We’re #1? Tell China


Is the American empire running out of gas? Foreign policy analyst and former Brookings Institution fellow Parag Khanna thinks that only inertia keeps us going. The collapse of the Soviet Union left America as the world’s only superpower, but we are not universally loved, feared, or even respected. “Does the world no longer need the United States?” asks Khanna. “Anti-Americanism continues even as America’s dominance fades.”

China and the European Union (E.U.) have joined America as first-rank powers, although the nature of their power is different. China is working hard to become America’s military equal; already, its economic influence extends around the world. “Globalization is happening on China’s terms,” Khanna writes. Indeed, where can you shop and not find a product made in China? Meanwhile, the E.U. grows eastward, absorbing part of the fallen Soviet empire, not by military aggression but by its economic appeal. Countries such as Turkey clamor to join, while the E.U. sets high standards for admission. Not everyone will make it. The Second World is a thoroughly researched and thoughtful book about the relationships among the multiple tiers of nations. Which countries fall into the categories of first, second, and third world, and why? Region by region, Khanna analyzes nations’ strengths and weaknesses. Why does Brazil stand out and not Argentina? What is holding Russia back? Khanna himself doesn’t hold back. The chapter on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, for example, is subtitled “Men Behaving Badly,” referring to the top-level corruption that keeps those countries deeply mired in the third world. In fact, of the west Asian “Stan” countries—Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and others—only Khazakhstan rises to the level of second-world country. The others he collectively dismisses as “Trashcanistan” due to their universal poverty and corruption. And the Republic of Georgia is a country of “breathtakingly self-serving elders.” Contrast these countries with China, an empire expanding by peaceful means. “China does not have to conquer weak island nations in the Pacific—it buys them,” Khanna writes. For example, China buys stakes in foreign companies and exports low-cost and often low-quality goods that supplant what the locals used to make. Case in point: Egypt grows plenty of cotton, so why are even their national flag and their clothing produced in China? If only Egypt “designed better garments than the Chinese—hardly a tall order—it could greatly enhance their value,” he writes. Many Asian countries now have large Chinese minorities with strong ties to their homeland. They are increasingly taking over markets and broadening their influence without ever suggesting a military threat. China is a second-world country making a strong bid for first-world status, and many Chinese feel that they have already arrived. “If America is the greatest nation on earth, then someone forgot to tell the Chinese,” Khanna writes. “Today China portrays itself like a great merchant ship once again navigating globalization’s waters.” The E.U. is already a first-world empire that many countries are eager to join. Turkey is a prime example of an ambitious and striving country that sees E.U. membership as its ticket to first-world status. Religious and cultural differences make this membership problematic, but it may happen. What are second-world countries? They are countries in transition, he writes, combining elements of both the first and third worlds. They are partially globalized and have sharp disparities in their distribution of wealth. India, for example, is “big but not important,” has a highly successful professional class, while over a billion of its citizens still live in poverty. It is “almost completely third world.” As China’s example shows, democracy isn’t the key to first-world status; more likely, it’s the other way around, that prosperity and stability lead to democracy. China is huge, undemocratic, and beginning to prosper. India, on the other hand, is huge, democratic, and chaotic, and a good deal behind China on the world stage. “China has order and may one day have democracy. India has democracy but achieves less because it is chaotic...India is big but not yet important.” The Second World is an important book for elected officials and for thoughtful citizens who want to understand the shifting sands of influence and power in the world. Khanna has traveled to to virtually every country in the world, and has advised the United States military on geopolitical issues. Parag Khanna is an excellent writer and a perceptive analyst, weaving scholarship and informed opinions in a way that holds the reader’s attention. America would be wise to heed this clear-headed assessment of the global challenges we face.