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Parag Khanna's Antidote to the State of the Union

My New America Foundation colleague, Parag Khanna, had the perfect contrast to last night’s State of the Union in his Sunday New York Times magazine cover story.

The President’s speech was full of a rhetoric that as it has grown more familiar, it has grown more and more divorced from global reality. He continues to talk of the war on terror and freedom agenda advancing in “Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories.”

In Bush’s words, “And that is why, for the security of America and the peace of the world, we are spreading the hope of freedom [. . .] Since 9/11, we have taken the fight to these terrorists and extremists. We will stay on the offense [. . .] and we will deliver justice to our enemies.”    

So much for the President. So what has Parag Khanna discovered in the two years he spent traveling in “40 countries in the five most strategic regions of the planet,” what he calls the second world. “Not in the first-world core of the global economy, nor in its third-world periphery [. . .] second-world countries are the swing states”.

Khanna’s piece is entitled “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony,” or as it’s presented on the magazine cover, “Who shrank the superpower,” and the story it tells is of the decline of the uni-polar American-led world, the emergence of the competing European and Chinese powers and the crucial role that what he calls the second-world, will play between the three.

The piece is a powerful wake-up call. Here’s how it begins:

“Turn on the TV today, and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s 1999. Democrats and Republicans are bickering about where and how to intervene, whether to do it alone or with allies and what kind of world America should lead. Democrats believe they can hit a reset button, and Republicans believe muscular moralism is the way to go. It’s as if the first decade of the 21st century didn’t happen — and almost as if history itself doesn’t happen. But the distribution of power in the world has fundamentally altered over the two presidential terms of George W. Bush [. . .]

Many saw the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as the symbols of a global American imperialism; in fact, they were signs of imperial overstretch. Every expenditure has weakened America’s armed forces, and each assertion of power has awakened resistance in the form of terrorist networks, insurgent groups and ‘asymmetric’ weapons like suicide bombers. America’s unipolar moment has inspired diplomatic and financial countermovements to block American bullying and construct an alternate world order. That new global order has arrived [. . .]”

Parag goes on to describe his travels, his theory of the second-world, and how today’s post-hegemonic reality consists of the Big Three – Europe, China, and the US. When discussing China, for instance, Khanna explains that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the East Asian Community are examples of “how China is also too busy restoring its place as the world’s ‘Middle Kingdom’ to be distracted by the Middle Eastern disturbances that so preoccupy the United States.”

But Parag does return to the Middle East in his essay, and this is what he has to say:

“The Middle East — spanning from Morocco to Iran — lies between the hubs of influence of the Big Three and has the largest number of second-world swing states [. . .] Interestingly, it is precisely Muslim oil-producing states — Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, (mostly Muslim) Kazakhstan, Malaysia — that seem the best at spreading their alignments across some combination of the Big Three simultaneously: getting what they want while fending off encroachment from others.”

Khanna’s globe is an altered one;

“The rise of China in the East and of the European Union within the West has fundamentally altered a globe that recently appeared to have only an American gravity — pro or anti. As Europe’s and China’s spirits rise with every move into new domains of influence, America’s spirit is weakened [. . .] Even as America stumbles back toward multilateralism, others are walking away from the American game and playing by their own rules.”

If Khanna is right, and I think he is on to something, then this has huge implications for Israel and the Middle East. It reminds me of former World Bank President and then Quartet Envoy to the Gaza disengagement describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in terms of current global trends, as being “off-off-off-off Broadway” in an interview with Haaretz last year.  Those implications I will discuss in a future post. But for now, what does it tell us of America?

According to Khanna, America’s

“very presence in Eurasia is tenuous; it has been shunned by the E.U. and Turkey, is unwelcome in much of the Middle East and has lost much of East Asia’s confidence. ‘Accidental empire’ or not, America must quickly accept and adjust to this reality…. Would the world not be more stable if America could be reaccepted as its organizing principle and leader? It’s very much too late to be asking, because the answer is unfolding before our eyes.”

He argues that the current global landscape

“is completely unmanageable by a single authority, whether the United States or the United Nations. Instead, what we see gradually happening [. . .] and need to see more of [. . .] is a far greater sense of a division of labor among the Big Three, a concrete burden-sharing among them [. . .] The big issues are for the Big Three to sort out among themselves.”

Parag Khanna ends his piece by inviting us to play “strategy Czar”, and though his answer in the NYT is a little short and flimsy, I am expecting a lot more from his book – “The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order” on which the essay is based. But the invitation to think through this new reality is a fascinating and challenging one, and one that was totally lost on the gentleman standing in front of Messrs. Cheney and Pelosi delivering a largely irrelevant address between the hours of 9 and 10 pm EST last night.


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Comments (1)

David Sheegog:

Daniel, glad to see you highlight Khanna's excellent article in NYT Sunday Mag. I sent it to more people than I have anything in a long time. His recommendations are, as you say, "short and flimsy" but interesting nonetheless, particularly his idea of the diplomatic/industrial alliance. He omits or gives little attention to US policies that left unaddressed will lead inevitably to US decline: 1)the fatal US belief in neo-liberalism, 2)the fatal lack of US leadership on energy issues, 3)the fatal belief in US militarism as the basis of empire, and 4)the fatal political issue of money in our corrupted politics, to such an extent that US government is indistinguishable from criminal enterprise.
I'm not sure if any single "fatal" issue is enough by itself to insure the decline from super-power staus, but I am dead certain that together they seal the deal on more precipitous US decline. Khanna's pointing out the world's obviously changing geopolitcs as powerful enough to 'shrink the superpower' makes one wonder if anyone in Washington is paying attention. ds

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