If you’re looking for a job as a geopolitical futurist and believe it’s a cosy gig enjoyed from behind a shiny desk in a high-floor corner office, you might want to fire your careers adviser.
Not necessarily included in the job description is being stationed with United States Special Operations Forces in some unsalubrious outposts. “Serving in Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of instability in 2007 and 2008 was an unforgettable experience,” recalls Dr. Parag Khanna, best-selling author of six books on global affairs and a TED Talks “face”, whose ubiquity lends him the title “public intellectual”.
“I’d been travelling around the Middle East and Central Asia — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and more — for two years, so I had experience of how those societies were changing internally and diplomatically during the ‘war on terror’. I was based at Balad in Iraq and Bagram in Afghanistan, but moved around every couple of days,” says Khanna. “I was taken to many hot spots to brief commanders and help develop strategies. It was a great honour — but one I hope never to repeat for fear that my luck will run out!”
Singapore-based Khanna comes armed with a PhD from the London School of Economics; a bibliography of titles such as The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order; Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization; and Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State; a spot on the Esquire list of the 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century; and an endless résumé detailing the governments and other organisations he’s counselled.
So how does one become a geopolitical futurist — or a “global strategist”? What do these terms even mean?
“I can’t say how someone else could become a geopolitical futurist, but certainly how I did!” says Khanna, 41. “Read every book you can get your hands on, travel until you practically forget where you are, learn as many languages as possible, get a PhD if so inclined, work across government and corporate divides – and above all make sure you’re a ‘fox’ in [philosopher] Isaiah Berlin’s sense of knowing many things, but seeking to stitch them all together. Shake, stir and present, in books and talks with lots of maps.” Multilingual Khanna was born in Kanpur, India and has also lived in New York, Abu Dhabi and near Hamburg – all additional grist to the career mill, as were his studies.
“My academic training is in ‘grand strategy’, which is very national and military,” he says. “‘Grand strategy’ is the means and ends of achieving the national interest, whether containing rival powers or spreading democracy globally. Unlike in the board game Risk, which is so two-dimensional and static, the battlefield isn’t even so much territory any more but connectivity, in the form of valuable infrastructure and supply chains, as demonstrated in my book Connectography.
“To be successful today you must begin with global complexity and develop strategies accordingly. So I work closely with senior government officials and corporate executives to develop scenarios showing where world-economy, geopolitics and technology trends are heading — scenarios useful to them in making decisions for the next five to 10 years on attracting investment, planning infrastructure, recruiting talent and expanding their access to markets.”
Khanna’s latest pioneering ideas are expounded in his new book The Future is Asian, which is due to be published this month. It analyses the continuing “Asianising” of the world, by means of “businesses, armies, students and intellectuals” and how an area from Australia to Japan, Russia to Saudi Arabia, is aggregating into an unofficial domain of almost five billion people, with an economy to match. Arguably, its most visible manifestation comes with the resurrection of the ancient, fabled Silk Road — actually a chain of trade routes on land and sea — that for centuries connected East and West. Its new identity, of course, is China’s less romantically named Belt and Road Initiative, which some commentators see as a barely disguised empire-building plan. Khanna disagrees.
“Perhaps the most counter-intuitive message in The Future Is Asian is that the Initiative will not accelerate Chinese hegemony,” he says. “Instead, it will accelerate a return to Asia’s natural historical state of multipolarity, by which Asia’s empires and powers coexist. This is because Chinese investment is elevating countries such as Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Iran, empowering them to modernise and attract international investors –– diluting China’s influence. That’s a common historical pattern and one to which China is not immune.”
All of which heralds two of the pillars of Khanna’s world vision: connectivity, which he defines as “destiny” and the quality required for “powers and people [to] win”, hence its battlefield parallels; and the role of “mega-cities” in their nation-states.
“We have more nation-states than ever, more than 200,” he says. “Each depends on one or more cities as their economic and demographic anchors, and those cities cannot thrive without openness and connectivity. Successful cities make for successful countries.
“Historically, building connectivity was how empires advanced their interests: British railways across Africa and Southern Asia, or Russia’s across Siberia. China’s Belt and Road is the newest incarnation of an ancient geopolitical instinct. Concurrently, resistance to excessive debt to China is leading to some caution and no doubt there will be skirmishes as China and other regional states attempt to pacify Afghanistan or Pakistan. But generally, Asia’s great powers — China, Japan, India — have maintained stability despite tensions. US tariffs on China will backfire in almost every dimension: China and other Asian countries now view the US as politically unpredictable and will substitute US imports for those from Europe and each other.”
Meanwhile, Beijing will be keeping its house in exemplary order. “A strong state is one with strong cities whose priorities are coordinated with the state,” says Khanna. “China is building 24 major urban clusters, each with a strong internal economic foundation, each well connected to the others. That’s why I call China an ‘empire of mega-cities’. In one way it wants to be like the US or Germany, two major powers with robust urban anchors, each a leader in some sector of the national or global economy, such as industry, technology or finance.”
And what of Hong Kong and Singapore in this brave new world? “Both are extremely well placed,” believes Khanna. “They are two global cities by the major measures of economic wealth and connectivity, and the twin financial capitals of the Asian mega-region of four billion people.
“Hong Kong must continue to maintain its ‘global-ness’ alongside more intense inclusion in China. But I believe it will succeed by capitalising on greater internal connectivity to the Greater Bay Area. Singapore is the hub for Southeast Asia and is a global role model for good governance and high-quality education. We now see much of the world coming to learn from Singapore.”
One wonders if a book titled The Future Is Asian would have been imaginable if China had not opened up to the world. “Yes and no,” says Khanna. “Asia’s post-war rise began with Japan and South Korea, from which China learned controlled opening. The collective Asian mega- system is unquestionably the world’s new centre of gravity. [But] history does not begin and end with China.”