The significant difference between the 21st century and the preceding centuries is that there will be three centers of world power (Europe, North America, and East Asia) as opposed to two in the twentieth (Europe and North America) and one before that (Europe). For centuries Europe set the course of world history: it colonized distant parts of the world, it shook up other empires and societies (including China, India, Japan, and Islam), and its people occupied relatively empty places (North America and Australasia). In the twentieth century the two World Wars and the succeeding Cold War were essentially European struggles. East Asia, by contrast, had little impact on the rest of the world.

The world is greatly indebted to Europe. The huge creative burst there over the past five centuries has carried mankind to where it is today. Conceivably (judging from the progress made between the tenth and fifteenth centuries), we could still be only a few steps away from the Dark Ages. Europe has carried the world on its shoulders.

Now East Asia has arrived on the world stage. Its sheer economic weight will give it a voice and a role. As recently as 1960, Japan and East Asia together accounted for 4 percent of world GNP, while the United States, Canada, and Mexico represented 37 percent. Today both groups have about the same hare of the world's GNP (some 24 percent each), but, with more than half the world's economic growth taking place in Asia in the 1990s, the economies of North America and Europe will progressively become relatively smaller.

Western thinkers are having considerable difficulty finding the right paradigm to describe a world where non-Western powers are emerging. Their natural impulse is to assume that, as they succeed, these powers will become more like Western societies (an assumption implicit in the "end of history" thesis) or that there will be a "clash of civilizations." Neither is likely. The difficulty that Western minds face in grasping the arrival of East Asia arises from the fact that we are witnessing an unprecedented historical phenomenon: a fusion of Western and East Asian cultures in the Asia-Pacific region. It is this fusion, not a renaissance of ancient Asian glories, that explains the explosive growth of the Pacific and provides the possibility of continued peace and prosperity in the region.


Most strategic analysts assume that Europe's experience provides the only good basis from which to extrapolate East Asia's future. Consequently, conventional wisdom on East Asia's prospects carries more pessimism than optimism. Richard K. Betts says that "one of the reasons for optimism about peace in Europe is the apparent satisfaction of the great powers with the status quo," while in East Asia there is "an ample pool of festering grievances, with more potential for generating conflict than during the Cold War, when bipolarity helped stifle the escalation of parochial disputes." [1] Aaron L. Friedberg says, "While civil war and ethnic strife will continue for some time to smoulder along Europe's peripheries, in the long run it is Asia that seems far more likely to be the cockpit of great power conflict. The half millennium during which Europe was the world's primary generator of war (as well as wealth and knowledge) is coming to a close. But, for better or for worse, Europe's past could be Asia's future." [2]

Many Asians fear that such passages are not merely analytical predictions, but indicate the wish of status quo powers that East Asia not surpass them. This tendency to extrapolate the future of East Asia and the Pacific from the past of Europe reveals an intellectual blindness: the inability to see that non-Europeans may have reached a stage of development where they can progress without having to repeat Europe's mistakes.

It cannot be an accident that the Pacific region, which has experienced some of the greatest wars of the twentieth century, is now the most peaceful. Deeper forces must be at work. The most important is the growing realization of East Asians that their moment in history has come; they can finally join the league of developed societies. They also know that, having missed this boat before, they could well do so again if they get entangled in war or conflict.


It is difficult for a European or North American to understand the momentousness of the psychological revolution in East Asia because they cannot step into East Asian minds. Their minds have never been wrapped in colonialism. They have never struggled with the subconscious assumption that perhaps they were second-rate human beings, never good enough to be number one. The growing realization of East Asians that they can do anything as well as, if not better than, other cultures has led to an explosion of confidence.

This confidence is bolstered by their awareness that the time needed to catch up with the developed world is getting shorter. The period that nations require to double economic output per person is shortening: Britain took 58 years (from 1780), the United States 47 years (from 1839), Japan 33 years (from the 1880s), Indonesia 17 years, South Korea 11 years, and China 10 years. The reasons are complex but include the faster spread of technology, ideas, techniques, and capital across borders.

East Asians are also increasingly aware that, in contrast to many European nations, they are getting their fundamentals right. Many European thinkers celebrate the implantation of democracy in their societies as an unmitigated good, especially since it prevents wars. But democracies can be resistant to change and, as demonstrated by Russia, even prevent rapid economic development. Europe's heavy welfare burden cannot be shed easily, especially since it is often passed to future generations. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office recently forecast that for an American infant born in 1994, the tax requirement needed to pay for existing programs will be 82 percent of his lifetime earnings. William Rees-Mogg notes that "this figure is obviously unsupportable," but adds that "government spending in Europe is actually higher than it is in the U.S." [3] The inability of democratic systems to shed welfare burdens suggests that in future economic competition, Western Europe and North America will be hobbled by this competitive disadvantage.

If East Asia's great economic success had occurred in the nineteenth century, there would have been a natural impulse to see it, as Japan did, in terms of acceptability in the then-premier Club of Europe. Today East Asians have moved away from that assumption. They realize that it will be a struggle to work out social, political, and philosophical norms that best capture their peoples' aspirations. It will not be easy to develop new concepts in sensitive areas like democracy, human rights, and freedom of the press. But to continue to progress, East Asia will have to do so. The stupidest thing that any East Asian society could do is to turn away from these overwhelming challenges and engage in military rivalries: to snatch failure one more time from the jaws of victory.


Conventional strategic thinkers are likely to be unmoved by the great human drama unfolding in East Asia. They focus either on ancient and smoldering rivalries or arms races in the Asia-Pacific region.

Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal recently said that "Asia is in danger of heading back to the future," one fraught with tension and conflict. They add that "Europe, in particular, and the West, in general, constitute advanced and richly developed international societies. What is distinctive about Asia is its combination of several industrialized societies with a regional international society so impoverished in its development that it compares poorly with even Africa and the Middle East." [4]

There is a kernel of truth in this portrayal. No West European country faces the imminent prospect of a border war. By contrast, the prospect of war remains alive in East Asia. But when a broader perspective is taken, a different picture emerges. The guns are virtually silent in the Asia-Pacific region, while Europe as a continent is surrounded by a "ring of fire" stretching from North Africa to the Caucasus. From the conflict in Georgia to the explosions waiting to burst in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania, more lives are lost daily on the periphery of Europe than in the entire Asia-Pacific region, which has a much larger population.

The contrast between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region is not an accident of history: it is a product of three mistakes made by Europe. The first is Europe's assumption that it can secure peace by concentrating on internal unification while detaching itself from its periphery. Yet all the efforts to either deepen unification via the Maastricht treaty or widen it by including similar European countries are tantamount to rearranging the living-room furniture while floodwaters are seeping in from the rising tides just outside the door. It is puzzling that Europe is trying to cut off its neighbors, excluding them from growth and prosperity. By contrast, the impulse in East Asia is to draw societies into the region's dynamism, starting with Myanmar and Vietnam and eventually including even North Korea.

The second European assumption is that others will model themselves after Europe, that the natural progression of history will lead to all societies becoming liberal, democratic, and capitalist. This assumption creates an inability to accept that other cultures or social forms may have equal validity. An essay in The Economist, "Islam and the West," for instance, assumes that for Islamic societies to progress, they must become more Western. [5] Not once does it suggest that the West may have something to learn from Islam. In contrast, although both the world's most populous Islamic state (Indonesia) and its most economically successful (Malaysia) are in the Asia-Pacific region, no one there suggests that they should be remade into some other model. A belief in the universality of one's ideas can lead to an inability to accept the principle of diversity. The Asia-Pacific region is used to diversity; Europe is not.

A third flaw is Europe's effort to lock in its relatively high living standards by raising clever new barriers to free trade and sustaining high subsidies. Here the contrast between American and European strategies is striking. The United States has taken the bold step of crossing a cultural and socioeconomic divide by entering into a free trade agreement with Mexico. The only permanent solution to the inevitable long-term problem of illegal immigration is for Europe to do the same. [6]

In pursuing such flawed approaches, Europe may be accentuating the contrast between the continent and its neighborhood, thus developing potentially destabilizing geopolitical fault lines. By contrast, the geopolitical fault lines in the Asia-Pacific region are gradually being stabilized.


Those who live and travel in the Asia-Pacific region can feel that they are moving into a new epoch in which the incomes of most will double or treble in their lifetimes. They can fly from Hong Kong to Vancouver, from Seoul to Los Angeles, from Tokyo to Hawaii, or from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney and yet not feel that they have crossed a cultural divide. They feel at home in most corners of the Pacific. A sense of community is emerging. But to many it seems like an apparition. Robert A. Manning and Paula Stern capture this skepticism: "Yet even now, as the Asia-Pacific's regional institutions are in embryonic form, a host of economic, political, military, and psychological trends suggests that the cherished aspiration -- common psychology of belonging, reflecting shared interests, responsibilities, values and mutual respect -- may prove to be a chimera." [7]

It is perfectly understandable for Manning and Stern to experience difficulty nailing down the sense of community in the Pacific. There is still a long way to go before it is fully realized. Nothing like it has been experienced before. The Pacific community will be a completely new creation. It will not be an Asian community, nor will it be an American community. If the Pacific has emerged as the most dynamic region of the world, it is because it has drawn on the best practices and values from many rich civilizations, Asian and Western. If this fusion continues to work, there could be explosive creativity on a scale never before seen.

Some explosions have already occurred. Japan provides the best example. Culturally, it remains quintessentially Japanese, but its civil administration (with arguably the most powerful Westernized bureaucracy in the world), business, science, and technology are among the best. It has modernized and is no longer a feudal society. Several key imperial ceremonies are conducted in European coattails. But there is no doubt that the Japanese remain Japanese. Their homes are Japanese. Their souls are Japanese. Although many Japanese teenagers look like their European or American counterparts, their value systems, though changing, remain fundamentally Japanese. They bow deeply and behave reverentially toward their elders. There is relatively little juvenile delinquency or crime. The glue that holds Asian societies and families together has not been weakened by modernization.

To many, this is an economic and industrial miracle. But this success is due neither to Japanese culture nor Western methods; it is the result of the combination of both. In the long run, American society will do as well as Japan when it undergoes a similar osmosis, absorbing the best of Asian civilization.

The real success of the Pacific community will come when the learning process in the Pacific becomes a two-way street rather than a one-way street. It took a long time for China and other East Asian societies to accept the commonsensical advice of Yukichi Fukuzawa, the Meiji-era reformer: to progress, learn from the West. Many American intellectuals still believe that all the deep wells of learning are in Europe. Those who travel across the Pacific come to learn about, but not from, East Asia. There is a profound difference between these two approaches. In the past few years, many Americans have been disconcerted by lectures from East Asians, as have many East Asians by American preachings on democracy and human rights. It will take time for both sides to learn to listen to each other.

Learning requires humility. Fortunately, Americans are an open-hearted and compassionate people. They carry no hubris from history, as Europeans do. This explains why the United States has been the most benevolent great power in history. Any European nation with such power would have used it to advance its national interests. America pushed an idea, and it has contributed in a sterling fashion to uplifting East Asian society. East Asia could not be where it is today if not for the generosity of the American spirit. The bright young East Asian minds driving the region's economic effervescence come increasingly from American universities. They will be the human bridges between East and West in the Pacific. There are now hundreds of thousands of them scattered all over the Asia-Pacific region, creating and strengthening the networks that are driving the region's prosperity.

History teaches us that trade and investment bring not just money and goods, but also ideas. The explosion of two-way trade and investment cannot leave the two cultural universes across the Pacific intact. Over time a fusion will take place. When such fusion is perceived by the American body politic as positive and reinvigorating, it will strengthen America's commitment to the region's security. Good economics leads to good security, especially when all the major powers perceive that they have a common vested interest in the rising economic tide.


It would be foolish to deny that the region faces serious problems: the North Korean nuclear crisis, the Cambodian conflict, the China-Taiwan tension, the disputes over the Spratly Islands, and, in the long run, the triangular balance of power between the United States, China, and Japan. These are difficult issues that are not likely to be settled quickly. If the powerful combination of NATO, the European Union (EU), and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) has been unable to resolve the problems of Algeria or Bosnia, relatively new institutions like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Regional Forum (ARF) are clearly not able to solve any major conflict that may surface.

Fortunately, the threat of conflict in the Asia-Pacific region is receding. The North Korean nuclear crisis has been defused for now. Longer term, it is inevitable that the region will draw North Korea away from its Stalinist isolation to become more like China or Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge have not disappeared, but they stand out more and more like debris left behind on a beach by the ebbing tide. Their moment has come and gone.

The discomfort between China and Taiwan has risen in the past few months. The potential for misunderstanding is always there. But this has to be balanced against the dramatic growth of trade, investment, and human contact across the Taiwan Straits. The chemistry of the China-Taiwan relationship has changed irrevocably. Similarly, while the territorial issues in the Spratly Islands will not be resolved easily, there is virtually no danger of a military conflict there.

In short, the trend on each particular Asia-Pacific problem demonstrates that a larger dynamic is working to defuse and dissolve tensions. Two sets of examples demonstrate how much has changed in the Asia-Pacific region. Five years ago, neither Algeria nor Bosnia were in the news. Myanmar and Cambodia were then perceived to be insoluble. Today the reverse is true. Surely some of the explanation for this must be the different regional dynamics. That a country as large and distant as India has finally become excited about joining the Pacific community, shaking a deep-seated historical tendency to look west rather than east, suggests that the Pacific region is experiencing a new historical phenomenon.

A different dynamic is evolving in the Atlantic and the Pacific regions. The Atlantic believes in building strong institutions: NATO, the EU, and the CSCE. Together they ensure that none of their members is threatened by a military invasion. But in an era when such outright military invasions are inconceivable outside the usual tinderbox regions of the world (the Middle East and South Asia), these powerful institutions seem powerless to either defend their members from nontraditional sources of insecurity, such as rising immigration or terrorism, or snuff out nearby conflicts, such as those in Algeria or Bosnia.

The Pacific has no comparable institutions. Instead, it is creating networks that are inclusive rather than exclusive. And contrary to the conventional wisdom in many European textbooks on international relations, the formation of these networks is driven not by the major powers but by medium-sized or small powers. None of the recent regional initiatives were either conceived or developed in major capitals. Indeed the leadership has come from the smaller or medium powers. APEC was conceived and driven by Australia and ARF by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In both cases, their corporate cultures are very different from those of their Atlantic equivalents.

APEC and ARF are likely to experience difficulties as they grow. In both there is tension between the institution-building impulses of the Anglo-Saxon participants and the consensus-building impulses of the Asian participants. But those who assume that East-West differences will be the main divide may be in for a surprise. Indonesia has joined Australia and Singapore in pushing for faster progress in APEC. Japan, China, and Malaysia want to hold back. But in ARF, Japan joins the United States in pushing for a faster pace of evolution. In APEC and ARF, the interest of all participants in sustaining economic dynamism, peace, and stability leads to a pragmatic spirit of accommodation and consensus. The corporate cultures evolving in both trade groups are neither exclusively Western nor Asian. A unique blend is emerging.


The road ahead may not be smooth. No historical road has ever been. There will be many a stumble before the Pacific community is perceived to have arrived, and each stumble will bring out a chorus of skeptics. But the long-term direction has been set. Across the Pacific, the traffic on trade, investment, information, aviation, cultural, and educational highways is increasing by leaps and bounds. The growing interest in sustaining this economic boom is sweeping aside intractable problems like China's most-favored-nation status, and it is forcing Beijing and Washington to behave rationally toward each other.

So far, it is mainly East Asians that are experiencing the fruits of the cultural fusion of East and West, while North Americans and Australians are being drawn to the region by sheer economic logic. But the explosion of contacts must eventually lead to a two-way process of cultural osmosis. That day is coming. An even more intriguing prospect is the possibility of Europe and East Asia coming together in a new spirit. It is conceivable that the three new centers of global power -- Europe, North America, and East Asia -- will come together in cooperative arrangements in the 21st century. But each will have to make significant adjustments to get there.


[1] "Wealth, Power and Instability," International Security, Winter 1993/94, p. 64.

[2] "Ripe for Rivalry," International Security, Winter 1993/94, p. 7.

[3] "Money Moves East, as Welfare Goes West," The Straits Times (Singapore), July 9, 1994, p. 35.

[4] "Rethinking East Asian Security," The IISS Quarterly, Summer 1994, p. 15.

[5] The Economist, Aug. 6, 1994.

[6] On October 19, 1994, the European Commission proposed an economic and security pact with countries of the Middle East and North Africa to stem the threat of political instability and mass migration. This ambitious strategy would face hurdles as lofty as its intentions.

[7] "The Myth of the Pacific Community," Foreign Affairs, November/December 1994, p. 80.

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  • Kishore Mahbubani is Permanent Secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Dean of the Civil Service College. These are his personal views.
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