Every so often a serious but accessible international relations book or documentary comes along and catches popular notice. Its success is a decent indicator of how well-educated, reasonable Americans view the changes in the world. Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, for example, redefined how many people understand globalization. A more recent success story is Parag Khanna’s bestseller, How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance. Khanna, the Director of the Global Governance Initiative at the New America Foundation, offers some frightening news—we’re on the verge of chaos—but also gives us hope for nearly immediate salvation. The book’s popularity suggests interesting but not always positive trends in Americans’ views of the world.
Khanna begins his book with the obvious point that the world is changing under the influence of globalization, and not always for the better. For Khanna, our current globalized world is a neo-medieval collection of empires, city-states, multi-national corporations and mercenary armies competing for power. This situation could lead to a series of disastrous conflicts and our collective descent into another Dark Age.
How do we avert Armageddon and control the exciting world we created? In 256 pages, Khanna pulls us from inferno to utopia, helpfully giving his readers “a road map for creating a truly resilient and stable world.” Khanna’s road map rests on the notion of cooperation: The world needs “all hands on deck” to manage challenges which are too big for governments or international institutions. The key to cooperation is the growing web of human interconnectedness built on technology, through which individuals can band together and create “action-oriented networks” which will solve global problems. Khanna calls this “mini-lateral action,” as opposed to the “multilateral stasis” currently bogging the world down. The best current examples of tech-savvy cooperators are global elites like Madonna, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, dubbed by Khanna as “mega-diplomats.” These are the people who jet around the world discussing new ideas, create global charities, negotiate with diplomats, and so on. In a world where increasing technological interconnectedness is making traditional states and institutions more and more irrelevant, mega-diplomats point the way to the future.
If the average global citizen follows the elites’ lead, what will be the result? Khanna dreams big. He predicts that megadiplomacy will transform debilitating global competition into “a jazzy dance among coalitions of ministries, companies, churches, foundations, universities [and] activists…who cooperate to achieve specific goals.” Such attainable goals include, in the near future, persuading the Chinese authorities to “respect and even follow Google’s unofficial motto: ‘don’t be evil.’” In the long-term, we can achieve “universal liberation through exponentially expanding and voluntary interconnections,” which will create a “self-regulating and recreating [world]” in which all governmental and institutional controls will be rendered unnecessary. There are more gems along these lines throughout the book, but you get the idea.
Though he gets points for sweeping generalizations, Khanna clearly leaves some things out like, in no particular order, religion, race, ethnicity, and the nation-state. He seems to assume that all of these fundamental aspects of a global society will be rendered magically irrelevant by mega-diplomats—who, by his definition, could plausibly include an angry 12-year-old with pictures of Nietzsche and Che on his wall and an AIM account—operating in voluntary networks (possibly World of Warcraft). When Khanna doesn’t dismiss preexisting concepts as “antiquated,” he appropriates them: at one point, he labels equality a “post-material value.”
Most jarringly, Khanna doesn’t seem to care much about human nature. The fact that human beings are not always rational actors, that we are actually complex mixes of good and evil incapable of being completely purified, never enters into his calculations. Maybe Khanna would have profited from watching two members of the global elite he seems to admire so much, Charlie Sheen and Muammar Gaddafi, over the past couple of weeks. Both the movie star and the dictator exemplify human beings’ capacity for extraordinary flights of egoism and irrationality, and for using authority and technology to achieve ugly and pernicious ends. Just because we’ve created high-tech tools doesn’t mean we won’t misuse them.
While his gems of wisdom might provide nice conversation starters at parties (“You know, economic chaos, social unrest, depraved morals, wild expenditures, debauchery and religious hysteria all lie just under the surface of our many veneers of sophistication”), Khanna’s view of how to run the world is chimerical. His perspective, however, has broader implications for the world because it epitomizes one of the biggest challenges to actually solving global problems like global warming, deficits, and nuclear proliferation in a realistic way. If Khanna’s readers believe in his vision of earthly utopia—and his recent publishing successes indicate that at least some of them do—we as a country and as a planet are faced with the prospect of democratic citizens who expect their problems to be solved easily and quickly.
The disconnect between Khanna’s utopia and reality doesn’t bode well for people living in a changing world. And Khanna and his followers aren’t the only ones who hold radical ideas. Every doctrinaire libertarian and Marxist who believes that someday the nation-state will wither away, leaving the world in a capitalist or communist utopia, draws from the same pool of thought as Khanna’s book. What’s broadly disturbing about Khanna’s success is that it implies that more people are buying into and expecting immediate results from these quick, easy and starry-eyed solutions. Especially today, when addressing our problems demands hard-eyed assessments and difficult choices, unrealistic expectations are not sentiments which should be encouraged.