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Two Views of the Emerging Geopolitical Landscape

April 21, 2008


I am a proponent of examining alternative futures in order to better prepare courses of action that might be needed as various trends like rushing rivers carve out the canyons of the future. Peter Schwartz, president of Global Business Network, is generally credited with creating alternative futures analysis while he was with Royal Dutch Shell. If one could divine the future, alternative futures analysis would not be needed. But we can’t. Various people, from Yogi Berra to Neils Bohr, have been credited with saying, “It’s hard to predict, especially the future.” Whoever said it, they were right. A comparative book review in The Economist demonstrates this very well [“The empire strikes back,” 29 March print edition]. The review begins by noting it is comparing two books [The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New World Order by Parag Khanna and The Return of History and the End of Dreams by Robert Kagan] that look at “how the world is changing” and that they “reach very different conclusions.”

“On the face of it, these two books are about the same thing: the great trends in geopolitics as the economic power of Asia grows and as the world grimaces at America in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Yet they could hardly be more different. Parag Khanna’s is a long, complicated book on the basis of which he has drawn a simple—well, simplistic—conclusion: that the world is now dominated by three great empires, those of America, China and the European Union. Robert Kagan’s is a short, simple book which states that the world is much more complicated than it once appeared. Mr Kagan’s is the better of the two, by a wide margin.”

Khanna’s conclusion may be simplistic, but one would be hard-pressed to argue that the U.S., China, and the European Union won’t exert great influence into the foreseeable future. As discussed later, even Kagan agrees with that. It’s clear, however, the reviewer for The Economist didn’t really enjoy reading Khanna’s book.

“What is impressive about Mr Khanna’s book, however, is its range and ambition. Drawing inspiration from Arnold Toynbee’s tour of the globe half a century ago for his ‘East to West: A Journey Round the World’, Mr Khanna, a scholar at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC, decided to set off on his own travels. He visited more than 50 countries, most of them in what he calls ‘the second world’, by which he means something between the rich developed West and the poorest parts of Africa. His tour thus took him to Ukraine, Turkey, the Balkans and the Caucasus; to the ‘stans’ of Central Asia and the borderlands of China; to Latin America, to the Middle East and to East Asia. The vast bulk of his quite bulky book consists of pen pictures of all these countries and regions and of what he found there. As a collection of essays the range is impressive, but taken one by one they are unremarkable: the observations are not terribly vivid, the analysis not terribly deep, and this reviewer kept on being tripped over by strange judgments and misconceptions.”

The reviewer laments that Khanna simply dismisses some of the world’s potentially up and coming players (like Brazil, Russia, and India) as not mattering much when it comes to world affairs.

“The common thread that Mr Khanna discerns from all his travels is that everywhere he goes he finds signs of influence coming from three outside forces: America, China and the EU. He sees the future of the world being shaped by those three ’empires’. Of the three, China is rising but problematic; America is declining, incompetent and arrogant; and the EU is rather cuddlier, cleverer and more powerful than even many proud Europeans would think. Other countries you might think of as potential great powers—India, Russia or Brazil, for example—are thought of by Mr Khanna simply as also-rans. India he wafts aside in a roughly 500-word box, at the end of a chapter on China, as too chaotic to count. If it rises at all, he claims, it will do so according to Chinese rules.”

I, perhaps, would have begun my argument against Khanna’s analysis by questioning his use of the term “empire” to describe the U.S., China and the EU. Of the three, China (flush with cash and globally on the prowl for natural resources) is probably acting more like an old colonial power than the other two. Still, its activities are not accurately described as imperial. In comparison to the criticism leveled at Khanna, the praise for Kagan’s book is effusive.

“Mr Kagan probably never left his study while preparing ‘The Return of History and the End of Dreams’. He has written just over 100 pages, the type is large and the spacing generous. Yet his book is subtle and deep where Mr Khanna’s is clunky and shallow. His argument is that the short period after the end of the cold war when it was said that ideological conflict was over and that liberal democracy had prevailed was a delusion; we are now, he says, back in a world of clashing national ambitions and interests, one more akin to the 19th century than to the 1990s.”

That description also harkens the world back to colonial times and imperial behavior. Kagan’s emphasis, however, seems not to be on that period’s colonial behavior but on its balance of power aspects.

“In that world there are no simple formulae for predicting or managing national behaviour. It is not a world in which one power—America—is dominant, though it remains the single most influential and capable country on a global scale, even after its debacle in Iraq. Nor is it a world, on his account, in which just three ’empires’ hold sway in any sort of triangular balance. It is a world in which many countries and their ruling elites are jostling for position and advantage, some of them keen to prove that today’s assumptions about influence and status can and will be overturned. If there is a broad trend to be discerned in recent years it is the revival of autocracy as a sometimes effective and even legitimate form of government. If there is a neat dividing line, it is the line between the democracies and the autocracies. But using that line in the operation of foreign policy is no easier now than it has ever been. One thing that both authors do agree on is that the dream of a simple, safe world has gone for good.”

This latter analysis (that globalization’s lines are being drawn between autocracies and democracies) is more interesting and intriguing than arguments presented in the review. I have heard my colleague Tom Barnett argue that most developing countries that embrace globalization and free markets do so as single-party states. He asserts that many Americans suffer from attention-deficit disorder when it comes to remembering how democracies emerge – “the process is slow and painful.” Alternative futures analysis can be very useful in exploring how autocracies might evolve and what that might mean for the global economy.

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