Parag Khanna: Why the future is going to be Asian


  • Books
  • Tuesday, 02 Jul 2019

Global strategy advisor Parag Khanna caught the attention of economic and foreign policy experts with a trilogy of books on the future of the world order in the 2000s: The Second World: Empires And Influence In The New Global Order (2008), How To Run The World: Charting A Course To The Next Renaissance (2011) and Connectography: Mapping The Future Of Global Civilization (2016).

The books grew out of years of experience working with bodies such as the US National Intelligence Council, US Special Operations Forces and the World Economic Forum.

In between publishing books, he writes regularly for international publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Guardian and The Atlantic magazine. Born in India, Khanna grew up in the United Arab Emirates, New York and Germany.

He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Bachelors and Masters degrees from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He and his family currently live in Singapore – an apt location considering Khanna is well-known for being very bullish about Asia.

His latest book, released earlier this year, makes the case for a world dominated by Asia: The Future Is Asian: Global Order In The Twenty-first Century.

The following are excerpts from a recent interview.

When will the world have to start answering China’s demands?

Quite frankly, never. The thrust of my work going back 15 years is to argue that we are in an unprecedented era called the polarity of true global multipolarity – it means that there are balancing powers, there’s always options, there’s always multidirectionality, and what I call multi-alignment. I coined the term in my first book to look at the behaviour of rising powers – superpowers, such as the United States, China – the argument was that smart powers never choose sides; what they do is to play off great powers against each other.

Here’s one fact that I hope you’ll cite – this one’s familiar to everyone – when the United States became the only superpower in 1945, in the anomalous situation of WWII and the whole world lying in ruin except for the United States, it represented 50% of global GDP.

Today, it’s 15%. Just because we recently had a unipolar system, it doesn’t mean we’ll have one again. It was really the exception to the rule, which is a world of truly distributed, diversified power centres.

Today we have the United States as a superpower still and Europe as a collective superpower. Asia has multiple great powers like China, Australia, Japan, India and so forth. We’ve never lived in a world with this many truly powerful powers.

Do you view that positively?

The truth is that multipolar systems, especially at the global level, should be considered more stable because rather than one power that can interfere everywhere, there are checks and balances.

Is China winning back debt-reluctant Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) nations?

BRI doesn’t equal debt, BRI is just about countries coordinating their infrastructure planning so that you have more harmonisation of standards, less friction in transactions; that’s fundamentally what it’s about. There are a lot of countries already in heavy debt to the world bank, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) or nations such as China. China is the newest player in the game of indebting poor countries.

The irony of calling it corrupt or fraudulent is that infrastructure is about the only thing you can borrow for and invest in that actually does some good. Very often countries borrow money – you know, like 1970s African dictators borrowing money to buy aeroplanes and tanks for themselves;

it’s as if when we criticise China for BRI, that there’s a lot to criticise – I’ve written a whole book criticising it – but it’s as if we live in an ahistorical world where corruption and malfeasance never existed!

That’s the horrible world the BRI is actually helping us to get out of because if you really look at what’s going on, when China – or anyone – lends for projects, they actually want to see some stuff get done! They want to see roads get built, ports get modernised and trade grow; and if not, they’ll actually terminate projects and rescind financing. So I’m no apologist for China but I try to be as balanced as possible.

Will Asia have to get a little less serious?

I’ve used the phrase “lighten up!” for the last say 15 years travelling in China and around Asia; even as someone who’s meant to be kind of a humble researcher – this was in my 20s – I thought: If you think about how successful China has become, Singapore too, surely if they were to just lighten up people would not revolt against them but rather express their gratitude.

Paranoia collides with the need to lighten up; I think that’s the tension you’ve identified, rightly. People say I’m an apologist for the regimes of this region, but publicly and under the radar, I’m very actively trying to get them to lighten up. They’ve done a really great job – and right now, given the stability of the region, they’re actually making Britain look really bad!

I think humour has an extremely important role in society. I think it’ll be a long time before politics will open up to humour because there is that sensitivity factor – you see it in Singapore, Malaysia and China and elsewhere, they do not know how to take a joke, let’s face it!

The Chinese government does not appreciate it when (President) Xi Jinping is compared to (British cartoon character) Peppa Pig – that’s a no-no! In America you can get away with it, but at the end of the day the question is, to what end? But satire, it’s such an important form of self-deprecation and humility. It would obviously be great to see more of that here rather than a belief in one’s own perfection.

What do you think about Chinese telco Huawei and American concerns about Chinese spying?

I think Germany has the right attitude – there are areas of operations that are low sensitivity or when it comes to network infrastructure, that Huawei has to share source code with the host’s government – that’s probably the right way to go about it. Because, well, Germany’s Internet speed sucks, and countries with low bandwidth also have inefficient service economies – you won’t have WeChat, 5G, mobile banking, all this snazzy stuff that China and Japan have.

So it’s really important that these European countries, if they won’t deploy 5G themselves, buy the fastest, cheapest option to get it done. That’s why they’re leaning towards working with Huawei.

They’re exposing themselves obviously to some degree of penetration of their social data, but from their point of view, America’s been spying on them all along anyway, through the NSA (National Security Agency) – that’s what the Edward Snowden revelations were about.

They obviously don’t think the Chinese are more benign than the Americans, but they want to see their bandwidth speeds increase so they can stimulate economic growth. And if they get caught in a fight between the United States and China for the next 10 years, that’s not going to do their economies any good. So they’re moving forward pragmatically with Huawei.

How long can the United States dominate?

Well, it doesn’t. A proper study of international political economies has already presumed the end of American economic dominance since around 1975. We’re not entitled to our own facts, only opinions, right? So the world became economically multipolar in the 1970s, because then the rise of West Germany and the coalescence of the European economic system, as well as the rise of Japan, had meant that the world had already become multipolar.

The other thing which is extremely important: the size of the economy doesn’t correlate to the importance of the economy in trade. The particular thing that matters in the United States is that it relies by far the least, globally, on imports and exports. The United States, Canada and Mexico have all of the people, all of the land, all of the labour, capital, technology, industry – everything they need to survive.

So the United States only represents 14% of global trade, which is pretty much insignificat. That’s why this (US-China) trade war is so ill-advised, because even as the world’s largest economy, the United States is much less relevant to global trade than the EU or China.

They (the EU and China) may be less important in dollar terms but they’re far more important in terms of trade – far, far, far more. This is all illustrated through the BRI Summit: Because China and Europe trade a lot more with each other than either of them does with the United States, they’re moving ahead with BRI – they don’t care what the US opinion is on BRI.

And when it comes to trading with each other, Eu and China, Eu and Japan, EU and Asean, they’re all moving towards trade liberalisation and free trade agreements. Where-as the United States has not signed the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) Trade Agreement. So again, the United States isn’t at the centre of their decisions.

Quite literally what you’re seeing is Europeans and Asians ignoring – not just not following – but literally ignoring US preferences. And this is a material fact; this is why US trade policies are such a failure.

How far should meritocracy be taken? What about when minorities are excluded?

The disenfranchised populations you’re talking about are an extreme minority; the fact is that very often it’s been used to exclude the entire lower 80% of the population – look at the US Senate – 99% have been millionaires.

In Britain, my pal Pankaj Mishra has called it “The Chumocracy” – Eaton grads, Oxford grads. Pretty much no intellectual qualification to be where they are, it’s all just an old boys’ network perpetuated across generations. And you see what that leads to when it comes to actual policy-making; so meritocracy should have nothing to do with wealth or privilege whatsoever; I’m person number 45,000 in history to point this out.

In French 19th century thinking around meritocracy, the Grand Ecole system was precisely about training leaders with competence, and that meant picking people from all walks of life. Confucian thinking on this was purely rooted in intellectual accomplishment and less so in aristocracy. In ancient Greece there was a certain synonymity between aristocracy and meritocracy – and that’s a mistake.

In modern-day Singapore, you have an old boys’ network too, but one of the things they’ve very tangibly done is to actually change the standards, the metrics, the qualification that they seek when recruiting for the civil service. They want people whose background is not just political science and economics; rather in areas like the environment, anthropology and the humanities. This has become baked into the system and therefore now it will happen. So it’s not just what grades you get, it’s how much time you spend volunteering.

So now, if you want to enter the civil service, they’re going to judge you; it’s just automatic, it’s not a matter of opinion any more, importantly. If you want to become an elite member of the civil service, you have to literally quantify and demonstrate that you’ve been a good, social Samaritan.

Of course, all countries should do that through civil service programmes, mandatory or otherwise. In Singapore, it’s mandatory, in America it’s voluntary, in Europe I went to a high school in Germany, all my friends did military or social service, and I think every country should have that too.

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