May 25th 2013

America’s Blinders

by Kishore Mahbubani

Onno de Beaufort Wijnholds is a former executive director of the International Monetary Fund and a former permanent representative of the European Central Bank in the US.

SINGAPORE – The time has come to think the unthinkable: the era of American dominance in international affairs may well be coming to an end. As that moment approaches, the main question will be how well the United States is prepared for it. 

Asia’s rise over the last few decades is more than a story of rapid economic growth. It is the story of a region undergoing a renaissance in which people’s minds are re-opened and their outlook refreshed. Asia’s movement toward resuming its former central role in the global economy has so much momentum that it is virtually unstoppable. While the transformation may not always be seamless, there is no longer room to doubt that an Asian century is on the horizon, and that the world’s chemistry will change fundamentally.

Global leaders – whether policymakers or intellectuals – bear a responsibility to prepare their societies for impending global shifts. But too many American leaders are shirking this responsibility. 

Last year, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, two US senators, one member of the US House of Representatives, and a deputy national security adviser participated in a forum on the future of American power (I was the chair). When asked what future they anticipated for American power, they predictably declared that the US would remain the world’s most powerful country. When asked whether America was prepared to become the world’s second-largest economy, they were reticent.

Their reaction was understandable: even entertaining the possibility of the US becoming “number two” amounts to career suicide for an American politician. Elected officials everywhere must adjust, to varying degrees, to fulfill the expectations of those who put them in office.

Intellectuals, on the other hand, have a special obligation to think the unthinkable and speak the unspeakable. They are supposed to consider all possibilities, even disagreeable ones, and prepare the population for prospective developments. Honest discussion of unpopular ideas is a key feature of an open society. 

But, in the US, many intellectuals are not fulfilling this obligation. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested recently that the US “could already be in the second decade of another American century.” Likewise, Clyde Prestowitz, the president of the Economic Strategy Institute, has said that “this century may well wind up being another American century.”

To be sure, such predictions may well prove accurate; if they do, the rest of the world will benefit. A strong and dynamic US economy, reinvigorated by cheap shale gas and accelerating innovation, would rejuvenate the global economy as a whole. But Americans are more than ready for this outcome; no preparation is needed. 

If the world’s center of gravity shifts to Asia, however, Americans will be woefully unprepared. Many Americans remain shockingly unaware of how much the rest of the world, especially Asia, has progressed.

Americans need to be told a simple, mathematical truth. With 3% of the world’s population, the US can no longer dominate the rest of the world, because Asians, with 60% of the world’s population, are no longer underperforming. But the belief that America is the only virtuous country, the sole beacon of light in a dark and unstable world, continues to shape many Americans’ worldview. American intellectuals’ failure to challenge these ideas – and to help the US population shed complacent attitudes based on ignorance – perpetuates a culture of coddling the public. 

But, while Americans tend to receive only good news, Asia’s rise is not really bad news. The US should recognize that Asian countries are seeking not to dominate the West, but to emulate it. They seek to build strong and dynamic middle classes and to achieve the kind of peace, stability, and prosperity that the West has long enjoyed.

This deep social and intellectual transformation underway in Asia promises to catapult it from economic power to global leadership. China, which remains a closed society in many ways, has an open mind, whereas the US is an open society with a closed mind. With Asia’s middle class set to skyrocket from roughly 500 million people today to 1.75 billion by 2020, the US will not be able to avoid the global economy’s new realities for much longer.

The world is poised to undergo one of the most dramatic power shifts in human history. In order to be prepared for the transformation, Americans must abandon ingrained ideas and old assumptions, and liberate unthinkable thoughts. That is the challenge facing American public intellectuals today.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.
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