In decades past, and particularly during the 20th century, the extent of Western influence on the world grew to new bounds. Thanks mostly to post–World War II economic expansion, also known as the golden age of capitalism and the postwar economic boom, the West’s influence on the world became renowned. Today, American brands are everywhere, we all speak English, and countries like the US and European nations are the biggest players on the international stage.
This, however, is changing.
According to Parag Khanna, global strategy advisor, world traveler, and best-selling author, the “Future is Asian.” That’s the title of his latest best-selling book, but also the reality we are facing today in the 21st century, which he deems the Asian century.
“I think we should realize that we are already in an Asian world,” Khanna tells AMEinfo. “This is not a future prospect: In the 21st century, it is already an Asian century.”
Named one of Esquire’s “75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century,” and featured in WIRED magazine’s “Smart List,” Khanna’s writings are hot topics of discussion around the world.
So, what exactly is the Asian century, and why is the future Asian? AMEinfo finds this out and more in this one-on-one interview.
1. Can you tell us about yourself and about some highlights from your career that helped shape who you are today?
Major highlights include my first position on the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. That was shortly after graduating from Georgetown University, the School of Foreign Service. At that time, I became acquainted with US military officers who later recruited me to work in Special Operations Forces, during which time I was working in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 during the Surge activities. Obviously, that was a very eye-opening experience.
I also worked in the World Economic Forum both physically, living in Geneva in 2001, as well as a consultant while in Washington.
For me, a decisive moment was when I was at the Brookings Institution in 2004 and decided not to work on the presidential campaigns but rather to write [the] proposal for my first book ‘The Second World’. The book was awarded an advance by Random House, the largest publisher in the world. That allowed me to travel for three years all over the [globe]. ‘The Second World’ was published in 2008, and contained very large sections about the Middle East region.
After that, I was able to be much more independent and I’ve written 5 other books since then and also lived in New York, London and Singapore, where I live now.
Khanna has also built a global, strategic advisory practice known as FutureMap in which he “brings in some of the scenario planning and knowledge that [he has] acquired from commercial and government work and [applies] it now to [their] corporate and government clients.”
2. Your book “The Future is Asian” proposes an interesting reality that we are seeing take shape today. China, Singapore, Japan and other Asian countries are often the leading countries in certain fields of innovation, and trade is increasingly centered around those nations. What made you come to this realization, and when do you think we will see it happen?
In that first book, the second world, I had a very long section called ‘Asia for Asians.’ It was the fifth section of the book and about a hundred pages long. Nearly ten years later, I wanted to update the book and in the meantime, I had also moved to Singapore and had such intensive exposure to the Asian region to really update my knowledge.
In my first book, China was very central whereas in ‘The Future is Asian’ what I tried to do is to put China in the context of the larger Asian mega region, which is 5 billion people. China is only one third of that population, so I thought it was very important to correct many of the misperceptions that dominate our thinking about China’s role in the world in which we see it as a potential global hegemon, because it is not. It is the most powerful country in Asia, but Asia is a multipolar region which Japan and India and even Russia… are all major Asian powers. So, the Asian history and the Asian geopolitics are not a like-for-like comparison with Western history. No book had really pointed that out, so I think I’ve written the first book about Asia that is not China-centric.
You’ll note, of course, that the West Asian countries – the Gulf Region, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran – play very important roles in my book because they are in fact part of Asia. Therefore, I wanted to make arguments based on geography, demographics and economics that are much more appropriate today than the traditional work about Asia that is focused mostly on China.
3. Can you dive into what you would like to convey to your readers?
What I want to convey of course to Arab readers is that there is no such thing as the ‘Middle East’. There is West Asia, and West Asia includes these powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and includes all the countries between them such as Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. These are all Asian countries by geography, and I talk in this book about the Arab-Asian nexus, which is this growing integration through infrastructure, trade, diplomatic ties, commerce and even military relationships that are starting to develop. My view is that the reconstruction and the new diplomatic and commercial order across West Asia will be shaped much more by China, India and other Asian powers than by the United States.
4. Why do you believe we are finally moving away from an “Americanized century” to an Asian one? Can you share with us some of the key factors behind this shift?
I think we have moved away. I believe that psychology lags behind reality, and the reality is that 60% of the global population is in Asia; 50% of GDP is in Asia; most of world trade is in Asia; and Asians trade more with Asians than with the rest of the world. So, we [already] live in an Asian world today. This is not a future prospect: In the 21st century, it is already an Asian century.
I think that American and European psychology lags behind this, but Europe trades more with Asia than with the United States. So, I think we should realize that we are already in an Asian world. That doesn’t mean that Asia is a comprehensive or cohesive system, but it is the central demographic, geographic and economic fact of the world today.
5. Which constructs that came to prominence during the “Americanized century” do you see surviving the shift to the Asian future?
We tend to think of the international liberal order of global governance as being a construct of the post-war American victory. Now we have institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Bank, the Belt and Road Initiative, the regional comprehensive economic partnership – these are some of the examples of Asian-centric diplomatic and economic organizations that make their own rules and that have their own regional membership that drive their own agenda and that don’t answer to the West. That’s increasingly going to be the norm.
6. The Belt and Road Initiative is a project of massive proportions, one that is guaranteed to factor into the Asian future you write about. What do you foresee its impact to be on the world, and more particularly on a region like the Middle East?
The Belt and Road Initiative is where I really begin the book, but I have been writing about the Belt and Road for really 15 years before it even had a name. I was looking at Chinese infrastructure projects in Central Asia and those formed an important part of my very first book.
So how will it affect a region like the Middle East? Well, as I said before, this is about how the future of West Asia is going to be led by the reconstruction efforts and the investments that will come from East Asia, that is this Arab-Asian nexus. As such, we will increasingly not think about the term ‘Middle East’ and increasingly embrace the reality that those who live in the so-called Middle East are mostly in West Asia and should really embrace it.
7. In your opinion, how will the Middle East, or East Asia as you describe it, factor into the Asian future you describe? Will countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia continue to be known primarily for their oil wealth, or will they bring something new to the international table?
As I said, I believe that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey and Iran are central core pillars of the West Asian region. I hope that they can be encouraged to be a stable anchor in the region in the same way that for example Japan, China and South Korea have $4 trillion of trade among them every single year. They have stability in their relations even though they have deep historical tensions. There is a lot, of course, that West Asian countries can learn from that given the present circumstances. Without regional stability, you cannot be a global player and that’s the most important lesson that East Asia can teach West Asia.