Parag Khanna's latest places Asia at the head of new world order

  • Books
  • Sunday, 07 Jul 2019

The Middle East, Africa, Europe and finally, America, are all starting to wake up and smell the curry and the durian. Choosing is difficult because, as author Parag Khanna says, Asia is so vast and varied.

Many have made the inarguable case for Asia overtaking the West. Khanna asserts: Westerners must be placed, even briefly, in the uncomfortable position of imagining what it’s like when about five billion Asians don’t care what they think and they have to prove their relevance to Asians rather than the reverse.

Asians see the United States in terms of service provision rather than as a power, and Asian countries are increasingly providing those services – security, finance, tech – for each other. The United States is more dispensable than it can begin to imagine.

Throughout the “global financial crisis”, Asian growth rates continued to surge, with Asian economies comprising almost all the world’s fastest-growing ones.

Above all, Westerners have to grasp that Asia’s rise is structural, not cyclical. It’s here to stay, writes Khanna. This book illustrates how that works, from infrastructure to investment, new transnational allegiances and beyond. In fact, there’s almost too much information: Japan bailing out Turkey’s telecommunications structures, China’s involvement everywhere. It’s all happening now, and it’s all in here.

Much is made of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Many educated Westerners haven’t heard of it – this is Khanna’s point. One key point he makes is that Asians are comfortable with multiple world powers, which has helped enable the BRI’s progress.

Review of 'The Future Is Asian' by Parag KhannaThough he has been accused of negating the West to promote Asia, here Khanna highlights recent failings of Asian democracies with brutal honesty.

An integrator, connecting the details, he throws all the facts into the pot and the picture emerges.

Essayist Nassim Taleb calls Khanna a visionary; he probably is, but the future is nowhere near as transparent to us here as are current trends.

Khanna’s panacea is technocracy. It’s easy to see the need for administrations and leaders to understand and implement tech, just as it is to imagine nations run by nerds, unresponsive to humanity – Asia has endured unresponsiveness for some time already.

Khanna upholds technocracy as “a form of salvation” for societies that realise democracy’s limits. The transformation of the lives of people globally, thanks to technology, is undeniably positive. But alienated labour brings dehumanising effects.

Technology can facilitate the rise of loneliness and revenge/hate culture and dumb us all down. While touching briefly on such difficulties, Khanna’s remit in covering so much ground is generally optimistic.

Utilitarianism is likewise double-edged. Just as citizens’ needs should be addressed dispassionately, this should be accompanied by flexible responsiveness.

Many experience Khanna’s model Singapore as crushingly utilitarian, where citizens are conditioned to queue and experience multiple restrictions, famously including those on expression and public assembly.

The attack on Eastern authoritarianism collapses, Khanna’s maintains, under the evidence; he generalises: “... politics remains fairly controlled, because regimes like it that way and, to a large degree, people do as well.

“The desire for stability and social order is as natural to humans as the desire for freedom.... One should not expect an increasingly liberal social culture to be attended by governments’ becoming any less strict.”

For all of Khanna’s human-centred commentary throughout, this could have been how Orwell’s 1984 was sold to its citizens....

He goes further: “Asians realize that there is such a thing as too much freedom and that responsibility is just as important a word in healthy societies.”

Why not have plenty of both, though? Too much freedom is a phrase even Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher – worshipped in the East, despised in the West – wouldn’t have used.

It assumes the tired trope of uncontrolled hedonism. Western reality, by contrast, has seen its societies thrive in relative harmony for some time. When customs officers strike, for example, travellers voluntarily pay more duty than normal, in unstaffed boxes. It applies way beyond this minor example and the space available here.

If it weren’t for a pivotal chapter, “Asia’s Technocratic Future”, it would be difficult for Western readers not to begin to sense in some of this – technocracy and utilitarianism especially, together with unexamined “strictness” – echoes of Europe’s dark past, currently in resurgence.

This, near the book’s end (in the epilogue), is where Khanna brings his ideas and vision together – both concretely and for the most part, roundly humanistically.

Khanna has marshalled his facts well, and they add up: the future is manifestly Asian, and it’s already started. For the major part, however, his ideas for how that might play out societally sometimes come across as dispersed and unclear.

The Future Is Asian: Global Order In The Twenty-first Century

Author: Parag Khanna

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, nonfiction

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