Kishore Mahbubani Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

America and the World: Conversation with Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yee School of Public Policy, Singapore; March 12, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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To summarize, you're saying in your book that you would like to help America understand the consequences of their actions. That seems to be very important.

My message is actually a larger one. My larger message is that America has done more than any other society to change the world, and by the way, often change the world positively. But paradoxically, having changed the world, America is one of the countries least prepared to handle the world it has changed. To quote a few obvious examples: America has educated the world. You have hundreds of thousands of graduates from North American universities making decisions, making policies, and assessing American attitudes and American policies towards them. They can see the double standard. They can see that America carries out actions that harm or damage them, and the complete indifference of American society when their societies are damaged.

I give the obvious example of how, when America decides to have cotton subsidies for 25,000 cotton farmers in the South, this lowers the world's global cotton prices and impoverishes 10 million West African cotton farmers. Now most Americans would say, "Well, we're just making a domestic decision. We had no intention whatsoever to harm the 10 million West African cotton farmers." But now, in an open and transparent global information universe you can see in real time what happens.

I quote in the book the series of New York Times editorials that were written, documenting how American subsidies are impoverishing people elsewhere. The rest of the world sees this process happening but they find a complete indifference of American society to the effects of their actions. People are saying, "Hang on a second. This is not what I learned in America. I learned in America that the American society was open, warm, and generous, and cares for the rest of the world." And indeed, as you know, recently in the Asian tsunami crisis, America once again showed the incredible generosity of spirit that exists in American society, and that's the image you had throughout the world, that's the image that Americans have of themselves vis-à-vis the rest of the world. But that image is being cracked because of the perception that when America carries out actions that damage the rest of the world, it's indifferent to the consequences of its actions.

You're saying that American power has globalized the world and created connections, both economically and in terms of information, culturally, and so on, on the one hand; but on the other hand, America has not adjusted to global politics. To quote Tip O'Neill, "All politics is local." That seems to be the heart of the dilemma that you're getting at. So that with regard to policies in the Middle East [for example], domestic constituencies may be overly determining the direction of American policy, which doesn't take account of the broader global interests. The same problem would be true on agriculture, and so on. Is that fair?

Yes. It's a pity that Americans are not aware of now how heavily American power sits on the rest of the world.

I use another [example]: Geo, a car, that is parked on your toes -- you know? American power is like a car parked on your toes, and people in the car -- in America -- are not aware that this car is parked on other peoples' toes. But those whose toes a car is parked on are acutely aware of how American power sits on them. So, I hope that one of the results of my book will be a more open discussion within the American society about the impact of American power on the rest of the world, because the impact is real and not theoretical.

I'm glad you mentioned Tip O'Neill and his point that all politics is local. That's true, but the big change is that global is now local, that what you thought was happening far away is now going to affect you immediately. Given the scale of American power, most of the time, America impacts on the rest of the world. The rest of the world doesn't impact on America.

But you can see the beginnings already of how in a small world decisions made overseas can impact American society directly. This was, in a sense, the big lesson of 9/11. It showed that when you abandon a society like Afghanistan in 1990, you feel the consequences of it in 2001. Another immediate example they can think of is, of course, in health pandemics nowadays -- they no longer stay in one location. If you look at the SARS crisis, SARS virus, it began in a small village in China, from China it went to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong it went almost immediately to Singapore and Toronto, to opposite sides of the world. That demonstrates how much the world has shrunk.

America escaped SARS by a whisker, but it's going to come, it's going to happen. What happens in the rest of the world is going to impact on American society. And because it is going to impact on American society, it is in America's enlightened, long-term self interest to go out and create a more stable world order, as it did in 1945, by the way, because a stable world order will not just protect global interests, it will also protect long-term American national interests.

Another place where your looking into the future may come true is with regard to the fall of the dollar, because by not being accountable globally, we're pointing the way to our vulnerability in the future.

Yes. the remarkable thing here is that this single global financial system that we have, which, as you know, enables money to flow instantly across the world, was essentially an American creation. As a result of this financial system that you have, the value of the dollar can no longer be determined by domestic decisions. It will be determined by global forces.

So far, fortunately, thanks to a large savings that Asian countries have -- as you know, they've been buying the U.S. Treasury bills at very low interest rates, and that has enabled America to continue with the huge deficits it's having. But at some point in time, if you don't balance your books, it catches up with you. No country can defy the laws of economic gravity. America, too, at some point, will have to find some way of cutting down its budget deficits. If it doesn't, then, sadly, America will feel the pain, and because America feels the pain, the rest of the world will feel America's pain too.

One final question -- let's combine your great store of wisdom coming from your diplomatic career with your new role as Dean of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, to ask you what advice would you give students as they prepare for the future?

The advice is actually very simple. The Asian Century is not a myth. The Asian Century is here and now. One of the most amazing statistics that I found recently is that if you look at the top ten countries sending students to America, they're primarily all Asian countries. If you look at the top ten countries that American students go to study abroad, they're all in Europe.

It seems very strange in the twenty-first century, when clearly, by the year 2025, in purchasing power parity terms, China will probably have the world's largest economy, America will have the second largest economy, India will have the third, Japan will have the fourth, and then you'll have South Korea, and so on and so forth. At a time when the Asian economies are growing and will have a larger share of the global economic pie, and the European share will remain the same, hopefully, why would you want to send your brightest minds -- we should certainly send some to Europe but don't you think there should be an equal number, or maybe a bigger number, that go and study in Asia too?

I have told my children, for example, that they have to study English and they should also know Mandarin, because that will be an important language of the twenty-first century, and also Hindi will be very important because of the rise of India. But statistically -- and I think I have the statistic in my book -- there are one million American students studying French and 40,000 studying Chinese. French is an important language, I don't deny it, but there should be at least some parity between Mandarin and French in the twenty-first century.

Dean Mahbubani, thank you very much for taking time to come and be with us today to share your intellectual odyssey, and finally, to share with us the friendly advice you have for America as it views the world. Thank you.

Thank you very much.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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