The Postmodern Thinker

Business Times (Singapore) | March 5, 2011

The Raffles Conversation, By Leon Hadar

International relations scholar and author Parag Khanna talks about geopolitics and identity in the post-post-modern world.

PARAG Khanna, adventurer-scholar extraordinaire, bestselling author, pundit, former geopolitical adviser to generals (US General Stanley McChrystal) and celebrities (Bono), has some great news for the bearish among us. Or does he? Addressing a packed hall in Washington, DC, on the same evening that President Barack Obama is giving a televised speech, a cool and calm Dr Khanna, sans necktie and any prepared notes, explains that we are already living in the post-post-American World that is not very flat, but actually very messy, chaotic, and unruly.

Welcome to the 'New Middle Ages' - or the 'Neomidage'. And that apparently should make us all very, very bullish about the future.

Say what? The guy seating next to me had expected Dr Khanna to do a Dr Kissinger and to predict a return to the 19th century's Congress of Vienna/balance of power system - Metternich, Bismarck, Talleyrand, Disraeli - and seems to be a bit dumbfounded. The Middle Ages?

Dr Khanna, who directs the Global Governance Initiative at the New American Foundation, is not only a contrarian who likes to challenge the conventional wisdom, he is a mind teaser who forces you to reassess the way you look at the world and reexamine not only your paradigm, but also its foundations.

Forget all the notions that lead us to believe that the new system for managing global problems will be dominated by all the old actors. If anything, we are entering an age that will look more and more like the Middle Ages that we dread so much - rising Asian empires (China), Western militaries (US), Middle Eastern sheikdoms (Qatar), magnetic city-states (Singapore), wealthy multinational corporations (Microsoft) and humanitarians (Bill Gates), powerful families, religious radicals (Al Qaeda), tribal hordes (Pashtuns) and huge population flows (Hispanic immigrants), powerful media (CNN), universities (Georgetown University) and mercenaries (Blackwater), all interacting in unpredictable and dangerous ways and producing even more destructive global economic crises and military confrontations.

New diplomatic landscape

This is the new diplomatic landscape where technology and money - not sovereignty - 'determines who has authority and calls the shots', according to Dr Khanna.

And that is the good news? 'It's important to remember that the initial 'dark age' evolved into the Renaissance and to try to ensure that that happens again in our era,' he responds.

It starts with the recognition that we are facing a new reality in which governments and corporations cannot tackle the problems alone, he explains. The main driving force for change will be civic groups - 'cause-mopolitan activists' - building coalitions with super-philanthropists, motivated government technocrats and influential business executives - the new supranational networks that are engaging in 'mega-diplomacy, by helping to assemble the talent, pool the money, and deploy the resources to make the global economy fairer'.

Hence the title of Dr Khanna's new book, How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the New Renaissance (New York: Random House, 2011). 'This is not your grandfather's diplomacy, but today's Generation Y intuitively gets it,' he assures us.

Indeed, Dr Khanna may be still around at the dawn of the New Renaissance. In his early thirties, he is considered to be one of Generation Y's leading intellectuals. Author of the bestseller The Second World, he was picked as one of Esquire's Most Influential People of the Twenty-first Century and featured on Wired's Smart List. He has been affiliated with all the major think tanks, including the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, and has written for all the major publications - you name it, he's published there - and appears regularly on television media around the world. In a way, he represents a new generation of American geo-strategic thinkers and practitioners that will be replacing the current foreign policy elite in the coming years.

In the past, the members of this elite tended to be recruited from WASP (White Anglo-Saxon and Protestant) families, educated in Ivy Leagues universities, and affiliated with prestigious law firms and foundations. Later they were joined by thinkers and practitioners from more diverse backgrounds. Think of the renowned national security figures - Henry Kissinger (born in Germany), Zbigniew Brzezinski (born in Poland) or Richard Holbrooke (born to a German-Jewish family).

Dr Kissinger and Dr Brzezinski trace their influences that shaped their worldview to their upbringing in war-town Europe. Dr Khanna's personal narrative is both similar and different. 'We are technically a Partition family in that my father was born into a wealthy merchant family in Lahore, but then lost everything in the Partition and fled to India,' recalls Dr Khanna. 'My mother is from a civil servant and military family in Uttar Pradesh, but was in the first class of females admitted to the prestigious IIT academy.'

But Dr Khanna didn't spend much time in India. His father was working for Tata Exports and the family ended up wandering around the world. 'We lived in places like Khartoum and Abu Dhabi, with frequent travels to Cairo, Beirut and Addis Ababa, among other places. My earliest memories are of Abu Dhabi, where I learned how to swim, play tennis, and eventually learned just enough English before we migrated to the US.'

The move to Queens in New York was a typical Indian migration pattern. After landing in America in 1982, the family lived in various parts of New York, mostly Westchester, where the young Khanna attended primary and secondary schools. Growing up in Chappaqua, New York, he had become obsessive about reading books and playing tennis, and rediscovered his love of travel. And then the Cold War ended.

When the Berlin Wall fell, Dr Khanna's father took the family on a long family trip to Germany and France.

'This was certainly my geopolitical awakening, as I personally sat on top of what remained of the Wall and hacked away at it with a hammer and chisel,' Dr Khanna remembers.

He brought back dozens of pieces to distribute to his eighth grade class. The experience of visiting post-Cold War Germany and Europe 'shaped me deeply', he admits. 'That was an amazing time of backpacking around Eastern Europe so shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and I've followed the region's transition towards Europeanisation very closely ever since.'

Indeed, Europe plays a major role in Dr Khanna's futuristic scenario. 'Europe, the same continent that brought us medievalism also brought us a road map towards the next Renaissance,' he explains.

He regards Jean Monnet, the architect of European unity after World War II, as the 'most inspirational figure for the 21st century'. Dr Khanna describes the French diplomat as 'a global statesman for our postmodern times'. Mr Monnet had realised that rebuilding Europe on the basis of national sovereignty was a recipe for deferred disaster, and instead devoted himself to establishing regional economic and political institutions, which laid the foundation for a European common market, then later, the European Union (EU).

'Today Europe has countries but virtually no borders, making it a hopeful metaphor for our neo-medieval universe of linked by autonomous communities,' he argues. From that perspective, 'Europeanisation' is 'not an end state but a constant process and an experiment' and as a model to other parts of the world, he explains.

Dr Khanna's exposure to diverse cultures and languages was invaluable, particularly when he arrived at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service as an undergraduate in 1995, where most students have exotic and multi-lingual backgrounds.

After Georgetown and a one-year stint at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where he worked closely with General Stanley McChrystal who was there on a military fellowship, Dr Khanna moved to Geneva to work for the World Economic Forum (WEF). He travelled substantially in Central Asia and the Middle East during and after Sept 11.

And he has been on and off the ground since then. Dr Khanna's personal schedule is now entirely self-defined. In a way, he is always in-between-trips.

'My wife and I and our daughter have intentionally pushed to structure our lives together in this way,' he says. 'We are very light on possessions and very keen on experiences. There is an expression that someone 'lives on a plane'. I actually want to live on a plane; it would be so much more efficient!'

According to Dr Khanna, his identity as an American is not at odds with his internationalism. 'We' can wave the American flag while also raising flags of multiculturalism and internationalism, he says.

In fact, Dr Khanna's Indian ethnicity and cosmopolitan persona complements and even meshes with his Americanism. 'Growing up in the globalisation heyday of the 1990s allowed one to be quite optimistic about notions such as global citizenship and cosmopolitan identity,' he notes.

'I have always been fascinated by diasporas and Joel Kotkin's study of the subject. His book, Tribes, was one of my early intellectual bibles. There is certainly something to the notion that different ethnic groups demonstrate various capacities for adaptation. When I was growing up in Westchester, we were among the only Indian families in a 30-mile radius. Only subsequently did the area become much more populated with successful Indian families.

'So I was quite aware of differences and similarities, but with the emphasis on English and education in my family - and certainly in the majority Jewish culture of the areas - adaptation was quite easy despite ethnic and religious differences.'

The new order

Indeed, members of the ethnic-trade diasporas are going to play a major role in shaping the new order, according to Dr Khanna. Technology and finance are tearing apart the relationship between borders and identity. Diasporas, just like during the old Middle Ages, are once again key drivers of economic and political links.

'Witness the emerging Sinosphere enlarged by 50 million overseas Chinese around the Pacific Rim and extending as far as Angola and Peru,' he notes.

At the same time, the more than 20 million Indians concentrated in the Persian Gulf, the UK, and Silicon Valley also form a 'Desi' diaspora of growing ethno-political and economic weight in their newly adopted countries as well as in the Old Country.

Hence, globalisation allows for multiple identities in a deeper and more literal sense, argues Dr Khanna.

'It is odd to me that when asked about identity, people immediately reach for the national or ethnic. The impact of globalisation has been that identities can be self-defined along multiple types and verticals, whether religious, national, generational, issue-based, or otherwise. To me, when the question of identity is asked, the first answer need not be national in nature as it is for an earlier generation.

'To me, therefore, the presumption that one must choose a single identity, or worse still have that identity allocated by birth, and that this identity shall be defined primarily in ethnic/national terms, is an extremely limiting vestige of earlier times. No doubt the majority of the world's population in North/South, East/West, rich/poor would indeed today declare such identities as their primary ones, but I do not believe that it must necessarily be the case.

'I myself feel a strong generational identity - as a member of Generation Y - while also having a strong sense of what it means to be American, to be Indian (based on ethnicity and my previous nationality), to be Hindu (culturally and religiously), to be a globalist in mindset.

'I am perfectly comfortable with the co-existence of these identities.'

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