Interview with Parag Khanna
Parag Khanna, the best-selling author of Connectography. Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, believes that connectivity creates a world beyond states. The reason, in Khanna’s view, is that much as the world evolved from vertically integrated empires to horizontally interdependent States. Mega-infrastructures overcome the hurdles of both natural and political geography, and mapping them reveals that the era of organizing the world according to political space (how we legally subdivide the globe) is giving way to organizing it according to functional space (how we actually use it). Borders tell us who is divided from whom by political geography; infrastructure tells us who is connected to whom via functional geography. And geopolitics is deeply affected by functional geography: transportation routes, energy grids, internet networks are the pathways by which power is projected and leverage exercised.
How do you explain the relevance of connectivity in the medium-long term?
Connectivity is the most revolutionary force in human history and the most durable long-term trend. Mankind's usage of all available technology to build connectivity between cities, communities and individuals is quite simply an anthropological fact and more central to what it means to be human than tribalism, building borders and walls, or other means of separation. This is particularly important to remember at times like this when the media and political conversation is dominated by talk of protectionism and borders. In fact, on a global scale, the opposite is happening. More physical connectivity of roads, railways, electricity grids, airline routes, fiber-optic Internet cables and so forth is being deployed worldwide than ever. We have never built so much new connectivity and so fast. Soon every single human or family will have a mobile phone. The question is not whether we will be connected, but how we use it and who benefits from it. That is what is at stake today.
Which are the infrastructures of connectivity?
Almost all connectivity fits into the categories of transportation, energy or communications. That is also the sequence in which they attained prominence in human history: Mobility, power, and communications. Today we find it hard to imagine not having all three, so I do not think of this question in terms of a balance but rather having all of these as each is essential to a meaningful life today. Some people have asked me: If there is Internet in a rural village, why would people move to cities? But the answer is that people move to cities not just for high-speed Internet but to be connected to other people, for higher wages, for education, healthcare, to buy and sell goods, and so forth. Urbanization is perhaps the highest embodiment of our desire to be connected.
Do you think that the rise of regions and the growth of global cities – two effects of connectivity – pose a risk to national sovereignty?
Sovereignty is not some immutable principle that serves as the foundation of human social existence such that other forces (like connectivity) should be viewed as a "risk" to it. Again: Connectivity, not sovereignty, is the organizing principle of the human species. It is sovereignty that exists to serve as a friction or filter to control the usage of connectivity. And for that purpose, sovereignty is absolutely vital. It is the responsibility of governments to determine what should and should not be able to easily flow in and out of state borders. And good governance rests in getting that balance correct. Cities have great authority in determining state economic and migration policies, for example. And generally speaking, it is a good idea for federal governments to take their cities' interests into account. Brexit is an obvious example of the opposite: Rural voters outweighed urban voters, and the result is lose-lose for both. More generally, the world's leading cities are forming what I call a global urban network civilization. It is not borderless, but they are able to transact more or less freely with each other to pursue their complementarities and comparative advantages.
Connectivity can increase overall efficiency through an enhanced global competition. Do you think that all this could backfire?
The fact that there are "losers" from the process of financial capitalism and international trade is not the fault of connectivity – it is the fault of governments that are not doing their job of anticipating disruptions to industrial and labor force patterns, not modifying their tax, investment, industrial and education policies accordingly, and not having active policies of redistributive welfare. Connectivity is not to blame for any of those failures – corruption is. Just because corrupt and incompetent politicians blame the forces of globalization and connectivity for their ills, it does not means we should be stupid enough to believe what they are saying. That is ultimately what Trump and Brexit are proving.