Parag Khanna:

"Connectography" (2016)

(Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Parag Khanna, a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and already the author of "Hybrid Reality" (2012). The book posits that connectivity is the new fundamental paradigm and the future will belong to the country with the best infrastructure for connectivity, and competition will be more about connectivity than about military power. He correctly writes that power is disintegrating (devolving) everywhere, from Iraq to Spain. Cities will matter more than states, and supply chains will matter more than military bases. He defines supply chains as systems of transactions and argues that they are self-organizing. He then argues that supply chains and connectivity are already the dominating organizing principles of societies not sovereignty and borders.

Throughout history he sees a dichotomy between cities and empires, with nations being a relatively recent invention (the Peace of Westphalia of 1648). He sees globalization as the force that is fueling the supply chain world and urbanization as a side-effect. He argues that "globalization is entering a new golden age". (The timing of his book was not the best, as Donald Trump became president of the USA a few months later on an anti-globalization platform and nationalists everywhere in Europe threatented to disrupt even inter-European trade). For a new map of the world he proposes to consider five "c's" (this works only if your language is English): countries, cities, commonwealths, communities and companies. Countries are actually an abstraction because places like Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Congo, Libya and Somalia can hardly claim to truly exist as united political entities. Khanna points that the trend towards cities is already visible in the statistic that in 2016 the 100 smallest economies accounted for only 3% of world's GDP and that megacities are popping up everywhere, notably Japan's Taiheiyo Belt, China's Pearl River delta, Sao Paulo, greater Mumbai, Manila, etc. He calls them "commonwealth regions". Communities stretch across and beyond borders. For example, what he calls "Bollystan", the Indian diaspora, and what he calls the "Sinosphere", the ethnic Chinese living outside China.

He sees devolution as the political version of the law of entropy (that all closed systems tend towards maximum entropy) and points at the history of the last 200 years that saw the emergence of so many new countries: the USA, the Latin American countries, all the former European colonies, the former Soviet republics. The United Nations now has 200 members, up from 50 in 1945. Having assumed that devolution is a fact, he argues that devolution itself is fueling connectivity.

I am reviewing this book as Catalonia has declared independence and Jean-Claude Juncker said that he doesn't want a EU with hundreds of members; but that's not really a scientific statement. One can easily argue the exact opposite. The number of nations in the world has quadrupled since 1945. The result: the number of conflicts has declined to an all-time low and economic prosperity has spread. In fact, many of the wars that we have today are due to the stubbornness of the West to preserve the colonial/imperial borders (eg in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Congo, Libya, Somalia), not to wars between Singapore and Malaysia or Lithuania and Latvia. Where we allowed states to disintegrate (e.g. Yugoslavia) the civil war ended. The German states were relatively peaceful when Germany was fragmented, and when Germany got unified the result was a new colonial empire (Namibia, Uganda, Togo, etc) and two world wars. It is very debatable if devolution of power (all the way to independence) is good or bad. In the networked age in which we live, the economic effect is null or even positive. Small states pass laws rapidly, big states argue forever. The nation state is the invention of the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Certainly a great invention but, like all inventions, it doesn't have to last forever. Before 1648 there were only empires and/or city-states in the civilized world (and tribes everywhere else). It is also true that war was endemic. Europe had 1,600 years of endless wars until it finally got united into a European Union. Now it's unthinkable of Germany declaring war on France, or of a German state declaring war on another German state, but that was the norm for 1,600 years (after the disintegration of the Roman Empire).

It is probably true that connectivity encourages separatism: Catalonia and maybe soon California feel that the risk of declaring independence is minimal because their economies depend increasingly on the entire world, not only on the nation they belong to. Whether separatist movements are good or bad for the world can be debated. Obviously the Spaniards and the Turks don't think so, whereas the Catalonians and the Kurds think so. The world is full of minorities clamoring for independence: Kashmiris, Chechens, Palestinians, Sahrawis, Tibetans, Somaliland, the Kurds of Iraq, the Baluchis of Pakistan, the Rohingas of Myanmar, the Muslims of the southern Philippines, two provincens of Georgia, one province of Moldova, etc. If independence referendums were held in every region of the world, many regions would be tempted to vote "yes". The issue then would become at which level of granularity you stop: if California as a whole votes for independence, but the whole of northern and eastern California votes against it (most of the population is in southwestern California), do northern and eastern California get to vote for independence from California? And if most of eastern California votes "yes" but its city Bishop votes "no", does Bishop get to vote for independence from eastern California? And if most of Bishop votes yes but some neighborhoods vote no, do those neighborhoods get to vote on independence from Bishop? You can continue this process all the way down to each individual household.

Khanna's thesis is that devolution has become a universal phenomenon but... counterbalanced by a parallel process of aggregation: "Europe is the most legally devolved and most supranationally integrated region".

He is particularly interested in China as an example of a country that cares most about the supply chain. China is reorganizing the world along supply chains, not states. China is wiping out colonial borders in Africa with new infrastructure like paved roads and railways. There are 300,000 Chinese workers in Angola alone. China is also colonizing Russia's vast eastern regions (Khanna calls it a "Sino-Siberian civilization"). China is building a Kunming-Bangkok train line. The USA spends in "defense" what China spends in infrastructure at home and abroad. The European and Chinese networks of high-speed railways are converging and at some point that will create just one giant system of transportation, connecting Madrid to Beijing via Central Asia. At that point it will be difficult to decide where Europe ends and China begins. Meanwhile, the USA is still investing in airports and moving goods around on trucks. One could object that China is the very example of a state that is not collapsing at all, a very centralized state, but Khanna prevents that objection by presenting China as a confederation of competing megacities. (In my humble opinion this is a deliberate Darwinian process to improve the power of the state, because in the end the state adopts the winning model: the survival of the fittest recast as the rule of the fittest). Khanna compares China with the Dutch East India Company: interested not in military conquest but in trade. Inevitably the expansion of china's supply chain will demand that China increases its military involvement in world affairs. Khanna mentions bits and pieces of it, but never quite comments on the destiny of commercial empires: first you expand because you care for supply chain (trade) routes, then you armed yourself to protect those trade routes that have become so essential to your economy, then you decline (and sometimes go bankrupt) because you are spending more than your rivals in military instead of infrastructure. Is China doomed to repeat the mistakes of the British and the USA?

The chapter on "infrastructure alliances" emphasizes that they are "post-ideological alliances" and "transactional axes of convenience" (but most Western alliances have always been opportunistic alliances of convenience rather than ideological).

Connectivity was important in the rise and fall of empires: the USA was a supply-chain superpower before it became a military one. China is a supply-chain superpower and it is becoming also a military one.

He ends the book advocating or at least predicting a borderless future, a trend towards more connections and fewer divisions. He is clearly proud of belonging to the "expatriate elite caste" that is emerging in our age. He praises places that welcome immigrants and hails Berlin as the city of the future because of its tolerance for immigrants.

There are many weak points in this book. The main one is what i call the "selective memory" that people who are not professional historians use in stacking up their evidence. For example, Khanna claims that populations tend to assemble near the border because he is thinking of Canada and Mexico, that have big cities near the border with the USA. But that is not true of China, India and Europe, where all the big cities are located far from borders. I am not sure which big population he has seen at the border between Italy and France or Germany and Poland. Most of the borders that i have crossed in underdeveloped countries had poor villages on each side of the border. He views devolution as inevitable and occurring right now. While several new countries have been created, this is also the age of the great supranational organizations like the UN, the European Union, ASEAN, etc. It is true that no new country has been created by the fusion of two countries but his favorite country, China, is hardly splitting into smaller countries: in fact, it just absorbed Hong Kong and Macau, and it is determined to absorb Taiwan sooner or later. To be consistent, Khanna should predict the failure and collapse of China. Also, several of the new states created in the last few decades are hardly success stories: Leste Timor, South Sudan, Kosovo, Bosnia, ...

The science that he cites is dubious at best. He quotes Adrian Bejan's constructal law (1996) that all (flow) systems tend towards maximizing flow but that is not a mathematical law, just Bejan's own opinion. Khanna could have picked several more scientific studies about the evolution of systems.

He rarely cites his sources. For example, the statement "Germany's exports within the eurozone have fallen from over 50 percent to under 35 percent of its total, while its exports to Asia are taking off" is meaningless: it doesn't tell us which years he is talking about (the countries that joined after 2001 were not typical German exports markets) and everybody's exports to Asia have increased as Asian economies grow. He doesn't tell us where he got the figure that the world's top 20 richest cities (measured by what?) are home to more than 75% of the largest companies (the largest, Wal-mart, is headquartered in Arkansas' small town of Bentonville, the two most valuable ones, Apple and Google, are headquartered in two small Silicon Valley towns, Cupertino and Mountain View). The Democratic Republic of Congo has almost 3,000 kms of paved roads, not "barely one thousand". I don't know where he got the information that "there are fewer than five countries in the world whose GDP is larger than more than $200 billion". Tiny Portugal has a GDP of $201 billion. I think there are at least 40. I don't know what it means that "major cities account for 85% of America's GDP" (i assume "America" means "the USA", not the whole America): what qualifies as a "major city"? and where does this calculation come from? Where did he find that "Chinese companies are investing $13 billion per year across American cities"? (again, i assume he means "US cities" and not all American cities). What qualifies as a city? By the way, the number is actually quite small (0.1% of the USA's GDP). Was the Grand Canal built in the 5th century BC (page 208)? I thought that its construction began in 608 (7th century AD) by order of Sui emperor Yangdi. He sees Russia becoming an agricultural superpower because it "is warming faster than any other country in the world". I couldn't verify this statement and, more importantly, i couldn't verify the science behind the idea that global warming turns a cold region into an agricultural paradise. There might be side-effects that are not obvious to Khanna. "The Internet was born to overcome distance". This is factually false: it was created to survive a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Khanna mentions that China has traditionally been the victim of "supply chain wars". Somehow he doesn't think that the Silk Road was important to the creation of wealth of the Tang and Song dynasties, when China was way richer than Europe. I am not sure why Trinidad is an ideal location to redirect Chinese export to the USA.

He consistently paints Europe and China as the role models, and the USA as the dumb villain. However, the European Union has so many problems (some of them caused by a degree of connectivity that didn't exist in the past) that it is difficult to view it as the future of the world: economic stagnation in southern Europe, xenophobic parties everywhere, destabilizing masses of refugees, the Greek bailout, Brexit and now the Catalonian secession. It's like pointing at someone with cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes and chronic depression as a model of good health. China is easily the best performing economy of our age but Khanna does not address or minimizes the many challenges that China faces in the future, and doesn't acknowledge the simple fact that, no matter how much the Chinese economy booms, very few foreigners choose to move permanently to China the way they choose to move permanently to California. There must be a difference, and that difference eventually matters, because many of those people on the move are the inventors and founders of the next future. One gets the feeling that Khanna is mostly trying to scare the US government by painting its rivals as healthier, i.e. that he is aiming for contracts from the US government by using a scare tactic (scare tactics don't work with the Chinese government). He discusses the ills of "America" (the USA) and argues that it needs a strategy (duh). He points out that Europeans and Asians care more about their infrastructure spending than about their military spending whereas the USA is the opposite.

His emphasis on global supply chains is particularly weak if seen from Silicon Valley. The high-tech firms have learned the costs of managing complex, distributed supply chains and are now willing to pay extraordinary salaries to local employees instead of offsourcing to cheap India. As robotics replaces cheap workers, this could become a worldwide trend: keep your operations as local as possible.

His policy recommendations are naive and sometimes amateurish. His recipe for dealing with Russia is to increase Europe's dependence on Russia's oil and gas. Telling the Arabs that they will need connectivity for long-term growth doesn't do much to change their economies. He thinks that waiting for regimes like North Korea and Iran to collapse is wishful thinking because the forces of trade will keep them alive no matter what the USA wishes. We learn that computers sold in the USA contain materials mined in North Korea (and Khanna's prediction that North Korea will become a supply chain node). We learn that Pakistan's Baluchistan has plenty of gold, gas, oil and uranium.

Khanna presents the Internet as an example of how networking technology blurs borders but the Internet is increasingly becoming a set of independent separate networks. The Internet in China doesn't look like the Internet in the USA at all: Baidu instead of Google, Wechat instead of Facebook, Weibo instead of Twitter, Didi instead of Uber and so on. If China is the new role model, then we can expect that other countries will follow suit and create their own search engines, social media, online encyclopedias, etc. Khanna's statement that "the government monopoly on media, narrative and identity is disappearing forever" flies in the face of the evidence: in China and Russia the government's monopoly on media, narrative and identity (whatever "identity" means) has been greatly strengthened by the Internet. Even during the worst times of the Cold War a simple radio broadcast in Russia would seed doubt in Soviet citizens about the official propaganda, but now the official propaganda dwarfs any information that a diligent Russian citizen can find online. Putin and Xi full control the narrative in their countries.

Not many sociologists believe that "connectivity is the platform for fuller societal development", that fiber cables alone will improve family life and civic engagement. There is no question that Internet-based tools empower the user to do a lot of things easily and cheaply that would improve social and civic life, but user the same tools also represent a massive distraction with their infinite advertising greed and new forms of entertainment.

It is only at page 225 that Khanna mentions that connectivity (railways and the like) is not enough, otherwise the British Empire would still exist.

In general, this book is very weak on assessing the impact of new technologies. There is virtually no mention of Artificial Intelligence, Synthetic Biology, 3D Printing, Nanotech, etc. Maybe they will also fade away. Or maybe they will create a new model, platform and paradigm that Khanna can't conceive today and so he is stuck with today's ruling paradigm (networks).

There is no rational flow. The book jumps from one topic to another with countless detours (even briefly discusses nutrition) and rarely spends enough time on each point to sound convincing, even when i agree with the conclusions. The book is probably too long and sometimes it ends up hurting itslf. Khanna thanks 400 people for help, but none of these 400 people seems to have picked up the many contradictions and weak arguments spread throughout the book that, at the end, take a toll on the writer's credibility. A shorter, 50-page essay would have delivered the same message with more assurance and impact.

I think (or, better, feel) that Khanna is right about the power of connectivity but i don't think he has a sound scientific theory to support his arguments, and i think that new technologies will shape the future in a way that is really hard to predict (see my book "Human 2.0", published only in Khanna's favorite country).

The statement i agree with the most is: "Civilizations connect far more than they clash". The statement i disagree with the most is: "The anti movements always lose" (I hope the antifascist movement never will).