10 Questions for Parag Khanna

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Parag Khanna is the author of The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. He is also Director of the Global Governance Initiative and Senior Research Fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. His website is Paragkhanna.com, where one can find a repository of articles, videos and interviews. Below are 10 questions. (in case readers are curious, I did read The Second World in one sitting)

1) Another recent work which I think one can compare to your book, “The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order,” is Fareed Zakaria’s “The Post-American World.” If I had to contrast the two I would suggest that Fareed’s narrative is both broader in scope and thinner in detail. “The Post-American World” attempts to describe a possible future trajectory for the whole world while you focus specifically on the Second World (albeit, a rather a large canvas in and of itself). And while Fareed tends to utilize simple and general frameworks (e.g., China and India do not believe in God), you seem to rely on more thick description empirically (balancing both quantitative statistical data with on-the-ground observation) as well as a more scholarly theoretical superstructure (such as H. L. Mackinder’s “Heartland” model). Would you say this is a fair description of the differences?

*** My “Second World” is certainly broader in scope than “Post-American World” in that it covers literally the entire planet (but with some areas like Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa getting very short treatment). He gives more space to India than I do, and we both accord much attention to China, while I add in China’s role in key regions like Latin America, the Middle East, and Central Asis as well. Even though my book is a travelogue with micro-detail, Fareed and I have nearly identical conclusions about the growing confidence of “The East” and the Second World more broadly (which he calls “the rest”). I wanted to have the scholarly superstructure in my book because in addition to providing descriptive detail, I wanted to be predictive about what the rise of new powers will do to geopolitical transition, the balance of power, the future constraints on American foreign policy, and so on.

2) You make copious reference to geographer H. L. Mackinder and those who responded to his hypothesis about the centrality of the Eurasian core in world domination (e.g., Nicholas J. Spykman and the “Rimland”). As a self-identified geography-nerd I can say that your references to grand theoretical frameworks were deftly integrated into the narrative. On the other hand, can you expand on the value which these sorts of models may give to the typical lay reader? Specifically, do you believe that the theory allows one to plausibly stitch together the copious data which you present within your narrative a more comprehensible manner?

*** Even in the age of technology and globalization, geography is still destiny for most. I try to demonstrate just how important the regional context is for evaluating a country’s situation and options — it is more important than the global in most cases. So indeed, Mackinder and geopolitics’ emphasis on population, resources, location, sea access, natural barriers, and other features of geography remain absolutely pivotal to understand a country’s prospects. Let’s take the biggest debate in Asia today (from America’s point of view), namely India vs. China. Just because they both have over 1 billion people, that does not make them equal. Even if they both had efficient regimes (which China does and India doesn’t), or even if the regimes were reversed, and India had the “better” government, India would still face the reality that it is hemmed in by the Himalayan mountains (the world’s tallest) and vast oceans, and has acrimonious relations (at best) with all its neighbors. This severely limits its power projection capability. China, on the other hand, borders more countries than any other in the world, which is extremely useful when spreading influence by either economic, demographic, military, or infrastructural means.

3) I recently read “After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405,” which seems to argue there was a fundamental shift in the rise and fall of polities around this period. Specifically, the author seems to be making the case that the Gunpowder Empires fundamentally reversed the power dynamic which had long privileged the peoples of Mackinder’s Heartland over the settled societies of Spykman’s “Rimland.” The defeat of the Dzunghar Confederacy by the Manchus and the rollback of the Tatar by the Russian Empire come to mind. Since I am not fluent in Mackinder’s ideas at anything more than a caricature level, am I right to believe that he his argument was one of strategic control of territory, as opposed to the dynamic forces of history being driven by peoples shaped by the ecology of the Heartland itself?

*** “After Tamerlane” is a wonderful work of scholarship. Both the factors you identify — strategic control of territory and the ecology of the Heartland — were important for Mackinder. It wasn’t just that the Heartland would be impervious to naval attack/control, but also that it possessed rich natural resources (water, timber, etc.) In fact, based on differing understandings of Mackinder’s emphasis, scholars have come up with different geographies for the precise location of “Heartland” and “Pivot”, Mackinder’s other key geographic concept.

4) Reading “The Second World” I felt the shadow of books such as “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.” In other words, fixed geographical parameters interact dynamically with historical contingencies to shape the patterns of variation we see around us. For example, geography does not mean that Argentina is a wealthy land, but, if history is a guide it suggests that it can be a wealthy land because of the potential productivity of agriculture in its particular climate. I believe these coarse marco-level parameters are critical and do add value in our attempt to model the reasons for the shape of the past, the nature of the present, and the possible trajectories of the future. But I also have an interest in biology, and I am of the opinion that economists for example would gain value by deviating from the uniform Homo economicus assumption and take into account individual and group differences. There are strong indications for example that Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite which one may catch from cats, can change personality and predisposition and generate between-cultural differences. There is also data which suggests that personality variation may be controlled by genes which modulate dopamine pathways. Finally, there are also new avenues of research suggesting genetic variation which controls differences between individuals in behavioral economics experiments. These are simply three examples. I believe in the importance of geography as a major macroscale parameter, but, I am also one who suspects that many of these coarse differences we see across the world may be rooted in microscale variation. Some economists are moving into this domain and attempting to find causal connections between the micro and macroscale. Do you know if scholars in international relations community have taken notice? Or are there just too many other low hanging fruit to analyze so that it is impractical at this moment to integrate these domains into the field?

*** You might have noticed that I try to pitch the book as a work of “geopolitical psychology” and I use quite a few metaphors from sociology as well. I strongly avoid any rational actor models/biases in the book, and in fact try to highlight “irrational” behavior wherever possible and show it as a product of history/culture/geography: just take Chavez in Venezuela, Gaddafi in Libya, and Putin in Russia, three examples I delve into in the book. I also argue that a nation’s psychology is schizophrenic (particularly in the Second World), and that nations can be satiated in a manner that tracks to Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of need”. But yes, beyond game theory there is increasing amounts of work in political science that looks at such non-social sciene approaches to undetstanding behavior in the political arena as well.

5) I was struck a bit by the Sinocentric focus of much of the book. China looms large. In contrast, you don’t spend much time on India, asserting that it is basically a Third World nation, and will remain one for some time. This seems plausible to me skimming over the data on any human development index (or, the fact that it seems likely that the majority of the world’s mentally retarded due to nutritional deficiency, cretins, reside on the Indian subcontinent). Nevertheless, the media in the United States has constructed a China vs. India narrative. Good copy? Or do some people actually think in these terms? (as I suggest above, it seems that the comparison is laughable looking at the bottom-line statistics on most vital indices)

*** In addition to my answer above about how geography impacts the China vs. India debate, it should be added, in agreement with you, that it makes good copy. After all, how else could one come up with an acronym like “Chindia” or “BRICS”, both of which actually speak against the argument of rivalry. In any case, a 19th-century view of the balance of power would certainly suggest that India would make for a strong, populous, democratic, industrial, nuclear, naval superpower partner in the quest to contain China, and thus it’s a very useful construction on the part of the U.S. Pentagon. That said, a great deal more depth has been added to the US-India relationship over the years, especially in the IT and now biotech and other areas, so there is a pattern of growing trust between the two since the end of the Cold War, and independent of the military relationship.

6) Your book was published last year. Events move fast. You spend some time on Georgia, and it is not a particularly flattering picture. A friend of mine told me several weeks ago the basic outline you present, which I would characterize by suggesting that Georgia lay somewhere in the great middle between Bangladesh and Finland in corruption and the robustness of civil society. But during the recent course of events I heard little detail of the nation of Georgia as opposed to the specific blow-by-blow of events (or what we know) involving South Ossetia, Russia and Georgia. Is simply an unchangeable feature of the media, or a bug which might be fixed in future releases? Is there any way we can prevent this? Geographical knowledge isn’t a top priority now…but it seems that a little data would go a long way in making more informed foreign policy decisions.

*** It certainly would! And that is why my book attempts to be an inside-out look at Georgia. I present Mikhael Saakashvili as a corrupt, power-hungry and pugnacious semi-autocrat, and Georgia as a West African micro-state in the Caucasus. I talk about the poor roads, the belching buses, the squalid villages and the arrogant government. If more foreign policy experts and the general public understood these things earlier on, we would have heard less bullish talk about Georgia I think.

7) You lived in the United Arab Emirates at some point and profile Dubai. So quick question, is Dubai sustainable over the next decade? There are some questions about how over-leveraged and how it is being bankrolled by taking on debt. Additionally, as you allude to in “The Second World” it also extracts labor productivity rather cheaply out of most of its South Asian workforce and it seems there is a likelihood that at some point in the near future the cost of this labor might increase because of the imposition of what we in the States would term humane working conditions.

*** I do believe that Dubai is sustainable over the next decade – and the entire UAE even more so. The country has quickly taken up an essential place as a node in the globalized world, both financial (think SWFs), geographical (a key re-export zone located between Europe and Asia), and political (a neutral and safe place in a turbulent region). There is an outside view of labor conditions and an inside view. The outside view equates third world/Asian labor conditions as tantamount to slavery. The inside view shows that they’re considering a proper minimum wage, are aquiring low-cost but energy-efficient housing in the labor camps, and that the workers are there because they want to be there and earn enoughto make the UAE/Gulf the second largest source of global remittances (behind the US). So there will be bumps in the road, but Dubai is the Arab world’s first “global city” and absolutely essential for the region and now the world.

8) Speaking of working conditions and cheap labor, in the closing of the book you make reference to immigration in the United States. There are some, quite often economists, who make a case for the enriching value of open borders and free movement of labor, while others would like to close borders in the interests of cultural homogeneity and tightening labor supply to increase wages. Immigration has been a major flashpoint here in the United States over the past few years, and we haven’t really resolved anything and seem to be tabling the issue for now. If you could design a system of immigration for the United States what would it look like?

**** The notion of closed borders vs. total free movement represent two extreme bookends, neither of which is realistic. The balance has to be found between bringing in sufficient low-cost Latin labor to do the work that Americans won’t do, while also bringing the workers up the value chain so that real wages are pulled down. I do think bringing the currently illegal population “above board” as Schwarzeneggar proposed a while back is a good idea – it will help to get a better accounting of numbers of immigrants/workers in the country and legitimize their presence.

9) Empires loom large in the actions of Second World powers, the United States, China and the EU. I get the sense from the book that you think that the EU has acquitted itself rather well in the world of late in terms of advancing its own interests, both in terms of realpolitik and in the domain of spreading its normative outlook. Additionally, you observe that the EU allows for both unity and diversity; nations can preserve their language and culture upon admission, though obviously centralizing and homogenizing trends are also apparent. Of late some scholars have been looking back to empires of the past as models for diversity existing cheek-by-jowl with political unity. But I would assert that despite diversity most empires of the past were dominated by one identity. For example, Polybius famously observed that the power of the Roman state was its assimilative capacity, but Anastasius in the late 5th century was probably the first emperor who self-identify as a Hellene. Emperors of “exotic” lineage such as Philip the Arab or Septimius Severus (Punic on his father’s side) were Latinized. In “The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians” the author asserts that the liberal education which was the norm among Roman aristocrats was essential in inculcating not just specific values, but an upper class Latin accent which could mark one’s social origins through life immediately upon first contact. So my point is that these diverse empires had herrenvolk. You seem to point to China’s Han ethnicity as something of this sort, but the Han are on the order of 90% of the population of their state. In contrast, there is no such preponderance of ethnicities in the EU. Could it be that past exemplars are simply not applicable to the present? In “The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800″ Jay Winik contends that it was a common assumption during the 18th century that popular governmental forms such as republics and democracies were simply not scalable beyond the city-state, and yet here we are over 200 years later.

*** In her excellent book “Day of Empire,” Amy Chua explains how tolerance of diversity was a renewing force for major historical empires and becomes the lifeblood of sustainability, even as it eventually can bring down an empire. The interplay of technology and historical learning is what has allowed the EU to become the modern day Holy Roman Empire so successfully.

10) You offer that you’ve traveled to over 100 nations in “The Second World.” Certainly impressive, but I’m curious as to the range of linguistic fluency necessary make yourself understood. Was English sufficient, or did you have to lean on languages which you’d learned or already knew besides English? Were there interregional differences?

*** One needs a different linguistic strategy for each region. In Eastern Europe I got by with a mix of German (which I speak fluently), English, and some translators for Ukrainian and Russian. I speak Spanish so was okay in South America. In the Mideast I used basic Arabic to get by on the street, but did interviews either in English or with translators. And in China I needed translators all the time. If I could have done it all over again it would have been nice to speak Russian given all time I spent in Central Asia, but I wouldn’t recommend to young students today to learn Russian. I think it is best to learn Arabic or Chinese (or both) today.



  1. Khanna says: 
    I think it is best to learn Arabic or Chinese (or both) today. 
    While I can understand learning Mandarin or even Cantonese, why would anyone benefit from learning Arabic? The days when businessman J Paul Getty learned Arabic and uses his fluency to build an empire based on Middle East oil are over. 
    BTW, it’s becoming somewhat popular among certain people here in New York, to send their infant children to Chinese speaking daycare…

  2. I mean non-Asian infants

  3. parag might be thinking from a diplomatic-centric perspective (he’s georgetown foreign service educated). arabic is the official language of a lot of countries….

  4. OK, that would make more sense.

  5. In The Tragedy Of Great Power Politics John J. Mearsheimer says that bodies of water stop the projection of military power across the globe. 
    He predicts that the US will become alarmed if China’s economic growth continues, when it becomes apparent that China is going to turn into a mega Hong-Kong alliances will be made with Russia and India to try and contain it. 
    (This may mean that Pakistan will move out of the US orbit entirely unless, it makes up with India) 
    Gabor Steingart in the War For Wealth suggests that the real danger will come from trying to play by the rules of fair trade with China as it takes the production and then the service jobs east. As he puts it “the west has a political radar system that is outdated , it only recognises a danger if it is looks like Hitler or Stalin talking tough with military parades.” 
    According to him the west is trying to compete with it’s workers who have decent pay, condition, and enviromental protection, against countries who send their kids to the factories, or down the mines, instead of to school.Who ignore enviromental standards, except for carbon trading cons. They can only lose that competition and the kind of free market economics that is being practiced is more dangerious to the west than China’s military. 
    ( We are fortunate that China suffers from a crippling lack of diversity).

  6. ( We are fortunate that China suffers from a crippling lack of diversity). 
    the second world is about rivalry and conflict, but it is mostly economic. i think that’s probably right.

  7. The BBC WS was quoting US journalists saying that they dont envy London trying to follow China’s impressive Olympics. I am starting to wonder; is there anything the chinese are not good at.

  8. is there anything the chinese are not good at. 
    well, japan might be a good future projection.

  9. Khanna’s belief that the EU is doing superbly well is bizarre. The other global players clearly don’t regard it that way. 
    For instance, Russia’s defence minister recently said that, if Poland stations US anti missile systems on its territory, Russia will launch a nuclear strike against Poland. Poland is in the EU (and NATO). 
    You can only understand Russia’s threat, and Europe’s response to it, by accepting that: 1) Russia thinks the EU is weak, and 2) the EU thinks the EU is weak. 
    If China stations anti missile defences on its territory it is unthinkable that Russia will make a Poland-style threat against China. China is just too strong, both economically and militarily. American hawks may want to make a Poland-style threat against Iran. But they don’t feel strong enough to do so either. Russia only made the threat against an EU member because they feel the Europeans are weak, and might cave in to the pressure. 
    The EU response was typical of those who believe they are weak. They didn’t break off diplomatic relations with Russia, announce a total trade embargo or amass troops on the EU’s eastern border and start “training exercises”. That’s pretty much how China would react to such a threat from Russia. Not the EU. Their first reaction was to make sure Polish officials working for the EU were kept away from microphones…

  10. george, russia’s threat seems a bit weird to me because of westerlies re: poland. also, in the 1980s i read one of the major problems with china was that ~90% of its population was concentrated in ~10% of its land. this seems an exaggeration, but not a major one. anyway, this is what parag is really point to i think….

  11. Razib 
    Good point about the likely direction of fallout. 
    Regarding currencies. It’s impossible for all currencies to devalue against each other. At least one of them has to go up. The dollar has fallen hard, which means that the Euro has gone up. But the larger European economies (eg Germany) have not been performing particularly well. 
    A highly-priced currency is not an automatic blessing. It makes it harder for exporters. Perhaps the dominant element in Chinese economic success is the Chinese government’s deliberate policy of preventing the Yuan rising to its “real” value. Its “real” value is the price at which China would have no export surpluses or deficits with other countries.

  12. I don’t know how much use Khanna makes of Mackinder, but Mackinder’s work strikes me as a prime example of the erroneous elevation of empirical regularities to the status of law. The importance of the Pivot Area from 700 BC to about 1300 BC was something of a historical freak, the result of several factors: the effectiveness of offensive cavalry warfare, the enormous steppe grasslands most suitable for raising horses, and the much greater economic productivity of the sedentary areas. The steppe thus was able to, and motivated to, successfully specialize in the military exploitation of the sedentary areas.  
    When Russia rose to power, it was at the expense of the steppe peoples. Combined military and agricultural improvements made it possible to cultivate the steppe — agriculture became productive enough to fund the troops, and soldiers became effective enough to defend the farmers. At that point the old pivot was dead and gone. (I recommend Khodarkavsky’s “Russia’s Steppe Frontier”.) 
    I agree that the geographical point of view should be central, but most of the grand world-systems and geopolitical theories seem bogus. They really need to be broken down to their functional and empirical parts and then reconstructed in terms of contemporary facts.