Richard Jolly reviews Kishore Mahbubani’s Has the West Lost it?’

Published on 19 June 2018

Richard Jolly

Research Associate

At a time when the media and so many people in Western countries are preoccupied with internal problems of Brexit, nationalism, immigration and other political divisions, the world’s economic centre of gravity is rapidly moving towards China, India and Asia faster than most realise.  In his book, Has the West Lost it?, Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished internationalist from Singapore sets out the fundamental challenges this presents for the policies and politics of the West, national as well as international. He shows that already the non-Western ‘Rest’ are providing the locomotive which keeps the West’s Gross National Product (GNP) moving, even if at a speed substantially slower than much of the last century.

Credit: Kishore Mahbubani at the World Economic Forum Summit on the Global Agenda, World Economic Forum, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By 2050, China and India are projected by Price WaterhouseCoopers to account for well over a third of the world economy, the US and Europe to under a quarter.  China will be well on its way back to the world position it held in 1820, as the world’s largest economy.

Mahbubani highlights how a high proportion of the population living in Asia are now bubbling with optimism, with living standards rising and expectations that their children will be still better off. Elsewhere in Africa and Latin America many people are gaining hope from the progress of Asia and are asking why not in their countries too. In sharp contrast are the often pessimistic attitudes in the West where for many, living standards since the 1980s have stagnated and sometimes even declined. Many of the younger generation in the UK, US and Europe wonder whether they will find a decent job, get a house or have a pension sufficient to meet their basic needs.

Mahbubani outlines four key provocations in relation to this emerging picture:

1. So far, the West has failed to produce a coherent and competitive strategy to deal with this changing global dynamic. Mahbunbani refers to the West “flailing about, attacking Iraq, bombing Syria, sanctioning Russia and baiting China”, while at the same time, Western elites remain locked in hubris, maintaining the arrogant belief that they understand the world better than anyone else.

2. Western societies are losing trust in their governments and in governance, just when people in Asia have a new found belief in rational and efficient government, able to transform their society and deliver rising living standards. Mahbubani admits that most of Asia is not democratic but argues that economic success counts more, a challenge to Western ideology.

3. Western media are failing to present an accurate picture of how rapidly the world the world is changing. Instead they are over-preoccupied with their national positions and humanitarian crises abroad, under-reporting on the more positive global advances.

4. Inequality remains a major problem in every part of the world, with the middle classes projected to grow –from 1.8 billion in 2009, 3.2 billion in 2020 and 4.9 billion in 2030. This group is having a major impact on expectations in and the ‘Rest’ and will continue to demand good governance.

The Minimalist, the Multilateral and the Machiavellian

Mahbubani’s sets out a three-fold strategy for what the West now needs to do:

1. Minimalist:  The West need to recognise that its once dominant position has passed and along with it, the belief that it is and always has been a benign force in the world. Interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria show the contradictions in this belief. The West is widely seen by the Rest today as destructive and ineffective.

2. Multilateral: The West needs to listen more to the ‘Rest’ in the United Nations and elsewhere. He approvingly quotes Mrs. Thatcher: “The United Nations is only a mirror held up to our own uneven, untidy and divided world. If we don’t like what we see, there is no point in cursing the mirror; we had better start by reforming ourselves.” This leads him to call for the re-legitimisation of the UN.

3. Machiavellian:  Take more account of new and changing Western interests in the 21st century, where the US, UK, and Europe increasingly have diverging interests. Europe’s interests are not the same as America’s, not merely now in the age of Trump but in future areas of long-run strategic interest – in the Middle East, towards Russia, in coping with Islam and not joining with NATO.

A call for global change   

I share much of Mahbubani’s optimism and agree with his argument on the need for the West to support moves to UN reform and more balanced global governance. Nevertheless, at the end of his book, I was left feeling that Mahbubani underplays some other major challenges which add to the difficulties of developing a global strategy.  These include:

  • Avoiding the instabilities and return to rising poverty so clearly demonstrated in the UK, the US and many developed countries.
  • Challenging the non-state economic and financial forces which in every country sustain the rising inequalities and make many political changes difficult.
  • Delivering on human rights, worldwide. People in many Asian countries may now be pleased and satisfied that authoritarian governments are delivering rapid and rising living standards with efficiency. But for how long will this continue before people also want more freedoms and human rights? As Mahbubani recognizes, global travel is soaring. People everywhere are not only more conscious of rising living standards but also more aware of greater freedoms of behaviour and beliefs in other countries.  In Asia, travel may make their populations aware of freedoms in the West. Travel for those from the West may spread awareness of the many failures in the economic and social policies of their own countries.

Overall, the book contains strong challenges and deserves serious attention, for his optimism about progress in the ’Rest’  and for his positive call for the West to adjust to the new structures and to join positively in shaping a global future for all.

By Sir Richard Jolly, a Honorary Professor and Research Associate of the Institute of Development Studies

Kishore Mahbubani, Has the West Lost it?  (Allen Lane Penguin, London) 2018

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


Related content

Student Opinion

Support for first-generation learners

Rachna Vyas, IDS student, MA Governance, Development & Public Policy

27 March 2024