Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Second World: Geopolitics vs. Globalization

Geopolitics vs. globalization. Now that’s an interesting juxtaposition and it’s at the heart of the book The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Competition in the Twenty-first Century by Parag Khanna. The focus of the book is fresh and delightfully geographical. Khanna, a senior fellow and program director at the New America Foundation, takes us on a whirlwind tour around the world hopping from one region to next focusing on the ‘second world,’ emerging countries that are no longer part of the third world but have not quite reached the first world status. The author’s credible claim is that much of the future of the world will depend on what happens in these countries, many of which are now finding their place amongst the larger geopolitical scene. Geopolitics is the great game in which countries and especially the dominant powers vie for influence and advantage over others. Khanna sees globalization as a potential counterforce to geopolitics wherein the interconnectedness of the entire world makes it a safer place. He is no starry-eyed idealist who believes in an overpowering positive force of globalization. Geopolitics is alive and well there is no doubt it. Khanna also recognizes that the United States is no longer the sole superpower as it might have appeared at the end of the Cold War. In fact, he makes a convincing case that its star is fading. For the first time, we live in a tripolar world, with the US, the European Union and China making claims at being dominant powers, both regionally and on a global scale. This constellation and how these three powers interact with the second world is at the heart of the book.

Like a good regional geography, the book is organized in five sections along continental lines. The first part, entitled The West’s East, focuses on the eastern periphery of Europe and the aspiring members of the EU. The second part, Affairs of the Heartland, covers the Eurasian landmass, Central Asia, which is now again the chessboard in a new Great Game, this time played by the three new dominant powers. The title of the third part, The End of the Monroe Doctrine, says it all. US dominance is no longer a given in its own backyard where the links with the old colonial powers in Europe remain strong while China is making inroads into the region. Part IV, In Search of the “Middle East” hones in on the turbulent Arab world, while the fifth part makes a call for Asia for Asians. On this tour of the world, Khanna takes us to close to forty countries or autonomous (some more than others) regions (like Tibet, Xinjiang and Palestine) all of which belong to the second world. Some are covered in a detailed and insightful manner, while others receive more superficial treatment. Some (think Azerbaijan or Syria) are covered in a couple of pages, while others stretch out over much longer passages (the longest section, at 21 pages, is dedicated to China; and this is the main section on China, not including the Tibet and Xinjiang parts or the frequent references to it throughout the book). Despite this regional treatment, as is the wont of good regional geographies (and judging from the extensive bibliography, Khanna is quite aware of the geography literature), the different parts do hang together in an exemplary manner and the author constantly reminds us of the interlinkages between places and issues. When I say that the book is very geographical, I mean that the author is acutely aware of how geography plays into the geopolitics of the places. Factors such as natural resources, mountain ranges, sea lanes, pipeline routes or urban dominance are often mentioned explaining strategic and tactical choices that countries make.

The style of the book is rather unusual in the sense that it is at the same time erudite and quite personal. The many anecdotes suggest that Khanna has indeed visited all of the countries and territories he writes about. In that sense, the book occasionally takes the form of a travelogue (and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a perfectly legitimate literary form). On the other hand, as witnessed by the 23-page bibliography and 65 pages of endnotes, this is a very well researched book. What put me off slightly in the beginning was Khanna’s somewhat breathless writing style. It seems that his aim has been to write a book, which doesn’t mince words and in which surprising insights sometimes shock the reader. One gets the impression that the book has been written at a flow-of-consciousness speed. At times, this has led to bad similes that make one cringe (“Latin America’s dances—salsa, samba, rumba, tango—all involve swift, jerking maneuvers, even unpredictable lurches. The same is true of Latin politics.” – p. 130).

At other times, Khanna’s attempts to move fluidly from one subject to the next has produced apparent non-sequiturs: (is it just me who cannot fully follow the logic in this passage: “In the great informality of Arab encounters, the culture of wasta—personal connections—is preferred to modern institutions. Beyond the narrow elite, which seems lost without the use of English, bloated public sectors from Libya to Saudi Arabia and also Iran remain bastions of stultifying inefficiency.” – p. 202)

Then again, this is never a dull read and the style grows on you (admittedly, some chapters are better argued than others) and the non-diplomatic language is refreshing when, for instance, Khanna writes about tiny, poor Georgia in the Caucasus that bought wholesale a neoliberal, almost libertarian stance to its development after its release from under the Soviet rule. Khanna writes: “Imagine a country of abandoned villages, collapsed buildings, battered trucks belching clouds of foul exhaust, women selling corn on the roadside, children bathing in drying riverbeds, and haggard beggars in the capital city. Now imagine that its citizens are white (p. 48).” Having visited Georgia earlier this year, I can attest to the vast differences between the lifestyles of the regular people and the new elite driving around in big German cars.

Or when he writes about America’s leading partner in the Middle East in securing the flow of oil and fighting terrorism: “Globalization appears to accelerate history, but in Saudi Arabia, history moves at two completely different speeds, one for the head and another for the heart. There are limits to how far a civilization can advance when people pray five times a day and live in the paralyzing heat of an endless desert (p. 240).” It is worth noting that Khanna is equally sanguine about the situation in Israel-Palestine, sparing no words in assessing the reality of the dual and highly unequal nation.

The author was prescient in writing the book. My paperback edition was published in 2009 and some events that Khanna predicted have already taken place, like in the case of the Central Asian ‘Stans’ when he writes that “it is a shock that there have been no major conflicts in the region (p. 76).” Well, the Kyrgyzstan coup and ethnic-based slaughter took place soon after the publication of the book.

He is critical of America’s imperial pretensions and stubbornness when it comes to dealing with ‘rogue’ nations, noting that “America’s childish silent treatment of Iran ignores the reality that in the geopolitical marketplace, attempting to isolate a country is about as effective as ignoring its existence ... Iran is diplomatically sophisticated enough to derive benefits from multiple powers simultaneously—particularly if those powers have competing motivations. The United States has focused strictly on the military potential of Iran’s nuclear program, ignoring its civilian uses and Iran’s other commercial needs (p. 230).” This is a theme that pervades the book: second world nations have a choice in the global marketplace and by trying to isolate them the United States ends up isolating itself.

Writing on the Arab region, one has to agree with Khanna when he observes that “America considers the region strategically important, but that does not guarantee it a right to military interventions, particularly since its blunders, not Arab genetic defects, are widely held to be the chief cause of terrorism, proliferation, and conflict (p. 253).”

In general, Parag Khanna is quite critical of the United States and how it sees itself in the world. America believes in military power as its strength. However, it has misunderstood both Hobbes and Darwin in the sense that it thinks that it can dominate others just by being the strongest bully on the block: “The real lessons of Hobbes and Darwin are that no single power will dominate others; rather, the most adaptive system will prevail (p. 322).” He points out that America’s prestige has waned fastest where it has been most aggressive, in Arab States and East Asia.

Similarly, America’s soft power is on the wane as the EU, China and many second world countries rise. America’s arbitrary visa restrictions stifle fertilization of the scientific and professional fields. Leading scientists have a choice of gathering elsewhere. In the moneyed sphere, hedge funds and gambling are increasingly moving to Hong Kong and London. The Al Jazeera network is effectively competing with American cable networks, except in the United States (writing this as I am in Indonesia, I can confirm that Al Jazeera is indeed a preferred source of global news). In the world of sports, America is alone not understanding soccer and cricket, the most popular sports on the globe. Even many of Hollywood’s latest successes are based on innovations from Hong Kong and Japan. Higher education has for half a century been dominated by American universities from Harvard to Yale. Now, more Indonesian kids go to universities in China than in the United States. Who would have thought that would happen so soon?

Like many observers today, Parag Khanna is upbeat about what is happening in Asia and how the Asian model provides a viable alternative to the West, and especially the United States. He praises Asian values, which feature “open societies but closed polities, restoring democracy to its place as a means to an end—not the highest virtue, but just one agenda item among many (p. 266).” He makes the extremely valid point about how East Asian traditions challenge American notions of human rights. Americans give utmost priority to economic freedom and individual rights, even if they infringe on other people’s freedoms, while Asians emphasize communitarian wellbeing. As in Europe, human rights are seen as encompassing the right from need and want for all, rather than individual liberty to do whatever one wants irrespective of its impacts on others and the larger communal good.

He astutely observes the differences between how Asians and Americans view government. In America—witness the lunacy of the Tea Party movement—government is seen as something apart from the people, something that hinders innovation and development. In Asia (and in much of Europe, especially the northern fringe where I hail from) government plays a key role in inserting capital and innovation into the system, while at the same time ensuring that the excesses of capitalism do not destroy social fabric. Khanna makes a clear distinction between the United States and Europe in this regard. He remarks that Europe is by and large welcomed in Asia for developing capacity and providing new models.

Khanna is by no means naïve, so he does not see Asia as a monolithic success story. Somewhat surprisingly, he is rather dismissive of India, stating that “India is big but not yet important. Outsourcing has made it a leading back office for Western firms, but except for a few segregated twenty-first-century oases of development, India is almost completely third-world, most of its billion-plus people living in poverty (p. 276).” He sees China, and still also Japan (as well as Korea, Singapore and Taiwan), driving change in Asia and globally.

He passes a pretty rough judgment on Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. He appears to think that as a country Indonesia has little right to exist as a sovereign state. According to Khanna, the Indonesian archipelago is impossible to govern, by either dictatorship or democracy. The distances – both geographically and socially in this world’s largest Muslim nation where some parts are primarily Hindu – are just too great to bridge easily.

Understandably, China and its role in the world is one of the important themes that permeates the book. In many sections, he describes China’s emerging role as a donor nation and partner to poorer countries. Years ago, I have myself witnessed China’s rather heavy presence in less developed countries, such as Laos, in its backyard. The Chinese footprint could be seen both in commercial connections as well as state-sponsored projects. Both had the tendency of leading to the depletion of forests and other natural resources, while helping the country to develop its roads and other infrastructure (partly to facilitate the said extraction of natural resources). Khanna describes in some detail how China has expanded its horizons and is making similar inroads into Central and Western Asia, Africa and Latin America, often competing with the United States and other developed countries. This was again confirmed by several African participants at a very recent meeting I participated in on harmonization of development aid. The Africans, at least at an official level, tend to see this mostly in positive terms. China gives as well as takes, and this is seen as a fair exchanged with little strings attached as it comes to social or environmental safeguards that more traditional donors tend to harp on. (China is not alone in this. For instance, in Portuguese-speaking Mozambique, Brazil has stepped in with its own commercial and aid programs.)

China itself is still a developing country. Or as Khanna says, there are really four Chinas: the southeast region that houses Shanghai and Hong Kong (as well as Taiwan that is technically a separate country but economically and culturally integrated into the motherland), and contains 60 percent of China’s wealth; the northeast quadrant, including the imperial capital of Beijing, that is not equally rich but certainly no longer third world either; then the two western quadrants (including the autonomous provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, which are ethnically and culturally separate from the Han China, but increasingly integrated through migration and economic links), which are still seriously poor and undeveloped. Like one Chinese official told me earlier this year, “China has seven Least Developed Countries in its west.”

Parag Khanna predicts that China will not democratize before it reaches its goal of a increasing the material standard of living of all its populace by mid-century. However, he also recognizes that the heavy-handed censorship of thought and jailing of China critical thinkers – and China remains “a country where telling the truth and telling lies are equally dangerous” (p. 320) – its international reputation will continue to suffer. He thinks that the country is now strong enough and its economic development so compelling that the government and Party could well afford to relax the controls.

One of the main conclusions in this interesting book focuses on the fluidity and uncertainty of the geopolitical landscape where the United States, Europe and China form competing spheres of interest, and where the increasingly powerful second world nations act as pieces on a great chessboard. In this tripolar world, each of the aspiring superpowers in its own way undermines the international architecture of global governance, “eroding the fiction that laws and institutions alone can restrain imperial competition (p. 335).”

The outcome of such a competition is not a given and each of the three have their weakness, summarized by Khanna: “America may not be able to afford its excessive consumption, nor Europe its expansion, nor China its environmental and social burdens (p. 321).”

The United States’ role is increasingly challenged in economic, financial and moral spheres. This is witnessed by how America today has must go it alone as its supposed allies balk at the military ventures, as well as America’s flaunting of international law and institutions (for example when it comes to trying to manage global climate change). The United States was central in creating the United Nations, but now disregards the organization in a way that Khanna calls “abusive negligence” (p. 336), which gives other nations the excuse to downplay the UN role equally.

One of the last chapters in the book is posed as a question, America: from the first world to the second? Referring to Toynbee, who seems to be an intellectual father of the author, Khanna recognizes that historically the most common causes of the decline of great nations have been increasing militarism and the deterioration of the creative minority. These both are evident in America’s recent developments. He observes what we living in the United States see every day, that America is no longer a middle-class nation. While the middle class is constantly squeezed, America is polarized into extremes of a superrich privileged class and a vast base of poorly educated and economically disadvantaged people. These are sure signs that the United States is inevitably slipping into the second world. In terms of income equality, the US is now competing with nations such as Brazil in displaying the widest differences.

Meanwhile, the second world is realigning itself in relation to the three poles as well as forming alliances amongst themselves. As Khanna observes, “the second-world anti-imperial belt of Venezuela, Iran, Kazakhstan, Libya, Malaysia and others will continue to focus as much on building ties among themselves as with Washington, Brussels, or Beijing (p. 325).” This process is dramatically changing the world geopolitics.

Khanna compares the tripolar world order to a stool, which can only be stable if all the three legs are steady. He calls for a new equilibrium in which the United States, the European Union, and China jointly determine the rules of the geopolitical game. He places some hope in the power of globalization that has linked the world into an intricate web of mutual interdependences that increasingly makes conflict a non-win situation. He ends the book by stating: “A century ago, globalization was defeated by geopolitics, unleashing World War I. The question is whether history will repeat itself a century later. The answer remains unknown, for as the second world shapes both geopolitics and globalization, diplomacy becomes ever more an art (p. 341).”

The Second World is an insightful and refreshing book in its politically incorrect frankness. Even if one were not to agree with every detail or prediction that Parag Khanna puts forth – as is inevitable in such a wide-ranging treatise – it seems impossible to ignore his basic arguments and conclusions about the great geopolitical changes that we are witnessing. The world will no longer be what we grew up with.

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