The most developed expression of the East Asian critique with which I’m familiar can be found in the Spring 1994 issue of The Washington Quarterly, in a lengthy essay by Kishore Mahbubani entitled “The United States: ‘Go East, Young Man.’” Several years ago, TWQ editor Brad Roberts launched a regular section in his journal entitled “Provocations,” and it is under that rubric, appropriately enough, that Ambassador Mahbubani’s article appeared.
Kishore Mahbubani takes considerable pains to impress upon his readers the fact that he is no visceral anti-American. He begins his essay by acknowledging that, for the past century or more, the “passage of ideas across the Pacific” has been almost entirely one way, in that “poverty-stricken and backward Asian societies have looked to the United States for ideas and for leadership.” Noting, graciously, that the “American presence has been immensely civilizing” for East Asia “in more ways than one,” the Singaporean diplomat also frankly acknowledges the obvious: that an American security presence (of considerable cost to the American people) has been essential in providing the international stability within which the new East Asian “tigers” have achieved their impressive rates of economic development. Given the fissiparous tendencies within the region (and, although he doesn’t say it, the dangers posed to smaller states by such giants as China and Japan), Mahbubani is in no hurry to see Uncle Sam leave the area to its own geopolitical devices. No East Asian society (“perhaps not even North Korea”) is eager for a collapse of American power and influence in world affairs, he says.
But having said and presumably meant all this, Kishore Mahbubani then proceeds to hit the jackass over the head with a two-by-four, so to speak. For in his judgment, a “major reversal” of a “pattern lasting centuries” has taken place: “many western societies—including the United States—are doing some major things fundamentally wrong while a growing number of East Asian societies are doing the same things right.” And what are these “major things”? They involve nothing less than the West’s “fundamental assumptions about its social and political arrangements,” and the “social and political choices” Western societies have made over the past several generations.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.