When worlds collide

Review by Niall Ferguson

Published: March 28 2008 22:14 | Last updated: March 28 2008 22:14

The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order
By Parag Khanna
Allen Lane 496 pages, o25
FT bookshop price: o20

Shortly after his retirement as director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the historian Arnold Toynbee set off on a 17-month voyage around the world. His account of the journey was published as East to West. Fifty years later, at the beginning rather than the end of his career, Parag Khanna has followed in Toynbee's footsteps. The result might well have been entitled "West to East''. In Khanna's view, that is certainly the direction in which world history is travelling.

Khanna is nothing if not ambitious. According to his publisher, he is currently the "director of the Global Governance Initiative in the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation", having spent last year as "a senior geopolitical advisor to the US Special Operations Command". When not circumnavigating the planet, he is "completing his PhD at the London School of Economics". The expression "a young man in a hurry" was made for him.

There is, nevertheless, much about The Second World that is really good. While his contemporaries busied themselves with macroeconomics, democratic peace theory or counterinsurgency doctrine, Khanna was devouring such dusty old tomes as Toynbee's 12-volume A Study of History and the geopolitical theories of Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman. I can think of much worse preliminary reading for a world tour.

Khanna's hypothesis, simply stated, is that empires are as dominant today as they have been for most of recorded history. Today, there are three empires: the United States, the European Union and China. However, these are not the conquering empires of old (which might come as news to the inhabitants of Afghanistan, Iraq and Tibet). Rather, they are competing in what Khanna calls "the geopolitical marketplace". The rest of the world has to choose between their different diplomatic styles of, respectively, "coalition, consensus and consultation". Middle-income countries in the "second world" may also have to choose between more straightforwardly financial bids for their allegiance.

It is, of course, not difficult to quibble with this proposition. No one who has spent time in Brussels is likely to be persuaded by Khanna's characterisation of it as "easily the most popular and successful empire in history", if only because there is something inherently implausible about an empire without a large and integrated military force. Nor is it clear to me that the age of old-style imperial conflict is truly over. Yet I suspect that this is the way the world does indeed look to many inhabitants of the second world, particularly those endowed with valuable natural resources.

The best thing about The Second World is that it takes us to a whole series of important places we might be disinclined to visit for ourselves and gives us glimpses of life on that messy borderland between the second world and the first. There are some wonderful vignettes: the gleaming statue of Bruce Lee in Mostar; the mis-spelling of the word "bank'' on Kazakhstan's 2006 banknotes; the uneasy ethnic mix in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley; the "narcotecture" along the road from Kabul to Heart.

Khanna is especially good on pipelines, the vital conduits of imperial energy, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, for example, or the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline. Highways, tunnels, bridges, refineries, canals and liquid natural gas terminals also catch his eye. And he has a keen eye for the new acronyms of which we shall doubtless hear much more in the future such as SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). It is this kind of thing that lends credibility to his case for relative American decline and rapid Chinese advance. There seems little doubt that Beijing is doing a much better job than Washington of cultivating second world energy exporters. And in a world where economic growth is out-stripping fossil fuel production, that may well pay off in future.

The great defects of this book are the author's weakness for cliche and his editor's over-indulgence. Here is one example: "America's present neoimperialism appears a blunt and messy improvisation, still ignorant of the most basic Arab axiom that the best way up a sand dune is sideways." All too often, the tone suggests a cross between Alan Whicker and Alan Partridge. This is particularly grating when the author expresses naive criticisms of the US - and equally jejune praise for the Muslim Brotherhood - that might have been best confined to a students' union meeting at the LSE.

This is a pity - if these and other stylistic lapses had been corrected, this great feat of reportage would have been presented to much better effect. The reader is left to ponder whether, if Khanna is right, the future will belong to the EU-PRC-USA G3 that he proposes, or end up being more akin to Orwell's 1984, with its three warring super regions.

I fear that, if these things really are empires, it would be well not to bank on the former.

Niall Ferguson is a contributing editor of the FT

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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