After the Empire: Must Reading from Parag Khanna

Click to listen to Chris’s classroom conversation with Parag Khanna here (60 minutes, 27 mb mp3)

Everybody’s homework assignment this week is, first, to absorb Parag Khanna‘s breathtaking revisioning of the United States in the world, and, second, to add your comment on the late great American Empire. Can it have come and gone so fast? Parag Khanna will join us in class with James Der Derian, the master of global security and media studies at Brown, on Thursday afternoon.

Parag Khanna: Who Shrunk US Power?

Parag Khanna’s scorecard-lineup of the “post-American world” is more striking for appearing counterintuitively in the safe, smug New York Times Sunday magazine. Five years ago in the same spot, Michael Ignatieff’s version at the start of the Iraq war was titled: The American Empire: Get Used to It. The headling on Parag Khanna’s piece was Who Shrank the Superpower? (Answer: GWB and “imperial overstretch.”) The main points, Letterman-style, might be these:

10. The Big Three in the real world these days are China, the European Union, and with a worrisome limp, the U. S. of A.

9. The big-name non-contenders are Russia, Islam and India.

8. The swing-states out there are the nations of what Parag Khanna calls “the second world.” Think Malaysia, Morocco, Venezuela, Vietnam, Turkey, Brazil, Kazakhstan: nations not of the First nor the Third World, but a mix of both: places often with their own “fissured personalities.” Their primary interests seems to be economic inclusion and self-development. Their acquired skill is in playing several angles of international politics at once. “Right now,” writes Parag Khanna, “from the Middle East to Southeast Asic, the hero of the second world — including its democracies — is Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.”

7. Our American cultural power is declining with our political charm.

Many poor regions of the world have realized that they want the European dream, not the American dream. Africa wants a real African Union, like the E.U.; we offer no equivalent. Activists in the Middle East want parliamentary democracy like Europe’s, not American-style presidential strongman rule. Many of the foreign students we shunned after 9/11 are now in London and Berlin: twice as many Chinese study in Europe as in the U.S. We didn’t educate them, so we have no claims on their brains or loyalties as we have in decades past…

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

6. China is the counter-broker of what we have thought of as our unanswerable power. As in: “Every country in the world currently considered a rogue state by the U.S. now enjoys a diplomatic, economic or strategic lifeline from China, Iran being the most prominent example.”

5. Globalization is a three-way street.

” Globalization is not synonymous with Americanization; in fact, nothing has brought about the erosion of American primacy faster than globalization… The second world’s priority is not to become America but to succees by any means necessary… 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.”

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

4. Russia — being bought out by Europe even as it becomes a petro-vassal of China — is reduced to being “the ultimate second-world swing state… For all its muscle flexing, Russia is also disappearing. Its population decline is a staggering half million citizens per year or more, meaning it will be not much larger than Turkey by 2025 or so — spread across a land so vast that it no longer even makes sense as a country.”

3. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela signals an ideological awakening in Latin America, but Brazil marks out an even more important structural shift in China’s direction, virtually a “strategic alliance.”

Their economies are remarkably complementary, with Brazil shipping iron ire, timber, zinc, beef, milk and soybeans to China and China investing in Brazil’s hydroelectric dams, steel mills and show factories… Latin America has mostly been a geopolitical afterthought over the centuries, but in the 21st century, all resources will be competed for, and none are too far away.

Parag Khanna: Who Shrank the Superpower? in The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2008.

2. “Despite the ‘mirage of immortality’ that afflicts global empires, the only reliable rule of history is its cycles of imperial rise and decline, and as Toynbee also pithily noted, the only direction to go from the apogee of power is down.”

1. We have very little time to adjust our thinking and our policies. “Maintaining America’s empire can only get costlier in blood and treasure. It isn’t worth it, and history promises the effort will fail. It already has.”

Comments please, and push-back questions for Parag Khanna.

Related Content

  • The NYT article mentions that US has no permanent friends (or enemies.) Well the US sure preserved the anti-islam alliance: Great Britain, Canada (well, strike Canada), Australia, Poland? Sure, France has shown it’s back to US but now that Sarkozy is leading the anti-socialist movement there, doesn’t that presage a renewal of capitalistic camaraderie if not red faced bed sharing?

    EU is getting better but there’s still a lot of infighting going on about interest rates especially. Could it be that EU’s (or any other currency for that matter) rise is tied to the dollar’s recent unilarteral devaluation at the behest of Bernanke? I doubt he sees a permanent dollar doormat. But more to the point, China is not going to be too happy when their debt gets paid back in Lincolns rather than Washingtons much less Franklins.

    It is interesting to note that our restaurants so recently staffed with Brazilian Émigrés are now resorting to recent college grads, elders and downsized engineers while their former staff returns to a homeland of prosperity… at least until the politics gets too hot down there or they run out of switchgrass.

    I agree with the assessment that Islam is not now nor was it ever a threat significant enough to force an alliance of the likes of a NATO or even a SEATO. Let’s cut to the chase though, it was the oil dummy. Not actually getting any, just jacking the price up for the Halliburton’s of the world to pad their flack jackets.

  • Bobo

    Are we still doing the Realpolitik rag? Didn’t Huntington and Fukayama tell us, way back when, that nation-states would vanish in the breeze? As frustrating as it is sometimes, the fact remains: 1000 Kenyans are dead in battles over National Government, Americans are going to the polls in record numbers to decide issues of National Government, and the EU looks no stronger or weaker than they did 5 years ago (except for their bomb-ass currency that is…).

    So has nothing really changed? Is the collapse of the American empire going to go down in about the same way as all the other Nation-state empires? Can we continue to talk about China and Brazil as units, as players in this game? It seems on the surface as though the nation-state will continue to be the prevailing model far into the conceivable future. So what does that mean for the failing Empire? What would it mean for that empire if we ceased being a nation-state world? Will we still be drawing colors on maps in 50 years?

  • loki

    So the fog of Campaign 2008 has missed the real story!

  • Khanna wrote in the NYT essay:

    “Europe’s influence grows at America’s expense. While America fumbles at nation-building, Europe spends its money and political capital on locking peripheral countries into its orbit.”

    There are a couple problems with Khanna’s view of transatlantic relations:

    First, fumbling at nation building is just as much a European activity as it is an American one. Several European countries are involved in or are leading major nation building projects – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, etc. If anything, a more powerful and centralized EU would benefit the United States because it could contribute more effectively to these operations. Instead, the US is working with a hodge-podge of allies, each with varying levels of commitment and each demanding their own say at the table. What a pain.

    Furthermore, Europe “locking peripheral countries into its orbit” does not hurt the United States. If anything, the higher human rights and rule of law standards required to join the EU makes these countries more stable, and therefore better strategic and economic partners for the United States.

    Overall, Khanna has described a zero-sum relationship between the United States and Europe that is overstated.

    See full commentary on this here:

  • nother

    I would like to hear more about the socioeconomic dynamics as we move forward. Who will be setting the moral tone and how will accountability happen?

  • lglitch

    I’m with nother on wanting to know more about the socioeconomic aspects.

    I would also like appreciate more details on how he classifies Canada in this worldview. A case could be made that it’s really lumped with the EU, but I can certainly see an argument that it’s another second world player. I’d like to know what he thinks.

  • Sutter

    Still reading the article (it’s a busy week), but this seems a propos:

  • Potter

    Good article and good prescription at the end. I have long awaited our demise as superpower. I cheer it on. I think we and the rest of the world would be much better off if we were a nation/ even a power amongst other nations/powers. I feel this way especially since we do not get the leadership that benefits us given how our system has devolved. For me, putting our energies back into becoming a good example at home and responsible actor in the world, taking responsibility not only for our survival but the survival of the whole world ( as Khanna so rightly says and as others have said before) is the only way to go forward. For that we sorely need enlightened leadership. Barring that, or along with that, we absolutely need the involvement, the checks and balances of other powers super and 2nd tier.

  • Potter

    Speaking of moral tone- I love the Australian story last night on the news- a formal apology to the Aborigines.

    I so much prefer Khanna’s view to Huntington’s clash. I don’t want to be stuck in that clash. I would not deny it, but I would not want to crystallize it either. We can get beyond. The idea of getting to know and embracing the differences, different ways of organizing society which may be more effective than ours is a more appealing vision. I want to see the Brazilian way, the Turkish Way….

    This fall and winter my international travel has been to NYCity, the long cab rides to see my mother. I have come to enjoy conversation with the drivers. On the last trip just a couple of weeks ago one driver was from Jordan. He had a smile and very good English; been here 10 years, raising his children.

    The area of Brooklyn in which my mother lives is teeming with Russian immigrants – a wave of them came here when the USSR folded in the early 90’s. My driver on the way back was born in Siberia-here 18 years. He seemed open to make contact, as he labored to get me through a nerve-wracking traffic jam to the station. He spoke of 55 degrees below zero in Siberia this winter- everything closed.

    I am always reminded of my grandparents coming here 100 years ago on a crowded ship from the shtetls of Russia via the port of Hamburg to Ellis Island, their beginning, living in the tenements, working in the garment industry.

  • jordon

    Picking up on some things that Potter and liglitch said, I thought one thing that was conspicuously lacking from this–and most–foreign policy discussion was the basic question of whether or not it’s worth it for the United States to want to adapt to become a 21st century superpower. Forgive my naivete, but why can’t we just be a Canada? Losing our superpower status does not necessarily affect standard of living–in fact, it can improve standard of living, because a country can focus more on internal problems than global ones.

    I think leverage is important when dealing with truly international issues like global warming. But otherwise, why should we (and by “we” I mean we the people and not our elected officials and thinktank “scholars”) care if we set the agenda on every issue in every corner of the world?

  • America is structurally leaning in the direction of trying to maintain our superpower status. The (“non-negotiable”) American standard of living is dependent on vast quantities of imported oil. As cheap oil becomes less available to us (due to production limits and increased competition for resources), we are faced with an epochal choice: can either radically relocalize, or try to maintain control over oil supplies by using force.

    This choice, however, is beyond our leadership. No President could convince America to do what it would take to reduce oil dependency in time to preserve our standard of living; the American people will only be convinced by events, whose appearance will come too late for us to react deftly.

    So some things are just inevitable:

    1) We will continue on our current course (plus or minus a few percent), with regard to energy consumption and lifestyle.

    2) We’ll spend our military and monetary strength on trying to secure our access to oil. This will further strain our economy and unity, and only delay the inevitable.

    3) An energy crisis will hit, in the forms of fuel unavailability from time to time and place to place, local governments facing higher costs and lower tax revenues which make them unable to afford infrastructure maintenance, and grinding recession.

    4) After years of unnecessary suffering, we’ll start the hard work of changing how we consume and live. We’ll have to accept that we need to consume less, not just consume differently.

  • I have to say, I”m a little more optimistic about positive change than some. Having said that, I do agree that America is over confident as far as It’s “superpower” status, especially with the recent growth of China. There are a lot of good people trying to install change, with everything from global warming solutions to battery powered cars (Tesla). I really hope we can all make the changes we need to before it is too late.

  • Gee Wo

    CFR? Come on…this guy has been groomed for his roles and is acting as a puppet for the same families that are duping so many people without even blinking. We don’t need idiots like this telling us what to do. Humans have been alive and survived a long time and don’t need billionaires and trillionaires to tell us how to survive.