East, West and the middle path

Print edition : November 15, 2013

High-speed trains of China Railways parked at Hongqiao railway station in Shanghai, a February 2013 photograph. The world has moved from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana and now to Pax China. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

A compelling volume that provides both theoretical and realistic solutions to the contemporary challenges before good governance.

IT must be clear to the public by now that Western-style democracy has failed. Long-term sustainability in a complex world needs a governing system that recognises diversity through the interchange or the participatory process of a multipolar world. What is urgently needed for the common good is to ensure that nations recognise the fundamentals of balancing the impact of a range of institutions with smart governing capacity.

The easiest thing to do is to censure the West for all the ills, but in a multipolar world “it’s not you or me; it’s our future that is at stake, it’s the future of the planet that we inhabit that is endangered and we owe it to leave it at least the same, if not better for the future generations, the possibility of which lies in taking diverse viewpoints into consideration in what Thomas Friedman calls ‘a flat world’, increasingly smaller and interdependent where thoughts, policies and laws across the global stage have to be respected and imbibed collaboratively if they could be made to work for us”.

Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way between East and West by Nicolas Berggruen, president and chairman of the Berggruen Institute on Governance, and Nathan Gardels, its senior adviser, makes out a case for “intelligent governance”, an imperative for the present age where no nation can do without interdependence. A world that recognises plural identities cannot hope to survive and flourish without this approach of amalgamating the new possibilities of the information age with the Asian practice of meritocracy and the democratic accountability of the West. Thus it is time to re-examine the case of liberal democracy being the ideal system, as held by the West, and reinvent it keeping in view the rise of Eastern economic powers, especially China. It is clear that the West is now steeped not in an “industrial democracy” but in a “consumer democracy” that has ushered in a global era of economic free fall where the current crisis offers a vantage point to question the politics of free-market fundamentalism, the ascendency of economics over democracy and politics, and the subordination of justice to the laws of finance and the accumulation of capital. More than the common good, the West seems to be engulfed by commercialisation, commodification and consumption underpinned by instant gratification. Western capitalism has therefore demolished the very idea of democracy, replacing it with a rule of the elites. For instance, the growth of capitalism in the United States, especially since the 1970s, has resulted in a serious crisis of economic inequality and a political system that is inherently plutocratic. To change this requires a reinvention of capitalism with the examination of Eastern models and their bearing on the West. The East and the West must finally meet, disproving the age-old saying that the “twain shall never meet”.

The groundbreaking ideas in this thesis suggest new and positive foundations for a more legitimate democracy and sustainable and impartial development, ideas that have the potential for implementation and change. Indeed, such a projection is a valuable contribution in a world that needs new forms of values and strategies to confront the numerous problems that the 21st century faces. The way to a viable solution cannot simply be a modified free-market capitalism and a downright impoverished consumer society. In view of the pain and suffering in the world, it is of great consequence to ask what kind of system we want for the future where some measure of justice, integrity, compassion, and wisdom, among other values, become crucial to the interest and health of democratic institutions which address the basic rights of civic participation and public dissent and the fostering of egalitarian institutions. A society that defines social relations through the market traits of consuming, selling and branding will collapse sooner or later. Indeed, the present generation lives “in ‘a Diet Coke culture’ that, just as it promises sweetness without calories, expects rights without duties, consumption without savings and government without taxes”. A steady decline is inevitable if the West does not evolve new mechanisms for governance to see it through this period of decline.

One possibility suggested by the authors is to turn to the neo-Confucian model in China which is moving the country’s economy at breakneck speed with millions coming out of poverty and moving into the promised prosperity offered by an urban world of megacities with better roads and fast-moving trains that not only outrun the technological advancements of the West but have advanced the stature of China above that of the U.S. as the largest creditor in the world. The world has moved from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana and now to Pax China.

Clearly, the Eastern experience is different. Unlike the Hegelian philosophy of irreconcilable contradictions which led Western economist philosophers like Francis Fukuyama to conclude that history had come to an end with the triumph of Western liberal democracy, the East believes in history being cyclical which moves on endlessly “as the relationships between freedom and authority, or the individual and the community find new equilibrium”. Here the emphasis is on the complementary aspects of a whole or the coexistence of the incommensurate.

Nevertheless, here too in the Eastern model the problems of a serious nature are not absent, especially the rise of the middle class that would increasingly demand more and more accountability, justice, equality and the rule of law, particularly in the deeply ingrained authoritarian structures. Keeping in view the drawbacks in both the Hegelian and the Confucian models, the authors suggest “the middle path”: “Following the pragmatic, non-ideological Eastern approach, our concern is what we can learn from each other.”

The question is not whether one is superior to the other but “what balanced combination of meritocracy and democracy, of authority and freedom, of community and the individual, can create the healthiest body politic and the most intelligent form of governance for the 21st century”.

The question really is how the West and the East adapt to each other in a world which is no longer unipolar and in which we are faced with multiculturalism and diversity, within shifting political and cultural contexts. While China must “lighten up”, the authors argue, the U.S. must “tighten up”. And the lesson could be learnt from the way that Singapore has emerged over the last few decades.

This brilliantly compelling and timely volume provides both theoretical and realistic solutions to the challenges before good governance at a juncture when we grapple with unbridled market forces, escalating poverty, bloodshed and widespread alienation, and dysfunctional democracies. The need, according to Berggruen and Gardels, is the blending of accountability with expertise, inclusiveness and meritocracy, by bringing together American practicality and Eastern non-ideological, traditional approach. Such long-term perspective on governance is the very model that the authors endeavour to implement across the world.

Indeed, the book, through its invaluable insights, projects the problems of the future and the urgency of confronting them headlong by taking a more considered global view where the East-West binaries no longer work and the Chinese experience becomes all the more relevant to the multiplying challenges of contemporary global politics.

The question to ask finally is, in the words of George Yeo, former Foreign Minister of Singapore: “The rise of the West once led to the subjugation of the East. Will the rise of the East lead inevitably to another cycle of war and revolution in the world? Or will we, finally, have the wisdom to break that cycle? This moral challenge confronts each of us as political citizens of the communities we live in and of the planet we share.” When the confidence in the success of liberal democracies has crumbled, the sustained onward march of non-Western modernity compels us to put into effect now a broader view of the problems we face and the strategies we can evolve by stepping beyond the narrow confines of national ideologies and received economic assumptions, realising that the human element is indispensable to any meaningful progress.

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