Parag Khanna welcomes you to the tripolar world

The beginning of history?

Parag Khanna’s attempt to envision the big geopolitical picture for this century is noteworthy. Ahead of his book, he argues his case in a long essay in the New York Times Magazine (linkthanks Pragmatic):

At best, America’s unipolar moment lasted through the 1990s, but that was also a decade adrift. The post-cold-war “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership. So now, rather than bestriding the globe, we are competing — and losing — in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world’s other superpowers: the European Union and China. This is geopolitics in the 21st century: the new Big Three. Not Russia, an increasingly depopulated expanse run by; not an incoherent Islam embroiled in internal wars; and not India, lagging decades behind China in both development and strategic appetite. The Big Three make the rules — their own rules — without any one of them dominating. And the others are left to choose their suitors in this post-American world. [NYT]

The main question befuddling students of geopolitics is how are post-Cold War multi-polar cards going to fall? Mr Khanna’s answer is that the United States, the European Union and China will be the three superpowers, and the rest of the big powers will constitute the “second world”.

What we can say about Mr Khanna’s thesis is that he underestimates the United States, overestimates the stability and diplomatic style of China and gives too much credit to Europe. And, in the essay at least, is selective in his analysis of demographic trends. But he makes one important point—that 20th century multi-lateral institutions will be increasingly unable to address the world’s challenges as they become increasingly less reflective of the global balance of power.

Regardless of current events—in Iraq, Afghanistan or in global financial markets—it is too early to write off, or even discount the United States as the pre-eminent global power. In fact, among the Big Three, only the United States is founded on “sound business model”: from democracy and capitalism, to immigration and creativity, it is hard to see how the EU or China could change sufficiently to acquire the necessary genes. Until China demonstrates that it can ride out a domestic economic downturn it is premature to place it in the same league as the United States. And let’s not forget that it too has increasingly acute demographic problems of its own. As for the EU, well, it remains to be seen how much geopolitical power it will have—as an entity—if it is no longer under the security offered by NATO.

Perhaps the book will provide stronger arguments, but there is too little in the article to conclude that the geopolitical configuration of this century will be a Big Three and the second world. US primacy in the coming decades is by no means guaranteed, but it is still harder to prove that any other country can match or overtake the US. Moreover the US will be the only power that is unchallenged in its own geographical sphere. Neither Brazil and certainly not Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela fit the bill of a serious geopolitical challenger. Not so, for the EU and China. The EU faces Russia, and possibly the Arab world, in its own geography. China faces Japan, India and Russia in Asia. In this reading, it is the US that could play a “swing” role in influencing the outcomes of these regional competitions.

Mr Khanna’s goal is to compel the United States to transform its foreign policy institutions and behaviour, which may explain why he has deliberately cast his thesis in this manner. It would be nice if it rankles strategists and policymakers in India as well.

Related Posts: By Daniel Nexon at the Duck of Minerva, by Hari at Thirty letters in my name, and by Ethan Zuckerman in My heart’s in Accra. [30 Jan] And Dan Drezner weighs in too.

11 thoughts on “Parag Khanna welcomes you to the tripolar world”

  1. Nitin: Khanna’s got it wrong, especially on the EU. To wield the political might that the US wields, there’s got to be unity of purpose that comes from a cohesive political entity – not the political chaos that characterizes the EU. And he can write off India vis-a-vis China at his own peril. His observations on Russia and Brazil seem spot-on though.
    My prediction: the world will have 2 poles in 2020 (US, China) and 3 poles (US, China, India) circa 2030. EU will play kingmaker for a while, but will increasingly be sidelined through geriatric-induced lower productivity and the increasing irrelevance of the institutions they dominate (e.g. UNSC)

  2. Parag Khanna’s views on EU are absolutely hillarious. The EU has virtually nil
    credibility abroad with regards to strong signals and makes a twisted muck of “soft power”.
    It only has power to snatch power from its own people. Even the one cause the whole of “europe”
    was supposedly united behind — being anti-Mugabe simply did not hold up. While estonia was being
    thuggishly intimidated by Russia, the EU “colleagues” did nothing but utter some peeps about getting along.

    The EU is a bureacratic superstate oppressive to its own people and impotent to the rest of the world.

  3. There’ll only one superpower in the world. China China China!
    Everybody else is doomed even before the race began. CHina alone shall scale all the heights worth scaling and dominate all the areas worth dominating.

    China china China!

    /Sarc off.

  4. The biggest flaw in the argument is, as you rightly note, the attempt to project a future tripolar order. Will it happen? Maybe, maybe not. I think it is unlikely. I’ve never been comfortable with this claim; the “three styles of empire” argument inflects the whole thesis in ways that undermine the most important parts of Khanna’s claim, which involve the changing terms of US influence in much of the rest of the world. And here Khanna is right: globalization and other shifts are increasing the number of partners available to second- and third-tier states (see Uzbekistan and Bolivia), the US faces increasing hypocrisy costs associated with its rhetoric of democratization, and the triumphalism that marked discourse about US primacy in the late 1990s and early 2000s deserves a swift kick in the pants.

  5. US could still take the initiative after the elections but it’ll take a lot of effort and soul-searching, I think.

  6. Seeing as this IS the Indian National Interest, I’m surprised by the lack of comments on the fact that Khanna didn’t analyse India’s positon in the post-American age of geopolitical anxiety at all! His argument for completely excluding India from the equation is that she has no strategic appetite.

    Perhaps, India proved too complex a case to fit into his neat analytical framework? India is too small to be a part of the big three, yet too big to be just a good ol’ Second-tier power.

    Not only is India in a position of considerable strategic importance (counterbalancing China) but she has an insatiable strategic appetite (“Look East Policy”) as well. Russia is decaying, it won’t be the ultimate swing state. India, on the other hand..if I am to adopt Khanna’s mode of thought, fits the bill perfectly.

    I thought members of the Indian diapora were supposed to act as “diplomatic force multipliers”?

    I am tempted to echo Tushar Saxena’s views above but I think there’s some currency in Parag Khanna’s argument. It’s quite clear to the European Powers that their ascendency over Asia is coming to an end. I believe that a common EU security and foreign policy is an inevitabilty if the likes of the UK, France and Germany are to stay relevant. They realise this.

  7. Vijay,

    Parag Khanna is an American. I suspect his book is written for American consumption. That he has been dismissive about India is a bonus.

  8. I am glad he is dismissive of India. The economic imperatives India faces imply that almost by
    necessity it begins to increase its strategic appetite and project power well beyond its borders.
    It would be easier to do so if everyone was focused elsewhere, and if the perception exists that
    India is of negligible strategic importance.

  9. Its good what India is not counted as a ‘pole’ as it were! We are too poor, too illiterate and too stupid to handle the kind of responsibilities that comes with being a “big power”. Imagine a super power that kills 2000 people in riots at the start of the 21st century, which treats millions of its citizens as untouchables and is adding more people in ghettos to that list, a sissy state which shamelessly talks of “per capita pollution”, which does with its nuclear technology what even North Korea and Pakistan could do, where “per capita consumption of pesticide (for human intake!)” must be the highest in the world and where people are so dumb that millions of them believe one Rama and his ‘monkeys’ built a bridge!!

  10. Balaji,

    Your comment supports your point.

    I’d say that India kill far too few people to be counted as a superpower.

  11. I finished his book “Second World” and I have to say im not very impressed by his methods to create a future scenario nor about his predictions. He pretends that some day democracy will prevail in China, the transition be smooth and efficient….Apart from this rather questionable allegation, his trips to the “Second World” countries are mere travel books, not very interesting. They are more like a sum of newspaper articles. I read somwhere: “In 2007, he was a geopolitical advisor to the United States Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan”…I severely doubt his qualifications for this big assignment. Anyway just my two cents.

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