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How Asia and China can revive the West's waning institutions

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Mahbubani and Ferguson avoid the loaded term “democracy” as a norm or an application. For Ferguson, “competition” would seem to encompass not only multi-party contests, but also meritocratic performance competition within one party, as in China. For Mahbubani, the West was the first to leap ahead by destroying feudalism, but democracy is not yet universally shared. In China, he nonetheless sees a kind of systemic accountability of the party to the masses since it must “earn its legitimacy daily” through performance.

It is in this interstice, which separates values from norms and apps, where the rub lies. The challenge is precisely how to establish effective institutions of governance based on common interests – or even “one logic” – but not preceded by a common identity rooted in a common value system.

For Mahbubani, employing the one logic of common norms that we all share as an operating system is sufficient to sustain a rules-based system.

This, however, implies tilting toward the geo-civilizational worldview of the East, in which incommensurate values coexist in one world with many systems. That contrasts with the stubborn geo-political worldview of the West, which sees territories and ideologies as either won or lost.

Mahbubani is not naive. He exhaustively inventories the geopolitical stumbling blocks that can throw a wrench into his optimism (e.g. China vs. India, sea lanes between Japan and China, an Iranian nuclear detonation, etc). At the same time, his trust in the allegiance to a rules-based system in the West from whence it emanated seems to me grounded in a time warp.

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