The Second World – Parag Khanna


I bought The Second World thinking that it would be heavily academic.  But that is thankfully not what I got.  The Second World is the companion volume to a couple of other “pop” – meaning broadly accessible, but not trivial – non-fiction books: Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat , Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  All three try to describe the planet we will inhabit in the next 50 years.  Like in Friedman and Gore, Khanna traces a couple of simple and clearly visible lines that describe the future.  Khanna has just articulated the obvious in a way that Americans can’t ignore.

First, the world will be increasingly multipolar.  There will be three quasi-imperial powers – the US, Europe, and China.  It seems an obvious statement when you visit Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe, but most Americans don’t  travel, nor do they have much interest in international news.  The implication for America is clearly we will need to understand how to operate in a world where we do not set the agenda.  Frankly, agendas will no longer be dictated from on high.

Second, there is a message that is shared with the other two books, though may be not as explicitly called out as the first one.  Free trade, globalization, and privatization of nationalized economies have unleashed a huge reservoir of human potential, resulting in the development of the two largest cultures on the planet – China and India.  The implications are greater demands on the world’s resources, greater competition and the need for greater long-term investment in developing human capital and the physical infrastructure required to for human success.

Third, that the goal of development is first livelihood – food to eat, a home to live in, the ability to travel in safety; and then the more abstract concepts of personal freedom.  Electoral democracy (often called “freedom”) the concept that American foreign policy has flogged for the last decades, is really an American conception that is relevant to the Western context; but it has limited roots in Asia or the Middle East or Africa.  When we laud the countries in those regions for their democratic institutions, it is generally a simple-minded complement, referring to presence of elections that resemble the American system, though usually grafted on to a much more complex civic tradition.  As Khanna points out, America has unfortunately equated our foreign policy with the presence of electoral democracy but not its goals.

Democracy can create a dynamic link between ruled and rulers to ensure that the top reflects the bottom. Are there other methods for making sure that a government reflects the will of its people?  There well may be.  Will they allow as much personal freedom as we have come to expect in the US?  That remains to be seen.

In addition to providing a vivid, sometimes almost melodramatic, description of the coming geopolitical competition, The Second World tries to highlight for Americans the challenges that lay in front of us as the world becomes increasingly multipolar and increasingly developed.  In foreign policy, there will be more players with different opinions and different approaches.  In economics, there will be more competition and resources will be scarcer.

Probably my biggest disappointment in the current presidential race is none of the candidates talk honestly about the implications of the increasingly developed, global, multipolar world.  Can Americans continue to live further and further beyond our means?  What does that mean for traditional interpretation of the American Dream?  Can we continue to inflict a set of institutions on other countries because they have worked in different ways and for different reasons in the past in our own country?  I think the answer to both is no.  But who among our leaders and potential leaders is prepared to talk about the implications of NO.

“Americans have shown a fear of the future, one that may only accelerate its arrival,” Khanna writes in his concluding chapter.  America has changed dramatically to adapt to changing environments, but do we have the will and the leadership to do so again. Or will we go through a wrenching re-assessment that will leave the whole planet poorer for it.

We must be less bitter – yes Obama used the right term – Americans look at the golden days and they regret, they are bitter for the coming changes. Bitterness leads to fear.  Fear to reaction.  Think globally.  We can’t begrudge the Chinese or Indians their development.  Or would we rather feel sorry for and superior to them because of their quaint, backward ways.  We should embrace their development for the potential it helps to realize.

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