The Case for Global Realism

An Assessment of the Mahbubani-Summers Thesis

Originally published in The International Economy

Should we depend on consumerism to overcome the differences among nations?

First Brexit, then Turkey. The EU exit referendum and Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism have one thing in common: Both defy mainstream views, as expressed in such leading venues as The Economist, the Financial Times, and Foreign Affairs, about the relationship between domestic and international politics. In each of these venues, global policy experts either ignored the likelihood of a Brexit win or warned of its negative consequences while mocking exit supporters as xenophobic nationalists or Old England dreamers. 

For years, the same mainstream venues praised Turkey’s economic performance and ridiculed the old-fashioned secularism of the military, even as the country grew increasingly autocratic under the AKP’s leadership. 

How did the experts become so complacent? In large part, they based their confidence in the belief that economic integration would harmonize diverse cultures; and that countries joined in global prosperity will invariably experience a sociopolitical “convergence.” This is the same narrative that has generally dictated Western global development and defense policy, and global diplomacy, since the Cold War. It was confidence in this narrative that persuaded UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his advisers to believe they could not lose at the polls. 

In the May/June 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs, two influential global thinkers, Kishore Mahbubani and Lawrence Summers, argue this theme, explaining that globalization creates a homogeneous world view embodied in the social and political aspirations of a rising global middle class with common aspirations and common tastes. A byproduct of globalization, this fulfillment of global consumer preferences is leading to the “increasingly overlapping areas of commonality” and causing a “fusion of civilizations” that ensures “the progressive direction of human history.” This has made the past three decades “the best in history” and will continue to lift “the human condition to heights never seen before.” 

This is the same mistaken and misleading notion, shared by both the ideological left and right: that prosperity would lead Britons to empathize and identify with European institutions, norms, and culture; and that economic integration would lead Turks to embrace European enthusiasm for political pluralism. 

Yet this fallacy—that social and political institutions and affinities naturally follow economic ones— renders the Brits who support exit and the Turks who rally behind President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repression—into phenomena that the global political elite find inconceivable. 

Could it be that constructing an identity according to the logic of consumer interests is instead an illusion of the global elites? 

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