Kishore Mahbubani’s bittersweet assessment of the recent shortcomings of U.S. foreign policy will more than likely fall upon deaf ears. The dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, Mahbubani explains how American leaders have alienated governments around the world, a fact that has become glaringly obvious in recent months.
Unfortunately, as the gap between the United States and the rest of the world has widened, the country’s populace has not been fully informed on what has happened, nor do they realize the seriousness of the situation.
Beyond the Age of Innocence considers what went wrong and how the damage can be repaired. Mahbubani first lauds the United States for refusing in the past to make the mistakes of other nations who were bent on colonial expansion. He explains how, since the end of the Second World War, America has accrued a reservoir of international good will.
More to the point, though, is the poignant description of the change in U.S. foreign policy that came at the end of the cold war. In the author’s opinion, this was the point when a leak appeared in that reservoir that began to drain it of the good will that had been built up for so many years.
Few Americans fully realize or understand how dominant their country is in the world. This is one of the main sources of global misunderstanding. According to Mahbubani, the United States has done more than any other country to change the world; yet paradoxically, America is one of the countries least prepared to handle the world it has changed.
Although its military muscle has always been present, America has usually been a benign power. It has conquered the world with its ideas, values and management systems. America’s technology has fueled the most explosive economic growth ever seen and globalization on a scale unimagined at the end of World War II.
Mahbubani believes the catastrophic terrorist attack in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, was, in part, an unintended consequence of a shrinking globe. It was also the indirect result of America’s retreat and disengagement from the world and many of the burdensome commitments it made during the Cold War.
After weighing the benefits of American influence in the past and pointing out that the debit side of the ledger is now more pronounced, the book’s focus narrows to America’s relationship with the Islamic world and China.
One may question the validity of some items on the author’s list of five strategic mistakes that purportedly created a division with Islamic nations. The author’s contention that a concerted effort to keep these states mired in poverty and backwardness and purposely not to share successful policies of modernization is certainly open to argument. But other errors, such as the failure to encourage the success of Muslim moderates and to promote the spread of modern secular education in Islamic societies, have come back to haunt the West.
Looking at our relationship with China, Mahbubani suggests it is time to revisit the ideological assumptions that have been used by American foreign policy makers to understand the rest of the world. The twenty-first century will be immensely different from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Americans are only disadvantaging themselves if they believe that the ideological perspectives of the past two centuries, even those that have served them well over these past two centuries, are sufficient to help them understand the different world of the twenty-first century, he writes.
Having defended his position that the steady-as-it-goes approach to American foreign policy is not an option, Mahbubani concludes the book with suggestions for creating global stability. If this can be accomplished, the nearly empty good will reservoir can be repaired and refilled.
The first of the strategic decisions the United States has to make is to recognize that a stable world order is in the country’s best interests. This means not paying mere lip service to this belief but actually doing whatever is necessary to achieve this.
Along with this, Mahbubani feels there must be a heightened awareness that before major government decisions are made, the international impact of these intended policies should be carefully weighed. A U.S. farm subsidy, for instance, can have a profound effect on a country on the other side of the globe.
Another recommendation calls for lessening the use of American clout to influence the adoption by international organizations of policies that primarily serve short-term American interests. The author cites as an example the manipulation of decisions by the International Monetary Fund affecting East Asia.
Even if one disagrees with the author’s conclusion that global perception of American irresponsibility is likely to grow in the coming decades, or even if such a perception currently exists, Mahbubani’s opinions should not be summarily dismissed. As a pro-American, perceptive diplomat, who served two terms as Singapore’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Kishore Mahbubani is someone Americans should listen to.
As he explains, This book will provide a few illustrations of how the same global events can be viewed so differently in different corners of the globe. If nothing else, heightening the awareness of this fact can go a long way in explaining headlines that allude to strained relations with Canada and testy exchanges between U.S. and Russian leaders.