Which will be the next Byzantium: Seoul or Singapore?

The rapid acceleration of technology today has the effect of speeding up historical processes. We see geopolitical shifts today take place at an increasingly fast pace. I can only think of  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel on steroids. That is to say that historical cycles that would take centuries to unfold in a previous age are now playing out in fast forward. 

The so-called shift to the Asia, to the East, is a perfect example. We can think of it as a new version of the shift to the East of the late Roman empire, but with new twists inspired by advances in technology. The process that took three hundred years previously is unfolding in twenty years. 

I have been reading with great interest Lars Brownworth’s book Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization in which he limns the shirt from Rome to Byzantium culminating in the abdication of the last western emperor in 476.

Brownworth writes,

“Western civilization, however, owes an incalculable debt to the scorned city on the Bosporus. For more than a millennium, its capital stood, the great bastion of the East protecting a nascent, chaotic Europe, as one after another would-be world conqueror foundered against ts walls… While civilization flickered dimly in the remote Irish monasteries of the West, it blazed in Constantinople, sometimes waving, sometimes waning, but always alive. Byzantium’s greatest emperor, Justinian, gave us Roman law–the basis of most European legal systems even today-its artisans gave us the brilliant mosaics of Ravenn and the supreme triumph of the Hagia Sophia, and its scholars gave us the dazzling Greek and Latin classics that the Dark ages nearly extinguished in the West.”

The global system is unlikely to collapse as a result of the current crisis. More likely it will merely shift its axis and evolve along a different trajectory. East Asia is the best candidate at present to be the new center for this world system, but if we think about the Roman case, the question remains, which city in East Asia would be the next Byzantium. I would argue that the contest may be between Singapore and Seoul, the two most vital and sophisticated capitals in the region firmly within the currently Washington-dominated global order.

The two cities are profoundly different in character.

Singapore has done far better in terms of attracting investment creating an international, multicultural and world-class environment that cultivates close relations with the United States, the Middle East, SE Asia and China. Moreover, Singapore has been quite savvy in its efforts to recruit the best and the brightest to that remarkable city. Most Americans would chose Singapore for an overseas assignment and the English-speaking environment is very low stress.

But Seoul has shown recently  itself to be a serious contender. Seoul has a far broader cultural base, a vital domestic culture and increasingly is attracting the best and the brightest from around the world. One does not hear much about Singapore literature, art and music, but Seoul has without any doubt become the cultural center of Northeast Asia.

The process over the next few decades with be fascinating. Stay tuned.

6 responses to “Which will be the next Byzantium: Seoul or Singapore?

  1. Craig December 26, 2011 at 2:18 am

    Many westerners living in the East are quite bullish about Asia. But I’d like to point out a few things.

    First, the West has been through much worse than it’s going through now; the recession of the 1890’s was savage and brutal, and nearly derailed entire social movements in the West. The Social Purity movement of the 1920’s was spearheaded by people who had grown up or made their lives during the 1880’s-1890’s, and much of the modern world owes its character to the adaptations these people made. Their children were adults after 1929, and their grandchildren grew up in the shadow of mass death; each generation had awful choices to make.

    It may look like power is shifting permanently, but I’d suggest this is a premature conclusion.

    Singapore is tiny. What’s lacking in addition to resources (both human and logistical) is a cultural dynamism: it’s actually carefully cultivated a kind-of cultural neutrality that seeks to level exceptions and outliers in all aspects of life. This facilitates management on a general level, and is a feature of many Asian cultures. It permeates the business culture, the creative world, and the social order. But it absolutely crushes dynamism. It infects westerners living in Singapore as much as locals, after enough exposure. There’s also self-selection: Those singaporeans who aren’t like this often leave; Westerners who are like this immigrate to Singapore. The effect becomes exaggerated

    Second, China is, underneath the shine and glitter, a social catastrophe of, well, Chinese proportions. While I expect it to lumber through its problems, instead of moving with careful adaptation and negotiation, it tends to manoever like a drunken elephant. China boosters are almost self-trained to see the glamour, but are by their exposure almost incapable of examining China from any kind of distance. CHina has many advantages, but has several decades to go before it even takes its rightful place at the table, let alone starts to command.

    In fact, I would suggest that while a small class of Chinese elites will join a powerful international cabal of cultural and social leaders, China itself will continue to careen like a ship without a rudder. Its social order is brittle and the least adaptive in Asia, despite appearances.

    Korea is another case. What’s happened in Korea is unprecedented in Korean history: The elites in Korea, now foreign-educated and inculcated with foreign ideas, represent a sharp break in the grander context of Korean history. In a very meaningful sense, they are, in fact, not “Korean” in the way many people conceptualize this. And this is just as true for conservatives, too. Despite themselves, Koreans are becoming “internationalist”. Seoul itself is being remade as another nexus point or hub in the global network of elite cities. The rest of Korea is barely even an afterthought – it’s a bedroom backwater for what Seoul is turning into.

    Just like Toronto, where I’m from: It is a profound cultural experiment unprecedented anywhere, and unlike any other place. But it bears as much resemblance to Port Perry or North Bay or Cornwall or Sault Ste Marie or Hope or Thunder Bay as Berlin does to Bieliefeld.

    The effect in Canada is less noticeable; this international culture is predicated on an English substrate and grounded in the same (elitist and plebeian and liberating and restrictive) values that led from the Roman Republic to us. It is profoundly Western and International. Social movements that wholly depend on Western social orders and ideas – marxism, cultural marxism, feminism, disingenuous free-marketism, libertarianism, etc. are displacing local methods of interpreting social relations.

    Industrial and post-industrial societies more closely resemble each other, even with language differences, than they do their own recent pasts.

    And this is my point.

    There is nothing inherently inevitable about the rise of Asia. And discounting the West is a grotesque error. It’s “orientalism” in another form.

    There’s a lot to celebrate in the East, but I would very strongly advise against counting out the English speaking world. No crisis today bears a relationship to the horrible rending that the West has suffered through social movements, conflict and social change. Anglo culture has proven so remarkably adaptable that its domination of the world seems almost preternaturally destined; but there are reasons for this beyond mere historical contingency.

    The US may be a toilet bowl today. But it won’t be forever. I’d point out that it has been through much, much worse. When it recovered, it was always stronger.

    What helped it do this was a profound aggressiveness and flexibility in English culture. This is not a new phenomenon: It was noted as early as Tacitus, who wrote about both the smaller German tribes and the Britons. Barbarians they were, but dangerously adaptable ones; Britons were like the continental Celts, but with a slightly savage orneryness that made them dangerous, and wily nature that made them hard to figure; bad slaves and dangerous masters.

    It’s a conceit of historical approaches that tends to level all factors out and view the landscape as a product of random contingency. While this plays a role, there are other factors.

    There’s a good reason Korea produced an economic miracle in 60 years while the Philippines singularly failed and continues to fail to do so. There are cultural pre-adaptations that made Korea supremely adaptable in its given context.

    Everything runs in cycles. I would suggest that the search, by Western intellectuals, for the New Jerusalem in Asia is an error.

    Experts on China see the future in China. Experts on Japan saw the future in Japan in the 1980’s. Experts on Europe saw Europeans cities gleaming with art-deco spires and leading a European utopia with Africa and Asia in tow and North America on the sidelines, until WWI intervened and upended it all.

    I propose a few roadblocks to the future, here.

    – Taiwan. This is a football that will detonate sooner or later. Despite wishful thinking, the ingredients for detonation are all in place. Not seeing them is irresponsible and wilfull blindness.

    – China: China is a social disaster in the process of derailing. Demographically, it’s a nightmare; and it cannot be overstated: Demographics are quite literally everything. It’s another conceit that they can be ignored. It spells doom for China’s current social and political and even economic model. This is beginning, now.

    – Korea: Demographics, again. Also, the “benefits” of cultural heterogeneity (within Korean culture and from imports) is starting to impact Korea. Expect this to accelerate. What this means, practically, is that the unanimous, monolithic actions capable in the past will become increasingly difficult; an international class of rulers will begin to shift loyalties and focus elsewhere. Expect profound social shock and change. The result will be interesting, but past solutions will increasingly start to fail. Heterogeneity is not always good, and brings with it its own challenges. Western culture is better at dealing with this.

    – Japan: Japan’s future is one of careful, managed stagnation. Does anyone think this is going to change? If anything, its global power and reach has been dramatically receding. In an Asian context, developing China is stealing from Peter to pay Paul; it hurts countries like Japan and Korea and Taiwan far more than anyone else. And again, China’s desperate bandaid work, when it fails, will have a more devastating impact on its neighbours than it will on the West.

    Singapore is an afterthought. At best, it’s a sheltered harbour. But its culture lacks the dynamism and creative energy of even a mid-sized Chinese city, even with the Chinese government’s obsession with social control. Singapore may attract competent managers, but this cannot be overstated:

    Competent managers and skilled professionals do not create new worlds. They manage other peoples’ wealth and create comfort. In Asia, it’s China, with its chaos, looming threats and brittel social order than represents creative energy.

    It’s in contradiction and struggle that Byzantiums are forged.

    I contend that the West in the “dark ages” was neither so bleak nor as dark as it’s made out to be. Profound science and technology advancements were made. Social history was rewritten. A decadent, ossified late Roman social order was burned away from the rotting corpse of a Europe in need of fresh air. This social order remained a problem in the East. The East contributed few innovations in the centuries that followed.

    On the other hand, while there was chaos, there was also liberty and it was ultimately, the West of Europe that forged the future. This was always going to be the case.

    As a Canadian, I have profoundly mixed feelings about the US.

    But one thing that’s unwise to do:

    Count it out.

    History illustrates this in technicolor.

    If anything, I suspect room at the cultural centre will have to be made.

    But rumours of the death of the West may be premature. It’s conceit of those too immersed in Eastern cultures.

    • Emanuel Pastreich December 26, 2011 at 5:00 am

      I do appreciate the thoughtful response. The point of the analogy is that the system does not collapse, but the center of gravity shifts. I do not mean for this essay to be absolutely accurate, just to suggest how things may look at this moment. As for the United States, we can see from the Roman tradition, there were many revivals between the third century and the 15th century, and for that matter, the Pope still speaks Latin. So perhaps the system never really came to an end in spite of those dark ages.

      The question going forward will not be who is doing well, but rather who is doing less worse. In that respect, there is still plenty of room in Asia for success.

    • vince December 27, 2011 at 12:26 am

      Thank you for this well considered, fascinating and substantial contribution, Craig. You have captured the technological and social change that is critical to this sort of grand scale evaluation.

      However, there is another factor that may need to be considered: the natural environment and fossil fuels. The defining role that fossil fuels have played in nearly every aspect of human life since the turn of the last century cannot be overstated. It is the bubble to end all bubbles for the modern economy, and society. And it is in the process of bursting. I suspect that those nations and cultures that will be able to withstand the transformation to a non-fossil fuel driven society will prosper. Those that cannot, particularly those in North America, will likely suffer enormously. This won’t happen in 2012, but will play out over coming decades.

      You mentioned “Japan’s future is one of careful, managed stagnation.” I see this as a strength, not a weakness. Japan is global leader in energy and resource conservation. The expectation of infinite growth on a finite planet is the stake-in-the-heart at the root of Western capitalism, and Asians likely have a more visceral understanding of this fallacy. The new economic and social paradigm that must emerge, that applies appropriate valuation of natural resources, as well as the environmental costs of their use, will likely come from Asia. And as the service economy fulfills it’s promise of supplanting manufacturing as the key economic activity that sustains society, Asia will have numerous advantages due it’s population, for both suppliers and consumers.

  2. Craig December 27, 2011 at 11:08 am


    I see your point. You’re right, f course; from this perspective, I think parts of Asia will do very well. Korea is one of them. But huge questions remain; this success is brittle, and not broad-based.

    The contingencies of history rule Asia more sharply than they do the West.

    For Korea, the big issue is North Korea’s dissolution or peace. Should peace and reunion happen, it will so utterly devastate South Korea as to remove it from the economic game for a generation or two. It has neither the pouvoir of West Germany in 1989 nor does North Korea have the relative wealth of East Germany. Socially, the two countries are likely unintegratable. Should North Korea seek some sort of union with the South, all bets are off. I can forsee that being mostly bad for South Korea.

    (in the short term).


    Yo’re right, I didn’t consider pea oil. But I thikn you misinterpret Asias ability to adapt.

    The criticism is largely leveled aginst the US and North America; the problems there are reliance on oil. But when push comes to shove, the West adapts more effectively, in almost all cases. The reason is culture. There’s a profoundly strong civic culture in the West, varying by country. Civil society now has its teeth in Korea, but in China it has its work cut out for it.
    China lurches. Korea has until now moved like a dancer moving to a single tune. This is about to change. Korean social fabric is fraying; the age-old social obligations that tied people to each other here are getting to be paper-thin. Already, human relationships between the sexes here are as temporal as in the West, and maybe even moreso. The growing power of women is reshaping the whole negotiating mechanism society uses to speak to itself.

    I think this will be an interesting time to be in Asia, but in the Chinese sense of “Interesting Times”.

    China is a social/economic bubble bursting as we speak.

    And on the subject of oil, North America is radically underpopulated and has untapped human and economic resources on which it can fall back. It has huge wiggle room. We focus on the failures of the US, but this is from a very anti-right anti-Am-energy erican view. When it comes to buckling down and making things happen, nobody has ever done this in history better than Americans. It’s very hard for me, as a Canadian, to admit this, but it’s also true.

    There are good reasons for the rise of the “tigers” and of China; but absent external inducements, Asia is facing a number of demographic, social and cultural deficits that will bite very deeply.

    Peak oil and the loss of this super-energy rich fuel, perhaps the richest fuel source we’ve ever known, will hurt everyone. But I think it will hit Asia worst of all.

    As very effective democracies with extremely adaptive social mechanisms in place for centuries, and lots of civic and cultural history designed to deal with social strife, change, multiple demands and contradictory push-pull social forces, as a series of polities Western countries are each of them in better positions than even Asia as a whole.

    We discount this as Westerners, because we disdain those places we’re from in favour of those we’ve adopted (I’m guilty of this all the time); but whenever I go to Canada to visit, I’m struck by the quiet strength of the people and a sort-of cultural malleability that I just don’t see anywhere in Asia.

    I don’t know – this may not be true in France or Texas – but I see a depth of cultural resources and social moxy in the West that makes it easier for Western countries to adapt to global change than most Asians countries are comfortable with. This is especially true when compared to China: Chinese development in all spheres of life for the last 100 years, if not longer, has been largely cannibalistic.

    I;m not arguing for Anglo cultural superiority, at all. I’m just pointing out that it’s trendy to look for the “doom of the West” scenario these days; and while it may be true that we rely overly much on cheap fuel, we discount the profound cultural and human resources of even small countries like Belgium at our peril.

    We also discount the potential for Western countries to be far more effective when applying organized, targeted violence. For 1000 years, Anglo culture has been one of the most systematically violent cultures on Earth, coldly calculating and clever. It’s able to justify virtually any action, and sell it to its own people and the world; and nobody has ever been as effective at waging war, either cultural, economic or violent, as Anglo societies. If you look at the English language, a shockingly large percentage of its aphorisms and sayings are violent in nature. We speak of it as some sort of scientific/philosophical/literate culture, but at its core it’s competitive, synthetic (in the sense of being absorptive) and aggressive. In a real sense, there are few cultures as wholly aggressive as Anglo culture.

    Not to say that we can expect a violent response, but just that it’s been impressive how Anglo culture has so effectively dominated all debates about its future since the time of the incorporation of Wales. Tacitus was the one who originally warned the Romans about the Germanic peoples, even the “marginal tribes on the edge of the world, who though small have the potential to command legions.” Even Charlemagne warned against getting anywhere near the English, for as he said, “They have deep memories and even their most revered saints are little better than savage beasts under their frocks.”

    Whether it’s getting to the moon or beating back Germany, discounting the cultural resilience of the West is a dangerous gamble.

    The immediate loss of oil resources will hurt the US. But long-term, the US has a lot more wiggle room, both economically and culturally, than any nation in Asia.

    50 years of growth in Asia is interesting, perhaps even miraculous. But as for making new Byzantiums (Byzantia?), …

    I take a much longer-term view. To unseat the West, Asia needs to go through such wrenching social change, to deal with its own demonsnds and ghosts on so deep a level, that predicting anything with accuracy over a 50 or 100 year period will prove difficult.

    Singapore does what it does because Malaysia and Indonesia and even SE Asia serve as its hinterland, without being anything of an obligation (As with, say, NYC and LA and its hinterlands), and Korea won’t have any of the advantages it’s had for the last 60 years moving forward.

    And China is a wild card like no other. Any prediction about China is subject to extreme skepticism. Boosters and naysayers are both in camps of fools; we’re talking about a beast with several heads, each of which could lead to riches or ruin. Even a casual observer can see the minefields China has to wade through, and it has to do this while one arm is tied behind its back and a storm is raging overhead. On the other hand, of all the weather-weathering nations on Earth, China is clearly the survivor par excellence. But the past 500 years have been hugely unkind to China. A decade or three of slightly less shitty history is no general panacea for what ails it, nor are a few factories churning out Products of the Day.

    A new Byzantium?

    I would rather look to those places that bring people from disparate worlds together. I would seek out the New Yorks, Alexandrias, and Republican Romes of the world.

    If China manages to sort itself out without consuming its brightest elements, of which there is no guarantee, I would look to Shanghai.

    Seoul could pull it off, but it needs some major cultural redefinition for that. I see signs of it happening, though; if there’s no backlash, then it will definitely be a contender for an Asian version of a new Cultural Node. A Byzantium might be a bit ambitious.

    Tokyo – no chance.

    Singapore? Singapore should better aspire to be an Asian Geneva or Zurich, perhaps crossed with Brussels if it can sort out its regional identity, something it seems perfectly suited for.

    But as soon as China sorts itself out culturally, it will so utterly dominate Seoul and the rest of Asia so as to almost reduce them to insignificance. The raw, unadulterated power of China in its Asian sphere can’t be underestimated. In a real sense, the West has empowered places like Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and Japan; it provided an identity and an existence to the peoples of the Philippines; it denied China control over SE Asia (for a time, anyway).

    An Asia without the intrusion of the West would have been not much more than China’s playground. This may sound insultin to my adopted homeland, Korea, but it’s also largely true.

    I shudder to think, personally, what Canada’s fate would have been were our neighbour Russia and not the US. The US has been very kind to us; for all our complaints, it would have been a different story were our neighbour China or Russia.

    Just ask Tibet, Xinjiang or Finland.

    The US saved South Korea in more ways than one in 1953. Despite themselves, Korea owes the West a huge chunk of its raison d’etre, something that Koreans hate to be reminded of. China comes under no criticism for effectively dividing the peninsula; only the US. At least Mongolians have the sense to be grateful to Russia for their independence. Russia likely didn’t intend this to be a defining action, and its motives were otherwise, but the results were positive for Mongolia.

    Once again, if Taiwan is one day truly independent in name as well as word, it will owe this as much to Western support as the will of its own people.

    Such is the fate of places on the periphery. We survive by our wits and by luck; such is the fate of nations like Korea and Canada or even Vietnam.

    The rise of CHina is a major challenge for places like Japan. it’s actually a defining challenge. And the dangers are not what we often think they are. Frget conflict; forget economic domination. It’s cultural. China has the potential to to completely, utterly, absolutely dominate Asia over a 100-200 year span so as to render virtually nonexistent the rest of the nations of Asia. This was the case for thousands of years; it can easily happen again.

    500 years of isolationism and chaos in China have been profoundly good to other cultures in Asia.

    So China’s fate is, long-term, in every possible way imaginable, the key to understanding how Asia will evolve. This is just my own opinion, but I think if pressed I could make a good case for this.

    So given that China is like a random number generation machine at the moment, looking for a new Byzantium is a tough call.

    My money is on Shanghai. Why?

    its leadership is sufficiently divorced from the powers that be in CHina to make the city its own sphere of influence. It has a unique and defining culture within CHina. It’s got pull witin the political structure way beyondits population or economic base, and it has a very powerful, independent mindset.

    Shanghainese would rather own CHina than divorce themselves from its struggles, but when push comes to shove, they will weather changes with greater adaptability, all the while sucking more resources from the rest of the country than they’re fairly owed.

    If China goes into the toilet, Shanghai will merely survive. If it does moderately well, Shanghai will flourish, the Asian New York or London to HK’s Chicago or Seoul’s Boston. If China does very well, Shanghai will become the undisputed capital of Asia, with no rivals, and a social, financial, and cultural mecca for the world. It has a shot at being the Mother City for the human race, for that matter, the next great Rome and a city to make classical Athens look like a petty regional snore-fest.

    Seoul, Tokyo, KL or HK or Singapore will, in that last circumstance, have no possible means of competing. Shanghai will marshal the entire power of one quarter of the world’s population, even if it does so as an independent state, a Free City after some terrible Chinese civil war. The Shanghainese will run China whether those in Beijing like it or not. Art galleries will command respect; media will dominate without question. Seoul will be a quaint regional centre, Philadelphia to NYC, Kingston to Toronto, Liverpool to London.

    Even New York, as capital of the English-speaking cultural world, will be hard-pressed in that case. I’d take even money on important English films opening first in Shanghai and art galleries there being prime movers for Anglo artists over NYC in that case. Seoul has no chance. It won’t even be an afterthought – just another cultural feeder town for Shanghai. Its proximity will also ruin it as an independent actor.

    Being Korea is a hard game. You need to be a canny actor to make it work. It’s one of those games where if you succeed, you must continually succeed, because if you fail even once, the game might be over. Should that old dinosaur Samsung start losing its way while it wanders over the landscape in drunken revelry, as it appears to have been doing, and get slopping, it might take Korea with it. This is the big risk of Korea’s economic model; one mistake and it unravels. And with a brittle social climate, too much pressure and the entire structure could snap.

    The West is both much more fluid, which can be a drawback, and more resilient, because of its fluidity.

    I love Korea, to the contradictory bones underneath its Kimchi-flavoured flesh, and I love its drawbacks almost as much as its bonuses. But I’m wary of deluding myself.

    As much as I’m impressed with how quickly subways lines are pushed through here, the social tenacity and strength I see when I go back to Toronto is impressive, as well; and the profound cultural power of nearly limitless diversity of opinion in Toronto just astounds me. Get three Canadians in a room, and you get a dozen opinions and a referendum. This is a drawback some of the time, but at others, especially during an economic crisis where experimentation is everything, it can be an advantage hard to top.

    But Asia’s future really depends on the decisions made by a few technocrats, plutocrats and aging opportunists in Beijing and Shanghai. I have no great faith in their long-term leadership ability.

    Oh, wait, Sounds a lot like Washington, too. (snark)

    So I’d say all bets are off until those cards are played.

  3. Craig December 27, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I’m sorry about the long post. Just rambling.

    I guess it’s the cabin fever from the cold.

  4. Emanuel Pastreich December 27, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Excellent post. I think we should start thinking about collecting the best of C & S as a book manuscript.

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