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Parag Khanna’s Global Vision

Abu Muqawama pointed to a  must-read essay in The New York Times Magazine by Parag Khanna of The New America Foundation ( if you are not familiar with this think tank’s orientation, you can get some idea by checking out their board of directors). This is a lengthy, grand historical ( and overly deterministic) narrative of relative American decline and a coming age of superstate multipolarity with a critical “swing vote” being held by New Core/Seam states like Russia and Brazil.

Waving Goodbye to Hegemony

The Geopolitical Marketplace

At best, America’s unipolar moment lasted through the 1990s, but that was also a decade adrift. The post-cold-war “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership. So now, rather than bestriding the globe, we are competing – and losing – in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world’s other superpowers: the European Union and China. This is geopolitics in the 21st century: the new Big Three. Not Russia, an increasingly depopulated expanse run by Gazprom.gov; not an incoherent Islam embroiled in internal wars; and not India, lagging decades behind China in both development and strategic appetite. The Big Three make the rules – their own rules – without any one of them dominating. And the others are left to choose their suitors in this post-American world.

The more we appreciate the differences among the American, European and Chinese worldviews, the more we will see the planetary stakes of the new global game. Previous eras of balance of power have been among European powers sharing a common culture. The cold war, too, was not truly an “East-West” struggle; it remained essentially a contest over Europe. What we have today, for the first time in history, is a global, multicivilizational, multipolar battle.

Read the rest here.

My reaction to Khanna’s essay, distilled from his upcoming book The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order, are mixed.  Clearly, great effort and thought that has been put into this project by the well-read Mr. Khanna and his Thomas Friedmanesque globetrotting reportage is nothing but impressive. Clearly, Parag Khanna “gets” that globalization is a dynamic and complex system with interdependent “frenemies”; which I infer that he splices liberally with geopolitics and  the hard cultural conflict of Sam Huntington. A synthesis of civilizational conflict and convergence.

While erudite, Khanna’s geo-economic/political argument regarding the inevitable decline of the liberal international order has been made before (anyone recall Lester Thurow or Paul Kennedy?) in the early 1990’s, the 1970’s, late 1950’s, early 1930’s and perhaps originally in the gripping angst of the Lost Generation of WWI. Perhaps even further, as Russian intellectuals of the Silver Age like Aleksandr Blok were already worrying themselves sick about ” the Yellow Peril” even before the Russo-Japanese War.  And as he freely admits, Khanna’s geopolitical model of three, contending global centers of gravity bears a strong resemblence to Orwell’s. Khanna offers some sound, if modest, advice for American policy makers though the soundness of his counsel is independent of the validity of his thesis. There’s a great deal of glossing over the longitudinal weaknesses of the EU and China and minimizing of  the adaptiveness of America in this essay in order to make the declinist narrative as deterministic  as it comes across.

That being said, well worth your time to pop open a cold one and read it.


Dr. Nexon has his evaluation of his former student’s work at The Duck of Minerva


CKR has an awesome critique in the comments section here.

Dr. HistoryGuy99 has entered the building.

Libby at The Newshoggers takes note.

protein wisdom rejects it as unwise – and I agree that the article probably reflects the geopolitical hopes of some NYT editors in their lighter moments when they are not too busy slandering Iraq War veterans.

Love fest from Washington Note.

20 Responses to “Parag Khanna’s Global Vision”

  1. Dave Schuler Says:

    The report of my death is an exaggeration, as an American wit said more than 100 years ago.

    For the EU or China to wield significant influence, they’ll need to want to and express that desire through concrete action. Reports of that, too, are greatly exaggerated.

  2. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Jumping on the bankwagon, I’ve written a series of posts on the end of the post-WWII economic & geopolitical regime.  It’s keystone was America, and that is crumbling — in the near future probably unable to act as a superpower.
    Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn

    We can only speculate as to what comes next, as the new order depends on choices made by the major powers.  We could spin out dozens of scenarios, most as plausible as Parag Khanna’s.

    BTW — why was Paul Kennedy’s book wrong?  He made the classic mistake of giving both a prediction AND a date, underestimating how s l o w l y large-scale events evolve.  But its too early to say he was wrong.

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Dave,

    I agree. In the interest (perhaps) of making a more interesting argument, Khanna has taken emerging trends or potentialities as accomplished fact.

    Hi FM

    Kennedy, who wrote a wonderfully provocative book, is right that the concept of "imperial overstretch" represents an ever present danger for dominant powers.  He (or the popularization of this thesis) was wrong to overemphasize this as a single-causation event, there are almost always a confluence of serious errors over years or decades causing a national decline. He was also incorrect as to the imminent decline of the U.S. – current policies and military spending could be radically adjusted and still leave the U.S. with overwhelming military power at it’s disposal, relative to *all* other states without even considering nuclear weapons.

    Essentially, there are reasons that most declines of historical great powers are measured in centuries and not years.

  4. Eddie Says:

    I swear I’m posting about this today.. promise.
    The reason why is, a perhaps better argument in this bent is made by the wise Kishore Mahbubani in his new book, "The New Asian Hemisphere", a eyes-wide-open look at the future.  He’s hitting on a lot of areas I hope Khanna does as well, though Khanna is already off on the wrong foot by treating the EU as one of the 3 superpowers, a flawed assessment handled deftly by Mahbubani who treats the EU to a far harsher critique than even the US. 
    A big point Mahbubani seems to be making is that we’re running the risk of having no global leader because of the growing anti-Western ism of the rest of the world, China having no historical parallel or guidance to attempt to assume global leadership and the failure of Western policies, incoherent short-term strategy and incompetent execution, as well as the West’s loss of confidence both in itself and its abilities.
    I do like this idea of the second-world though, this is probably a better slight of hand description than "Core & Gap" for helping to understand the world right now.

  5. zen Says:

    Hi Eddie,

    Thanks for letting me know about Mahbubani – it might be good to read to the two books in conjunction ( I did that with bios of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao – I wanted to throw in the recent bio of Ho Chi Minh as well but it was too much).  You’re right on China – at present they are a new face, asking for little beyond a guaranteed, long-term, stable commodities pipeline in return for seemingly good prices.

    Well, quite frankly, the oil deals originally offered by the Brits and Americans in the Gulf via Anglo-Persian and Aramco seemed good at the time too. And they were. Back then. That perception of a "good deal"changes with the market and the increasing sophistication of the local population that will start to demand spot market rates, not ones that are effectively advantageous futures purchases by China.

  6. CKR Says:

    I’m always wary of extrapolations to the future. No trend stays a straight line forever, and it’s usually a whole lot less than that. I also usually disagree with directions of one or more trend and lose interest. I find it a lot more fun and instructive to assume one counterfactual in the past and try to figure out how the trends (which we know) worked out with that one factor changed. So I won’t be buying this book.
    But, to allow the writer his conceit, we shall assume that his future trends stand. [As I read through, I find it harder and harder to suppress all my disagreements. Aggggghhhh. Biting my tongue.]
    The concept of Europe staging a long-term buyout of Russia is amusing, but I’m not sure accurate. It’s a Friedmanesque conceit, to be sure. Does Europe really want to own Russia? And what will happen if Putin nationalizes their investments? Not too far from some of his recent actions. I think that it’s not at all clear who will wind up in charge of what, and Putin isn’t about to join the European Union unless he gets a really good deal, like some of his Near Abroad properly (as he sees it) neutralized.
    And, speaking of EU enlargement, right now they’re having a hard time digesting what they’ve got. Poland seems to be settling into a more EU-mindset, but things are pretty wild and woolly in Romania and Bulgaria. For this reason and many more, it will be some time before Turkey’s bid for membership begins to move. And Ukraine? See the discussion of Russia above. I’m not sure what other nations are looking to join any time soon, although the EU’s history has certainly been positive in spreading its governance, or at least its economic zone. You can see that there are all sorts of assumptions and if’s, and’s and but’s where I differ from Khanna’s trends on this set of subjects.
    As for the ‘stans being "the fabled heartland of Eurasian power," I’m not sure how true that’s been since the horse’s value in warfare was devalued. Thin population, depressed economics; a place for the big powers to jockey, but it’s not clear what, other than real estate for military bases, they’ll gain. Kazakhstan has the lion’s share of natural resources in that region (and possibly Afghanistan as well, if the wars there stop long enough to allow exploration), and they’re pretty determined to keep control over them.
    So let me play strategy czar. I would prefer to be a 21st-century Kennan rather than Kissinger, although the latter old boy is moving in the right direction on nuclear weapons. Why would I (or anyone else) use the phrase "American national interest" to others? I think what Khanna is saying here is to use "we" rather than "I," a valuable and elementary (but often overlooked) piece of advice given me many years ago by one of my mentors.
    I’m not sure what he means by "pentagonizing" the State Department. Bring Wolfie and Rummie back in place of Condi? Maybe he’s just saying that State should put the rest of the world in the same compartments that Defense does. Ho-hum. The Friedmanizing gets a bit thick in places. I would take some of the excess funding for useless Cold War weapons projects out of the Defense Department and probably a lot of other money and give it to State to revive USIA and USAID. I would decrease the Defense Department by half and DOE by at least a third. I would bar all contracts.
    Yes, that last is excessive, and I probably wouldn’t do it. But I would end all mercenaries and would move against the unlimited arms sales, from missiles down to small arms. That would take a treaty (or series of treaties) and long negotiations. But it would be worth it.
    His free-market approach to "diplomacy" is a bit scattershot and probably wouldn’t work. We do need some coordination among all these projects, which is why State needs to be beefed up. We need a lot more interaction on the citizen level, and that goes both ways. So I’d take down a lot of the expensive nonsense we’ve added to allowing people into the United States. Long before 9/11, we had some of the unfriendliest entry processes in the world.
    And, of course, I would follow Henry the K’s lead, as written in two WSJ op-eds now, in serious moves toward nuclear disarmament. I’m convinced that this single area would be a game-changer. But Khanna says nothing about it.
    Some of Khanna’s other suggestions are fine as far as they go, but I think they’re minor. And I don’t think that any of the article necessarily makes the case that US influence is going down. If we follow the neocon insanity, yes. But I think that any of the presidential candidates except Giuliani will change that.

  7. CKR Says:

    Whoo-hoo! Figured out a way to make paragraphs!

  8. Fabius Maximus Says:

    <p>The preceeding comments all go to the core of this article:  its conclusions rest on a tower of assumptions.  Even if the US can no longer fill the role of global hegemon, there are many ways this could play out.</p>

    <p>Just to mention two…</p>

    <p>He probably overstates the internal strength of the EU.  There have been many papers published discussing the ability of the European Monetary Union to surrive a EU recession.  How can Italy remain in the EMU?  What happens if it leaves?</p>

    <p>If the emerging consensus on Peak Oil is correct, with peaking in the next next 10 years, Russia will become increasingly prosperous (unless it becomes internally unstable).</p>

  9. Fabius Maximus Says:

    CKR, please share your secret.  How did you make paragraphs?

  10. CKR Says:

    I put a period into each "empty" line.

  11. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Thanks to the reviews of Khanna’s article.  Interesting that none of them note the financial problems the constitute the center of the rot.  It is difficult for the #1 debtor and #1 borrower to be the world’s superpower.  A thousand pages of talk of "Edison" and "resiliance" cannot overcome decades is imprudent borrowing and spending.

  12. GreatZamfir Says:

    Fabius, being the superpower does make it easier to be a big debtor: after all, a trade deficit means you are taking more from the rest of the wrold than giving. The rest of the world is borrowing to the US under surprisingly generous terms ( or ate least they used to for the past 2 decades), and being a superpower definitely has something to do with it.
    When Asian countries buy US government bonds at low interest rates, they are implicitly acknowledging that whatever the future brings, the US will probably come out reasonably OK.

  13. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Being a superpower is compatable with sustained borrowing in the sense that being a pro athlete is comparatable with a coke habit.  Yes, but only for a while.

    When Asian countries buy US government bonds at low interest rates, they are weighing the probable losses on the bonds vs. the benefits of their current exports AND the future political leverage these bonds give over the US.  They buy bonds because this works for them, not for us.  They are aware that there is an end game to this debt cycle.  Are we?

  14. historyguy99 Says:

    Thanks Mark for the hat tip.

    Fab M, I agree with you that the financial problems constitute the center of the rot. My note that the United States must stop "eating it’s seed corn," identifies over consumption, (and the debt to substain it) being our greatest weakness.
    Talk of "resiliance" will not overcome the past decades of waste. But, that "resilance" sustained the U.S. after a Civil War, a Great Depression, and many economic swings. Nobody pulled a coup or changed our system of government by force. The American people found a way out of the swamp. This time we may be very close to "tilt." Change will come, and with it renewal of purpose.

  15. Fabius Maximus Says:

    historyguy99 — I agree with you on all points!
    I think you are "reading into" my words.  I said that our resiliance will not prevent us from the consequences of our imprudence, *not* that this imprudence would be terminal.
    As I have said in many points, America did fine before we were a superpower, and we can do fine if the world returns to a multi-polar system.  We have survived large, deep downturns before.  I believe we will come through the one that lies ahead, and perhaps even stronger than before.

  16. historyguy99 Says:

    Fab Max:
    "As I have said in many points, America did fine before we were a superpower, and we can do fine if the world returns to a multi-polar system."

    Boy do I agree! and besides, it might be a lot more fun to travel. ;o)

  17. Dan Nexon Says:

    So, if I read Dan Collins correctly, he thinks an argument about diminished American hegemony, with a call for combining the politics of a new great game with great-power management, is a call for surrender? Very odd. I’ll freely admit the gross problems with the "three empires" projection, but Khanna’s hit on something very important, and very uncomfortable for American triumphalism: the terms of competition for influence are changing, and not in ways favorable for the United States. We need to deal with that, and deal with it fast.

  18. Barnabus Says:

    Debt is not the problem at all.  Total US govt. debt is arount 65% of GDP.  The average for the EU is a couple percent lower with France and Germany about the same as the US, Italy being much larger at over 100% and, of the biggies, only the UK being significantly lower.  Also I don’t see how the EU is a threat to US interests in the way that a China may potentially be.  The big unknown to me is how China will develop politically and the degree to which they can garner support from the ROW.

  19. Fabius Maximus Says:

    I wish Barnabus was right.  Unfortunately it is not that simple.
    First, comparing us with other folks having the same problem, like the European core, is not comforting.  The UK, Canada, Australia, Chile, China … these are the folks well positioned for the future.  Unfortunately, the US is not among them.
    Worse, the public debt covers past expenditures.  This is cash accounting, which for good reason is considered statutory fraud for any but small businesses.  Generally accepted accounting principles require accrual accounting, including future liabilities.  The national balance sheet looks much grimmer on a GAAP basis, with our liabilities not $6 Trillion, but roughly $50 Trillion.. There is a long list of major institutions and A-team experts who have warned us over the past decade.  Including the Federal Government’s senior professional financial officer, Comptroller-General Walker.  Too bad we have not listened. .
    For links to many of these reports see
    Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, III — death by debt

  20. Barnabus Says:

    I accept the possibility that both the EU and the US have a problem with debt but the article is comparing the two and it is relevant that Europe has just as large (or larger if you take into account future liabilities) a debt burden as we do.  Secondly, it is probably easier to find a political solution to the problem of future liabilities in the US than in the EU.  There are simple but tough solutions: i.e. raise the retirement age 5 years and the bottom line starts to look much better, means test Medicare, etc.  Third, the debt we are running right now is not as large as recent history.  Annual deficit is a little over 1% whereas historically, in modern times, it has been closer to 2.4% (yes that includes cold war spending). 

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