Guess Who’s Coming to Power

New York Times |

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After the collapse of Communism, the “new world order” quickly disintegrated into the new world disorder, as pent-up nationalism erupted, most dramatically in the Balkans. The nationalistic volcano subsided, replaced by fears about the “clash of civilizations,” which meant the West against the rest, and primarily Islam. After 9/11, the “ism” of concern became “terrorism,” and our book shelves groan under the weight of policy prescriptions from public officials, academics, journalists and even former spies.

His is not an apocalyptic scenario. Indeed, he agrees with the view that increasing globalization leads to decreasing chances of war. And since each of the new empires has nuclear weapons, “economic power is more important than military power.” Thus, the competition will be won through “soft power,” effective diplomacy and attractive social models (the liberal democracy of the United States and European Union versus China’s mixed structures).

But is the European Union a superpower? Yes, its economy and population are larger than those of the United States, and more countries are trying to get in. But it cannot be said yet whether such a diverse gathering of nations will be able to agree on a common foreign policy — Spain and other union members disagree on how to handle Hugo Chavez — or whether Paris and London are ready to surrender foreign policy to Brussels.

There can be little doubt, however, that China will be a superpower. It does not have to conquer the world militarily, just buy it. In Venezuela, China is now the largest source of foreign investment, and has offered to build homes and a fiber-optic network. Argentina’s economic recovery is heavily dependent on agricultural exports — to China. In Egypt, China is investing in everything from the Suez Canal and cement factories to electronics companies and convention centers. In Jordan, it has built four of the country’s five new dams, “with remarkable efficiency,” Khanna writes.

China has some advantages when it comes to competing with the United States and the European Union, which are not all that laudatory, but which Khanna glosses over. It has no law prohibiting its companies from paying bribes in order to get contracts; anecdotal stories abound about the amounts of money handed out in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as the Middle East and Africa. (The same is true for Japanese and Korean companies.) Nor is there a human rights lobby in China, or a free press, to take the country’s leaders to task for supporting corrupt, dictatorial regimes — Zimbabwe, Sudan, Syria and Uzbekistan among them.

Still, if the United States is going to compete successfully, the next administration must undertake some deep-seated fixes at the State Department. In the Arab world, Khanna notes, Chinese diplomats “show deference to local culture by learning Arabic and even taking Arabic names.” America will not become more diplomatically competitive by cutting the State Department further, as many conservatives would like. Already, America’s image and standing in the world have been weakened immensely by closing American libraries and consulates, or putting them behind forbidding security barriers (and also, of course, by the administration’s rendition and torture policies). The diplomatic ranks need to grow; there are more musicians in America’s military bands than there are foreign service officers, and the generals and admirals who head the various commands, like the Central Command or Centcom in Florida, have more aides and advisers than the country has ambassadors and assistant secretaries of state.

The notion that the United States will not be the world’s only superpower, that it will have to share power with Europe and China, will horrify many Americans. Conservatives believe the nation’s self-interest is best served by using its military power to remain on top; liberals are just as committed to keeping America No. 1 in the name of “humanitarian intervention.” But there may be real benefits to the United States, as well as to other democracies, from a tripartite world order.

Khanna is full of praise for the European Union’s development aid programs, which he says are directed to building public institutions like courts. But the Europeans, like the Americans, often put as much emphasis on getting credit for their help as they do on actually making a difference; it remains to be seen whether European programs will become overly bureaucratic and, like American projects, spend too much on consultants and economic studies. American taxpayers should be delighted, in any case, to let Europe bear more of the development burden.

Khanna is something of a foreign policy whiz kid. He has a degree from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, and is pursuing a doctorate at the London School of Economics. Only 30 years old, he has already been a fellow at several research institutes and has served as an adviser to the United States Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet he tries to do too much in this book. A more accurate title might be “Around the World in 400 Pages.”

Khanna mentions about 100 countries, some in only a sentence or a few paragraphs, as if to prove that he has indeed visited that many places. The section on Latin America is overly long; a look at Mexico, Brazil and, briefly, Venezuela would have sufficed. And it is hard to understand why he devotes so much attention to Malaysia, except when one notes that he was a visiting fellow at a public policy institute in neighboring Singapore. On the other hand, his chapters on Kazakhstan and on Egypt, which he describes as “a country ripe for revolution,” both make the book worth buying. By trying to cover so many bases, Khanna dilutes his most important arguments. Russia, he observes for example, “has no divine right to continue in its present form.” This says considerably more than it seems to at first. The country’s vast eastern section is being gobbled up by China through investment and immigration.

Khanna is obviously not shy about making bold statements. He disputes the popular view that India will emerge as a check to China. “India is big but not yet important,” he writes. “It could also be argued that China is a freer country than democratic India.” By that, Khanna means, literacy is higher and the poverty rate lower in China; it has more Internet connections and cellphones; and it is easier to start a business in China than in India.
In similar grand fashion, he states that Iran is at once “an authoritarian regime and perhaps the most democratic country in the region.” And “Islam and democracy are certainly more compatible than authoritarianism and democracy.” Iraq will cease to exist, he declares flatly (though he offers no prescription for what the next administration should do there). A Kurdish state, meanwhile, is inevitable. Closer to home, Khanna has this provocative thought: The United States should offer Mexico the same deal it wants the Europeans to offer Turkey: inclusion, citizenship, open migration, enormous subsidies and language rights. One wonders what the presidential candidates might say about that.

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