Kishore Mahbubani: Press the Pause Button

Jan 27 , 2021

Kishore Mahbubani, Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore (NUS).


Thank you. Thank you very much, Larry, for that generous introduction. And let me begin by saying, I completely agree with the analysis that Mike Spence has put across, Mr. Zhang has put across and of course Myron Brilliant has put across. And the question is, How can I add value to this discussion? 

I'm just going to make, in a sense, one big point. The year 2020 has sent a message to humanity. 

The simple message it is sending is that the world has changed fundamentally. Right? Clearly, this was a big shock that none of us expected. Now, in theory, humans are supposed to be the most intelligent adaptive species on planet Earth. So in theory, when the world changes fundamentally, what do you do? Do you make a U-turn, or do you keep going straight on autopilot?

To me, the reason, the fundamental reason, why we have problems in the world today is that we refuse to acknowledge that the world has changed, fundamentally, and we keep on in a sense using 19th century mental maps to handle 21st century problems.

I'll give two examples of where we need to change our mental maps fundamentally, because I think if we don't change our mental maps, they exist in the sense of going on autopilot, and you're going to create turbulence. Let's avoid the turbulence and understand where we have to make this U-turn. 

The first change we need to make in our mental map is that you've got to understand that in the past, when we lived in different countries, it was the story that we were living in different villages. So, let's say the village is 10 kilometers away, or 100 kilometers away, and that village catches fire. You don't worry because you are in a different village. So why worry? But what is the big message COVID-19 is sending to us? That 7.3 billion people no longer live in separate villages. They live in one village. We live in separate houses in the same village. 

So when you find out that COVID-19 began in China, in Wu-han, the stupidest thing the Trump administration could do was to say, hey, that's a fire in another village; we don't have to worry about it. And we can see how that mental assumption that we are not in the same village caused this incredible impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. and Europe and the rest of the world. So COVID-19 is telling us, Hey! We are in a same village! 

And what do you do when you're in the same village? The first thing you do when a fire breaks out anywhere in the village, is you cooperate. You come together, you come out of your house and say, this is going to burn out the whole village, let's cooperate. Right? And therefore, for example, on the U.S.-China competition, the most sensible thing to do is to press the pause button and say OK, OK! We'll carry on our fights later, but let's stop the fire. Let's stop the whole village from burning, and then we can carry on. 

So this is the commonsense thing. And what is shocking is that something as simple and as commonsensical as the occupants of a village coming together and saying, Let's put out the fire first, and then we can carry on, is not happening. And that shows you how stupid the human species has become. 

And similarly, if there's a message that global warming is sending to us, it's the same message. Now again, you know, if you're living in different villages, if a forest fire breaks out 10 kilometers away and the smoke is going to the next village and I say that's not my problem that's the other village's problem, what's happening? Global warming has created a fire. The smoke has entered every house in our village. You cannot escape global warming, whether you're the United States, China, Africa, South America. So what do you do? You cooperate to first put out that forest fire outside. That's what global warming is all about. Again, you've got to change your mental maps. But I can tell you that, unfortunately — I put this very bluntly — many of the key policymakers in the Pentagon (I would say the Ministry of Defense in most countries of the world), they see this as a zero sum game, a competition, when in fact we should be working together. So that's one fundamental change we've got to make.

The second fundamental change — I don't have much time to explain it — but we also know that history has turned that corner that from the year 1820 to 2020, for 200 years, we had Western domination of world history. That era of Western domination is ending. And it's unusual for 12 percent of the world population that lives in the West, to make decisions that affect the rest of the world. So the West, therefore, should stop lecturing the rest of the world on what needs to be done and listen to the remaining 88 percent. 

And that's very critical because I can see, Myron, that this is in some ways a response to the pressure to speak out on human rights issues and all that. And I agree we should push for human rights, but don't lecture other countries and say you can tell us how do better. Because, sadly, you know, the key point I emphasize, is that in the United States, the bottom 50 percent has not seen an improvement in their standard of living for 30 years. 

And I will say the United States should focus on improving the bottom 50 percent and the rest of the world should help the United States. Take care of his bottom 50 percent. And the way you help the bottom 50 percent is by, in a sense, boosting global trade. So we should work together, and we will all benefit by requiring a spirit of cooperation.

So the final point I'm going to make in 30 seconds or one minute or whatever, is this: We should stop believing that we can't do anything about all this. The competition will carry on, confrontation will carry on. We just can't stop it. 

What do you mean you can't stop it? You can. You can do this. And this is where I believe if you have 330 million people in the United States, and 1.4. billion in China, that still leaves 6 billion people outside in the rest of the world. And I've seen things in mankind's history. I think the remaining 6 billion should speak with a united voice to both the U.S. and China. 

And this is not this is not by way of hedging. This is a message to both the U.S. and China: We understand why you may have to compete in some areas, but can you please press the pause button? Let's kill COVID-19. Let's take care of global warming and domestic and global challenges. Let's stabilize the world and then see where we go from there. 

This is just common sense. And I hope that human beings improve once again. They are the most intelligent and adaptive species in the world.

Thank you.