Insights and Analysis

Author Kishore Mahbubani Joins Experts to Discuss U.S. ‘Pivot’ to Asia

February 13, 2013

On February 26, leading foreign affairs experts will participate in a panel discussion, co-sponsored by The Asia Foundation along with host Asia Society of Northern California, on the rise of Asia, America’s pivot to Asia, and what this means for the U.S. and countries in the region. The event features Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former ambassador to the United Nations and Foreign Policy magazine’s 2011 “Top Global Thinker,” who will incorporate lessons from his just-released book The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and Logic of One World. Below is an excerpt from the book discussing multilateralism. Read more about the event.

This story of Myanmar also illustrates a fifth key element in this new consensual cluster of norms: multilateralism. It is one of the fastest-growing sunrise industries in our world. This rapid growth is demonstrated by the increasing number of multilateral conferences and multilateral agreements that are entwining a larger and larger number of countries in thicker and thicker webs of organizations. This surge toward multilateralism goes against the deeply rooted unilateral instincts of the American body politic. American policymakers’ disdain for multilateralism manifested itself when John Bolton, who notoriously stated that there was “no such thing” as the UN, was appointed the American ambassador to the UN in 2005.

Fortunately, this American distrust of multilateralism is not shared by the rest of the world. Tony Blair has proposed a blueprint for what he calls “muscular multilateralism,” arguing that the only solution to deep-seated global problems is stronger multilateral institutions and a willingness to confront issues such as security, peacekeeping, and poverty.65 Blair’s explicit call for a stronger rules-based multilateral institution echoes Bill Clinton’s implicit call for a rules-based global order, which was mentioned in the Introduction. Most reasonable people understand that the rising multilateralism is now irreversible. There is a good reason why other Western leaders do not advocate multilateralism. He or she would be greeted with derision.

Just as we have failed to notice that war among great powers has become a sunset industry, we may also have failed to notice that there may be a correlation between diminishing wars and rising multilateralism. Figures 1.7 and 1.8 suggest a correlation between multilateralism and declining war deaths.

The obvious question to ask is, why should there be a correlation between the two trends or between trade and war fatalities? The simple answer is that wars happen when two countries fail to communicate with each other. The lack of contact also allows each country to demonize the other. Multilateralism does the opposite. It brings people together and increases both communication and understanding. And it is particularly helpful when leaders meet face to face. This is why the proliferation of leaders’ meetings is a positive global phenomenon that should be encouraged. In the Cold War, American and Soviet leaders rarely met each other even though a miscalculation by either could have destroyed the world. By contrast, the leaders of America and China meet regularly, especially in forums like the UN, the G-20, and the East Asian Summit. Neither the G-20 nor the East Asian Summit existed a decade ago.

I have served twice as ambassador from Singapore to the UN, from 1984 to 1989 and from 1998 to 2004. I experienced firsthand how a sense of community could develop among people coming from all over the world. Hence, I could develop close friendships with the ambassadors of Brazil and Saudi Arabia, Mongolia and Namibia, to name just four very different countries. The skeptic will immediately retort that ambassadors are functionally designed to make friends across borders. That is true. But it is equally true that these friendships produce benefits for the world.

The Law of the Sea Treaty is a case study showing how a sense of community developed among more than 180 ambassadors from all over the world can bring global benefits. The treaty defines the rights and responsibilities of all nations in their use of the world’s oceans. It sets rules for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. It was one of the most difficult treaties to negotiate. It took nine years from start to finish. There were bitter divisions between the coastal states, which wanted to claim most of the oceans for themselves, and the landlocked and geopolitically disadvantaged states, which felt that they were being deprived of the “common heritage of mankind” in the oceans. Differences seemed irresolvable. Yet over time a sense of community developed, even between the adversarial sides. Distrust diminished. Finally in 1982 the negotiations were concluded. Even though America failed to fulfill its obligations and ratify the treaty in the final instance (in what was seen as an act of betrayal by the rest of the world), America has respected the provisions of the treaty ever since. The oceans have become safer. The world has become more civilized.

Oceans cover 71 percent of the surface of the earth. If we can negotiate a good Law of the Sea Treaty, there is no reason that we cannot negotiate a Law of Planet Earth Treaty that spells out the obligations and benefits to each nation-state in taking good care of the remaining 29 percent of the planet, its minerals and raw material resources. If we succeed, it will be because of multilateralism in action.

From the book The Great Convergence by Kishore Mahbubani. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Myanmar
Related programs: Regional and International Relations


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