Seeing politics and history in a different light

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Mint India | January 17, 2014

Interview with Preeti Dawra

Singapore: Parag Khanna is an unusual policy wonk. He is the opposite of the classic, middle-aged, under-stated, cautious, grey-haired man who speaks in smooth, measured baritones at influential global forums. Khanna is young, irreverent, witty, provocative, hyper-articulate and unabashedly arrogant. He is also completely comfortable with his attitude.

 

“I want to see young, bright Indians being mercenary and confident in their own skills to take their rightful place in Asia and the world,” he says. That’s something Khanna seems to have accomplished for himself.

 

The Indian-American is widely regarded today as one of the leading global strategists of geopolitics, geo-economics and diplomacy. He is the director of the Hybrid Reality Institute based out of Singapore, and also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, the European Council on Foreign Relations and at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, in addition to being an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

 

As someone who grew up in the United Arab Emirates, New York and Germany, with deep roots in India, Khanna says he has travelled to more than 100 countries “in search of excellence in human spirit and endeavour” that seeks to overcome narrow-minded interpretations of nations, cultures, borders, and history.

 

He is a man who sees the future increasingly as a non-state world where governments subcontract—in the interest of economic growth and efficiency—sectors they can scarcely manage well; he believes in the devolution of power from centre to state, and from state to cities. Khanna is disdainful about politics and especially the kind that distorts history. Borders don’t matter to him much as he views them as artificial geographical boundaries. Civilizational history does.

 

Married to Ayesha Khanna—an accomplished American-Pakistani scholar and practitioner in technology, innovation and intelligent cities—he sees nothing unusual about their union. “I have more in common with her given that her parents and forefathers were from Lahore, as were mine, than with most Indians from India, who are not from the North.” He sees a “sad futility” in Indian-Pakistani politics and would like to see the two nations working together to revive the historical “silk roads of commerce” to come of age in the 21st century. “If only India and Pakistan can find ways to connect better through commerce, roads, railroads, ports and airports, the incidence of conflict will diminish overnight. Trade, investment and job creation will become the new paradigm,” he says.

 

Khanna is at heart a futurist and is a best selling author in this field. He is the co-author of Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, and author of The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order, and How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance. In 2008, he was named one of Esquire’s “75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century”, and featured in Wired magazine’s “Smart List”.

 

He is also at once intellectually curious about spirituality and religion and claims to have a deep respect for Hinduism and Eastern philosophy as a result of studying texts such as the Bhagavad Gita in German. “I am very glad I studied it in German and not English as it gets fetishized in America where such texts are often misinterpreted and politicized,” Khanna says. He says most liberal arts schools in America believe that Plato and Aristotle are superior to Eastern thought, which is considered inferior and auxiliary.

 

“One does not have great civilizational courses that are chronologically co-terminus and value-neutral,” he says. “This can naturally lead to cultural misunderstandings and can have geopolitical ramifications”. He is quick to point out though that the appreciation of culture is a necessary but not sufficient condition to ameliorate political tensions such as those that have brewed recently between India and the US over the arrest in the US of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat accused of visa fraud. He says that’s an issue that is “really a farce and a tragedy”.

 

What does the Khobragade episode signal about Indian diplomacy and US-India ties?

 

...most pre-conditions are in place today for smoother US-India relations, but politics does not follow a rational building block like formula where if you have a high degree of knowledge transfer, if you have a high penetration of immigrant community, if you have a similar set of values, you are assured to be stable allies. Politics is its own beast. Further, the balance of power of economics and trade is paramount. When countries want to send a message (that) they are more important than they are, even when they don’t have a lot of power or leverage, this is the kind of thing they inflate into a big episode.

 

The significance of India on the geopolitical stage is evidenced by the fact that US will never do this to China and there is a damn good reason for it. China is seven times more important to US than India because their share of global GDP (gross domestic product) is seven times more than India. The “Chindia” talk and the talk of “India rising” which India bought into was wrong then and it is wrong today and will remain so until the time that India is able to deliver on its economic potential. Also, this was an internal matter for the US.

 

Obviously, the Indian diplomat should have been accorded more respect, but why this happened first and foremost falls under a completely different rationale than what people have been talking about in India: which is that the New York Police Department and the Mayor’s office always wants to go after UN diplomats (which she is not) to set an example in the city for breaking laws with respect to traffic and other minor violations. This should be viewed in that light rather than anything sinister and grand against Indian per se.

 

How do you view India’s statesmanship in foreign policy with respect to US? Has it been derailed permanently?

 

The US and India have built a strong relationship in the past 20 years that has withstood major tests such as the Indian nuclear break-out and America’s dependence on Pakistan for the war in Afghanistan. Their natural partnership flows now from common fear of China, cultural affinity, demographic interpenetration, thriving business and investment, and other positive trends. India sometimes overplays issues to get attention diplomatically or for domestic purposes, such as the current row over the US handling of the Indian deputy counsel-general in New York. But we should not lose sight of the fact that there are areas of enormous mutual interest such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, and eventually Iran.

What leverage does India have over US today that it is exercising well?

There are a few areas such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and technology where India is exercising its strengths cleverly to its advantage. In military cooperation and aerospace, for example, India is demanding joint production of military aircraft with the US, which is great. This is what China does well; it demands that if a nation such as the US wants to sell something of significance, then it should build it in China, transfer its technology and train its workers. Some people call that theft and others call it industrial policy. I take the Chinese view that you are developing your own people and your economy. India should learn more from China in this regard to exert more global influence.

India also seems to be doing this well in the pharmaceutical sector. It is demanding that if the US has to do its trials, it has to do vaccine development in India, if it wants to sell in India. This is brilliant and it is exactly what you should do. It needs to have more of this mindset.

India also has a lot of confidence in the tech sector and this needs to grow. There are a huge number of tech start-ups in India that now compete with US Silicon Valley firms to attract the best of Indian talent.

Indians should be proud to work in their own firms like the young Chinese. They need to break out of the slavishly loyal and ideological mindset of US firms somehow always being a better workplace.

How should India’s foreign policy change or evolve with respect to China?

China has long had the geopolitical equivalent of “first mover advantage” over India in Central Asia and Southeast Asia, and even now in the Middle East with respect to Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. It has been far quicker in building strategic ties and natural resource acquisition with these regions. India should not confront China directly, but should work on gradually building stronger relations with those countries that are now suspicious of Chinese activity and intentions such as Russia, Myanmar and Vietnam, among others. There is clearly a global anti-China blowback underway, and India can benefit if it is diplomatically deft and offers certain incentives and investments to these counties. That would show India to be a country that China cannot so easily look down upon, and potentially change the negotiating position in their bilateral border disputes.

Is India’s grand geopolitical strategy sound and working to pave the way towards becoming a global power of strategic importance?

These are things India should be proud of and things that India has had false pride in like building up its geostrategic importance without first building a sound foundational base on which it can rest upon, and for which India can be truly respected. India wastes a lot of time pretending it is important when it is not yet, due to its share of global GDP, so it should in fact be spending time building its economic and military importance like China than talking a big talk.

In terms of grand strategy, India has been somewhat off. It has taken India a long time to wake up to the fact that its navy matters more than its nuclear arsenal. It should have been building its navy for the last few decades when all this time it was focused on building its nuclear programme that will never be used. India is first and foremost a maritime power. It will never be an important land-based power other than with respect to Pakistan. It is surrounded by water on three sides. India has literally wasted decades in pursuing a wrong strategy that has been off the mark up until the last few years when it started to talk about maritime power projection, economic opening to Pakistan, and boosting maritime and naval connectivity to South East Asia, one of the most important regions in Asia.

India has had too much pride in areas where it has been weak, like of its geostrategic importance—which is close to zero in my view still—and too little pride in its human capital and talent, where it excels. India is rightfully respected globally for having great managers, decent corporate governance and incredibly talented human capital in so many fields. These, however, only lead to economic growth and not employment. India has tragically underinvested to date in industries—that will lead to massive job creation that it desperately needs—like manufacturing, construction and infrastructure, hospitality, tourism. Other countries like Indonesia are investing 10% of GDP on infrastructure. India needs to catch up.

Are economies like Singapore and China better equipped to handle the challenges of 21st century governance than US and India due to a difference in political model?

Economic security and growth can be achieved in democracies, too; just look at Sweden and Canada. They are free, wealthy and secure. The difference is in the welfare models rather than political system. We just need to remember that democracy requires capitalism, but capitalism does not require democracy. India’s democracy could handle challenges better if it were less corrupt and had more independent agencies charting national policy for the long-term and making strategic investments. So I do not place the blame with democracy as a principle, but rather the manner in which Indian governance is exercised. Certainly, the key test of the 21st century economic management will be resilience and adaptability to shifting market conditions. Here, I think, medium or small countries that can rapidly train workers for new market segments will fare best. Hence, Germany, Korea, and Singapore are very successful and have low unemployment.

You have said repeatedly that India is insecure where it should be confident and over confident where it should be more reflective. How?

India wasted over a decade with “shining” campaigns aimed to convince the world it was as important as China without improving its fundamentals. More reflection and action would have been the better course. At the same time, India’s well-run multinationals and business leaders, and the society’s technical competence are the true shining stars. They have helped the IT, pharmaceutical and entertainment sectors, for example, to thrive, grow and expand. There is no rule that Delhi bureaucrats must be the face of Indian foreign policy. In the 21st century—as in most historical eras—commercial relationships are the main mode of diplomacy, and I consider many members of India’s business elite such as Nandan Nilekani or Anand Mahindra to be India’s best statesmen today.

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