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the second world

'Today's world is like the Middle Ages on steroids'


Parag Khanna is a child of the world - born in India (Kanpur), raised in the UAE, the US and Germany. To research his first book, 'The Second World', which the New York Times Magazine called "one of the best ideas of 2007", he spent three years living out of a suitcase and sifting through 50 countries including Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Venezuela. "I basically travel about 100 per cent of the time, " says the clean-cut, confident New Yorker whose father was a sales manager with the Tata group and mother a computer scientist. The articulate 33-year-old has served as advisor to US Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and coached Barack Obama's campaign on foreign policy. Grounded in world history, a conversation with him usually includes references to the Crusades, the Enlightenment, Mughal India and the Renaissance. He's got quite a turn of phrase too, coining catchy terms like "Bollystan" and "mega diplomat". Not surprisingly, the media-savvy "wonderwonk" has been named one of Esquire's "75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century" and featured on WIRED magazine's "Smart List". In his latest book, 'How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance', the multilingual pundit has laid out his own roadmap for global governance. In an email interview, Parag Khanna talked about America's ill-starred "SOB" policy (remember FDR's "he's an SOB but he's our SOB" about the Nicaraguan dictator the US supported ), why he is chary about the India Shining, China Rising chant, and, of course, his modest plan for running the world.

Isn't 'How to Run the World' a very ambitious title for your book? Can anyone have the answer to that one?

It's about as ambitious as it gets! But the reason for that has less to do with me than with the subject of the book: Diplomacy. Diplomacy is the one word answer to how we attempt to run the world. If you change one letter, you might get "ruin" the world, which is much of what is happening now. Some might confuse this for how to "rule" the world, in which case it might be a book about US or Chinese foreign policy - but we have seen how well their approaches work. So my purpose is to elevate the concept and role of diplomacy as a process by which we try to develop a stable and inclusive system for managing global affairs. Many view diplomacy as a peripheral or ancillary activity, a mere alternative to more important ways to run the world. To me, diplomacy is absolutely central.

Your book says the American century is over. So what is the new world order and where do the US, Europe, China and India fit in?

They all fit in very much. The world is moving from a hub-andspoke, Western-led model, towards something much more like a lattice in which all powers have direct relations with each other, and play one another off each other in self-interested fashion. This is what I have previously called "multi-alignment". The fact that the world is multi-polar and has more than just great powers - but also cities, companies, NGOs, religious groups, universities and other players - makes it resemble the Middle Ages. Today's world is like the Middle Ages on steroids!

What do you mean by saying that we've returned to the Middle Ages?

The Middle Ages was a period of great turbulence around the world. Even great civilizations were constantly at risk of collapse - and indeed did. Song dynasty China was the world's most advanced empire of the early 1000s;India and the Arab/Islamic world were also powerful. Europe was weak and divided, and the Byzantine empire was vast but brittle. So the fact of multi-polarity makes today similar to the Middle Ages. It was also a period before the rise of the modern nationstate, and our postmodern world increasingly features cities, companies, NGOs and other prominent non-state actors which were also highly influential during the medieval era.

You have been foreign policy advisor to Obama during the presidential campaign. How would you assess his foreign policy?

It's important to distinguish somewhat between assessing him and his foreign policy. He is a great man and also the first American president to come into office fundamentally accepting the reality of a multi-polar world, and taking seriously the need to pursue a foreign policy of burden-sharing with other powers. However, he has come into office very hampered by the legacy of two failed/failing wars, a financial crisis, a massive deficit, a divided government. Unfortunately, other than Russia, he has not been able to improve relations with Iran, China, or most of the Arab world.

You've said that the big lesson of Egypt is that this is the official end of America's SOB (read dictator) policy. Have the protests and unrest in the Middle East been a lesson for the US?

They certainly have been a big wake-up call to the US that it must learn to side with people as much or more than with leaders, particularly those that already have one foot in the grave. The US will have to learn to do more than rely on individual leaders and instead make friends more deeply within society, or at least develop working relationships with opposition groups and even Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. As Arab countries democratize, by definition one doesn't know who will win future elections, therefore being better networked within countries is essential to better diplomacy.

According to you, corporations are now more important than countries but didn't the economic crisis reassert the importance of the state ?

I don't argue that corporations are more important than countries. I say that governments, companies, NGOs, and other types of actors are all important in this new, new world order. There are indeed many corporations that are more systemically relevant than many countries. That is a factual statement that applies to any number of energy companies, banks, and other types of firms. The financial crisis certainly proved how powerful many companies are, and how weak the state has been in regulating them. Successful societies in the future will not have constant acrimony between the public and private sectors, however. Rather they will find a synthesis in which both contribute to job creation, innovation, and economic growth. How do you define globalization? Globalization is the growing breadth and depth of connections among societies and communities by means of finance/capital, migration, political/institutional connections, and the spread of ideas. It leads in many instances towards greater interdependence. The phase of globalization we are in today is Globalization 5. 0. 1. 0 was the medieval Silk Road, which was the first inter-continental trading system. 2. 0 was the voyages of discovery that discovered the new world. 3. 0 was European-led colonialism that created a single world hierarchy. 4. 0 was the expansion of global trade and the rise of multinational companies after World War II. 5. 0 entails the growing participation of all countries in globalization on increasingly self-driven and nonhierarchical terms.

Goldman Sachs has projected that India could be 40 times bigger by 2050. Are you as optimistic about the India growth story?

I never predict more than five years ahead, and I don't believe it is useful to as much as it can grab headlines. If you read the fine print of Goldman Sachs's projections for India, the prerequisites for India to achieve BRIC-like dreams include improving governance, raising basic education achievement, increasing the quality and quantity of universities, controlling inflation, introducing a credible fiscal policy, liberalizing financial markets, boosting trade with neighbors, elevating agricultural productivity, and cleaning up the environment. As if this list isn't generic yet daunting enough, it makes no mention of the Maoist inspired Naxalite movement that has racked close to half of India's states.

Has China come out ahead in the emerging superpower race ?

I don't believe there will be a winner in early 21st century geopolitics. It's too easy to say that the East has displaced the West, China will replace America, the Pacific is the new center of gravity rather than the Atlantic. I resist all such over-simplified cliches - not least because the Indian Ocean has in fact emerged as the world's most strategic body of water! China already is a superpower judging by its economic weight in the world, military strength, and diplomatic influence. But that does not necessarily mean that it will come out ahead. The West - meaning the US, Europe, and even Latin America - contain immense resources and power and are in the process of converging again, not least because they face such a tremendous challenge from China.

Reader's opinion (1)

Venkatesh PriyadarshiNov 19th, 2011 at 19:46 PM

I am mighty impressed with this young man's sagacity. Already a fan!

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