Thursday, March 20, 2008

Excerpts from The Second World

Parag Khanna’s The Second World is a fascinating book. As a forerunner to its release, Khanna wrote about its principal thesis in a lengthy New York Times article (my post about it here). He posited that the world consisted now of three major powers: a weakening United States, a growing European Union, and China. Further, and more crucially, he argued that it is in second world countries – such as Kazakhstan, Libya, Vietnam, Brazil to name just a few – that we will witness shifts in global power. Khanna has actually traveled to more than three dozen such countries in the span of two years; the book is based mostly on his travels.
At times the tone of the book is too formal. Sample this for instance: “During travel, thought and perception merge; contradiction can emerge as a truth to be revealed, not some exception to be disproved. Such ambiguity is the corollary of complexity after all. Reality is famously resistant to theories that measure the world according to what it should be rather than how it really is.” Also momentum-breaking is Khanna’s use of such clunky words and terms as “autarky”, “kleptocratic economy”, “petrocracy” – words common perhaps in a policy document, which is what The Second World is.

But quibbles aside, The Second World analyzes complexities unfolding in far-flung places. I can't think of another book that covers so many countries, summarizes their prospects and roles in the international geopolitics, gives pithy descriptions of their cities, and quotes diplomats, academics, taxi-drivers and street side vendors. (Though each person gets exactly one or two lines. We never get flesh and blood portraits of these nameless people – The Second World isn't that sort of effort. )


Now to some excerpts that are the main purpose of this post.

Khanna provides subtle analysis of the dynamics in Central Asian countries -- formerly on the famed Silk Route -- and the Russian Far East which, though they might seem to have fallen off the map, are crucial because of their resources. He feels that a new version of the Great Game – one that imperial powers, Tsarist Russia and Victorian Britain, were engaged in the 19th century – is now being played. And China seems most active everywhere; not only its government but its people too. Consider this:
“Meanwhile, north of Beijing, the Great Wall is crumbling and roughly six hundred thousand illegal Chinese immigrants a year are pouring northward into Russia’s depopulated Far East – a number almost identical to Russia’s annual population decline.


The Far East has become a Russian dream-nightmare: China is developing the region in ways Russia has not, and it is gradually occupying it as a result. What looks like Russia on a map looks a lot more like China on people’s faces. Chinese citizens (and Koreans deported by Stalin) visit Chinese-operated health clinics, and Chinese men even marry Siberian women, whose husbands are either perpetually drunk or already dead as a consequence. ”

Tibet and Xinjiang – China’s largest provinces with separatist aspirations and without which it not only shrinks dramatically in size but also loses its gateway to Central Asia – also get a separate chapter. Here's what Khanna has to say about Tibet, which has been in the news recently:
“Large empires are maintained through a combination of force and law, and China has not wavered in its strategy across Tibet and Xinjiang; it merely a difference of degree. In even the remotest corners of Tibet, small army bases house platoons of the [Chinese] People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with soldiers menacingly practicing martial arts twice daily in public squares, often right next to ancient and fragile Buddhist stupas. Even inaccessible jungle areas designated environmentally protected zones are often actually military encampments. Signs trumpeting “Tibet Power” refer strictly to Chinese electricity company.”

Let’s go now to a different part of the world: South America. I mentioned earlier that Khanna gives pithy descriptions of cities – in fact these descriptions are to me the best parts. Here are a couple of examples. First Caracas, Venezuela:
“At least six different militias loyal to Chavez menacingly roam the streets of Carcass on foot, on motorcycles, and in jeeps, wearing camouflage and body armor. With machine guns casually dangling from their shoulders, they are jovial with red-shirted Chavistas but intimidating to all others. Rampant crime keeps opposition off the streets, and while they’re struck home, citizens watch Chavez’s marathon monologues on the television stations he has seized.”
And to finish, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro:
“In a country that is three quarters urban, Sao Paulo has grown into something beyond a mega-city sprawl: it is well nigh infinite city, with a population that can neither be contained nor measured. Its countless steel-gated complexes are, in effect, high-rise favelas for those who can afford housing. Sao Paulo’s Rua Oscar Freire has been rated one of the world’s top luxury shopping streets, and wealthy Paulistanos boast the highest rate of private helicopter usage in the world – but at chic restaurants, women make sure to have their purses bound with wire to their chairs. By contrast, marvelous and desperate Rio- stretching so many miles on the coast that a marathon there would require no loops – is a beachfront metropolis noted as much for its favela shantytowns as its trend-setting restaurants. But like Istanbul, there is an underlying rhythm, even coziness, to the inevitable chaos of a city so large it is sometimes difficult to tell whether Rio is claiming nature or nature is claiming Rio as they expand and encroach on each other.”
More to come as I get into the second half of the book.


JK said...

OnPoint had an interview with Parag Khanna.

Hari said...

Thanks, JK, for the link!