US hegemony was based on performance legitimacy. Malaysia and ASEAN navigating US-China Relations, PNB Forum in KL, Nov 2020

Summary: In the spectacularly successful American Century, US global hegemony achieved legitimacy — consent of the governed — not through an international ballot box but through performance legitimacy. Never once throughout all these decades did the US ever ask nations to vote for it as the world’s leader through any mechanism of modern democracy or international choice. No, sufficient instead was that the US did so well for itself, and led so many others to economic prosperity. This seems to me a fine approach. Others should be allowed to try the same.

The topic of PNB Forum in KL, 26 Nov 2020, was “Malaysia and ASEAN: Navigating US-China Relations in the 21st Century”.

(I once overheard someone complain that in public discussions I behave exactly like Kishore Mahbubani: I try to stir matters up by saying things as provocative as I can just about defend and get away with… But here Kishore and I are on the same panel, so I’ve been stripped of my superpower for mischief.)

For my part I maintained one assumption and advanced two hypotheses.

First, the assumption: Eighty percent of the world — including all of ASEAN — live in neither the US or China. We really don’t care about US-China relations. What we care about is peace and prosperity. We seek pathways for economic progress so that all of us — but especially the poor, weak, and vulnerable — can gain control of our own destiny. Foremost among what works for us is infrastructure, open markets, clear rules, and a level playing field. We don’t mind if that playing field tilts a bit temporarily to correct historical inequity but it should not do so in favour of those already rich and powerful. Big nations should not bully small ones.

While many might think a level playing field comes with conventional democracy, it does not. For the last 70 years the US has talked about the world order it built as providing a level playing field, but in all this time the US has never attempted to give other nations a vote on its election as leader. That particular hegemon sought consent of the governed not through any global ballot box but through seeking to provide a system that works. In other words, the system worked through performance legitimacy. If your performance is found to be lacking, you lose legitimacy. This seems to me a fine way to do things.

My two hypotheses: One, the world is now fractured. COVID-19 is just one more of a series of terrible disruptions. Two, everyone seeks to advance their own self-interests. We don’t have to either castigate or apologise for the Great Powers wanting to do so. Middle powers, lesser nations, everyone does it — why fault Great Powers for doing what all the rest of us also do? Indeed, that’s what we all should do. This, however, does not mean the world has to fall into chaos and disorder. Quite the opposite.

Obviously, my fellow panelists did not agree with all that I said.

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Danny Quah

Danny Quah

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Danny Quah is Dean and Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS.