JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us.
Let me just begin by saying how wonderful it is to see Kishore back at the Carnegie Council.
Today’s breakfast is the third program in a series of lectures which the Carnegie Council is hosting in the run-up to the presidential election. These discussions are funded by an anonymous donor, to whom I would like to express our appreciation for having the foresight to sponsor these talks. The purpose of these conversations, entitled “America in the 21st Century—Views from Around the World,” is to help us recognize the limits of American power and what we as Americans can do to adapt to the changing times. Previously we heard from Martin Wolf on Europe and Marwan Muasher on the Middle East.
Today’s program will focus on Asia.
In the last decade, the world has witnessed the rising power that is Asia. This has led many commentators to question whether the West will be disadvantaged vis-à-vis our long-term geopolitical and economic interests and whether, as a result, America is headed for relative decline.
When it came time to identify the individual who would weigh in on these suppositions and best represent how Asians view Americans, we knew that we needed to have someone who would be candid in his analysis and forthright in telling America about how we should engage with this part of the world. There was no hesitation, as there was only one name that came to mind. As you have guessed, Kishore Mahbubani was the one. In fact, for quite some time now, he has been sounding the alarm, admonishing us not to take Asia or Asians for granted.
Whenever Kishore has spoken here, either as a member of the audience when he served as Singapore ambassador to the United Nations or, later, in his capacity as author, he has always elicited a sense of anticipation and excitement, as we never knew exactly what he would say. Even so, one thing was clear. We always learned from him something we could borrow, something that was new. This was especially evident after his prescient and provocative presentation, “Can Asians Think?” in which he encouraged us to engage in a more open discourse between East and West, understanding, as he does, that the future lies in the fusion of civilizations, not in their divide.
As a student of history and philosophy, a provocative writer and intuitive thinker, Kishore has traversed East and West. With his vast experience, I know he will shed light on such issues as how Asia would like to see America conducting itself on the world stage and whether it is still feasible for the United States to remain the most innovative and influential nation in the 21st century.
Please join me in welcoming a person who thinks outside the box and will challenge you to do the same, our very special guest, my friend and one to many of you here today, Kishore Mahbubani.
KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Thank you very much. After such a generous introduction, it’s all going to be downhill from now.
As you know, in America, when you begin speaking, you always have to begin with a joke. I’m sorry, I don’t have a joke. But in Asia we always begin with an apology. I’m actually going to begin with a very genuine apology to all of you. I’m glad you warned them that I can be very open and candid in my remarks, but I suspect that even after you said that, you may feel somewhat uncomfortable when you hear some of the things I’m going to say. So I’m going to apologize to you in advance for any discomfort you may feel about what I’m going to say to you.
But at the same time, if I don’t make you uncomfortable with my remarks, then I’m failing in my job, because the world that is coming is a world that is outside your comfort zones. You have to prepare for this world that is coming that is outside your comfort zones. What I can do as a friend of all of you is to, in a sense, give you hints of what that world is going to be like as it comes faster and faster towards you.
I have a great colleague of mine, Scott Fritzen, here, who is now with the Wagner School. He knows that whenever I speak at the Li Kuan Yew School, I always make three points, and I’ll keep that tradition.
I’m going to divide my remarks into three parts. First, I will try to give you a flavor of contemporary Asian perceptions of America, because it’s important to set the backdrop so you understand how they view America. Then I’ll give you a sense of their attitudes towards the American presence in the region—Do they view it positively, negatively? And thirdly, hopefully end with a few recommendations on what I think America could be doing better in Asia in terms of enhancing its presence, its profile, and its usefulness in the region.
Let me begin with perceptions. Of course, in the perceptions, you have the good, the bad, and then you have, not so much the ugly, but a combination of the ugly and the beautiful. As I’ll explain, the ugly and the beautiful sometimes go hand in hand in the perceptions.
On the good side, number one, I would say that the one thing about America that clearly excites Asians, especially young Asians, is your universities. If you talk to young Asians about their dreams of where they want to go and study, which universities they want to go to, clearly at the top of the list are American universities.
I can tell you that one of the best things that America has done is to basically educate the next generation of Asians. I don’t know how many of you keep track of the numbers, but they are growing exponentially. The Chinese used to send 60,000, 70,000. Now there are about 160,000 Chinese students studying in American universities, there are 110,000 Indian students, and 70,000 to 80,000 Korean students. So you get a sense of the numbers that are coming.
It’s going to grow, by the way. I know that this is going to both be a good thing as well as a challenge to many parents here. As someone who had to worry a lot about where my children would go to, I was very fortunate. My eldest son went to Carnegie Mellon, my daughter and my younger son went to Yale. I’m so glad it’s all over. You know the parent’s anxiety. The problem you are going to face is that the supply of university places is fixed. You cannot double the size of Harvard or Yale very easily. But the demand that is going to come for this limited number of places is going to grow exponentially. I’m sure you already know this.
Many young Asians are incredibly bright and do exceptionally well, often not just in the traditional science and math areas, but also, frankly, even in literary and other areas they are performing very well. So the universities are clearly a positive thing.
Then, of course, the second thing that the Asians admire a lot is your spirit of enterprise. It’s quite amazing how America is the only country where you can have these huge success stories emerge out of nowhere, whether it’s a Microsoft or a Google or a Facebook. I’m sure you have all heard Tom Friedman say, “When I began writing The World Is Flat, Google wasn’t there, Facebook wasn’t there,” things of that sort. That’s how remarkably things are changing.
That capacity for Americans to, in a sense, create great enterprises and succeed is quite remarkable. It’s still a mystery, why no other country has been able to achieve anything like what the United States has been doing in this area. In fact, if you look at the surveys, like Pew, they will tell you that American innovations in science and technology are very widely admired around the world.
Another area where clearly America is highly regarded is that this is the one place that you can come to as a foreigner, come here and study, and then end up as the CEO of a major company. Very few countries are as open as America is. If you look at Indra Nooyi, how she came here as an MBA student and became CEO of PepsiCo; if you look at Vikram Pandit, how he became head of Citibank; and then Klaus Kleinfeld, CEO of Alcoa; Muhtar Kent of Coca-Cola, from Turkey—it’s an amazing story. This clearly inspires other countries. They always say, “I want to try to make it in America.”
So these are the positive aspects of America.
But I now have to switch to the uncomfortable part about the negative. Here I have to emphasize one thing: There was clearly a point in time when America was perceived purely as a land of milk and honey, where everything was wonderful. That impression of milk and honey is gone. In fact, people have a much more nuanced and sophisticated view of what’s right and what’s wrong with America.
If I had to point to the three, in a sense, negative perceptions of America, the first word I’m going to use is clearly a very uncomfortable word, but it’s a word that has changed America’s perception dramatically around the world, and that word is “torture.” I can tell you that when the United States became the first modern, civilized nation to reintroduce torture, it had an amazing impact around the world. Everyone said, “Hey, this is the country that was the moral beacon. This is the country that used to lecture us, write reports on our human rights situation. And look at it. Now they are introducing torture.”
I can tell you, many Chinese intellectuals said to me in private—in the past, even when the Chinese used to disagree with America publicly, they would say, “I have to disagree publicly, but in my heart, I agree. You are right. We are not as good as you are.” But after you brought in Guantanamo and torture, they said, “Excuse me, we are no different now. Don’t lecture us anymore.”
The reason I emphasize this is that every year, still, the State Department produces human rights reports on the rest of the world. This used to be taken very seriously. But now everyone says, “Hey, please do a human rights report on America first. Judge yourself and then judge us.”
That has made a dramatic impact in terms of perceptions of America.
The second negative area is what I call the perceived American antipathy to the Islamic world. As you saw quite recently, some little film appeared on YouTube. None of us would have seen it or heard of it. Guess what? There are incredible demonstrations taking place. When a little unknown spark can create fires leading to the sad murder of an American ambassador, it shows that there are poisonous gases out there. If there were no poisonous gases, a spark wouldn’t trigger so much.
Here I really think the United States should work very, very hard at trying to address how it is perceived in the Islamic world. It is not healthy, this growing sense of antipathy towards you. Of course, I’m acutely aware of how difficult the situation is. It’s not easy to resolve. But I always say that there is, fortunately, one silver bullet that is available. That one small silver bullet that’s available is a two state solution on Israel and Palestine. I have had discussions on the Middle East for years and years. I know how long we can go on, and we can discuss all the complexities. At the end of the day, let me just tell you simply and categorically, if what Bill Clinton proposed in January of 2001, if you could implement that, believe me, a lot of the poisonous gases would disappear.
To understand why that is important, why the Palestinian issue is so important to 1.3 billion Muslims, they feel a very deep sense of humiliation. With this sense of humiliation, they say, “There are 3 million to 4 million Palestinians who are in deep trouble and we cannot help them. We are helpless.” That’s why they feel the antipathy over this issue.
That’s why I say to address this issue if you want to remove the poisonous gases.
The third negative is what I call the ignorance of the impact of American power. America still is the number one superpower of the world. So whatever you do, even for domestic reasons, has a remarkable impact on the rest of the world. Whether it’s your subsidies—if you have corn subsides and you convert corn to ethanol, it leads to hunger in other places.
More recently, when you embark on QE1[quantitative easing] and QE2 and QE3 and you pump in the money supply, it does cause inflation in the rest of the world. We live in one world. This is an example of how what you do has an impact on the rest of the world. But most Americans are not aware that actions you take domestically spill over and affect the rest of the world. At some point the world is saying, “Pay attention to the impact that you have on us.”
By the way, I’m coming out with a new book. It's called The Great Convergence. In it I talk about how the world has dramatically changed. To describe how the world has changed, I say that in the past when you had 7 billion people living in 193 separate countries, it was like living on 193 separate boats. We had rules to make sure the boats didn’t collide. Today the 7 billion people in the world no longer live on 193 separate boats. They live in a 193 separate cabins on the same boat, but with no captain or crew to take care of the boat as a whole. We have captains and crews taking care of each cabin.
The reason I use that metaphor is that sometimes—and I extend that metaphor a bit—when America is busy cleaning its own cabin, the dirty water from its cabin goes into the other cabins and is affecting the rest of the world. That’s why you have to be, in a sense, conscious of how the world has changed.
Let me go on to the other area, where I say there is a combination of ugly and beautiful, where some aspects of your society can be both positive and negative at the same time.
The positive dimension, number one, in the field of money is how philanthropic you are. America is the most generous society in the world. The amount of money you give to philanthropy is absolutely astounding. Now that you have people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett agreeing to do what they call the Giving Pledge, to give away most of their money in their lifetime—that’s a remarkable thing to do.
Recently I was with David Rubenstein in Singapore. He was speaking at the Singapore global summit. He was saying that he has been trying to persuade Asian philanthropists to do the same, to promise to give away most of their money. He hasn’t succeeded. Clearly Asian philanthropists are not as generous as American philanthropists. You are clearly ahead down there.
At the same time, while that aspect of money in America is very positive, on the other hand, the role of money in politics here is incredibly negative. How you allow people to use unlimited sums of money to push all kinds of causes means that, at the end of the day—in a democracy you are more or less supposed to create a level playing field, where each man’s vote has equal impact, and clearly it does. But when money comes into the picture and you throw these incredible amounts of money, it distorts the whole process of democracy.
Many countries actually try to think of ways and means of not doing what the United States is doing in the field of money politics. In that sense, you have become a negative example.
In the area of rule of law, clearly America is number one domestically in terms of rule of law. If you want to always look for a society that respects and promotes the rule of law in the world, number one is America. That’s also why, by the way, people come here, bring their money here, invest here, carry out research here, because they have confidence in the rule of law.
But the paradox here is that while America is number one in adhering to the rule of law domestically, America is also number one in violating international law. That’s a paradox. Why is it that a society that promotes the rule of law at home violates it outside and refuses to accept the ICJ [International Court of Justice] judgments, refuses to ratify the ICC [International Criminal Court]? In fact, America doesn’t ratify even the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Law of the Sea treaty. In many, many treaties that hundreds of other countries have ratified, America is often the exception. Why? Why is America doing this?
I want to tell you this story so you understand sometimes why Asians look at America with incredulity. As you know, recently China had some problems with the ASEAN [Association of Souheast Asian Nations] states in the South China Sea. The secretary of defense of America—I think then it was Robert Gates—came and said, “China, you must respect the provisions of the Law of the Sea Treaty.”
Everyone said, “Hey? You, America, haven’t ratified it. How can you ask China to abide by it?” China actually has ratified it.
This creates a sense of incredulity. Are you really insulting us? Do you think we can’t see this? This creates an embarrassment, when America tries to take the moral high ground in many areas of international law especially, when it is so far behind the rest of the world. That’s another paradox.
The last area is, of course, the one area in which obviously America is very strong. In terms of freedom of expression, freedom of press, you’re number one in the world. You have the world’s freest press. Clearly you can say anything and do anything you want in America. You enjoy a very unique freedom here.
But the paradox here is that, on the one hand, while you have the greatest freedom of expression, you also seem to have the greatest freedom to remain ignorant. The free press in America has not succeeded in creating a well-educated citizenry and telling them that the world has changed. The press here is so amazingly insular. If you come here, you can sometimes feel cut off from the rest of the world.
To give you a very simple example, take three icons of America: CNN, Time, and Newsweek. Do you know that the CNN international edition, which is not shown in America, is completely different from the CNN domestic edition? I sometimes wish that one day they would just switch, take the international edition and broadcast it to the homes in America and take the domestic edition and broadcast it to the rest of the world. Then you would begin to see the gap.
If you look at Time and Newsweek, the local editions and the international editions—again they are very different. It’s almost as though they don’t want to tell the American people what’s going on here.
All this creates a very dangerous situation, because many Americans are not aware of how the world has changed. I can tell you, in January of this year, in Davos, one of the things I did was to chair a forum on the future of American power. On my right were two Republican senators, Corker and Chambliss, and on my left were two Democrats, Michael Froman, the deputy national security advisor, and Nita Lowey. She’s a Democratic congresswoman from New York.
I asked them the first question: “What do you see as the future of American power?”
They said, “America will be number one,” “Number one,” “Number one.”
My second question: “I have seen some statistics that say that sometime in the next ten years in PPP [purchasing power parity] terms, China’s GNP will become bigger than America. What do you think will happen?”
Their reaction shocked me. Not one of them could have any words coming out of their mouth saying, “Hey, America is number two.”
That was a huge revelation to me, that no American politician can start saying publicly that American will be number two, because it’s political suicide in America.
If you cannot tell the American people a simple truth—that sometime in the next decade or two America will become number two in the world—then something has gone wrong here. There’s no point having the world’s freest press if you don’t tell the American people the truth of what’s coming.
So I hope I have made you uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable.
Let me quickly rush through the attitudes towards America. Here, very quickly, I want to divide Asia into different segments. Let me just talk about three big pools of Asia: China, India, and ASEAN.
In China, by the way, it’s important for you to understand that, not just among the Chinese Communist Party, among the Chinese establishment, while, of course, they admire what America has accomplished, there is deep suspicion of America in China. The Chinese believe that, in one way or another, America is trying to stop China from succeeding. But despite their suspicion, they want to work with America.
India clearly is much more positive towards America in its attitudes. If you go to India, Americans will find a much more open, welcoming environment. But even so, the Indian foreign policy establishment does not want to become an American ally. It does not want to be used as a tool of American foreign policy. It wants to be friendly but independent in its own right.
Clearly the one region in the world that probably is the most positive in Asia towards America is the ASEAN region. Many of you probably have not paid much attention to ASEAN. But ASEAN is a modern miracle. ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 10 countries, 600 million people, the second most successful form of regional cooperation after the European Union. But what’s more remarkable is that the European Union still remains today a Christian club, but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, among its 600 million people, has got 250 million Muslims, 80 million Christians, 120 million Buddhists, and communists and Confucianists and Taoists. It’s the most diverse regional organization anywhere in the world.
This remarkable model of regional cooperation is one where there are a lot of pro-American attitudes that exist down there, but most Americans are not aware that there is this reservoir of goodwill towards America in ASEAN.
So my final recommendations, therefore, quite simply, to build on what I say, are three points:
- One is, clearly American leaders and policymakers must stop traveling across the Atlantic and start traveling across the Pacific. If you look at the schedules of American leaders and how they schedule the president’s time or the time of the secretary of state and others, there’s an inherent bias towards the Atlantic. Sometimes I say, very unkindly, if you want to see the past, go to Europe. If you want to see the future, come to Asia. But American policymakers are still inclined to go towards Europe and don’t travel often enough to Asia, to understand that there is a new world emerging out there. The only way you learn is to go out there.
- Secondly, for American business there are incredible opportunities out there in Asia—incredible. Let me just give you one small figure. The size of the middle class in Asia today, 2012, is 500 million people—not a small sum; a reasonable sum. By 2020, eight years from now, the figure is going to grow from 500 million to 1.75 billion people. If you want proof, look at the sales of consumer products. The number of cell phones in India in 1990 was less than a million. Now maybe it’s 800 million or something like that. It’s amazing.Just to give you one small example of how fast things are changing, last year in India there were 5 million smartphones. This year the number went to 50 million, 10 times in one year. That’s the pace of change.This creates tremendous opportunities out there in Asia.
- My third and final recommendation, especially to young Americans, is that the only way to understand other cultures is to learn their languages. I would say, if you can persuade young Americans to become bilingual and choose one Asian language—it could be Vietnamese or Mandarin or Hindi or Urdu or Bahasa Indonesia—there are so many languages out there. Encourage Americans to become bilingual. One of the most stunning statistics about America is that it’s probably one of the most monolingual countries in the whole world, in terms of its capacity to understand other languages and dialects. This, I believe, has got to change.
QUESTION: I’m Dan Rose, and I yield to no one in my admiration for Kishore Mahbubani, one of the wisest, most thoughtful people I have ever met.
Every word out of his mouth this morning has been golden, but I would pose one question: How in the 21st century should a civilized society deal with suicide bombing? How should America, in your opinion, in the sophisticated Asian view, have reacted to 9/11?
KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Let me just respond with a story, Dan. And thank you for your kind comments. He’s one of my gurus, I can tell you. In Asia we believe you succeed if you have the right gurus.
The second biggest attack after 9/11 actually was supposed to happen in Singapore. Singapore prevented a group that was about to accumulate several huge amounts of fertilizer explosives and blow up installations used by Americans in Singapore—the American Club and so on and so forth.
We caught them. We could have done exactly what the United States has done, which is torture them and say, “Give us all the information.” But all the studies show that torture doesn’t work. When somebody is tortured, he or she will tell you anything you want to hear.
So what we did was we got imams to speak to these people. The imams persuaded them that their cause was wrong, that their cause was anti-Islamic. Surprisingly, it worked. You know what? Some of these people who were actually going to detonate these huge amounts of explosives have now been released and are free.
In Singapore 15 percent of our population is Muslim. We are surrounded by more Muslims than Israel is. If you add up the population of Indonesia and Malaysia, it’s larger than the Arab world. So we have to have a very deep and sensitive understanding of how the Islamic world works.
Yes, it is true that suicide bombers are a problem. Hopefully, if you can remove the motivation, you can take away some of that challenge.
It’s interesting, by the way, that—take a case like Indonesia, for example. Indonesia also had suicide bombings. Some hotels were damaged and so on and so forth. There was a crackdown, as well as reeducation, and, fortunately, in Indonesia it has stopped.
So there are ways and means of dealing with the terrorism challenge without going to the extremes that the United States did.
QUESTION: Rita Hauser, International Peace Institute.
Kishore, a number of years ago I had the pleasure of being at your institute where we heard Lee Kuan Yew, and at the end of his lecture, he said, in answer to a question, “Everybody here in Asia knows who the big gorilla is. There’s no doubt about it. It’s China.”
You didn’t mention it at all in this configuration. How does the rest of Asia see China, which has to figure into how they also see America?
KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I should tell you that Joanne asked me to speak about America. I’m happy to give you a one hour lecture on China.
But you’re right. By the way, in my next book I speak quite a bit about the relationship between the United States and China, because the world’s most important geopolitical relationship has always been the world’s greatest power and the world’s greatest emerging power. The world’s greatest power is the United States; the world’s greatest emerging power is China.
In the case of China, it is possible that China may emerge as an angry dragon and go out and flex its muscles and conquer the rest of the world or whatever. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. China will become more powerful. China will flex its muscles. All great powers do so. There’s no such thing as a benign great power.
But at the same time, the Chinese preoccupation, for at least the next 20, 30 years, is internal. They have huge domestic problems. The new leaders that are taking over—and I actually believe, contrary to popular belief here, that the leaders who are going to succeed Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will be better than Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. The team of Xi Jinping, Li Yuanchao, and Wang Qishan may prove to be very powerful and very effective.
What will their focus be? Domestic, because they know that the Communist Party gains its legitimacy from delivering a better standard of living to its people. That’s the priority. Getting involved in wars, getting involved in any kinds of conflicts will kill their domestic development.
Even in the case of the recent problems with Japan—yes, there was a big outcry, demonstrations and so on and so forth. But when they decided enough was enough, boom, they switched off the tap and said, “Okay, we go back to business as normal with Japan.” They have the capacity to do that.
I actually believe that the Chinese will, in the words of Robert Zoellick, emerge as a responsible stakeholder in the global system, and not be a wild dragon when they emerge.
QUESTION: Allan Young.
Anybody who read Governor Romney’s speech at Virgnia Military Institute a couple of days ago and compared that speech with what you said would see significant differences. I wonder how Asia would react to either a Romney victory or an Obama victory.
KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I think most Asians are very pragmatic. They will work with whoever is the president. Asians have also learned that it doesn’t matter what an American candidate says in the election campaign; he will do the exact opposite.
I happened to be personally present on Blake Island in November 1993 ten months after Bill Clinton took office. He organized a wonderful APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] leaders meeting in Seattle, and he invited Jiang Zemin, the leader of China. I personally watched Bill Clinton coddle the dictator of Beijing. [Laughter] And Bill Clinton was brilliant, so charming and so wonderful. Not once did he treat him like the butcher of Beijing at all.
We sort of learn over time that no matter what a candidate says, we can live and work with him.
But I suspect that as of now, if you ask the Asians privately who they would prefer, an overwhelming majority would prefer Obama, partly because, having lived in Southeast Asia, he understands Asian cultures in a different way. He can still speak Bahasa Indonesia, by the way, which is quite remarkable for someone who hasn’t lived in Indonesia for many years. He has that sensitivity towards Asia that I think would be an asset for America in his second term, if he gets elected.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador, for a very nuanced view of this country.
I’m going to ask if you see a contrast or a comparison, or if you reject my initial premise, which is that if you take Amartya Sen’s description of freedom and development—the rights of persons to live as they wish—in the development that this country has had, with very fast and very large and rapidly accumulated wealth, you have many, many disparate voices, from people who often, in many other places in history and in the world, have never had the means to have a voice, or an educated voice, and we have developed many voices reflecting people who normally wouldn’t and for whom the idea of, say, educating them would be a condescension.
My premise is that that accounts for a lot of the unruliness in our presentation. In this country, access, affluence, and voice have been attained by many, many people who would not have a voice in many other places and times in history.
Asia is going through a similar type of development now. Might you see some of the same kinds of unruliness and some of the same kinds of compromises to a coherent policy and presentation abroad? Or, conversely, what can we do to help our own situation, I suppose?
But if you take that premise that our incoherence, our self-contradiction, reflects many of these voices and many of these empowerments of what we might call lower-class people, is there a contrast? Is there a comparison?
KISHORE MAHBUBANI: This is obviously a very complex question. All you have to do is compare yourself to Europe. Europe has the same levels of education of its people as America does, the same size of the middle class, and so on and so forth. But there is, I suppose—until you had these recent problems with the euro—much more coherence in its attitudes towards the rest of the world—and, by the way, surprisingly, much more awareness of what’s going on in the rest of the world in Europe than there is in America.
I don’t think your problems are because you have educated your people too much. I think, on the other hand, that the education of its citizens here has been too insular. Because America has been so powerful, so large, it has felt no pressure to understand the rest of the world. And that, I think, is something that has to change quite dramatically, because I think in the next 20 to 30 years, Americans will find themselves in a situation where decisions made by others are going to have an impact on American life in the way that, in the past, American decisions used to have on others.
One of my biggest pleas about America is that you have to prepare the American people for the new world that is coming. That has not been done. That’s something that requires leadership from all sectors, from the politicians and, frankly, from your educators also. One of the most stunning statistics is that the number of foreign students coming to America is enormous, is the largest number of foreign students any country has. The percentage of young Americans who go to study overseas is a really tiny little dot. There’s a huge disproportion in that.
One thing that educators in America should do is just send young Americans overseas to understand the rest of the world better. Therefore, then they can say, “Hey, we have to change and adapt also in America.”
QUESTION: Jim McLay. I’m the New Zealand ambassador to the United Nations.
Thank you, Kishore, for talking so much about the relationship between our region and the United States.
One way in which a better engagement might be achieved is through trade. Very shortly, 800 trade negotiators will be meeting in Auckland to try to agree on the elements of a wider Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, of which your country and mine were the founding members. What prospects do you see for a TPP that involves the United States, Canada, Mexico, and maybe eventually Japan and South Korea as well?
KISHORE MAHBUBANI: TPP, for all of you, is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s a kind of free-trade agreement that I think originally was started by four of us—Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, and Brunei. Then the United States came on board and others are coming on board. In some ways, it is one way of promoting free trade agreements.
The paradox here, by the way, is that even though the United States has always been the chief defender and promoter of free trade, for 200 years almost, today it is almost impossible to get a free trade agreement passed in the U.S. Congress. That’s an amazing shift that has happened. By contrast, as you know, China is busy signing free-trade agreements with others.
So in a game that used to be an American-dominated game, China is doing better. China’s trade with its neighbors is growing by leaps and bounds. In fact, for all of China’s neighbors, including Japan, South Korea, which are allies of the United States, their number-one trading partner is China.
TPP clearly is an effort by the United States to catch up with China in Asia. If they can push it through, this would be a very good thing. But I suspect that it will be very difficult, because a TPP means that the United States is going to make concessions. For every concession it is going to make, it has to deal with the lobby in Washington, D.C., and the lobby in Washington, D.C., will block the agreement. To give you a simple example, if you had a TPP, I think both Australia and New Zealand would like to have greater openness in agriculture. You would run into a huge problem in the United States in agriculture. So that would be a block to the TPP.
This is where the details—in trade agreements the devil is always in the details. You need to have tremendous political will to override your lobbies. That’s the challenge that the United States has.
QUESTION: My name is Ann Phillips.
I want to second what Dan Rose said. It’s wonderful to have you in New York. You were sorely missed by many people here, Kishore.
I have two very quick questions: The reaction in Asia to the use of the drones that we have been using with great consistency and volume.
Secondly, you spoke about this vast increase in population in the ASEAN world. It will be massive and apparently very rapid. You said eight years from now. Will this not, in addition to offering many opportunities, create many, many problems for the area, when you have a huge increase in population, in terms of providing education and food and water and infrastructure and so forth and so on?
KISHORE MAHBUBANI: On your first question, on drones, let me confess to you that it was in my remarks, but I sensed that I was going too far in making you uncomfortable, so I withdrew the section on drones.
Don’t listen to me. Look for yesterday’s copy of the Financial Times. The Financial Times wrote a very nice, balanced editorial saying: We understand why in some cases—some really terrible terrorists out there—you have to use drones to kill them. But at the end of the day, number one, who’s accountable for the innocent people who have been killed?” The number of innocent people killed by drones is quite large.
Two, what principle of international law are you creating here? Are you now saying that if Russia and China have drones, they can do the same thing as America? How do you live in a world where every great power has its own drones going around the world killing people? Is that the kind of world you want to have?”
It’s a very simple, sensible, sober editorial. You should read that.
That captures also what many countries are thinking.
At the end of the day, we live in a very paradoxical world. On the one hand, war is a sunset industry. The number of people dying in wars today is the lowest it has ever been since statistics were kept. And you know what this shows? More and more countries are realizing that if you have to use the military to solve your problems, something is wrong with you.
The tragedy here is that America has become the most trigger-happy country in the world. America has used its military more often than any other country in the last 10, 20 years. Why? Why do you have to do it? Frankly, the Iraq War was completely unnecessary. You could have saved yourselves $1 trillion to $3 trillion.
The reason I emphasize that—America has to reflect very deeply on why it is so trigger-happy, and why can’t it be like the rest of the world and use the military as the last resort and not the first resort in solving the problems. And why is the rest of the world walking away from it?
On the second point, by the way, I was not talking about an increase the population; I was talking about an increase in the middle class. The 1.75 billion people are there, but the number of middle class will go from 500 million to 1.75 billion. It’s existing population which will see a significant improvement in living standards.
Therefore, because of this explosion of the middle class in Asia, the Asians don’t want war. They see this as the best moment of history that they have had in 200 years. The standard of living of the Asians has gone up more in the last 30 years than the previous 300 years, and it will go up more in the next 30 years. There will be incredible change in the global chemistry.
QUESTION: Sylvan Barnet, Rotary International and Yale, 1940. There are some other Yale men here.
My question is about the Yale campus, your partnership, which will be opening very shortly for business. What will its influence be on international relations?
KISHORE MAHBUBANI: For those of you who are not aware of this, Yale has signed a partnership with the National University of Singapore to establish a liberal arts college in Singapore called the Yale NUS College. I think it’s one of the most brilliant things that has happened in recent times.
In the last 100 years, in a sense, global education has been primarily Western education. Western education, by the way, has done wonders for the world. One of the points I make that surprises many people is that I say the Western education was designed for the Western mind, but if you take Western education and you put the Asian mind to it, you get amazing results. That’s why, if you go to any graduation ceremony of any American university, when you see the list of the Ph.D.s marching on the stage, their names will be Tan, Li, Wang, Kumar, Kapul, Rakesh.
But given the nature of the world that is coming—remember that only 12 percent of the population of the world lives in the West. Eighty-eight percent lives outside the West, 55 percent in Asia. Any future education models have to bring together the best of the West and the best of the East. The Yale-NUS experiment is a brilliant experiment. Right now they are actually designing the curriculum in Yale, even as you and I speak, and they are trying to pick up the best from the West and the best from the East and say, how do we combine it together in a liberal arts college?
So if it succeeds, this will become—I spoke about the fusion of civilizations as the future of the world. Yale-NUS is the first example of the fusion of civilizations.
QUESTION: I’m David Hunt.
Certainly, your observation that military force is the worst alternative in a dispute is correct. But I don’t know that al-Qaeda, which is really the main thrust of our efforts now in Afghanistan and other places, is willing to talk with us.
But by what universal values would you justify the United States becoming involved overseas—human rights—in ridding a country of a despot, as in Syria, for example? You are sitting in Singapore and you are having a view of the United States as sort of a wild, rogue elephant, if you will. What are the circumstances in which you could agree that an intervention overseas would be justified?
KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Number one, I agree that they have to fight al-Qaeda. Singapore has also been fighting al-Qaeda. We use a combination, by the way, of persuasion and intelligence to fight against that scourge.
I’m trying to find a very diplomatic way of answering you. You know, al-Qaeda is only the tip of the iceberg. You cut off that tip; there’s still the iceberg at the bottom. You have to deal with your problems with the Islamic world. Illogically, in geographical terms, you are so far away from the Islamic world—you are separated by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the Islamic world—there is no reason why you should have ended up in this hostile relationship with them.
My real answer to you is, please go and reexamine what geopolitical mistakes you have made in the past. America, unfortunately, as I tried to describe in my previous book, The New Asian Hemisphere, has been geopolitically incompetent. Where there was no necessity for you to start a fight, you started one. Your invasion of Iraq was a huge geopolitical gift to China. Believe me, if you bomb Iran, the champagne bottles will open in Beijing, and they’ll say, “We’ll have 20 years of peace in China, because America will get sucked into another unnecessary war.”
Remember that there are battles you need not have fought and you could have taken care of your own interests better. I’m not saying it from my point of view. I’m saying it from the point of your national interests. What you did defeated your own national interests. In the future—believe me, you cannot save Afghanistan. Russia tried and failed. The British tried and failed. At the end of the day, the Afghans will have to solve Afghanistan. You have to find Afghans you can work with.
Somebody was telling me last night that he was reading a book by Samuel Huntington on Vietnam. You try to find a ruler who is subservient to you, and you expect him to be respected by his countrymen. You will fail.
So don’t believe you can save the world. At the end of the day, the good news for all of you is that the rest of the world is actually becoming remarkably intelligent. Most countries, the vast majority of them, are now doing a better job at managing their own affairs than any other countries can.
Frankly, the big story that I haven’t mentioned is the success of so many African states today. They are doing it because they realize, “We have to solve our own problems.”
Do not believe that if America decides to stop humanitarian intervention, the world is going to fall apart. At the end of the day, remember, there are 7 billion people in the world and 300 million in America, less than 5 percent. You cannot carry the world on your shoulders.
But the remarkable thing is that what you do—for example, the hundreds and thousands of Asians that you teach and educate in American universities—these are the people creating the new world. The university education you give to them is far more powerful than your military that you send outside. Use your education, use your culture as a weapon.
JOANNE MYERS: Kishore, once again you have answered the question, “Can Asians think?”
Thank you very much for giving us such a wonderful discussion