Global Issues

Q&A with Parag Khanna: Redrawing the map for a safe, secure world

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Last week, Parag Khanna sat with the TED Blog to discuss no less than the political future of the world we live in. He works in the expansive field of geopolitics, and his TEDTalk discusses the history and future of some of the world’s most troubled states and the possibilities of a borderless world. In this interview, he expanded on his theories, delving into the causes of terrorism, the impact of the G20, a solution for Sudan and more.

Can you explain exactly what it is that you do? Your title is Director of the Global Governance Initiative of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, and I’m not sure that we all know precisely what that means.

It’s essentially designed to be misleading so that no one will ever actually know what I truly do. (Laughter) And most of the ambiguity rests in the fact that what people struggle to grasp is that at think tanks a lot of people, like me, actually get paid to do whatever we want. So that explains it, partially.

But let me start at the top level — the New America Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, and it’s one of the youngest and definitely the hottest think tank in Washington. And it has, as in other places, a mix of domestic and foreign policy experts, and it’s run by Steve Coll, the former Washington Post editor, and the chairman of the board is Eric Schmidt of Google, and it’s a very dynamic and lively place.

The American Strategy Program is the foreign-policy wing of the think tank, and it has people like Peter Bergen from CNN and myself and others. And the Global Governance Initiative is my particular program, in which I’m exploring the future of diplomacy, not just from the perspective of what happens to intergovernmental relations and the United Nations and standing institutions like the World Bank, but rather how do all of the important actors in the world today, like News Corp and Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation, Bill Clinton and the Clinton Initiative, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, the US government — all of these players exist in a very complicated diplomatic knit. And my project is intended to clarify what the new patterns of diplomacy are among them: How are they cooperating? What issues are they cooperating on? What’s their purpose? Diplomacy is the future of understanding how we run the world, basically.

That’s a very interesting position to be in. Have you seen any of your work creating any influence or ripples in the world around you?

Should I speak for myself or New America Foundation as a whole?

Both, if you can.

Well, what I do is I tend to go to countries and interview the leaders, but I don’t interview them like a journalist. I talk to their leaders as someone who’s developed a certain knowledge or expertise on emerging markets or rising powers. And I don’t so much interview people as I debate with them, and I argue with them, and I get them to say what they really believe, not what they want to see in the newspaper tomorrow. And that’s how I gathered the material for my book, in addition to reading a hell of a lot and traveling around countries and talking to all sorts of people.

I can’t take responsibility for the policies that other countries develop, but I’ve built up a substantial network of young and current leaders in a lot of countries and I have regular interactions with them on important issues. With the US government, I’ve worked with the Department of Defense advising on the US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can’t actually talk about the specific things that went on there. As with many people who’ve been involved in the conflicts over there, I’ve tried to assert a certain way in which things should go, but influence is a very complicated landscape. We keep on pushing and pushing on certain issues, in the hope of seeing some kind of change.

New America Foundation has had a lot of success in areas like education policy, tax policy, climate policy as well — it’s a very progressive place. But the question of influence is very interesting, and I think people should ask themselves more seriously — whether they’re journalists or think tank people or academics — “What’s the measure of my influence?” Is someone influential because millions of people read his column, or does anything actually ever change according to what he suggested or recommended? We tend to conflate the two measurements of visibility versus a change. I, for one, I like to set the bar very high and say, “Did something change?”

That’s very inspiring. I’d like to delve some more into application and talk about relatively current events. Obama’s been in office for a little over half a year, and when he was elected the global attitude toward him was much friendlier. Do you think that this friendlier global climate really will prove advantageous to the United States in diplomacy and foreign relations?

I think when people are struggling to understand public opinion toward the United States between the Bush administration and the Obama administration, there’s a very simple explanation that I never hear people give, which is that when Obama was running for President, he didn’t represent America, he represented the anti-Bush and a different America. But now that he’s President and represents America, he’s conflated again, so that Obama equals America. If American policy is still bad, now Obama takes the blame rather than Bush taking the blame. So if you want to explain the fall-off or drop-off in popularity or approval for Obama, that is how you’d explain it. Because people want or expect change instantaneously, and obviously they’re not going to get that because the power of inertia is so great.

Not only is the power of inertia great, in the case of the war in Iraq — where in fact he’s been very fast, he’s been pulling troops out — but it still takes time. In Afghanistan, his very controversial decision is that he’s trying to increase the number of troops there. In many people’s eyes that means deepening an occupation, digging in deeper, and that obviously also isn’t necessarily popular.

Now, I do believe he was quite revolutionary in his early diplomacy. He reached out within the first 100 days to the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and a whole host of countries that the Bush administration considered rogue states. And he said, “Look, it’s time to start anew, it’s time to work on pragmatic interests.” He canceled this whole missile defense plan that had no strategic defense whatsoever and that had been hampering American relations with Russia for years and years. And overnight, he just changed it. So I think he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for quickstarting a process in the first 100 days. And, of course, people will be disappointed if they don’t see reciprocal results right away. But they’re just not going to. That’s not the way it works. I still have a lot of faith in the process that he has initiated.

READ MORE: Parag Khanna discusses the G20, a solution for Sudan, terrorism and borders, explains who’s really going to address climate change and how we may yet come to live in a borderless world.We’re about to head into the G20, and there are many predictions about what’s to be discussed at the summit. I was wondering if you have any comment or insight into this?

Yeah, I spend a lot of time working on G20 issues. I’m part of a group of people who go to each host country of the G20 before they host it, and we spend time in the foreign ministry, with the sherpas and other diplomats to help them figure out what it is they hope to achieve in their one year as chair of the G8 or G20. So I’ve been doing this with Italy last year, Korea next year and so forth.

I think that the G20 is remarkable in that it emerged sort of from nowhere. It did technically exist for more than 10 years, but no one really knew about it till last year. And all of a sudden, it’s become the new rock concert of diplomacy, where everyone is descending on Pittsburgh and making a big show out of it. There’s protesters and poetry and God knows what else. So, whereas the G20 initially was just focused on financial stability and monetary policy issues, now, all of a sudden, it’s expected to save the world, run the world and take care of the world at the same time. It simply can’t do that.

It needs to really focus on achieving certain things, one by one, or whatever it has capacity for, instead of taking on a hundred issues at the same time. Achieving progress on global multilateral opening of trade, poverty reduction in Africa, climate change policy, financial regulation, Iran and the nuclear issue — all of those things are being dumped on the agenda at the same time, as if they’re all going to be solved at once in two days in Pittsburgh. The problem with thinking of diplomacy in terms of these summits is that you wind up with people just having a big scrum and absolutely nothing comes out.

I worry about the G20’s fate, because its main advantages are that it’s flexible, it’s lean, it’s representative. It’s not even a legal entity. It’s just an informal coordinating mechanism. I think informal coordinating mechanisms are very important; I think they are the future of diplomacy, quite frankly. Not legal or treaty-based sorts of institutions, like the UN Security Council — which has a lot of legal authority, but no one trusts it anymore and it’s become basically useless. I would like to see the G20 focus on one or two things at a time and get those right, before it starts to bounce around to 100 different issues at once.

Conflict in Southern Sudan has been on the rise. Is there any way out of these types of conflicts in Africa that are essentially happening, as you pointed out, because of borders that were drawn through the continent in colonial eras?

Technically, there are multiple scenarios, both in the case of south Sudan and also in the generic question of African conflicts. One is independence and partition, but always with an eye toward survivability. To me, that’s always the question for a particular conflict. I talk about Pakistan’s problems with territorial integrity and people are like, “Hey, you didn’t mention Kashmir.” But one of the questions you always have to ask is about survivability. I talk about Kurdistan — it’s a land-locked entity, but I still think it can survive, because I think there are enough pipeline routes already flowing from it. Kashmir has no infrastructural links to oceans, to other bodies of water, and no major allies that would support its independence. So its independence as such is problematic, whereas Kurdistan is really way ahead.

With south Sudan, because they have oil and they’re relatively close to the sea, they can have sustainable exports and energy, and survive as an independent state of Africans — of Christian black Africans — independent of the Arab regime in the north. So I believe that they could have independence. The attacks that you heard about yesterday, quite frankly are happening every day and are really just emblematic of what happens when regimes agree to kick a decision down the road — all that does is lead to more death along the way, because they can’t agree on the ultimate outcome. In the TEDTalk, I said, “Look, whether it’s yesterday or 2011 the official referendum happens, south Sudan is going to be independent.” So the northern regime says, “Let’s just have a referendum three years later, and in the next three years we’ll just torture and kill a lot of people, we’ll fund another war, send a lot of militias in and try and break up your pipeline operation.” What’s the point of doing that? Why cause more harm?

There have been stupidly partitioned states in history, and the one of India and Pakistan, in term of its geography, obviously stands out as a shining example. But that doesn’t mean that right now we don’t have enough data, analysis, material, on-the-ground feedback and opinion. This isn’t 1947. We know now, today, exactly how and where to divide certain places. And the Balkans are no different, except that we would not repeat 1947 if we divided certain countries today.

There’s a great irony in people knowing that their colonial borders are absolutely illegitimate and imposed and forced on them by ignorance, by retreating colonial (now nonexistent) empires, and blaming those empires, but on the other hand today defending those borders as if they’re utterly sacred. And I think we have to break out of that irony if we’re going to have territorial peace in any of these places. That’s not an opinion. Quite frankly, it’s fact. If borders aren’t one of the reasons we have these conflicts, then please, give me another reason. We have this notion that resolving borders would not contribute to conflict resolution, and it’s obviously ludicrous. I think that we should tackle the problem of borders and territorial issues head-on. That was the purpose of my TED Talk.

How do you then deal with the problem of terrorist organizations, these stateless entities? How does that fit into your theory of how the world interacts?

It’s very important to point out that literally almost all terrorism is locally rooted, with local political agendas and often very territorial-rooted agendas. Yes, terrorists cross borders and can strike internationally and appear to be territory-free, but that’s a description of how they act, not an analysis of what they want. When you analyze what they want, and you look at the patterns of global terrorism in the last decade, you find that the countries that are most affected by terrorism — those are very concretely India, Pakistan and Iraq — you find that literally 100 percent of the terrorist activity is about a specific political, geographic, historic, territorial reason.

So just because terrorists fly around in planes and have bank accounts in many countries and operate in these loose networks and don’t have an office that you can attack, it doesn’t in the least bit mean that they’re not political actors in the way that others are. I think it’s really essential to understand that. Whether it’s Kashmir or Belugistan or Pashtunistan or Afghanistan or Iraq or Kurdistan or Palestine — the list goes on and on — there is in fact a political, territorial grievance or basis that is at stake. I don’t deal with it any differently than I deal with anything else. I think that the mistake people make is to go too far in the opposite direction and argue that terrorism means that it’s a border-free world. That’s not true, because most terrorists are fighting for borders and about borders and occupations.

It’s been surmised that the central enemy of climate change could bring the world together to work against it. What do you think about that? Do you think that climate change could impact and improve diplomatic relations?

I think it’s a very vague assertion that the crisis of climate change is going to pull countries together to combat it. Quite frankly, the perception of the threat really varies based on the impact that people calculate for themselves. And even if they know it to be true that it will hurt them — like India or China — they are also calculating two things: First, whether their growth is more important than addressing the issue, and secondly, if the Western countries feel passionate enough about it, they’ll pay them to deal with the issue. So, in negotiations, you’re not really representing what you know to be true, you’re representing a position that is going to gain you the maximum amount of resources and leverage.

There’s a great sort of joke or analogy used to represent Iran that’s also at work here. You know, in Arab culture or Persian culture, it’s all about bargaining and the bazaar. You go, you want to buy a carpet and you look at every single carpet except the one you want and then you end up getting a good price because it seems like you don’t want the carpet that you wanted all along. So the US says, “No nuclear proliferation. No nuclear proliferation. No nuclear weapons.” And Iran maybe didn’t want nuclear weapons that badly, but when they realized just how much the US wants to prevent them from getting them, they focus on that. The same thing goes for climate change. The more the US begins to argue that climate change is by far its greatest priority, well, that means that it has to put its money where its mouth is, and China and India can sit back and wait for America to pay them to confront climate change. We all know that China is by some measures the richest country in the world. Certainly, it has two trillion dollars of foreign exchange reserves, and could certainly spend its way toward a more manageable approach to climate change.

I’m afraid that the notion of some kind of holistic, global, political unity on climate change falls apart if you observe the official diplomacy. Unofficially — and again I get back to this notion of informal, consultative networks — unofficially, I think there’s phenomenal things happening. To hell with Pittsburgh, Copenhagen and all these things — I’ve just come from a meeting where even climate experts were saying exactly that — to hell with those things. It’s all about companies innovating new solutions and selling them cheap to mayors and factory owners and governments around the world. The more you do that, the more you’ll be addressing a problem, while negotiators sit and argue about trivial rhetoric.

Really, truly, concretely, do you think that we will ever live in a borderless world?

The answer is, as I said at the very end of my talk, it’s about pushing toward equilibrium. Equilibrium doesn’t mean a borderless world, it means a world in which borders align in ways that are peaceful and sensible with respect to populations and resources. That’s the definition of equilibrium.

When you say a borderless world, I take it to mean a peaceful world of free movement and communities that feel secure. Communities feel secure when borders are shifted to align population with the resources. As far as I’m concerned, we can move closer and closer toward that world. Infrastructure is key because building infrastructure across those borders makes it easier to cross them. You don’t assume a borderless world, you build a borderless world by building lines across borders instead of borders across lines.