Tuesday, January 29, 2008

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The Second World and my discontents

Over at Duck of Minerva, Daniel Nexon heaps praise (and gentle criticism) on Parag Khanna's The Second World, which was excerpted as the cover story for the New York Times Magazine: ("[T]he book is really excellent. I consider it one of the most important contributions to the debate over American grand strategy to make its way into the public sphere in quite some time.")

I will heap praise on Khanna's agent for getting the excerpt placed into the Magazine. There's less demand than there used to be for prose stylings that read like Benjamin Barber after a three-day coke bender in Macao.

As for the content of Khanna's ideas... well, here's a key excerpt:

The Big Three are the ultimate “Frenemies.” Twenty-first-century geopolitics will resemble nothing more than Orwell’s 1984, but instead of three world powers (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia), we have three hemispheric pan-regions, longitudinal zones dominated by America, Europe and China. As the early 20th-century European scholars of geopolitics realized, because a vertically organized region contains all climatic zones year-round, each pan-region can be self-sufficient and build a power base from which to intrude in others’ terrain. But in a globalized and shrinking world, no geography is sacrosanct. So in various ways, both overtly and under the radar, China and Europe will meddle in America’s backyard, America and China will compete for African resources in Europe’s southern periphery and America and Europe will seek to profit from the rapid economic growth of countries within China’s growing sphere of influence. Globalization is the weapon of choice. The main battlefield is what I call “the second world.”

There are plenty of statistics that will still tell the story of America’s global dominance: our military spending, our share of the global economy and the like. But there are statistics, and there are trends. To really understand how quickly American power is in decline around the world, I’ve spent the past two years traveling in some 40 countries in the five most strategic regions of the planet — the countries of the second world. They are not in the first-world core of the global economy, nor in its third-world periphery. Lying alongside and between the Big Three, second-world countries are the swing states that will determine which of the superpowers has the upper hand for the next generation of geopolitics. From Venezuela to Vietnam and Morocco to Malaysia, the new reality of global affairs is that there is not one way to win allies and influence countries but three: America’s coalition (as in “coalition of the willing”), Europe’s consensus and China’s consultative styles. The geopolitical marketplace will decide which will lead the 21st century.

The key second-world countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia are more than just “emerging markets.” If you include China, they hold a majority of the world’s foreign-exchange reserves and savings, and their spending power is making them the global economy’s most important new consumer markets and thus engines of global growth — not replacing the United States but not dependent on it either. I.P.O.’s from the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) alone accounted for 39 percent of the volume raised globally in 2007, just one indicator of second-world countries’ rising importance in corporate finance — even after you subtract China. When Tata of India is vying to buy Jaguar, you know the landscape of power has changed. Second-world countries are also fast becoming hubs for oil and timber, manufacturing and services, airlines and infrastructure — all this in a geopolitical marketplace that puts their loyalty up for grabs to any of the Big Three, and increasingly to all of them at the same time. Second-world states won’t be subdued: in the age of network power, they won’t settle for being mere export markets. Rather, they are the places where the Big Three must invest heavily and to which they must relocate productive assets to maintain influence.

While traveling through the second world, I learned to see countries not as unified wholes but rather as having multiple, often disconnected, parts, some of which were on a path to rise into the first world while other, often larger, parts might remain in the third. I wondered whether globalization would accelerate these nations’ becoming ever more fragmented, or if governments would step up to establish central control. Each second-world country appeared to have a fissured personality under pressures from both internal forces and neighbors. I realized that to make sense of the second world, it was necessary to assess each country from the inside out.

Maybe I'm a stickler for conceptual boundaries, but I don't think you can claim that the central conceit in your book -- the second world -- is really, really important by temporarily sticking China in the category to inflate the numbers.

There are other, bigger problems:

1) The second world is not nearly as nimble at playing the big powers off of each other as Khanna would have you believe. For example, despite all of Hugo Chavez's machinations, Venezuela still needs the U.S. market.

2) As Nexon said, the excerpt does its darndest to play up Europe and China's rise and America's fall. Actually, it's worse than that -- in the excerpt at least, Khanna simply asserts that American power is waning. I suspect that's true in a relative sense, but some, you know, data, would have been nice. I suspect that these trends are occurring, but Khanna just skates over the internal and external difficulties faced by these other two poles.

3) Robert D. Kaplan style-travelogue inquiries into international relations are really fun to write, and might be fun to read -- but they don't actually shine that bright a light onto the contours of world politics.

I did like the frenemies line, though.

posted by Dan on 01.29.08 at 08:49 AM


I read Mr. Khanna's article in the NYT magazine, and I have several problems with it.

(1) The EU is still more of an international organization than a state. As such, it is silly to argue that creation of analogous organizations, such as the African Union, represent a repudiation of the United States or Asia or whoever. The African Union is emulating the E.U. because that's the only choice available to it -- political union among various disparate African countries isn't in the cards. Now, could the E.U. morph into something like a state? Sure, and I'd even say that's probable. But that would require things like a common foreign and defense policy. That in turn will undermine the E.U.'s Obamaesque appeal to be "above politics" on the international stage, where it will act according to its national interests, like any other state.

(2) Khanna vastly underestimates the potential for conflict within Asia. I don't disagree that China is building up an "Asian co-prosperity sphere," and that relations have warmed between China and countries like Korea and Thailand. But I think that warming only continues to a point. And there is still vast potential for conflict between China and Japan, and between China and India. One trend that Mr. Khanna missed, for example, was increasing cooperation between Japan and India, which should probably be seen in the context of providing a counterweight to China. We don't similarly see Canada and Mexico ganging up on the U.S., for instance.

(3) Khanna is far, far too quick to dismiss Russia, which he seems to think will inevitably bow to the E.U. or become a vassal state of China. His chief evidence for this seems to be demographic decline, but I think that is far less a problem than most people make it out to be -- if anything, fewer people means a higher per capita GDP from all those oil revenues that Russia will command regardless of its population. If Russia cozies up to the E.U., it's because liberal thought in Russia shows a resurgence after Putin.

(4) And finally, Mr. Khanna overestimates the degree of decoupling of Europe from the U.S. I think that Atlanticism has shown itself to be far more resilient than we thought in 2003, and that -- while the Bush administration was far too reckless with the Atlantic alliance back then -- it has done much to repair relations since then. And there was a failure of leadership on the European side during those years, too -- Jacques Chirac, Gerhard "Gazprom is my middle name" Schroeder. The resurgence of Russia has drawn Europe and America back together, too. But fundamentally, I do think that these two regions, regardless of squabbles over things like commercial aircraft, see a common political destiny.

posted by: temoc94 on 01.29.08 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

The disconcerting problem with that article is that it reads like a more subdued Tom Friedman.

posted by: Nick Kaufman on 01.29.08 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

B. Barber after a three day coke bender in Macao. LOL

but man, first we had Bennifer, then Billary, now Frenemies. The next editor that allows a novel concatenation to appear in print should be taken out and shot.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 01.29.08 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

At some point, I expect I'll review the book (I have a pre-publication version). Obviously, I'm not entirely disinterested, as I've known Khanna for some time. I'm also disposed to treat it much like most of the other books on the Amazon top "International Relations" sellers, and it stacks up pretty well against such competitors as *The World is Flat*, various conspiracy theories about the North American Union, and the rest. Call that the "tyranny of low expectations" if you want, but I think my praise should be seen in that light.

That being said, what I like about the article and what you dislike about it are pretty compatible. The argument actually involves a number of distinct claims, some of which are very powerful, others of which are pretty strained. I'd prefer a more sustained focus on the ways in which US hegemony is being hollowed out by a variety of secular and political developments, with less of an attempt to construct a "big paradigm of the future" of the type that, while possible, risks rendering the argument a curiosity of the late 2000s.

All in all, though, I'd rather have these issues put on the table in a way that requires an "big, sexy travelogue" then the alternative.

posted by: Dan Nexon on 01.29.08 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

Clarification: the alternative being "not at all."

posted by: Dan Nexon on 01.29.08 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

Most of what temoc has to say upthread is sound. I'd only add that if I were Khanna, I would have given a little more thought to my terminology.

His article appears to suggest that a lot of countries we are used to thinking of as Third World are really Second World. The traditional understanding of Second World -- countries of the Soviet bloc -- is to be suspended, as some countries in the old Second World are now in the new Third World (and a few -- the Czech Republic? Poland? -- are really First World). A great many countries, if I understand correctly, are one part Second World and two (or three, or more) parts Third World. And Cuba, which used to be Second World, is still Second World even though that phrase means something completely different from what it used to mean.

This terminology is much too confusing to ever come into common use. I can think of other problems with Khanna's article, but honestly, if you're going to advance a system of thinking about international relations it's pretty important that your system put its own distinctive labels on its ideas, rather than borrowing an earlier system's labels and declaring they now mean something else.

posted by: Zathras on 01.29.08 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

Like many commentators on the decline of US power, he misses the point. America's strength was always in its alliances, and just objectively, there can be no dispute that over the past 10 years the greatest shift in power has been away from Europe and toward Asia. Afghanistan has proven that NATO can be defeated, largely because the European allies are unwilling or unable to fight.

It's quite telling that we have a Democratic frontrunner for President, Barack Obama, who has never once visited Western Europe, and no one seems to care about it...

posted by: Rob on 01.29.08 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

Sure, there's soft power. Sure, there are limits--severe limits--on what military power can accomplish. For instance, it can't transform a society deeply divided along lines of hostility and distrust into a harmonious democracy. Bur military power does permit states to win wars, deter wars, and start wars, and wars can settle disagreements between states.
So if one sets about defining and measuring power, surely military capabilities thrust themselves to the top of the list of candidate criteria. And on these criteria the American lead has, since 9/11, been considerably increased--as for instance the increase in its expenditures on arms each year has exceeded the annual expenditures of many other fairly powerful states.

posted by: Simplicus on 01.29.08 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

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