Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Benign Superpower?

Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union (USSR), political and military tensions in the world has been reduced significantly. There is now just one superpower - the United States of America. It is one power that is reluctant to make use of its military and political might to dominate other countries. Historically, it has never been a colonizing nation, except perhaps in the Philippines. The era of the Cold War is over, and a new World Order of a freer and more peaceful world is the dividend of the victory of capitalism over communism. Even China today is communist in name only. Many of its leaders have imbibed American ideals and scholarship through their years studying in the US and are adapting what they learnt in reshaping the Chinese nation and economy. By all measures, they are succeeding.

Unfortunately, while the part about the Cold War's demise, communism and China are true today, the sanguine vision of the New World Order has not panned out the way the sole superpower first envisioned or the world hoped for. Chief among the events that changed this is the 9/11 incident. Today, America is more guarded (fortress comes to mine when I look at the US Embassy in Singapore) and it has sent its troops to invade other countries (Iraq and Afghanistan), although not for reasons of domination but liberation. A new enemy in place of communism has arisen, that of terrorism, which is led by extreme elements of one of the greatest religions today - Islam.

How did these develop? Why did 9/11 happen? Why did Europe (except Great Britain) disagree so much with the US over the Iraq invasion? Why are many terrorists typically of Pakistan, Malaysian, Indonesia and Arabic descent? What is wrong with American leaderhip today?

In his book, "Beyond the Age of Innocence", Mr Kishore Mahbubani attempts to address these and other issues that have become the staple of world affairs in the last 15 years, but mainly occurring in the last 5 years. Mr Mahbubani is well positioned to discuss these issues. He was Singapore's Ambassador to the U.N. for 2 terms and is now the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Of Pakistani descent, he grew up in Singapore but has spent many years in the US. Thus he has first hand experience and encounters with the many topics that he seeks to address in this book. As a fellow Singaporean, I can appreciate some of the arguments that Mr Mahbubani advances, and the position he is coming from. Some have argued that he is not stating anything new, and that may very well be true. But I think this book has succeeded in bringing together many strands of the underlying issues and forces that has shaped the world today.

One may disagree with him on his wide ranging analyses and propositions, but one cannot fault his earnestness in trying to help a friend (the US) to see the world through an outsider's eyes and thereby convince them to be more circumspect in matters of foreign policy, economic policy and social policy decision-making. He makes the point time and again that the world is a global village where decisions by the US often affects, for better or worse, the livelihood of peoples half a world away. Being a sole superpower is a heavy burden, not least of which many of the world's ills can be traced back to the innocuous decisions made by that superpower. Mr Mahbubani argues that leadership of the highest caliber is expected of America, that it comes with being a superpower, but more so because it comes from a nation that historically, has crafted policy and acted in a benign fashion - a nation that has no stomach for colonizing and domination of other peoples and nations. (Exceptions can be identified though, as Mr M also points out in this book).

This is an absorbing book and the reader will come away enlightened on many of the underlying issues, causes and effects of what is happening in the world today. The time spent on the book is well worth it, whether, at the end, you agree with him or not.

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