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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #32 (August 9, 2005), page 11.

Book uses diplomacy to coax Americans beyond age of naiveté

Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust Between America and the World

By Kishore Mahbubani

PublicAffairs, 2005

Hardcover, 235 pages, $26.00

By Oscar Johnson

For many Americans, Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust Between America and the World may hold valuable answers.

Dumbfounded as to why anyone would want to wreak the 9/11 tragedy? Find rhetoric about ‘enemies hating freedom and our way of life’ insufficient food for thought? Curious, even slightly, about what the rest of the world thinks? If so — or perhaps even if not — then Kishore Mahbubani wrote this book for you.

Readers may not agree with everything he has to say, but they may find his sincerity — not to assign or escape blame, but assess problems in hopes of reaching solutions — hard to resist.

Well-organized and easy to digest, the book carefully wades into the troubled waters of U.S. international policies. True to its stated aim, it sketches out examples — ever so gently — of how they have helped to evaporate vast "reservoirs of good will" toward America. Then it offers suggestions on how to replenish them.

The book’s initial premise is that America’s global role, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, was to be nothing short of a beacon of freedom, equality, and prosperity that shunned traditional imperialism in favor of standards that uplifted the world.

To be sure, Mahbubani grossly overstates this. It’s especially true when he barely mentions, if at all, U.S. policies toward Native Americans, African Americans, the Philippines, and Latin America to set up this premise (U.S. policies toward Latin America are detailed but only several chapters after his initial premise is put forth).

The author is the Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, that nation’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, and a self-professed believer in all the good America has done for the world.

This is important to note, as he brings the fullness of this background to bear in Beyond the Age of Innocence. Mahbubani serves up meaty tidbits, for example, on why global trust in the great superpower is shrinking, reflecting a firm grasp of public policy. This is steeped, however, in the bland diplomacy of a seasoned bureaucrat and heavily sweetened with saccharin platitudes to great U.S. ideals and achievements.

It’s sure to be hard to swallow for some. But if this can be forgiven, it’s for both the end argument and audience at which it’s aimed.

What Mahbubani has really cooked up is a way to spoon-feed the bitter medicine of truth to those most able to turn the rising tide of anti-Americanism: an oblivious U.S. public, its elected officials, and appointed policy makers.

The book’s overarching argument is that with the end of the Cold War, U.S. principles took a back seat to national interest — albeit benignly (the author’s reasoning for motives behind all the ill effects of U.S. policies). Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and jihadist forces or dictators in Egypt, Indonesia, and Libya were not only supported by but nurtured in the Islamic world to stave off a "godless Soviet" foothold.

Like so many other former allies of the Cold War, they were left twisting in the wind to ponder their spent usefulness. During the Asian financial crises of the late 1990s, for example, Suharto’s corruption suddenly mattered. America’s new bad guy, along with all of Indonesia, was dealt a heavy blow by U.S.-backed IMF policies. The results: In 1999, 75 percent of Indonesians looked favorably on America. By last year, only 15 percent did, according to polls quoted in the book.

Similarly, U.S. cotton subsidies, while ensuring that American farmers maintain a luxurious standard of living by international standards, force poor ox-and-plow farmers in Africa to sell crops at below cost.

Shirking the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, snubbing the U.N. Security Council for a "preemptive" war on Iraq — the laundry list continues to grow.

That the average citizen of the world’s most information-savvy nation is oblivious to the effects of its own policies outside its borders does not go unnoticed by those they touch, the author notes. Nor does it exempt the United States from changing such policies — if not for the high principles Mahbubani lauds, then at least for its own survival.

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