Winston Churchill called the surrender of 80,000 British troops to Japanese forces at Singapore in 1942 the most ignominious defeat in British military history. It also marked the end of the British Empire in Asia; British prestige never recovered from this stunning debacle.
Something similar is happening in Singapore this week as the APEC summit brought leaders of Pacific countries together. What happened was that the largely pro-growth countries around the Pacific dealt a major blow to a diplomatic initiative strongly supported by the countries of the Atlantic. And the United States, the global ‘swing voter’ in the contest between Atlantic and Pacific views of the world, sided with the Pacific.
The issue is global warming. In Europe (and in much of the Atlantic-oriented parts of America) this is one of the world’s most urgent and all-consuming problems, and European leaders originally hoped that the Copenhagen summit would produce a final agreement on legally binding limits and reductions on carbon emissions. Asian leaders think that this is a less urgent problem than continuing the rapid, manufacturing growth on which their rising international clout and their domestic social stability depends.
At Singapore the Asian countries used their clout to issue a statement that torpedoes Europe’s Copenhagen agenda. The APEC declaration was both toothless and vague; with countries representing 60% of world GDP and roughly the same proportion of global population signing up, it’s clear that Copenhagen will produce a big ball of fluff. Europeans and their allies will try to spin it as ‘tough fluff’ but it will be a kitten not a tiger.
Expect more and more of this in the 21st century. European and Asian perspectives will collide; Asia will increasingly win. The United States will be a swing voter, with instincts and interests usually somewhere in the middle, but ultimately we are going to come down on Asia’s side on many issues.
For Singapore, the triumph is sweet. Singaporean leaders like the redoubtable Lee Kwan Yew, George Yeo and Kishore Mahbubani have long called for the emergence of ‘Asian values’ and an Asian vision and denounced what they’ve seen as an international order shaped largely by European assumptions and cultural values. This summit is a win for them; Asia is speaking up and Asia’s voice is being heard.