Can Asia lead the world? Only when it has a winning story to tell

Danny Quah says global leadership will come when the region has amassed enough soft power to weave an Asian narrative that commands respect

Can Asia lead the world? Some Asian writers have begun to argue that the time has come for Asia to champion the liberal world order that allowed it to develop and prosper. But how?

To begin, Asia can simply support that order and talk it up. But Asia already does that, and powerfully. Asia provides proof of concept by showing how economic success comes with being part of that liberal world order.

But more, Asia can champion the liberal world order by rising to lead it. Leadership does not mean brandishing more guns and bombs, wielding greater economic and financial firepower, or having a bigger geographical and population footprint. If that were what it takes, world order would be liberal only as farce, and already damaged beyond repair.

Notwithstanding the last 50 years of US-centred unipolarity, in a liberal world order, leadership does not, by logic or necessity, come with being the dominant power. Instead, leadership just means calling the meeting, lighting signposts in a complex uncertain world, being the adult in the room. This view of leadership does not deny collaboration. It simply says someone needs to make the first move.

For Asia to succeed at this, it must do two things: first, it must continue its trajectory of economic success; no one listens to failure.

Second, Asia needs a story.

There was a time when America had a story. Lee Kuan Yew once told Joseph Nye that on the grand chessboard of world order, America would always be ahead of China. This was because, while China might boast a population of 1.3 billion people, America could draw on the talents and goodwill of the more than seven billion of all humanity.

In that account, Lee reckoned America had a good story but China did not.

Does Asia?

President Donald Trump could well be steering the US towards protectionism but, still, many observers will ask if Asia’s values are genuinely compatible with those of the rest of the world, even as Asia casts itself as champion of internationalism, free trade and the liberal world order.

So, for Asia to lead, it is necessary to show its economic prowess. However, that is not sufficient. Asia needs a story of attraction, respect and liberal compatibility. Asia needs a soft-power story.

More than ever, the significance of this reasoning is evident. America’s hard power – its military footprint, its economic might – did not vanish overnight. Instead, what has driven re-examination of America’s centrality in the world order is the dramatic drawing down of the respect and admiration it attracts from the rest of the world.

Do Western liberals want ‘one person, one vote’ only when it’s their side that wins?

America’s story used to be a narrative of openness and liberal values. That was an America in which there was an uncensored and self-disciplined press that valiantly held power to account. That America had an independent judiciary and a system of governance that separated powers of rule and provided checks and balances. That America had democratic institutions that struggled and evolved to defend its people against the worst ravages of xenophobia and racism.

None of this is to suggest that the world bought wholesale into what is sometimes referred to as the Washington Consensus and the US version of liberal democracy. The most enduring traits of liberal democracy do not require, as a matter of logic, an extreme interpretation of a rights-based social contract, ballot-box elections, or a “one person, one vote”, direct deliberative democracy. Many people in the world are satisfied with a duties-based, rather than rights-based, contract with their government. Many in the world see hypocrisy when liberal parts of the West decried how the popular vote was ignored in Trump’s Electoral College victory, while at the same time lamenting how the Brexit referendum was irresponsibly thrown open to ordinary people to decide, rather than left to their elected representatives.

Do Western liberals want “one person, one vote” only when it’s their side that wins?

The most enduring values of liberal democracy are simply what get schoolchildren through sports day: there is a level playing field; no one is excluded from playing; everyone gets a fair shot. The rules are transparent, and cannot be changed mid-contest. Afterwards, there are winners and losers, and that’s OK. Everyone competes fiercely to win, but those who don’t succeed wish the winners well, and exit on friendly terms. Winners behave with good grace; they do not bully or display arrogance.

When Trump and his circle display xenophobia, racism and nationalist populism, Asia must not say, ‘We see no problem with that’

The form that Asia’s soft-power story will take remains a work in progress: Asia’s intellectuals still need to forge that vision. In some circumstances, networks can usefully replace multilateral agreements. In many situations, a duties-based social understanding can perfectly substitute for a rights-based one. Reverence for learning and scholarship is not a Western monopoly. Gentle pluralism beats arrogant universalism. And the fetishism that for creativity one needs space to rebel, flies in the face of all manner of important disciplined scientific investigation. All these sit easily with and, indeed, are on ample offer in Asia.

But certain other things need to be excluded right away from Asia’s narrative. When Trump and his circle display xenophobia, racism, anti-Islamic policies, nationalist populism and an extreme zero-sum mentality, Asia must not say, “We see no problem with that”. When Trump undermines the free press and subverts America’s democratic institutions or its judiciary, Asia cannot say, “We are OK with that; we have the same problems here”. Asia must not say, “Let’s focus on Trump’s business acumen and deal-making instincts” – for that, too, is what Asia knows best and likes most.

These ideas have no place in Asia’s soft-power narrative; Asia must categorically reject them. Otherwise, Asia has no story.


This piece was published in South China Morning Post on 7 April 2017.