The Exercise of Power: Running the World

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Two very different blueprints for power in the 21st century

How To Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance. By Parag Khanna. Random House; 256 pages; $26.

The Future of Power. By Joseph Nye Jr. PublicAffairs; 320 pages; $27.95 and £16.99.

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SOME books about global politics charge at you full tilt, brandishing a radical idea for changing the world. Others pick their way through the nettles. The romantic in every reader yearns for a new order to sweep aside the impediments of the old. The sceptic knows that life is complicated. Both sorts of books have their strengths, but—on the evidence of two new accounts of 21st-century power—caution has the upper hand just now.

The term “sweeping” hardly does justice to the ambition of Indian-born Parag Khanna. In his third book, “How to Run the World”, Mr Khanna, a pundit and think-tanker at the New America Foundation, sets out to diagnose the failings of today’s diplomacy and treat them with his own formula for global governance.

The world today is neo-medieval, Mr Khanna believes. Power no longer lies in the bony hands of a few white Western bureaucrats and politicians. It has become geographically and politically fragmented. In the Middle Ages the church rivalled kings and emperors. Today the West shares influence with rising nations, like China and Brazil, with companies large and small, and with NGOs.

In this new reality, old-fashioned state-to-state diplomacy cannot get things done. It is too slow, too rigid and it fails to galvanise the resources to hand. Hence Mr Khanna recommends what he calls “mega-diplomacy”. When government, business and NGOs work together, everyone can be a diplomat, he argues. When “ and” interact with “”, he says, real progress is the result. Governments can create the conditions for a better world by providing public goods such as security; companies innovate and finance bright ideas, and NGOs supply the accountability that binds the system together.

In a bit over 200 pages of breathless prose Mr Khanna applies his formula to everything from global warming to Middle East peace and solving world poverty. You can forgive Mr Khanna for failing to put the world to rights entirely—his solution for Israel and Palestine, for example, looks little different from today’s gridlock. And he has a point, though not a terribly original one, when he says that the modern world has so many new actors that Western power is circumscribed.

But Mr Khanna’s analysis draws him to some odd conclusions. His doubts about the capacity of the state lead him to advocate secession on a vast scale. The map of Africa is indeed scarred by the straight lines of empire. However, you cannot break up countries like Nigeria or Congo without appalling bloodshed.

Mr Khanna’s faith in enlightened self-interest occasionally strays into wishful thinking. The companies and NGOs that he approvingly cites in example after example may indeed be doing good. But the book fails to probe the limits of their philanthropic impulse—how some causes are over-represented to the neglect of others, how charity can be a vehicle for ideology, and how the objects of charity are vulnerable to exploitation. For instance, Mr Khanna’s worldview has no room for the recent controversy over profiteering among microfinance lenders.

If, amid the folksy examples and the relentless one-liners of “How to Run the World”, you find yourself hankering after sturdier fare, then salvation is at hand in the form of Joseph Nye’s painstaking new work, “The Future of Power”. As Mr Khanna might have put it, just ditch the vigorous and plug into the rigorous.

Mr Nye is everything that Mr Khanna might wish one day to become: doyen of Harvard foreign-policy analysts, elite Washington public-servant, celebrated author. “The Future of Power” is a grand title for a book with an essentially modest ambition—but one that contains a fundamental lesson, nonetheless.

For much of the book Mr Nye sets out a taxonomy of 21st-century power. He considers the nature of power, stressing how it equals not just the capacity to coerce, but also to set agendas and condition other countries’ ambitions. He assesses military power: it still has its place, but whenever advanced states are dealing with each other, armed force is a less useful tool than it was in earlier times. He examines the utility of economic power, including sanctions and natural resources. And he reclaims soft power from all those whom he thinks have misused the concept in its journey from academic textbook to newspaper editorial. Soft power is not just wishy-washy cultural affinity, but a state’s ability to persuade, attract and set the terms of debate for other countries.

This is all worthy stuff. But the book comes alive when Mr Nye uses it as the foundation to cast doubt on the idea that America is in precipitate decline. In his opinion the claim is bandied about by people who have not thought clearly about what they are saying. American military power is still dominant. Europe and Japan will remain firm allies, and India will probably become one. China is rising, but with its low economic output per head, it bears no comparison to Germany at the end of the 19th century.

Mr Nye warns against complacency. America is prone to bouts of declinism. It is sometimes tempted to cut itself off from the world. The burden of American debt is growing and its political system is in a mess. And yet Mr Nye thinks that the country’s difficulties can be resolved, just as they have been in the past. His programme of “smart power” has America assessing its situation and applying hard and soft power to meet the threats it faces. He argues that America needs to work with other countries to build a strong economy and cope with the environment and terrorism, including nuclear proliferation. It needs to be mindful of dangers, such as militant Islam. And it needs to look outwards and to play its part in the world with confidence.

Unlike Mr Khanna, Mr Nye will not make your pulse race. But he is more likely to leave you convinced.

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