Parag Khanna: Why Nobody Runs the World

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Parag Khanna. (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3)

Parag Khanna — the young freelance adventurer, noticer and scorekeeper in geo-politics — broke the news in the mainstream press three years ago that the United States’ “unipolar moment” had expired in the ruins of Iraq. Who Shrank the Superpower? was the cover headline on Khanna’s debut in the New York Times Sunday Magazine — counting on top of military costs the loss of American moral and economic “soft power” in the era of George W. Bush’s unilateralism. Globalization, as Parag Khanna argued in his first book, The Second World, had become a three-way street, meaning that aspiring peoples between the “first” and “third” world (think: Venezuela, Turkey, Kazakhstan) had the choice now of modernizing with the financial and technical help of (1) the U.S. (2) China or (3) Europe– and that the American route was looking less and less attractive.

The title of Khanna’s new book, How to Run the World was slapped on with deepest irony, or perhaps cynically for the airport racks, because it suggests the opposite of his essential point: that power in the world has devolved into a possibly benign anarchy as in the Middle Ages — that what looked like a “unipolar” world at the end of the Cold War has become not so much a “multipolar” as a “heteropolar” system today. The power of states (and the United States) continues to ebb, and the non-state actors include a mismatching multitude of impulses and institutions, public and private — including the stateless statesman George Soros, the Arab money pool known as Dubai, Cameron Sinclair and his Architects for Humanity, the Catholic Church and Al Qaeda. Nobody runs a networked world, and nobody is about to:

We still accord this privileged status, intellectually or otherwise, to the nation, the state, the territorial, that bounded geographic unit, as if, if and when a terrorist group or a company really does become as important as a state it would become a state. That’s not true at all. We are in a trans-national, trans-territorial sort of space globally, in which Royal Dutch Shell is perfectly happy not being a state as such. It has a global footprint and global operations. The Gates Foundation does not have to be a state to influence policies of hundreds of countries when it comes to public health. George Soros calls himself very proudly a stateless statesman, because of the diplomacy that he conducts everywhere on behalf of the causes that he holds dear.

So to me the idea that something is becoming like a state is a linear projection, a teleological assumption that more power means becoming more like a state. That’s not what the new Middle Ages, as I’m calling it, is really going to look like. Religious groups and religious actors, even those in the world of Islam who want a global caliphate, are really thinking much more about spreading that geography and community of belief, more than they’re thinking about what straight-line borders are they going to put down on a map. So I think we have to be very imaginative about what forms about identity and power are going to shape the 21st Century and focus ever less on just who is a state and who is not a state. …

Parag Khanna in conversation with Chris Lydon.

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  • To address the question of “how to run the world”, a la Parag Khanna, one has to add the following “cartoon” version.

    1. What is Globalization?

    Globalization means that the nation-states of the world are increasing locked into a merry-go-round or carousel pattern called the world-economy. (i.e. the transition from a world economy to a world-economy). The G-20 is the inner ring of this merry-go-round.

    2. What is Capitalism in this Globalization Context?

    Capitalism means the merry-go-round is connected to a system-governing rollercoaster.

    If you like the dynamism of this rollercoaster, you quote from Adam Smith. If you fear the instability or meta-stability, you quote from Marx.

    Bernanke’s exegesis of a “Great Moderation” (ie the Bernanke thesis that the instability has gone away) has been refuted forever by the current great recession which he absolutely was blind to, along with Greenspan, et al.

    3. What is the role of financialization in all this?

    Financialization means that the whole mechanism is itself now determined by global “money on the move.”

    This longterm trend was foreseen around WWI by Rudolph Hilferding and is made colloquial by Kevin Phillips.

    You “run the world” by reworking this structure so that Third World development replaces American consumption as “locomotive.” Islamic finance will be a keystone of this transformation since it is a kind of Third World venture capital with profit-and-loss sharing as opposed to “interest rate slavery.”

    In order to do this, you need massive and constant and profound integration, coordination, consultation and negotiations with Muslims, Arabs, Third World peoples.

    You cannot do this because not only is the vision absent (“where there is no vision, the people perish”) but the world is in a kind of “traffic jam” based on the absence of a Palestine settlement along the 1967 lines.

    Thus you cannot begin to ‘run the world” unless you break the hold of the Israeli Right, the neocons, the Zionist pressure groups, the Netanyahu government, and their allies.

    The points Parag Khanna makes — kind of diffusionist view of levels and loci of power — are valid and interesting but need this layer of “cartoonization” to achieve conceptual liftoff.

  • I agree that Al Jazeera represents a huge shift where all the neocolonial orthodoxies and hypocrisies are being voiced – it is a serious challenge to the kind of under-reporting in U.S. and European media that abetted the Iraq war and which has little useful analysis about the endless “war on terror.” However, I don’t think that NGO’s and a new force of non-state actors will fix the worlds problems, even if they do sometimes present pragmatic solutions. What I see is a global elite now moving into non-state humanitarianism and philanthropy, but in so doing they also to some degree perpetuate the economic and political asymmetries that create the conflicts they are trying to solve in the first place. There is a reason most “post-colonial” states are failing and that reason has to do with legacies foreign intervention and dependency that are not exactly challenged with Bill Gates-esque programs for sustainable development. Before we depend on people from the “West” to fix the world problems, we should first try to create political and economic movements that reduce the “West’s” role in creating the problems that need to be fixed in the first place.

  • Kathy

    I’m afraid I didn’t recognize Dubai from Mr. Khanna’s description. I found it to be the most ghastly place I’ve ever been, and I’ve lived in some very poor countries. A minority population of bored, wealthy, arrogant nationals employs guest workers from poorer countries to do the dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs, while Westerners come in search of oil-industry money. Far from cosmopolitan, it struck me as a feudal culture with a freakish overlay of Western commercial modernity – plenty of shopping malls, but no cultural or intellectual heart. I should add that my stays in Dubai were short, so if the place possesses hidden depths, I missed them and so, apparently, did colleagues who rhapsodized only about 5-star hotels, spas, and beaches.

    Based on the interview, I have to agree with orangescissor above. The idea that technology and supra-national organizations can transform societies in desirable ways without the hard, messy work of hammering out a common vision and formulating laws in support of it reminds me of early 20th century Utopians. They never quite understood that people wanted some say in how they were going to live.

    The effect of the Gates Foundation on education and foreign aid is profoundly anti-democratic. The current head of USAID is a former Gates Foundation executive, who is now in a position to direct AID funds to Gates Foundation initiatives. They are not simply acting independently of the state, they are harnessing the tax collecting power of the state to further their own notions of how society should be organized. The nation-state is the only place where I have a vote and it’s the only place where like-minded citizens can organize to resist attempts by Gates and others to replace our public school system with a commercially-based model. And, oh yes, it’s the only place where we can vote to tax those spare billions back from him.

  • Finally!

    Been waiting for this. Not only from ROS, but from “the world.” And here it came. A mention of the limits of “nation-state” thinking.

    So, it seems, the time is ripe for postnationalism. Not that it’ll be a joy ride. Many of the new structures are disruptive in more ways than one. But there’s something going on, with all the “posts.” Post-colonialism, sure. But, also, post-industrialism, post-nationalism, post-structuralism, and… post-modernism, the «bête noire» of many a commentator.

    A major insight about the current world is that it’s not so much “international,” anymore, as it is global and transnational. The words are often used as synonyms and they don’t matter that much in isolation. But the shift from “United Nations” and what I call “counting countries” to remittance networks and what one might imagine as a “glocal network of city-states” is a significant one.

    Recently, people in North America have been talking quite a bit about “Arab Revolutions” without much discussion of what the “Arab world” may represent. Sure, there are “Arab countries” in there. But it’s not just about which country is going to a change at which point. It’s also about longstanding changes in the global dynamics.
    For one thing, it sounds like Saddam Hussein’s discourse about invading Kuwait had a lot to do with unification of the Arab world. If we go beyond how nasty it may be to invade another country (and all the other things the guy has done), there might still have been an echo to his discourse in other parts of the “Arab world.”

    …and of the Muslim world. It may sound like an irrelevant point but the tendency, in Euro-American discourse, to confound “Arab,” “Muslim,” “Islamic,” and “Middle-Eastern” is simply baffling, at times. There are non-Muslim Arabs. A large proportion of Muslims aren’t Arabs. Islamicism isn’t the most prominent part of Islam. And “The Middle East” is a colonial concept.

    I understand (per a watered down version of Edward Said’s well-known ideas) that “the West” had to constitute itself by constructing an Other. But do we really confuse “European,” “Christian,” “Evangelical,” and “Western?” We may still talk about the unification of what, in French, we call «Monde arabo-musulman». With a special nod to the Shi’a/Sunni divide.

    Several years ago (1997, I think), Wired had a special issue in which it described some scenarios built by GBN (the Global Business Network, a fascinating organization which relates directly to what Khanna said about Royal Dutch Shell). If I remember correctly, their most negative scenario involved the growth of the Muslim world. This was a few years before 9/11 and long before Tahrir Square. And I might misremember it. For one thing, that scenario was probably more specifically about Islamo-fascism instead of some Huntington-esquely simplistic “War of Civilizations.” The point is, though, that I don’t think the GBN really expected something like what’s been happening in North Africa and West Asia in the past four months. And some of that may have to do with entrenched ideas about national structures.

    Now, to be clear, I’m not claiming that these country-specific revolts, rebellions, and revolutions will completely transform the world in which we live by suddenly showing the folly of holding on to Nation-States as the key structure for the World. And I have no knowledge of what’s actually happening on the ground, between Tunisia and Bahrain. As an anthropologist, I do wish I did. But we can’t be ubiquitous.

    But, as @PMarriott tweeted, we already live in a postnational world, with global corporations (like Royal Dutch Shell). The idea is to wake up to this reality. As Khanna suggests, if our microfinancing, community-building, and environmental efforts are also global, aren’t we better prepared than if we focus our efforts on “foreign relations?”

    Speaking of which… A significant part of this shift relates to Chris’s old job. As Jay Rosen keeps saying, Wikileaks may be the first “stateless news organization.” As Benedict Anderson has so convincingly argued (as some journalists automatically respond, when we mention a post-journalistic world), journalism enabled the type of democracy on which political scientists focus: representative democracy (what one might call “checkbox democracy”) of “national entities” coming from “communities” imagined through shared media. Now that media consolidation and failure to adapt to changing conditions are at the centre of a “crisis of journalism,” what kind of structure are we going to see? Might it have some roots in libertarianism and anarchism? Can it go toward participatory democracy? Will the revolution break down borders? Are transnational networks of humans, data, goods, and services still expanding? Is it the Decline of the American Empire as predicted by so many people during the last twenty-odd years?

    I guess Open Source will continue telling us a significant part of that story.

    • The 1997 Wired piece I mentioned in my other comment was probably Peter Schwartz’s (in)famous “Long Boom.” from issue 5.07 (July 1997). It contains a short section about crisis in the Middle East, even toppled regimes, but not at all in the direction things are going, now. To 1997 Schwartz, the “Middle East crisis” happens in part because “the fundamentalist Muslim mind-set is particularly unsuited to the fluid demands of the digital age.” Given the fact that some terrorist groups following and pushing this “mind-set” have been constructed through networks, it sounds off-the-mark in important ways. The same @PMarriott mentioned in my previous comment replied about problems with any fundamentalism in the digital age but I’d still say Schwartz’s prediction had it backwards.

      And, funnily enough given Schwartz’s GBN involvement, it does focus on countries.

      The Middle East, meanwhile, enters crisis. Two main factors drive the region’s problems. One, the fundamentalist Muslim mind-set is particularly unsuited to the fluid demands of the digital age. The new economy rewards experimentation, constant innovation, and challenging the status quo – these attributes, however, are shunned in many countries throughout the Middle East. Many actually get more traditional in response to the furious pace of change. The other factor driving the crisis is outside their control. The advent of hydrogen power clearly undermines the centrality of oil in the world economy. By 2008, with the auto industry in a mad dash to convert, the bottom falls out of the oil market. The Middle Eastern crisis comes to a head. Some of the old monarchies and religious regimes begin to topple.


      By the way, as a type of disclosure or to give some context for my comments about post-nationalism: I was raised in Quebec, in a milieu which favoured Quebec’s sovereignty. This movement is often called “nationalist,” including by supporters. But, a more appropriate way to put it is that there are nationalists and anti-nationalists on both sides, among both “sovereignists” and “federalists.” Part of the rationale behind the kind of sovereignty movement I was raised in is that national structures like Canada’s should be outgrown. Nationalists on the same side of the issue want to defend the interest of a “French-Canadian nation.” The reason the two movements have collapsed into one are, in my mind, related to representative democracy.

  • Potter

    Here is article along the lines that Parag Khanna suggests A Middle East Without Borders

    My own feeling is that we are not going to see the dissolution of nations so quickly. People get attached to their nationalities, even those that were imposed at the end of World War 1 .

    So it’s a global Spring and ten thousand flowers are blooming. It’s good to hear groups are making a difference doing the work needed urgently in areas where nations and the international community can’t or won’t. On the other hand groups and individuals don’t satisfy the needs that nations (states, city-states) can and do: the yearning for dignity that citizenship confers and a say about their collective future. People who don’t have this want to be able direct their lives; they see that this happens through democratic systems where they have inalienable rights. Groups, like corporations and NGO’s, and individuals such as Gates, Soros, Mortenson (and also Murdoch) are more likely to be, or are, autocratic, run from the top down and they hire and fire.

    Although the UN is far from what it should be and could be, it was the dream that it would become a world government, a place where nations, really representing of their peoples ideally, gather to truly represent them in world matters. To those who like to say the UN is useless, we do still look to it. And in the meanwhile it has created it’s share of successful subgroups (such as UNICEF, ICC, IAEA,UNESCO). But true, the UN is not or not yet that overarching global organization or governing body that we really do need to tackle urgent global problems together. We just don’t work to make the UN so and we should, so it seems stuck in a time past. As Khanna says others fill the holes. But not every hole is filled. We watch sudden and internal crises happen in countries and though we have international law we have no means for effective and prompt action to enforce, to stop, for instance, mass murder. We watch and listen on our advanced technologies and shout to each other “something should be done”. And then out of default, we talk about alliances- “coalitions of the willing” of nations pooling power. That is just how the US steps up to the plate and then hands get tied and sustains hegemony. The world looks at us to act in the absence of a world body acting and we go for it and get stuck in it.
    It’s amazing and heartening to see people grab onto the idea of democracy where one would think after all these years that people don’t or did not care much about it. People who have lived under repressive regimes do yearn simply for a stake in their country, their state. And with that they also, I think, want membership in good standing in the international community. I don’t think nations or the notion of sovereignty will become obsolete so soon. But Khanna makes very good points.

  • Potter

    Sorry- that should have read ICJ, the International Court of Justice, not the ICC.

    • Potter

      I was right in the first place but confused- there is an International Criminal Court AND there is, and it is often confused with, the International Court of Justice.

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  • Rob Crawford

    He made a reference to Sultan al-qassimi, a columnist, but I cannot find his work. Can you provide a link? This is yet another interesting person you have found Chris. Thanks.

  • chris

    Yo, Rob: Here’s your guy —
    Sultan Al Qassemi at The National in Abu Dhabi.

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