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Q&A: U.N. Loses Credibility Ignoring Asia’s Ascent

Interview with Kishore Mahbubani, academic and former UN diplomat

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 3 2008 (IPS) - The United Nations and its sister institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are in danger of losing their credibility if they continue to ignore the resurgence of Asia as a potentially dominant power in a new era in global politics.

Kishore Mahbubani Credit: Global Policy Forum

Kishore Mahbubani Credit: Global Policy Forum

“The recent record shows that Western powers are extremely reluctant to give up their privileged positions,” says Kishore Mahbubani, a former permanent representative of Singapore to the United Nations, and author of the recently released book “The New Asian Hemisphere”.

“We still have to deal with a rule that says the head of IMF should be a European, and the head of the World Bank should be an American,” says Mahbubani, dean and professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

“Does this mean that 3.5 billion Asians do not qualify, even though they now have the world’s fastest growing economies, the world’s largest pool of foreign reserves – three trillion dollars – and enough economists with PhDs to qualify to run the World Bank or IMF?” he asks.

In an interview with IPS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, Mahbubani said these are the kinds of anachronisms they have to change.

“I worked at the U.N. for 10 and a half years as permanent representative. Hence I know the U.N. reasonably well,” he says. “I also know how deeply resistant the U.N. is to change. If this resistance to change continues, the credibility of the U.N. will suffer. This is going to be the big challenge for the U.N. for the next 10 years or so.”

Further excerpts from the interview follow.

KM: As you know, we’re living in times of great transition. In fact, we’re in one of the most plastic moments of the world history now. You can see an old era disappearing and a new era emerging. The old disappearing era is the era of the Western domination of the world history.

The new emerging era is the Asian century. The main consequence of this is that the global order has to be readjusted to accommodate the rise of Asia. However, the old order is not going to give in voluntarily. There will be resistance. Hence in the United Nations you will increasingly see tensions developing between those who want to hang on to their privileged positions of the past and those who say they speak for the great powers of tomorrow.

The U.N. is going to feel the stresses and strains of this tension between old powers and new powers. If the old powers continue to insist on their privileged permanent positions in the U.N. Security Council, they can of course keep them because they can veto any change. However the U.N. will then lose credibility. There is a cost to everything. If you want to maintain the U.N.’s credibility, you have to accommodate the rising powers. So, I foresee the U.N. is going to live through – to use a Western euphemism – “interesting times” in the next decade or so.

IPS: And do you think that countries like India and Japan should accept permanent membership [of the Security Council] without veto powers?

KM: I have always felt that what I call the “beauty contest” approach to Security Council reform is wrong. The “beauty contest” approach is to ask the new candidates to march on the stage and show how good they are. That’s not how you reform an organisation. First, we should reach a clear understanding of the principles and purposes of the U.N. Security Council. We should also agree on what the criteria should be for permanent membership.

There is a famous Spider-Man quote: ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’. The permanent membership of Security Council must also come with responsibility. The reason why it is important to define these responsibilities is that those who aspire for permanent membership must be willing to take on all these responsibilities. In this way, we can weed out the frivolous applications from the serious applications. And I think that this can be done. In view of this, I do not believe that giving a second class status to new powers like India and China and first class status to yesterday’s powers is a viable solution.

IPS: When you talk about the rise of Asia, what are the countries you refer to? Japan, India, China?

KM: In my book, I look at Asia as a whole continent, in fact from Japan to Israel. The process of the “march of modernity” which began with Japan, went first to the four tigers: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong-Kong, and Singapore. Then it went to South East Asia, then China then India. From India, this “march to modernity” is going to West Asia.

IPS: Do you consider the Middle East also a part of Asia?

KM: Yes, definitely. Geographically, it is part of Asia. I believe that it will be good news for Israel to be surrounded by more middle-class and modernising states because they will have a strong vested interest in peace and stability. Hence I see a sea of modernity covering Asia and that is going to happen.

IPS: Will you also bring in the oil-rich Gulf countries into the equation?

KM: Yes. The Persian Gulf countries are very good examples of how Middle East states are trying to introduce modernity. Look at what Dubai and Qatar are doing in terms of bringing modern universities. Also look at Saudi Arabia’s efforts to set up King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). This is a sign of how they are trying to modernise. For me Asia covers the whole continent, not just East Asia or South East Asia.

IPS: And to what do you attribute the phenomenal success of Asian economies like Japan, China, Singapore, South Korea, which mostly do not practice the western concept of multi-party democracy?

KM: The thing about the Asia story that is quite remarkable is that we have success in Asia with very diverse forms of governments. India is a success story with democracy. China is a success story without democracy. In the western mind there’s only one model for success: you have to be democratic. If you do not have democracy, you cannot succeed. This black-and-white Western view of the world has to be discarded. We will have a much more diverse and complex world emerging in the world of tomorrow.

The critical variable for successful development in Asia is good governance. If you have good governance, you will take off. Take the case of Vietnam, for example. It is emerging as a new economic tiger in South East Asia. Why? Good governance! Even though they fought wars for several decades, even though they were isolated for some time, the Vietnamese economy was able to take off once they made a turnaround in their policies. In my book, I speak of the seven pillars of Western wisdom that have to be implemented. This list doesn’t include democracy. It includes good governance. This list explains why Asia continues to grow very fast.

IPS: Your former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said, “What developing nations need is not so much democracy but discipline.” Do you subscribe to that view?

KM: The record shows that in the early phases of development, a country really needs to focus on development. It has to forge a strong national consensus on what needs to be done to get development done. If we don’t have such a national consensus, there will be a lot of problems. Look at the case of the United States of America. Look at how long it took to become fully fledged democracy. The Americans promoted the concept of equality in 1770s. But it took them almost 100 years to abolish slavery, which is the exact opposite of the notion of equality of men.

Then it took them 150 years to give the vote to the women. It also took them 200 years to effectively give the right to vote to the blacks. Hence America essentially took almost 200 years to become a full-fledged democracy. I think it will take Asian countries less than 200 years to achieve what America has done.

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