Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust between America and the World
By Kishore Mahbubani
First published in 2005
Kishore Mahbubani is a former Singapore ambassador to the United Nations who served as president of the UN Security Council in January 2001 and May 2002. He spent years in America and has an American-born wife.
He begins the first chapter of this book by saying, "America has done more good for the rest of the world than any other society." "It has made billions believe for the first time in generations that poverty may not be an eternal feature," he says — and speaks of "the enormous contribution America has made towards decolonisation".
He praises "the generosity of the American spirit" and recalls how, when he was a poor student, an American friend gave him $2,000 when he wished to visit the Himalayas.
But then comes the second chapter titled: How America Has Harmed The World. And he elaborates on that in the rest of the book.
America began to neglect its allies when their usefulness diminished at the end of the Cold War, he says, and points at Pakistan, Thailand and Indonesia. America in the 1990s rescued Mexico from economic collapse but did not help Thailand and Indonesia in the 1997 Asian economic crisis. When asked why, Lawrence Summers told an American journalist: "Mexico is on our border." Pakistan was similarly neglected until 9/11 when it became important again in the fight against terrorists.
American policies have contributed to world poverty, says Mahbubani. He writes about US government subsidies to American cotton farmers depressing world cotton prices, impoverishing West and Central Africa.
"America never intended to do any harm", he writes. Considerable pains were taken to minimise civilian casualties at the start of the Iraq war, he adds.
But he also notes the West has traditionally allied with oppressive regimes in the Middle East that exploited and suppressed their people. America launched Marshall Plans for Europe and Japan after World War II, why not for Africa and the Middle East, he asks. America has played into Osama bin Laden’s hands, he says, the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is merely increasing Islamic militancy.
America does not understand political or cultural diplomacy, he says, it sees every confrontation as a power struggle. Even where it has done most good, as in East Asia, which has benefited greatly from American protection and investments, he says, it has also threatened instability. America and China were on a collision course until 9/11 when America realised it needed Chinese help, he adds.
Mahbubani is a former diplomat, a scholar who is now Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore. He is an internationally respected authority. Samuel Huntington praised this book for its "absorbing, eloquent and insightful perspective…"
Mahbubani’s love for America shines through time and again till the very end of the book. "The world would be a much darker place if it were deprived of the American dream," he writes in the penultimate page.
Praise for China
But no less revealing is his attitude to China.
"Millions died" in China in the 1960s, he says. But he sees it as "great struggle … for (Chinese) society to free itself from feudalism." "By the time Mao’s rule ended, the pride and self-confidence of the peasant class had been uplifted," he adds.
He also defends the Chinese handling of the Tienanmen Square uprising though he calls it a "tragedy". He writes:
"Deng’s legacy will always be dogged by the Tienanmen tragedy. However, Chinese scholars will view this tragedy against the larger backdrop of Chinese history and understand why Deng had to retain firm political control. If Deng had lost his nerve in Tienanmen, China could have wasted decades trying to regain its sense of drive and purpose."
From his defence of the Cultural Revolution and the Tienanmen tragedy, it seems Mahbubani does not mind the occasional upheaval if it’s good for the country in the long run.