I had never heard of the young scholar Parag Khanna until this afternoon, when I read the long feature article of his in the New York Times Magazine of January 27. It’s a stunning geopolitical forecast. (See his photo above.)
He asks you to imagine the year 2016, the final year of the second term of President Hillary Clinton/John McCain/Barack Obama. Now open your eyes and tell us what you've seen. Khanna tells us his vision, which is pretty interesting. He divides the world’s nations and regions into three categories while mangling the terminology introduced by Irving Lewis Horowitz in his 1966 book, Three Worlds of Development. Horowitz’s three worlds were: The First World (we rich capitalists); the Second World (the socialist countries); and The Third World (the undeveloped states). But now that socialism has almost vanished, Khanna redefines the Second World as intermediate “swing states” such as Venezuela, Vietnam, Morocco, and Malaysia:
“Lying alongside and between the Big Three [superpowers], second-world countries are the swing states that will determine which of the superpowers has the upper hand for the next generation of geopolitics.”
Khanna predicts that there will be three superpowers or “First World” regions: The European Union the United States, and China. I was puzzled by the omissions of certain countries or regions from this First World list, which included no India. No Russia. No Middle East. No Africa. No South America.
Imagine: no Russia! This absence surprised me most, but he justifies it cogently.
“Apparently stabilized and resurgent under the Kremlin-Gazprom oligarchy, why is Russia not a superpower but rather 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. ... Filling the vacuum they have left behind are hundreds of thousands of Chinese literally gobbling up, plundering, outright buying, and more or less annexing Russia’s Far East for its timber and other natural resources.
“Russia lost its western satellites almost two decades ago, and Europe, while appearing to be bullied by Russia’s oil-dependent diplomacy, is staging a long-term buyout of Russia, whose economy remains roughly the size of France’s. The more Europe gets its gas from North Africa and oil from Azerbaijan, the less it will rely on Russia, all the while holding the lever of being by far Russia’s largest investor....Privately, some EU officials say that annexing Russia is perfectly doable; it’s just a matter of time. In the coming decades, far from restoring its Soviet-era might, Russia will have to decide whether it wishes to exist peacefully as an asset to Europe or the alternative — becoming a petro-vassal of China.”
This was the most astonishing prediction, to my mind. On the other hand, I was not surprised at all by Khanna’s assertion that the US cannot possibly regain the global supremacy it enjoyed even a decade ago. This is not merely because of its lost economic resources, squandered on war, but equally because of its defunct moral credibility, squandered by high-handed bullying. America will be a superpower, all right, but merely one of three.
Equally unsurprising was Khanna’s prediction that the European Union will be as rich and powerful as the United States, and will more fully represent the higher political and economic orientation that once made the US into a moral global leader.
Throughout most of his long article, the analysis reflected a geopolitical realism that saw the three dominant First World powers as vying for control over Second World nations, these so-called “swing states.” The author came across as a hard-nosed strategist, advising the successor to President Clinton/McCain/Obama on the best ways of winning this game. His theoretical approach was not offensive, but nor was it inspiring.
Yet at the end, Khanna turns so idealistic that he might well be writing Obama’s uplifting stump speeches for him. No, he does not identify here with Obama, but instead JFK. He advises the new president to
“channel your inner J.F.K. You are president, not emperor. You are commander in chief and also diplomat in chief. ...No more ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ only ‘we.’ That means no more talk of advancing ‘American values’ either. What is worth having is universal first and American second. ...We have learned the hard way that what others want for themselves trumps what we want for them — always. ... This new attitude must be more than an act. To obey this modest, hands-off principle is what would actually make America the exceptional empire it purports to be. It would also be something every other empire in history has failed to do.”
I am impressed with Khanna’s approach, which of course sounds eminently respectful to other societies. Still, I am not completely happy with his willingness (which is becoming normal these days) to desist from supporting democracy abroad. For one thing, he assumes too readily that spreading democracy means imposing democracy. It does not. Until quite recently, one could see all kinds of countries adopting democracy eagerly. Even now, that would be the case if the remaining dictators had not learned to suppress such movements by suppressing access to communications. Not to assist the people of Burma to wrest democratic power from the ruling junta would be a betrayal of human rights, but that is the hands-off attitude Khanna’s policy would presumably entail.
Though he does not exactly advise us to desist from promoting democracy, he advises that we be cautious about the “timing” of it. I think, however, that the message should be one of method rather than timing. We should always offer support to democratic opposition movements in repressed countries; it is simply a matter of basic human decency to do so. But we must offer only nonviolent support — help for nonviolent liberation. It is the difference between violence and nonviolence, between military equipment and money for communications technology that counts. Apart from this caveat, I hope that the president elected in 2016 adopts exactly the advice that Khanna offers here.