Beyond the Age of Innocence

I am almost  through with Kishore Mahbabani’s book Beyond the age of Innocence. This book is a call to the Americans to rebuild their trust to the world. Kishore’s reading of the actions of America post the fall of the Berlin’s wall and the conduct of its foreign policies –or should I call non action in some areas-is most insightful.

The book structured in chapters treating topics as:

How America benefits the world

How America has harmed the world

America and Islam

America and China

The nature of American Power

Managing American Power

The Way Ahead

Adam Luck of The Standard in Hong Kong in his book review wrote:

I n the early hours of May 8, 1999 a B-2 stealth bomber from the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri dropped five 910-kilogram satellite-guided bombs on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three journalists and wounding 20 others.

If the explosion was heard across the capital of the former Yugoslavia, the reverberations were felt across China as anti-American marches and riots paralysed Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou. In Chengdu the residence of the United States consul general was stormed and set alight.

For the distinguished Singaporean diplomat and scholar Kishore Mahbubani, reaction to those events should have been a wake-up call for America in its relationship not only with Asia, but the world beyond.

No coincidence then that the cover of his book Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust Between America and the World sees a face-off between the Asian tiger and the bald eagle, America’s national symbol. But his is no exercise in Washington bashing. Rather Mahbubani is unashamedly pro- American as he seeks to explain the root causes of the antipathy much of the world’s population has toward the superpower, arguing that America must shape up to the challenges of the 21st century – not least China and Islam.

Mahbubani says: “The US is the greatest power of our time.

It affects the whole world so if it manages policies that are good for the world, everyone benefits, but if they are handled badly then the whole world suffers.

“Sadly Americans can never step outside there own skins and see how the rest of the world perceives them.”

On September 11, 2001, little more than two years after the NATO-led attack on Belgrade, designed to force Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo, America was on the receiving end. Mahbubani, who is married to an American, was in Manhattan when the planes struck the World Trade Center towers. It was the critical spark for his book, he says.

“I was shocked at how bewildered Americans were, they were not even aware that the US was doing things that had annoyed the world. The ignorance was amazing,” Mahbubani says.

“I wanted to explain what people in Asia and the rest of the world thought: `How can America promote human rights for everyone except for Muslims?”‘

Mahbubani is quick to add the coda that these sentiments are not his own. Instead he describes the US as the acme of human development, a nation that has “conquered the world with its ideas (and) values.” He believes the merit- based structure of American society has given hope to hundreds of millions from countries where class, religion, ethnicity and gender are constant barriers to people. Such has been America’s success at globalization, he argues, it has helped create a global middle class – or “America’s children.”

However, globalization has shrunk the world and brought its problems to America’s doorstep. Thus, an “age of innocence” is over and the US and the world are in the same boat. Now when it makes a mistake, it is held to account in the court of global public opinion.

Mahbubani says: “The bombing of the embassy in Belgrade was seen as deliberate by the Chinese people. I do not know of one who thinks otherwise. If you have that kind of reaction you have real problems.

“Look at the spy plane incident over Hainan Island. Even in Hong Kong – which is not necessarily seen as sympathetic to Beijing – China was seen as being in the right.”

This is not the only time that Mahbubani refers to the former British colony. In the book he warns America against using Hong Kong democracy and Taiwanese independence as sticks with which to beat Beijing.

He says: “It would be good to see Hong Kong and Taiwan succeed as autonomous entities but it is best if they do not enter into a confrontational position with China. If it is between 1.2 billion people and eight million in Hong Kong there is no doubt who will come first. Hong Kong people will have to be patient when it comes to democracy.”

This utilitarian approach can best be seen in Mahbubani’s barely qualified admiration for Mao Zedong and unqualified praise for Deng Xiaoping, who he calls “one of the world’s greatest leaders” for setting China on the path to capitalism. What will shock readers more perhaps is his evident admiration for the Cultural Revolution.

He says: “We all hope that this could have been achieved with far less destruction but when you are trying to get rid of feudalism it is very difficult.”

His reasoning is unlikely to win support in many Hong Kong households with bitter memories of this passage in China’s history, but Mahbubani is not apologetic: “Yes, I do try and weigh up the benefits and costs. If you looked at the number of people who lived in absolute poverty in China and the China of today you would see that people have real hope now.”

To this end he cites the global institutions that America has helped foster and he believes have helped create a world of comparative peace and stability.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II and with civil war raging in China, America, writes Mahbubani, helped set up many of the multilateral structures that persist to this day, including Asean, which he believes has helped to prevent war across the region.

Some would be tempted to cite Vietnam and, further afield, Korea but it is clear that Mahbubani sees them as America’s justified bid to fight off communism.

The International Monetary Fund and the United Nations Security Council are also cited as proof positive of America’s benevolent intentions throughout the ensuing Cold War, where successive presidents helped keep in check the malign influence of Soviet-sponsored communism.

Born in 1948, Mahbubani, like many of his generation, faced a polarized choice between capitalism rather than communism, and once he had rejected the latter was rewarded with the opportunity to live the American dream.

From a poor Hindu family who fled Pakistan in the aftermath of partition, he was plucked from poverty by a Lee Kuan Yew program designed to promote young talent. His distinguished diplomatic career eventually saw him become Singapore’s ambassador to the UN.

From that perch he saw the implosion of the USSR. But Mahbubani believes that America made a catastrophic mistake then by withdrawing into itself. This created a vacuum in regions such as East Africa and states such as Afghanistan and Pakistan in which extremism could breed.

Now Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, in Singapore, Mahbubani believes this isolationist mindset was also directly responsible for the Asian financial crisis in 1997, which saw the US-controlled IMF refuse to bail out long term allies such as Indonesia and Thailand.

The clear implication is that the ensuing popular discontent, particularly in Indonesia, has helped fuel anti- Americanism, spread Islamic extremism and encouraged the terrorists to ever-baser acts.

Nevertheless, Mahbubani believes all is not lost.

He says: “It matters a lot what dream you buy. If you are a young Pakistani or Bangladeshi and if you are given the choice between Osama Bin Laden and the American dream – your choice makes a huge difference to the world we live in. The fact that many still want to buy the American dream cannot be denied. But if they start choosing Bin Laden then we are in huge trouble.”

From Kyoto to Iraq, however, Mahbubani believes America is now making the wrong choices, even if they are well- intentioned.

Instead it must face up to the consequences of its policies, take heed of the world community and lead by positive example in all spheres.

Nowhere is this more important than in relation to China.

Mahbubani is in no doubt that China is shaping up to be the next global superpower and America’s attitude towards this challenge will help shape the 21st century.

How Asia will change the world is partly the subject of his next book, he says.

“We are at a crossroads: if China believes the US will not block its way then it will become a responsible stakeholder in the future. But if the US is perceived as trying to stop it, China will become embittered.

“The US must get the policy right and right now because if they get it wrong we will all suffer for decades to come.”

The above document though written in 2006 still holds…however let us see the new policy of America with President Obama as well as the evolution of the relationship of America with the world.


#1 Agni on 07.26.09 at 8:54 pm

In Mauritius it might help if any of the newspapers which call themselves members of the “free press”! actually were to print and analyse the speech President Obama made in Ghana, by which he addressed the entire continent of Africa.

I can only conclude that the reason this didn’t happen must be because there was something it that African address which didn’t agree with those this “free press” serves.

Our “free press” is more busy fighting over “advertising” funds from the government instead of doing their job.

People such as Kishore Mahbubani consider it their duty to raise important issues and questions in the public domain.
Indeed, he started his writer’s career by asking “Can Asians Think?”.

#2 joseph on 07.27.09 at 9:31 pm

I missed out on Obama’s speech in Ghana. I was too busy…and later forgot about it. Thanks for remind me. I was relishing the before last chapter of Kishore Mahbubani’s ‘beyond the age of innocence’. It would appear through the various examples cited, the US did not measure the consequences of their power in this age of the global village. With great power comes great responsibility.

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