Sign Up

China, U.S., Europe — Whose Century?

How will existing and rising world powers influence the course of the 21st century?

March 2, 2005

How will existing and rising world powers influence the course of the 21st century?

Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's former Ambassador to the United Nations and author of “Beyond the Age of Innocence,” has long been known as a provocative thinker. In this Globalist Interview, he shares his insights on the United States in the 21st century, China’s prospects and lessons from Europe.

How vital is the United States to the world today?

“The course of the 21st century will be determined by the relationship that America develops with the world. The first two centuries of American history should give the world room for optimism.”

Why is that?

“America has done more good for the rest of the world than any other society. The single biggest gift that America has shared with the impoverished billions on our planet is hope.”

Where would you fault the United States?

“At the end of the Cold War, America made an awesome strategic error: It decided to behave like an ordinary country. There is nothing inherently wrong with behaving like an ordinary country, especially a peaceful ordinary country. The only problem is that, over the course of 200 years, America had succeeded in convincing mankind that it was an extraordinary country.”

Where does this manifest itself?

“Why does it take America so long to reconcile itself with its erstwhile enemies — or adversaries? As a people, Americans are among the most compassionate and forgiving. Individual Americans are big-hearted. Yet, as a polity, America is one of the most unforgiving countries in the world."

How is Asia different?

“One of America’s biggest strengths is that it is a nation with limited memories. Asians by contrast, have long memories.”

What guides your thinking about the Muslim world?

“Islam is the most successful religion in the contemporary world.”

What plays a key role in that?

“The Al-Jazeera effect may well turn out to be one of the most important forces in creating a real sense of solidarity among the 1.2 billion Muslims who once lived in relatively distinct and separate communities. Al-Jazeera is now broadcast in Malaysia and Indonesia, with Malay voiceover.”

What puzzles you about America's battle with bin Laden?

“How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communications society?”

What is the practical effect of all that on overall U.S. strategy?

“America cannot walk into the Islamic world now and be perceived as a positive agent for change. The Islamic world has become very suspicious of America.”

Do U.S. communications problems extend beyond that region?

“America’s relations with the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world are clearly in trouble. If America is not careful, its relations with 1.3 billion Chinese could be heading the same way.”

How do you view China? Do you see reason for optimism?

“Based on well-rehearsed statecraft for over 2,000 years, there is a great deal of accumulated wisdom within the inner sanctums of Beijing — similar to the political years within the walls of the Vatican.”

Will the trend continue?

“After more than 100 years of anarchy and misrule, China has finally amassed the best governing class it has seen in generations.”

How was that achieved?

“Just look at the Chinese Communist Party today. It is almost as ruthless as Harvard University in its search for young talent to fill key positions.”

What about progress on the democracy front?

“It will take a long time before China enjoys the kind of democratic rule that America enjoys — perhaps a century or more.”

Which Asian country gives you reason to worry?

“The Philippines. Feudalism is still deeply entrenched in that country. This may also help to explain why it is struggling to develop — even though it is the only country to have been colonized by America for 50 years.”

Talking about poverty, do you have a lesson for the world when you look at Europe's history?

“Witnessing first hand the conditions in Britain and in Europe, Karl Marx confidently predicted revolution. But the revolution never came. The ruling elites in Europe wisely staved off the revolution by giving the poor the right to vote in members of Parliament."

How does that apply today?

"In the global village that we have developed, we are doing virtually the exact opposite of what the Europeans did to stave off the revolution. Instead of enfranchising the poor of our planet, we are disenfranchising them.”

And finally, what is your overarching counsel to all the detractors of the United States around the world?

“The world would be a much darker place if it were deprived of the American dream.”

For more on these and other issues, read Kishore Mahbubani’s Beyond the Age of Innocence (Perseus Books Group, 2005).