2012), 22-24; Anthont Faiola, “Anti-Immigrant Golden Dawn Rises in Greece,” Washington Post, 10/21/12; Christopher Caldwell, “Europe’s Other Crisis,” New Republic, (May 24, 2012), 29-33.
  6. Quoted in Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “In Singapore Immigration Debate, Sign of Asia’s Slipping Middle Class?” International Herald Tribune, 2/17/13.
  7. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Our Pacific Predicament,” American Interest (Mar./Ap., 2013), 33-40.
  8. Quoted in Jim Hoagland, “Obama’s Well-Timed Pivot to the Pacific,” Washington Post, 3/10/13.
  9. Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), p. 80.

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John Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.

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