Friday, March 04, 2011

The Postmodern Thinker

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Business Times - 05 Mar 2011


The postmodern thinker

International relations scholar and author Parag Khanna talks about geopolitics and identity in the post-post-modern world. By Leon Hadar

PARAG Khanna, adventurer-scholar extraordinaire, bestselling author, pundit, former geopolitical adviser to generals (US General Stanley McChrystal) and celebrities (Bono), has some great news for the bearish among us. Or does he? Addressing a packed hall in Washington, DC, on the same evening that President Barack Obama is giving a televised speech, a cool and calm Dr Khanna, sans necktie and any prepared notes, explains that we are already living in the post-post-American World that is not very flat, but actually very messy, chaotic, and unruly.

Welcome to the 'New Middle Ages' - or the 'Neomidage'. And that apparently should make us all very, very bullish about the future.

Say what? The guy seating next to me had expected Dr Khanna to do a Dr Kissinger and to predict a return to the 19th century's Congress of Vienna/balance of power system - Metternich, Bismarck, Talleyrand, Disraeli - and seems to be a bit dumbfounded. The Middle Ages?

Dr Khanna, who directs the Global Governance Initiative at the New American Foundation, is not only a contrarian who likes to challenge the conventional wisdom, he is a mind teaser who forces you to reassess the way you look at the world and reexamine not only your paradigm, but also its foundations.

Forget all the notions that lead us to believe that the new system for managing global problems will be dominated by all the old actors. If anything, we are entering an age that will look more and more like the Middle Ages that we dread so much - rising Asian empires (China), Western militaries (US), Middle Eastern sheikdoms (Qatar), magnetic city-states (Singapore), wealthy multinational corporations (Microsoft) and humanitarians (Bill Gates), powerful families, religious radicals (Al Qaeda), tribal hordes (Pashtuns) and huge population flows (Hispanic immigrants), powerful media (CNN), universities (Georgetown University) and mercenaries (Blackwater), all interacting in unpredictable and dangerous ways and producing even more destructive global economic crises and military confrontations.

New diplomatic landscape

This is the new diplomatic landscape where technology and money - not sovereignty - 'determines who has authority and calls the shots', according to Dr Khanna.

And that is the good news? 'It's important to remember that the initial 'dark age' evolved into the Renaissance and to try to ensure that that happens again in our era,' he responds.

It starts with the recognition that we are facing a new reality in which governments and corporations cannot tackle the problems alone, he explains. The main driving force for change will be civic groups - 'cause-mopolitan activists' - building coalitions with super-philanthropists, motivated government technocrats and influential business executives - the new supranational networks that are engaging in 'mega-diplomacy, by helping to assemble the talent, pool the money, and deploy the resources to make the global economy fairer'.

Hence the title of Dr Khanna's new book, How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the New Renaissance (New York: Random House, 2011). 'This is not your grandfather's diplomacy, but today's Generation Y intuitively gets it,' he assures us.

Indeed, Dr Khanna may be still around at the dawn of the New Renaissance. In his early thirties, he is considered to be one of Generation Y's leading intellectuals. Author of the bestseller The Second World, he was picked as one of Esquire's Most Influential People of the Twenty-first Century and featured on Wired's Smart List. He has been affiliated with all the major think tanks, including the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, and has written for all the major publications - you name it, he's published there - and appears regularly on television media around the world. In a way, he represents a new generation of American geo-strategic thinkers and practitioners that will be replacing the current foreign policy elite in the coming years.

In the past, the members of this elite tended to be recruited from WASP (White Anglo-Saxon and Protestant) families, educated in Ivy Leagues universities, and affiliated with prestigious law firms and foundations. Later they were joined by thinkers and practitioners from more diverse backgrounds. Think of the renowned national security figures - Henry Kissinger (born in Germany), Zbigniew Brzezinski (born in Poland) or Richard Holbrooke (born to a German-Jewish family).

Dr Kissinger and Dr Brzezinski trace their influences that shaped their worldview to their upbringing in war-town Europe. Dr Khanna's personal narrative is both similar and different. 'We are technically a Partition family in that my father was born into a wealthy merchant family in Lahore, but then lost everything in the Partition and fled to India,' recalls Dr Khanna. 'My mother is from a civil servant and military family in Uttar Pradesh, but was in the first class of females admitted to the prestigious IIT academy.'

But Dr Khanna didn't spend much time in India. His father was working for Tata Exports and the family ended up wandering around the world. 'We lived in places like Khartoum and Abu Dhabi, with frequent travels to Cairo, Beirut and Addis Ababa, among other places. My earliest memories are of Abu Dhabi, where I learned how to swim, play tennis, and eventually learned just enough English before we migrated to the US.'

The move to Queens in New York was a typical Indian migration pattern. After landing in America in 1982, the family lived in various parts of New York, mostly Westchester, where the young Khanna attended primary and secondary schools. Growing up in Chappaqua, New York, he had become obsessive about reading books and playing tennis, and rediscovered his love of travel. And then the Cold War ended.

When the Berlin Wall fell, Dr Khanna's father took the family on a long family trip to Germany and France.

'This was certainly my geopolitical awakening, as I personally sat on top of what remained of the Wall and hacked away at it with a hammer and chisel,' Dr Khanna remembers.

He brought back dozens of pieces to distribute to his eighth grade class. The experience of visiting post-Cold War Germany and Europe 'shaped me deeply', he admits. 'That was an amazing time of backpacking around Eastern Europe so shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and I've followed the region's transition towards Europeanisation very closely ever since.'

Indeed, Europe plays a major role in Dr Khanna's futuristic scenario. 'Europe, the same continent that brought us medievalism also brought us a road map towards the next Renaissance,' he explains.

He regards Jean Monnet, the architect of European unity after World War II, as the 'most inspirational figure for the 21st century'. Dr Khanna describes the French diplomat as 'a global statesman for our postmodern times'. Mr Monnet had realised that rebuilding Europe on the basis of national sovereignty was a recipe for deferred disaster, and instead devoted himself to establishing regional economic and political institutions, which laid the foundation for a European common market, then later, the European Union (EU).

'Today Europe has countries but virtually no borders, making it a hopeful metaphor for our neo-medieval universe of linked by autonomous communities,' he argues. From that perspective, 'Europeanisation' is 'not an end state but a constant process and an experiment' and as a model to other parts of the world, he explains.

Dr Khanna's exposure to diverse cultures and languages was invaluable, particularly when he arrived at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service as an undergraduate in 1995, where most students have exotic and multi-lingual backgrounds.

After Georgetown and a one-year stint at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where he worked closely with General Stanley McChrystal who was there on a military fellowship, Dr Khanna moved to Geneva to work for the World Economic Forum (WEF). He travelled substantially in Central Asia and the Middle East during and after Sept 11.

And he has been on and off the ground since then. Dr Khanna's personal schedule is now entirely self-defined. In a way, he is always in-between-trips.

'My wife and I and our daughter have intentionally pushed to structure our lives together in this way,' he says. 'We are very light on possessions and very keen on experiences. There is an expression that someone 'lives on a plane'. I actually want to live on a plane; it would be so much more efficient!'

According to Dr Khanna, his identity as an American is not at odds with his internationalism. 'We' can wave the American flag while also raising flags of multiculturalism and internationalism, he says.

In fact, Dr Khanna's Indian ethnicity and cosmopolitan persona complements and even meshes with his Americanism. 'Growing up in the globalisation heyday of the 1990s allowed one to be quite optimistic about notions such as global citizenship and cosmopolitan identity,' he notes.

'I have always been fascinated by diasporas and Joel Kotkin's study of the subject. His book, Tribes, was one of my early intellectual bibles. There is certainly something to the notion that different ethnic groups demonstrate various capacities for adaptation. When I was growing up in Westchester, we were among the only Indian families in a 30-mile radius. Only subsequently did the area become much more populated with successful Indian families.

'So I was quite aware of differences and similarities, but with the emphasis on English and education in my family - and certainly in the majority Jewish culture of the areas - adaptation was quite easy despite ethnic and religious differences.'

The new order

Indeed, members of the ethnic-trade diasporas are going to play a major role in shaping the new order, according to Dr Khanna. Technology and finance are tearing apart the relationship between borders and identity. Diasporas, just like during the old Middle Ages, are once again key drivers of economic and political links.

'Witness the emerging Sinosphere enlarged by 50 million overseas Chinese around the Pacific Rim and extending as far as Angola and Peru,' he notes.

At the same time, the more than 20 million Indians concentrated in the Persian Gulf, the UK, and Silicon Valley also form a 'Desi' diaspora of growing ethno-political and economic weight in their newly adopted countries as well as in the Old Country.

Hence, globalisation allows for multiple identities in a deeper and more literal sense, argues Dr Khanna.

'It is odd to me that when asked about identity, people immediately reach for the national or ethnic. The impact of globalisation has been that identities can be self-defined along multiple types and verticals, whether religious, national, generational, issue-based, or otherwise. To me, when the question of identity is asked, the first answer need not be national in nature as it is for an earlier generation.

'To me, therefore, the presumption that one must choose a single identity, or worse still have that identity allocated by birth, and that this identity shall be defined primarily in ethnic/national terms, is an extremely limiting vestige of earlier times. No doubt the majority of the world's population in North/South, East/West, rich/poor would indeed today declare such identities as their primary ones, but I do not believe that it must necessarily be the case.

'I myself feel a strong generational identity - as a member of Generation Y - while also having a strong sense of what it means to be American, to be Indian (based on ethnicity and my previous nationality), to be Hindu (culturally and religiously), to be a globalist in mindset.

'I am perfectly comfortable with the co-existence of these identities.'

btnews@sph.com.sg

Parag Khanna
Adventurer-scholar, author, pundit, geopolitical adviser

1977 Born July 27, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

Education

2010 PhD, International Relations, London School of Economics
2005 MA in Security Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
1999 BA in International Affairs, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
Professional and Academic Career Highlights

Presently he is a Senior Research fellow at the New America Foundation
He is also a partner in the advisory firm Hybrid Realities and, with his wife Ayesha Khanna, directs the Hybrid Reality Institute
2008 Distinguished Visitor, The American Academy, Berlin
2007-2008 Next Generation Fellow, The American Assembly
2007 Senior Geopolitical Adviser, United States Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan
2007 Member, Foreign Policy Advisory Group to the Barack Obama for President campaign
2006 Visiting Fellow, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore
2004-2005 Non-Resident Associate, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
2004 Visiting Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
2002-2005 The Global Governance Fellow, Brookings Institution
2000-2002 Fellow, World Economic Forum, Geneva
1999-2000 Research Associate, Council on Foreign Relations, New York
Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Tea Party serves up a bitter brew for Bernanke

Business Times - 05 Mar 2011


Tea Party serves up a bitter brew for Bernanke

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

IF anyone still had any doubts that the Tea Party movement had become a powerful force on Capitol Hill, he or she would have had to revise the assessment this week.

First, the contingency of conservative and libertarian lawmakers who were part of the Tea Party insurgency and who were elected to Congress in last year's mid-term election has forced the Republican leadership to continue playing chicken with the White House over this year's federal budget.

Under pressure from the Republicans who now control the House of Representative, the Obama administration and the Democrats had agreed to US$4 billion cuts in spending on a few social and economic programmes in exchange for an agreement by the Republicans to a two-week extension in funding for the federal government.

Now Congress will have until March 18 to come up with a budget deal before the government runs out of money. And the Tea Partiers on Capitol Hill insist that they would allow the federal government to shut down on that date unless President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies agree to their demand for more than US$61 billion in spending cuts this year.

These Republicans who would like to see the federal government cut in size, the income tax eliminated, and the Federal Reserve abolished - and the gold standard brought back to life - have also put on a kind of depressing Tea Party for the head of the US central bank this week.

Indeed, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke who testified before Congress on the central bank's semi-annual report on US monetary policy this week, found himself on the receiving end of a series of attacks by Republican freshmen who belong to the Tea Party and by one of the leading figures of the movement and a possible Republican presidential candidate next year - Ron Paul from Texas.

Mr Paul is also a so-called gold bug who believes that a return to the gold standard would result in a more stable and non-inflationary economy than under the current system of 'paper money' where the Federal Reserve controls money supply.

The Republicans have blamed the financial meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession on the policies of the federal government, and in particular, the Fed's monetary policy - the low interest rates maintained by the US central bank.

'It has been said ever since the crisis hit that one of the causes was that interest rates were kept too low too long,' Mr Paul said when addressing Mr Bernanke during his testimony before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday.

And after Mr Bernanke suggested that the higher prices of energy and other commodities would cause only a 'temporary and relatively modest increase' in broader prices, Mr Paul and other Republican lawmakers accused the Fed chairman of trying to play down the threat of inflation. Mr Paul described it as a 'deadly threat' - and blamed it on the monetary policies of the central bank.

Some of the Republicans also seemed to suggest that Mr Bernanke was siding with the Obama administration in the debate over cutting spending by the federal government, after the Fed chairman had criticised the idea that Congress shouldn't raise the federal government's debt ceiling unless the White House agrees with the Republican spending cuts proposals.

Mr Bernanke has argued that a failure to raise the government's debt ceiling could ruin the credibility of US economic policymaking. But Republican David Schweikert from Arizona said that only a threat to not to raise the debt ceiling would force the government to make the necessary cuts in spending.

'This body doesn't move unless there is a crisis,' he said.

The debate between Mr Bernanke and Mr Paul also point to an interesting exchange about the definition of what constitutes money or how one defines the dollar. For Mr Paul, a dollar is equivalent to a quantity of gold. The unit of money, the dollar, is defined by how much units of gold it can purchase. And Mr Paul wanted Mr Bernanke to offer his own definition of a dollar.

'My definition of the dollar is what it can buy,' Mr Bernanke responded. 'Consumers don't want to buy gold; they want to buy food and gasoline and clothes and all the other things that are in the consumer basket,' he said. 'It is the buying power of the dollar in terms of those goods and services that is what is important, and that's what I call price stability.'

But beyond this somewhat academic exchange, there is a more serious and practical debate between the Fed chairman and the Congressional Republicans. It is about, as Mr Bernanke put it in his testimony on Tuesday: 'The most likely outcome is that the recent rise in commodity prices will lead to, at most, a temporary and relatively modest increase in US consumer price inflation,' and that the current high prices reflect temporary cyclical pressures and not long-term structural problems.

Or whether as the Republicans - who point to gold prices reaching new historic highs and crude oil back over US$100 a barrel - see it, inflation has become a real and present danger that could become a major threat to the American economy unless Washington starts putting its fiscal house in order, and as soon as possible.

The debate is not going to end anytime soon.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.