Talking Policy: Parag Khanna on Connectography

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This interview transcript was originally published by the World Policy Institute on 13 May 2016.

The world is becoming more connected by the day. Whether through the Internet and social media or through increased international trade, the world today does not look the same as it did 100 years ago. According to Parag Khanna, leading global strategist and award-winning author of numerous books including his latest, Connectography, these links are only going to increase in the future. World Policy Journal spoke with Khanna to discuss the concept of connectography and what the connected future holds for politics, people, and the environment.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In your new book Connectography, you suggest that the current global order is changing. How exactly is this happening, and what does the world of the future look like in your opinion?

PARAG KHANNA: Right, so, the premise is that the forces of connectivity—transportation, energy, innovations, but also capital market, cultural integration, trade, and so forth—are reshaping the meaning of geography and the extent to which political geography based at the boundaries dictate our fate versus the connective forces that make connectivity more our destiny than the geography has been for now, or up until now. And that’s the pattern that you need to take a step back and take a 5,000-year view to appreciate. So we’ve reached the sort of tipping point where that connectivity does in fact matter more than divisions. And we have so much connectivity across political borders, and yet we have so few wars along those borders. So we no longer really fight over a border. Instead we are now fighting over connectivity. But we’re also benefiting from connectivity greatly at the same time. So that’s where you get a picture of the world that’s really far more complex than what we’ve had here before.

WPJ: Definitely. So you argue that we’re living in a world where borders are becoming increasingly more arbitrary, but you’re also arguing this at a time when we’ve just seen the annexation of Crimea by Russia, for instance, as well as China changing facts on the ground in regards to the South China Sea. And now European countries are shutting their borders to vulnerable refugee populations. Now more than ever in the last decade it seems that borders are becoming more important. Specifically in regards to today, how do you reconcile this with your view of increased integration in the future?

PK: There are many answers. First of all, borders are not more important today on a worldwide scale. And even in the places where you think they’re more important, they’re still not becoming that much more important. Take the example of the European Union, where they’re saying that instead of having the Schengen agreement for unrestricted migration, you’ll have some kind of control over the flow of certain kinds of migrants and border check and restrictions. I call those friction, and having some degree of friction, rather than unrestricted, overwhelming forces of migration, might be a good and a healthy thing because many European countries simply can’t afford, can’t manage, and don’t have the capacity to deal with such an influx. So if you wind up with people living on the street, or whatever the case may be, maybe we need to take a step back, slow down a little bit, and help prepare these countries.

Just because a limited amount of friction is increasing across a certain set of borders, it doesn’t mean that that reflects the sum total of relations between countries. There are countries that are trading more energy with each other, trading more goods with each other, and investing more with each other. At all these other levels, which we’re not talking about, they remain more integrated. Let me give you an obvious example: the German power sector. Germany decided to stop nuclear power development, so now it buys electricity from French nuclear power stations. You may have fewer migrants that are easily able to cross between France and Germany, but you also now have a huge amount of electricity flowing between France and Germany. Can you really say that that border definitely has become more important just because in one area there’s slightly more friction?

The second reason that argument is very unrepresentative of the global trend is that Europe is not the world—and neither is America for that matter. In almost all the world, almost all the time, borders are coming down. Frictions are being reduced. Flows are increasing. The same year in which Europe is thinking about raising certain migration restrictions, ASEAN in Southeast Asia, which has more people than Europe, has just passed a pre-migration accord. There is now free mobility of people across a region of the world that is very fast-growing, very dynamic, very strategic, and has 700 million people. If you’re completely Eurocentric, then you think that borders are going up around the world. But if you are utilitarian and you take the world holistically, then that’s just not true.

WPJ: That’s really interesting. You suggest that the way of the future is for developed countries to partner with developing countries to build infrastructure. How do we ensure this, and whose responsibility is this in the long run? And what happens if there is no political will to do so?

PK: Governments have historically been the largest investors in infrastructure and probably always will be because it’s a very long-term investment and governments have the long time horizon. Many governments have been neglecting that responsibility recently as their infrastructure decays, as we see in America, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. But in all of those countries, you see that leaders across both the public and private sectors are talking about what a priority this needs to be. So we’re seeing on a worldwide basis that there is a huge amount of infrastructure investment—Asia leads the way because that’s where most of the world population is. Those governments are not neglecting this responsibility—they’re starting to catch up. The election of Prime Minister Modi in India is a signal example of this, because India has decided that infrastructure is going to be its main priority for the next decade. The same is true for Indonesia and the Philippines. So right there, you not only have China, which is obviously been a huge infrastructure investment leader, but also three of Asia’s largest democracies with a combined population of almost 2 billion people have reached a consensus that infrastructure is the path to laying the foundation for future growth. Then you have the China-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the AIIB, which is investing tremendously in infrastructure across all of China’s neighbors; China has 14 neighbors, which is more than any other country in the world. So there is no evidence that infrastructure will not be a priority. To the contrary, infrastructure is the number one priority in the world, and my book is obviously built around the evidence that suggests that that is going to be the case.

WPJ: You suggest that mega-cities will be the way of the future. What about all the negatives that come along with rapid urbanization, such as growing inequality and environmental degradation as a result of industrialization? Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks?

PK: I don’t think that cities are the countries of the future; I think that cities are becoming increasingly autonomous authorities economically and politically, and that’s a good thing. They are legitimately concerned with their own local circumstances, and that’s extremely important. The negative externalities are what we’re going to manage. We’ve had unrelenting urbanization for the last 25 years. We’re now learning that cities should not build on arable land. We’re learning that they shouldn’t exploit their water tables. In a city, we know that industrial pollution causes such horrific amounts of smog that has such a negative effect on people’s health. There are a lot of things we’re learning now about how to continue to urbanize but in a more sustainable way. As I phrased it before, I think sustainable urbanization is the number one priority for mankind in the 21st century, and I think we’re learning to do it better. We’re reducing the carbon intensity of cities. We’re learning to transfer technologies to reduce emissions. We’re learning to invest in better public transportation so that fewer people want to own cars. We’re learning how to do urban farming. There are many, many examples of how we’re learning to sustainably urbanize.

WPJ: In the future, then, do we just need to use those examples and ensure that we continue in that direction? What is the role of agriculture, for instance, in the future as these cities grow out and become bigger?

PK: Extremely important, because that is most of the world. Most of the world’s geography is rural geography, is natural geography. And that’s where all of our resources come from to fuel our urban, coastal civilization. We should prize and protect those resources because they are incredibly important for our collective sustenance. We’re learning how to be more efficient not just in exploiting those resources but how to be more sustainable in our consumption of them. That’s going to be part of this urbanization process and the de-urbanization of other areas.

On Earth Day, I Tweeted a map that’s from the book, and it was a very difficult map to produce because we had to go to a lot of different sources like IUCN and World Wildlife Fund and to try and map out all of the geographies that are now legally, officially protected areas that cannot be exploited for commercial activity. We found that a very important patchwork of the world—oceans, the coastal areas, mountains, and other very sensitive habitats—has been designated by governments all over the world as protected areas. Fifty years ago, there were zero such areas that were really ecologically significant. Today, it’s large parts of the planet. So we are evolving psychologically toward treating nature more preciously.

WPJ: Moving on to the human aspect of Connectography, what do you think about the formation of national identity? We’re seeing divisions around the world around ethnic, religious, socioeconomic aspects of identity. What happens to these identities when you drop the borders that define them? Do you think the world becomes a more peaceful utopia, or does it become the opposite?

PK: There are two things going on. On the one hand, competition over supply-chains and infrastructure has become violent. I warn in the book about examples such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the way in which the value of pipelines plays a key role there, as well as the way in which China may use its infrastructure to build among its neighbors a pathway to control their economies and their politics. I warn of the militarization of infrastructural connectivity. On the other hand, a world dominated by coastal cities is a world that definitely favors trade and openness more than just territorial aggrandizement for the sake of it. There is potential for a downside trend, but there is also a strong shift toward commercial, mutually beneficial relationships taking precedence over traditional geopolitics. Both things are happening at the same time.

WPJ: Which of those trends do you think is going to play more of a role in coming years? Do you think that one will possibly lead to the other, or do you think that these two things will evolve together as you point out is happening now?

PK: It’s hard to say that one is dominating the other. Both are happening at the same time in different geographies, so there isn’t always a global answer to the question. For example, cities in Europe are peacefully trading with each other. Cities in North America are peacefully trading with each other. Eventually, I believe that the map of the Middle East should return to an ancient map of oases, which is really what Arab cities are, and their trade relationships with each other, rather than these artificial, postcolonial, European-imposed borders. The whole world is moving in the direction of internal or intra-regional connectivity among cities—that’s an undeniably positive trend, and it is happening. There will on a case-by-case basis be countries invading each other using infrastructure, too. But the overall trend is without a doubt more positive than negative.

WPJ: Very interesting. Something that may deserve a bit of mulling over is how this is going to play out in the Middle East, especially with the rise of non-state actors like the Islamic State. How are these roadblocks going to affect and possibly play a role in changing this connected world you speak of in your book?

PK: I would just say that there’s potential for these positive forces of connectivity and supply chain integration to mitigate the escalation of conflict. There have been nine major wars after the Cold War, so for the past 25 years I’ve been politically conscious vis-à-vis nine different wars, and none of those wars have broken out or escalated into regional wars or World War III, the way a lot of experts predicted. The reason they haven’t is because of these various forms of connectivity. And if you add onto that rapid urbanization, having cities grow closer to each other commercially and demographically, that’s another force pushing in a more peaceful direction. That’s the gist of my argument in the book.

WPJ: In order to get us from where we are today, conflict and all, what are the steps that you think need to be taken by national governments, by international organizations, and by any other non-state actors to reach a place of larger connectivity where that will eventually promote peaceful relations among states and worldwide?

PK: One of the most important things is that the private sector step up alongside the private sector, and do much more infrastructure investment around the world. That’s going to lead to greater connectivity, more resource sharing, more movement of people, more social integration, and so forth. That again applies to the Middle East. Non-state actors, by this you may mean companies or NGOs and so forth, also play a vital role because once people are connected, there are better opportunities to get the health care and education and other services that actually make them more productive. Human development rests on the foundation of this connectivity. There’s no disconnected society that’s prosperous, so that’s essential. That, again, applies to the Middle East as well. But of course you have good and bad non-state actors. You mentioned ISIS earlier. ISIS is not a reaction against connectivity. It’s a reaction against very, very poor governance. It’s against corruption. It’s against the artificial nature of states. It’s about high youth unemployment. It’s about responding to an invasion that really began in the early 1990s with the First Gulf War. ISIS is a product of many different things. It’s certainly not somehow an anti-globalist movement. In the long run, ISIS is dangerous but so is economic inequality within countries and within societies, as is the lack of the infrastructure investment that is needed to create jobs and empower people in cities. So reducing inequality in cities through investment is a very important tool to overcoming the ideological attractiveness that organizations like ISIS have.

WPJ: You seem to have a very positive outlook, and that’s refreshing in a world that’s plagued by negative news cycles. Do you have any final thoughts to impart on the next generation of global change-makers, or thoughts about what the world is going to look like in the next few decades?

PK: Young people in particular need to build their ability to be mobile, to be connected, to work in different places, to adapt to different industries, and to be culturally open to more diversity, especially in large cities. They have to be better educated in technology, the area that can help them have higher-wage jobs. All of these things are priorities, but in a world where there is a lot of uncertainty and volatility, having the capacity to move around, to relocate, and to be where you need to be economically is going to be a real asset in the future.

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