By Cheong Suk-Wai
TABLE TALK WITH PARAG KHANNA THERE is something to be said about pursuing a thought that seizes you, even if it takes you to the ends of the Earth.
Just ask American foreign policy scholar Parag Khanna. In 2004, he first hit upon the idea of making a television series about emerging markets and how they were being riven apart internally by globalisation. Nobody took him up on it.
Then in late 2005, he convinced American publisher Random House to stump up nearly $60,000 for him to trek through as many countries as he could, including Brazil, Tunisia and Kazakhstan. He roughed it out, slept in the back of cars in the boondocks, because he thought that was the best way to get to know the peoples in these countries. His nearly three-year global trot culminated in his first book, The Second World, which the New York Times Magazine called one of the best ideas of 2007. Dr Khanna, who is all of 32, can now 'concentrate on family life', as he puts it, with his wife, a Pakistani-born management consultant, and their seven-month-old daughter. They hope to move to Singapore one day so as to raise their child in 'a more people-friendly place'. Dr Khanna was born in Kanpur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His father was a Tata Group sales manager and his mother a computer scientist. The elder Khanna's job took the family to Dubai when Dr Khanna was a toddler. Then, when he was seven, his entire family emigrated to the United States. The alumnus of Georgetown University and the London School of Economics is now the director of global governance initiatives at the New America Foundation, a think-tank in Washington, DC. He is writing his second book - on how privately funded institutions such as the Gates Foundation are changing the way the world works. Here are his takes on why people should not be obsessed about, among other things, China overtaking the US: With the decline of Western powers, the shoe of power now seems to be on the other foot. How comfortable is that fit for East and West? That's a great question. You say the shoe is now on the other foot. But nothing happens immediately in geopolitics. This transition began in the 1960s with the rise of Japan, the European Union and the Asian tigers. Just because people are waking up today doesn't mean the shoe is now on the other foot. The shoe is constantly in the process of movement and changing feet. But doesn't China own the shoe, so to speak, more than the US today? Many people want to see China replace the United States or the East replace the West, and they believe that until that is complete, there is no transition (of power). That's nonsense. How so? We live in a very complicated world where Asia, Europe, the US and Brazil are powerful - all at the same time. The US is not going to disappear from the world scene anytime soon and China is not going to replace it. It may never happen and it does not need to happen. Asia is a world unto itself; more than half the world's population lives there. So people do not have to wait for China to become more influential than the US at, say, the United Nations or the World Bank. What matters is that Asians are now running their own affairs, from the Asian Development Bank to (perhaps one day) the Asian monetary fund. Will the decline of American power mean the decline of idealism? There is a synonymity between America and the notion of idealism in certain rhetorical strains that certain Americans believe and pursue. But I don't believe that. People like Professor Kishore Mahbubani (dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy) talk about Asian confidence, contentment and an Asian set of views on what constitutes harmony and focus. And a great many people point out that there is nothing less idealistic about Asians (compared to their Western counterparts). For so long there's been this idea that developing countries can only be truly successful if they are democratic. People have known for a long time that countries can succeed if they are not democratic. The question is: Can countries continue to succeed if they are not so? Can they? The American argument is that, no, they cannot succeed without democracy. Which is why (New York Times columnist) Thomas Friedman says that China is a smooth road with a cliff on the horizon while India is a bumpy road with a sunny horizon, because China is not a democracy. But I believe China, Singapore and Malaysia demonstrate that you can have sustained growth, stability and happiness without being democratic in the Western sense. Let's also bear in mind that democracy is now being replaced with the idea of good governance. But isn't good governance democracy by another name? No, it's a more scientific approach to creating a successful, balanced society, with elements of social stability and equity. These elements are not emphasised in the idea of democracy at all. Why is good governance better? Well, because it works. That is the true test of anything, and not its ideological status. If emerging market countries want to succeed, I believe that the model that they seek is not the US because that ideal is unattainable for most Second World countries in the near term. They are looking for the next best thing. Might Singapore be that next best thing? There are many models for many places at many times. And that's what the Second World is about. There's no one thing that links them all together. And that's okay. Let there be diversity as to what works in different societies, based on their size, wealth, demographics and geography. How did it go so wrong for America? Well, in the 1990s, US leaders were not successfully assertive in solving global problems, like not intervening to stop the Kosovo War. Then there was 9/11 and the West's response to it, and last year's financial crisis. So isn't this the end of American power as we know it? Just as there is no one time when the shoe is put on one foot, there's no time when the shoe is pulled off the foot - unless, of course, the US is instantly destroyed in a major war. THINK AGAIN 'Many people want to see China replace the US or the East replace the West, and they believe that until that is complete, there is no transition (of power). That's nonsense.' EARNEST yet soft-spoken, foreign policy scholar Parag Khanna has spent enough time in emerging markets to challenge what he considers to be simplistic views of how geopolitics really works these days: Black-and-white views of geopolitics 'I don't deal in simplicities and I resent simplicities because they keep people stupid.' The reality of Asian power today 'It doesn't matter any more whether or not President Barack Obama speaks longer than the Chinese and Indian leaders at the UN General Assembly.' America's position in the world today 'Increasingly, it is no longer the case that the first thing a leader asks himself when he wakes up in the morning is 'What is the US president going to do today?'' Singapore 'It embodies the notion of government as a science...and that is a good thing (for) healthy competition.' Why Singapore is great 'The fact that everything always happens on time is quite a strength, I can tell you!' Why the Middle East is enamoured of China's growth model 'The Arab countries go, 'The China model! The China model!' But what they mean is that they want economic liberalisation and growth without political liberalisation.' His almost three-year global trek for his book 'A lot of people have told me that it is five books in one.' Why he wrote his book 'Because people are speaking past one another.' Emerging markets 'This phrase is actually quite silly because some emerging markets never emerge. I mean, China is a so-called emerging market but it is actually at the core of the global economy.' What about emerging markets surprises him the most 'The extent to which they are forming connections among themselves. (That) circumvents our notion about a global core of central powers, unipolarity and hegemony.' Why it doesn't matter if emerging markets lack political heft 'The test of whether or not they are pivotal (doesn't lie) in assuming the mantle of responsibility (but rather) in whether or not they lead in very important global sectors, such as oil production.' CHEONG SUK-WAI