The Multipolar Future

Saudi Aramco World |

Interview with Tom Verde

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and author of How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance, published in January by Random House. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a doctorate from the London School of Economics. Born in India, he grew up in the United Arab Emirates, New York and Germany. The World Economic Forum has named him a “young global leader,” and Esquire magazine has included him among the “75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century.”

Tom Verde: In your new book, you discuss “neo-medievalism,” which seems to be an oxymoron. How does that work?

Parag Khanna: Well, the Middle Ages was a very long period of history, from the fall of Rome to the fall of Constantinople. A thousand years are captured by this phrase, “the Middle Ages.” Of course it was a different kind of history for every part of the world. In Europe, it’s often thought of as the Dark Ages. But as we know, for the Arab–Islamic world, it was a golden age. For Song Dynasty China, it was a golden age. For the Chola Dynasty of India, it was the apogee of their power. We are again, in the 21st century, entering a multipolar landscape—one in which China, India, the Arab–Islamic countries, Europe, the United States, Brazil and others are all able to call their own shots, to determine what they want and the policies they want to pursue, without any one power dominating over the others—and that is exactly what the world was like during the Middle Ages. Too often we hear the term, and we think [of it] from a Eurocentric point of view. But the multipolarity, in the literal sense of diverse powers and civilizations coexisting, with none dominating over the others but starting to interact—trade and commerce, but also tension and conflict—that’s a very medieval phenomenon. And we are back in that world today.

What’s made that happen?

Globalization is probably the number-one thing. Globalization 1.0 began in the Middle Ages, the first time we had sustained, intercontinental contact between Western Europe and China and all of the various civilizations and empires in between. The Silk Roads and the Crusades, for good and bad reasons, helped create this constant connectivity across geography. Today, I would say that we are at Globalization 5.0. I think we are just at the beginning of this phase that I call “the New Middle Ages,” in which we have to reckon, in the West and in the East, with coexisting. People like to say that China is rising and that means the decline of the West, or of America. But in fact, the East is not replacing the West. China is not replacing America. The Pacific world is not replacing the Atlantic world. All of these are going to coexist in a much more complicated network. I think that is a very telltale sign of a new medievalism.

During these thousand years and those golden ages that you refer to, there was, besides commercial exchange, a lot of exchange of ideas. Is that happening today? Is the Internet the new way of transmitting ideas?

Old and new ways of transmitting ideas coexist. If you think about ideas as technologies, for example, they are going in many directions. If you think about the latest high-tech innovations in clean technology or biotechnology, much of that has been invented in the West, but it’s currently being innovated in the East as well. Similarly, [there are] models of capitalism and macro-economic management. People talk about a “China model” today because they have a state-capitalist hybrid economic structure that’s very different from laissez-faire western capitalism, and that model has a certain amount of appeal. Emerging markets today around the world are starting to pick and choose what sort of economic system they want to have, based on lessons they can see in real time, from the East and from the West. So the Internet is one medium. Innovations from our educational institutions are [also] very important. Let’s remember, the great universities of the western world—Bologna, Paris, Oxford—were founded during the Middle Ages. They were very prominent actors. It was a very multilevel kind of order in which innovation wasn’t just from one state to another state. It was among companies, merchant families. The family that sponsored the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, the Medicis of Florence, helped to finance the creation of the world’s first stock exchanges in Antwerp and Bruges. In Italy, wealthy families, royal families and others helped to create long-term credit, which was a great innovation of the Middle Ages, in fact [one] that helped sponsor the Silk Road and that constant East–West contact. It’s all so much more intense and rapid today than it was 1000 years ago, but in fact this is not the first time in history that we’re having this East–West commercial and intellectual exchange.

The terms “East” and “West” that you just used: I’ve often discussed this with people in the Muslim world, asking “Is there ‘East’ and is there ‘West’?” And they’ve told me, “Not really.” Can you help me understand that a little more?

When people use those terms, they’re thinking not in terms of just countries and borders, but civilizations and empires. During this period of history, the Holy Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Arab Islamic caliphates—the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates—those didn’t have rigid state borders such as we have in the modern, Westphalian world. Empires opened themselves up to that kind of trade and exchange. They needed to seek ways to expand their influence as much as possible, beyond what their nominal, geographic borders were. So East and West really didn’t have such a strict definition back then. Today, I think of the “Middle East” not as actually being part of the East. I think of it very much as a geographic crossroads. To me as a political geographer, the geographic centrality of the Arab world means that it is central to processes of globalization. The linkages between Europe and Asia, and the trade between Europe and Asia—which is in fact greater than the trade between Asia and the United States—hinges to a tremendous extent on use of the Suez Canal, on the traversal of land routes. Look at the infrastructure developments that are happening, linking Europe across Turkey to the Caspian Sea, connecting to the Near East. To me, the Middle East is central to the process of globalization, because if globalization means anything today, it means the growing relationship across emerging markets, particularly Eastern Europe, Africa, the Near East and China, and Central and South Asia, like India. What set of countries, what set of peoples, sits at the exact center of all of that, if not the Arab world?

How about the term “Muslim world”? You don’t really hear about “the Christian world” but we do talk about “the Muslim world.” Why is that?

I think it’s a very dangerous use of the term, quite frankly. I’ve been very opposed to the use of that term since 9/11, which is now a decade ago. In think tanks and in the us government and in my own writings, I have been very adamant and vehement that the term shouldn’t be used at all, and certainly shouldn’t be used in a political context. If one wants to speak about the Islamic world from the standpoint of appreciating the diversity within the many Muslim societies and communities that exist, describing them all as Muslim and appreciating that, that doesn’t connote any kind of geopolitical symmetry, and I think that’s okay. But when one uses the term to connote a unified civilization or religious bloc with which one has to negotiate collectively, that I think is very dangerous. In fact, if current events in the Middle East teach us anything, it’s that we have to appreciate one country at a time, and the very specific dynamics that are going on, without over-generalizing.

I find that people are sometimes surprised to hear that there are far more Muslims in Southeast Asia than there are in the Middle East. People are surprised to hear that there is a Christian population in the Middle East as well.

Wouldn’t it be better if people actually appreciated country by country, society by society, exactly what the composition and contours of the demographics are? Because then, rather than thinking about the “Arab–Islamic world” as somehow unified and whole, they would say, “Wait a minute, there are more Muslims in Southeast Asia than there are in the entire Arab world.” If we think about Syria not as just another “Arab/Muslim country,” we would realize, “Oh, goodness, there are so many Christians in that country, and in other countries like Egypt as well.” I think this is yet another reason why we have to focus on the ground level rather than making these top-down generalizations.

In your book, you write that “we are never more than a hair’s breadth away from the symptoms of medievalism.” What do you mean by that?

In that passage I give a lot of examples of things in the Middle Ages that resemble some of our news headlines today. One is, of course, the great London food riot. We know that a lot of the sparks that have flown up now in the Middle East and other parts of the world have been triggered by food prices spiking. I give the example of the great tragedy of Iraq and the extent to which a society that was quite modern and developed was so quickly brought to chaos and violence and civil war. I think that there are some unfortunate parallels between what we think of when we hear the word medievalism and what we see happening in the world today: the fact that we can slip so quickly from a pristine model of modern nation-states into something that looks far more fragmented, dangerous and unpredictable.

Some of what you’ve said reminds me of that scene from the movie “Network” where the chairman of the board is chewing out the TV anchor and says to him, “There are no more nations! There is only AT&T, and Dow Chemical, and Shell Oil. These are the nations of the world today!” Are we moving in that direction?

People have predicted for a long time the decline of the nation-state. This goes back to the period of that film, to the 1970’s, because that’s when globalization really picked up, after the end of World War ii: the Marshall Plan, the rise of multinational corporations, western liberalization [and the] deregulation of economies. Susan Strange, at the London School of Economics, wrote about “triangular diplomacy,” in which firms were equal participants in diplomacy with states. Alvin Toffler wrote The Third Wave and talked about the denationalization of economies and the rise of mega-corporations. This was really a trend in thinking at the time. Now fast-forward 40 years and of course we still have many strong, modern nation-states, but we also have a lot of weak, fragmenting, collapsing states. In this book, I call it “post-colonial entropy”—the gradual dissipation of centralized power in many post-colonial societies. So it isn’t one or the other, just like it isn’t China or the United States. It isn’t companies or states. It’s a mix of the two. One can look at how large and powerful western economies still are—the United States and Great Britain and Germany and so forth—but if you look at the proportion of their gdp that is made up by very powerful corporations, it’s a stunningly large percentage. In Britain after 2008, people realized just what a staggering percentage of their gdp—close to 50 percent—depended on the London City, meaning the banking sector. It’s quite remarkable how powerful firms are, but that’s different from saying that they are truly autonomous actors. Yet quite a few multinational corporations have become that way: They can relocate; they can move their headquarters around for financial or other purposes. I think that’s important to recognize as well, because I think it is an almost irreversible component of globalization.

In the wake of the Middle Ages, there was the Renaissance, of course. What kind of Renaissance do you see coming?

Well, this is the question, really. When I was writing my Ph.D. about the evolution of diplomatic systems, the literature on medieval diplomacy and on Renaissance diplomacy conceded that it was hard to tell when the Renaissance actually began. We think of the Renaissance as being this great flourishing and flowering and rediscovery of ancient wisdom and culture, and of course Arab and Muslim scholars were an important conduit for that having taken place at all, given what was happening in medieval Europe. But the fact is it took centuries to actually crystallize the Renaissance, and even when it did, it was highly uneven. So to me, the transition is a very long one. What I am trying to explore in this book is what we can learn from the way different power centers—companies or ngos or governments or international organizations or humanitarians or philanthropists—are engaging today a set of rules about how to steer resources in the right direction to stabilize the world. Then maybe we’ll be able to see the dawn of this new Renaissance. And my hope is that we will follow some of the prescriptions that are evident in the best practices that are out there today, so that we could get to this new Renaissance in the next 20 to 30 years.

Did the Renaissance have any worldwide impact at all, or was it simply a European phenomenon?

The Renaissance actually spread very slowly from Italy northward. People speak of the Italian Renaissance and then the Northern European Renaissance, which had a very different set of characteristics. There was a gradual modernization of institutions, but Talleyrand didn’t invent the modern French foreign ministry until the 17th century, and that was a long way after what we think of as the Renaissance. This is a very long period of unfolding, and the global consequences were such that, as Europe came out of the Middle Ages and the commercial revolution helped to spur the period of great exploration, early manifestations of intensifying East–West trade began, and colonialism ultimately arose. That was another major phase of globalization, whether it was positive or negative, but it did unite the world geographically and allow for the acceleration of East–West exchange. It also marked the period in which the western ascendency began again, and that lasted for centuries, until the modern day.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it seems that Muslim or Christian, Arab or Asian didn’t really matter when it came down to trade, did it?

No, it didn’t, and that was the amazing thing about the Silk Road. Whether it was Marco Polo or Ibn Battutah, whether it was the bazaars of Samarkand or Jerusalem or France, it’s really remarkable how multiethnic and multicultural these were, how trade managed to transcend all of those divisions. And that continued for such a long period of time. This is why I believe that we are not only building new Silk Roads through modern infrastructure—roads and railways and pipelines and so forth—but there’s a new maritime Silk Road as well. So much medieval commerce was conducted by land and by sea, and today most of the world’s trade is handled by shipping-container traffic. The new maritime Silk Road that links the Middle East, with its vast energy resources and other exports, to China, India, Japan, Korea and other powers is thriving again today.

During the late Ottoman Empire, the Hijaz Railway was a conduit for moving goods and soldiers and military materiel from one part of the Ottoman world to the other. What future do you see for that particular conduit?

I think of the Hijaz Railway, or the need to resurrect the Hijaz Railway, as a great metaphor for how the Arab world is beginning this process of reuniting again. Unfortunately, the last time the Arab world was united was under the Ottoman Empire. But the lesson still stands that infrastructure is a pathway to unity. In the turbulence around the Arab region today is this opportunity to revisit very fundamental questions of political and geographic identity, because, we know, quite a few of the borders in the region are artificial. The pathway to broader progress and unity across the Arab world is to break down those straight lines on the map and start using infrastructure to transcend them—everything from water canals to railways to pipelines. I can envision a new Hijaz Railway, not only from Turkey all the way to Saudi Arabia, but with offshoots to Syria, to Iran, to Iraq. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries have planned a high-speed railway that will link all of them together. I can imagine a Hijaz offshoot to Cairo. Think about how resources and migrants and trade can take place across North Africa as well. I think infrastructure is going to be a vital part of the next map of the Middle East, especially coming out of the current situation.

When I first saw the title of your book, How to Run the World, I thought it was written by the cartoon character on “Family Guy” who’s always coming up with a plan to run the world.

That’s funny. But this title is very serious. It could be thought of either as a joke or a way to compete with Tom Friedman. But actually this book is an homage to diplomacy, and diplomacy is to me the profession, the art, the craft of attempting to make rules for the world. And “run” is the operative part of it. It doesn’t just mean a one-off solution, a silver bullet. It doesn’t mean crisis management. It means a process. What is the management process for keeping the world stable? The answer to that—the one-word answer to that—is diplomacy, better diplomacy. This book is meant to be a very serious treatment of that, because we need more and better diplomacy.

There is an exploding population under 20 in many of the countries that we’ve been talking about. What is the future for them?

You know, people talk about a “youth bulge” across the Middle East, but also in other parts of the world that have very young demographic profiles. That certainly includes the emerging markets as well. For many people, that’s very dangerous, because it can mean instability, political unrest and so forth. To me it’s an opportunity, because I think there’s a policy road map for how to create jobs for and integrate young people into society and make them productive assets to help lift economies. I firmly believe that events right now can be seen as putting the region on a more positive trajectory. The ways in which young people today are motivated and connected and networked and willing to move—and have the freedom to move—across borders to pursue their goals is going to be a factor that all governments, East and West, are going to have to take into account.

Freelance journalist and author Tom Verde ([email protected]) is a frequent contributor who holds a master’s degree in Islamic studies and Christian–Muslim relations from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. He has lived and traveled widely in the Middle East.

Robbie Bailey ( is a free-lance photographer, based in New York City, who specializes in environmental portraits. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and Time Out New York and been seen on “The Today Show” and “NBC Nightly News.”

Click here to listen

Stay Tuned for Updates

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.
We will never share your email with anyone.