New chapter emerging as East meets West again

And so we have come to the end of the End of History.  

Remember Francis Fukuyama? He was the American professor who declared in a book of that title, The End of History and the Last Man, that the ferocious competition of political "isms"—capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism—which so plagued the world and ravaged societies for much of the 20th century was over, with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

Liberal democracy had triumphed. Mankind had reached the final stage of socio-political evolution, with political and economic liberalism as the ultimate system for governing modern societies. That triumphalist view, however, is now dead. Globalisation is in retreat. Nationalism, populism, nativism, and religious fundamentalism are on the march.  

Indeed, Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar recently cited a study by the Swiss Economic Institute that showed "globalisation peaked and began plateauing several years before the current trade wars began." It also stated: "The current headwinds to it—from lower cross-border capital spending to the localisation of supply chains due to populism, tariffs and the push for national champions—are not going away anytime soon."

Significantly, as the New York Times reported last week, Chinese investment in the US has plummeted nearly 90 percent since President Donald Trump took office. The fall, it said, reflected a growing distrust and how "world's two largest economies are beginning to decouple after years of increasing integration."  

The implications of all of this are enormous and ominous. A world split into halves, with technology and trade, people and ideas, unable to flow freely, will not only be the poorer for it, but also more fractious and less stable. The youth of today will have to brace themselves for a very different geopolitical reality.

This grim backdrop set the stage for a public forum I chaired last Wednesday, titled "Wisdom of the East and West: A global future". Singapore's former Foreign Minister George Yeo, citing a line from British poet Rudyard Kipling, noted that while East will be east and West will be west, "the twain is now meeting again, and creating a new chapter in history."  

Turning to China, he said he did not believe that it wished to be like the West, especially the United States, exporting its values and political system everywhere. China was one of the most homogeneous societies in history, and wished to keep it that way. It, therefore, feared contact with foreigners, as "the outside world can cause them to lose control." So while it was ready to associate with them as outsiders, this has long been done through "portals and outposts", with outsiders never quite accepted as "one of us".

In contrast, he cited the example of how, as an alumnus of Harvard University, he was entitled to vote, or even stand for election, for key positions to help shape its future. It was inconceivable, he said, that universities in Beijing—or even Singapore, for that matter—would allow foreigners to play such a role. Similarly, he doubted that China's capital markets would ever be opened fully to the world, for fear of losing internal control.  

These contrasting world views between East and West reflected their differing cultures and past experiences, which were never going to converge around a simplistic end of history norm.

Joining in this discussion, Harvard Professor of Chinese History Michael Puett said that the grandiose talk of a "globalised" world reflected the hubris of his generation, which had concluded that the end of the Cold War was not just a significant political moment, but rather marked the end of history—or contest of political ideas—for all time. This view, he lamented, was "horribly ethnocentric". For it assumed that the political values and systems prevailing in the US, which had emerged then as the dominant hyper power, was the perfect way to organise societies across the globe.

The new "global" world would be one connected by technology, from the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook, and underpinned by the neo-liberal belief in the free flow of goods, information, people and ideas.  

This gave rise to a "dangerous complacency" among thinkers and leaders of his generation, he said. It caused them to shun "big ideas" and debates, since they assumed these were unnecessary as, after all, history had ended. They could leave it to free markets and democracies to throw up solutions to social and economic problems, if indeed they could be addressed. Some were just inevitable side-effects that had to be accepted, or managed.

The upshot of this was that major global challenges went unheeded, from rising economic inequality to global warming. The result, he said, was predictable: a populist backlash to stagnating incomes and widening economic disparities at home, and challenges from countries abroad which did not feel their interests or cultures were reflected in the so-called globalised order.   

He posed this challenge to the youth in the audience: Build a better, more cosmopolitan global future, drawing on the rich diversity of ideas and wisdoms from East and West. To do so, they would have to grapple with the big questions of their time, and they had to do so urgently, given the many pressing challenges now looming.

The big ideas in these two speeches sparked some big questions in my mind. So, as moderator, I posed them: how might the conflicting world views be prevented from degenerating into a "clash of civilisations", as another Harvard man, Prof Samuel Huntington, had famously warned about? Worse, are these two powers "destined for war", as the title of the best-selling book by Harvard Professor Graham Allison has stated darkly? In it, he argued that, a rising power such as China inevitably stokes anxiety in an incumbent one, like the US, thereby making a conflict likely.

Yet, to be fair, I pointed out that when I had met Prof Allison in Harvard in March, he was at pains to say that his book was by no means predicting a war to come. Rather, he was seeking ways to avert a conflict by preventing a historical pattern repeating itself, he said. As an alternative way forward, he pointed to the Chanyuan Treaty of 1005, when China's Song dynasty leaders made a pact with their neighbours, the Liao tribe, pledging to be "rivalry partners". Or, in today's parlance, "frenemies".  

Both Mr Yeo and Prof Puett said they shared this view, and suggested that the US and China should find ways to work together, and by doing so, build relations and trust. As an example, Mr Yeo noted how China had congratulated India on the successful launch of the Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon last week, adding that it was ready to work with New Delhi to explore outer space.

Other countries should give such collaborations a nudge, by stepping up to also contribute in whatever ways they could, he said.  

Indeed, I would go further to argue that with the world marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969, rather than countries rushing to outdo each other to return to the moon, a joint "moonshot" mission into space would represent a much greater "giant leap for mankind". Besides, as Prof Puett went on to add, there is no shortage of challenges that China and the US, could—and should—work on together, not least the clear and present danger posed by climate change, now wreaking havoc around the world.

"There must be a humility to see in the other person an identity with as old a history as my own, which has its good points and its own wisdom, and from which I can learn. Then, we will have a better world," said Mr Yeo.


Warren Fernandez is Editor-in-Chief, The Straits Times, Singapore.


This article is part of a new series of the Asian Editors Circle, a weekly commentary by editors from the Asia News Network (ANN), which will be published by members of the regional media group. The ANN is an alliance of 24 news media titles across the region.


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