Parag Khanna
A Future Without Borders

Trying to keep up with Parag Khanna is an exhausting and hopeless task. The world renowned global strategist speaks faster than most of us can think, launching from one passionate argument to the next, pulling endless statistics from memory to back up his claims.

Reading his latest book, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, is not an entirely different experience. On the opening pages Khanna takes the reader on a dizzying journey around the world as an introduction to the book’s simple premise that connectivity, not geography, is destiny. Whether it’s through roads and railways or internet cables, competitive connectivity, he argues, “is the arms race of the twenty-first century.” The most striking thing about Parag Khanna is his optimism. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who has seen more of the world than him, and yet he remains adamant that it is constantly becoming a stronger and fundamentally better place for all of us.

Could you start by defining what you mean by the word ‘Connectography’?

The word just hit me one day on a mid-town Manhattan street, while being pressured quite frankly by my editor to come up with a title for this book. There’s this adage, ‘geography is destiny’. What I try to argue in this book is that connectivity is an almost equally powerful man-made force that is sweeping the planet and overturning the ‘geography is destiny’ adage. So what do you get when all parts of geography are so deeply impacted by the force of connectivity? You get connectography.

That’s really the premise behind the book and I approach it by asking – what is connectivity? For so many people it’s this ethereal concept. What I point out is that there’s three kinds of infrastructural activities: transportation, energy and communications. These three together form a global connectivity revolution, and it’s only just beginning. We’ve had transportation networks for a long time, energy networks as well. Both of those are growing and the internet is only the newest layer in this global infrastructural matrix; and that matrix totally overwhelms political geography. We think of the world as being divided into nations and borders but the total kilometres of infrastructure connecting cities far outnumbers the total kilometres of borders that divide societies and nations by about 150 to one. So our maps are literally dictated by the wrong features. We’ve put in political features when we should be putting in functional features.

Connectography in a nutshell is the triumph of functional geography over political geography. It’s how we use the world rather than how we legally sub-divide the world.

You’ve talked about the power shift from governments to citizens in this new world of interconnectedness – the Arab Spring is an example you’ve used. We recently interviewed Pia Mancini about her work founding the Net Party in Argentina and her project DemocracyOS. Sean Parker has also been trying to reignite civic engagement with his new app Brigade. Do you view these kind of ventures as viable? 

In the media our attention is drawn to the sexy personality or the venture capitalist backing an app. People talk about app-ocracy and whatever the flavour of the month idea is about using online portals for voting or accessing public services, or whatever the case may be. I don’t get too carried away with all of those things. They are about attempting to make governments more efficient, so yes I think that is a worthy objective, I’m not trying to sound cynical. But there’s a complex relationship between the technological and the political. The political side of it is what interests me a bit more because it’s harder to see, and that’s devolution.

Devolution is one of the most integral forces in this book. You’re in Britain so of course you’re aware of the many manifestations of devolution, whether it’s the Brexit or Scotland’s bid for independence. Devolution is without a doubt the single most powerful political force in the entire world. What is interesting to me is that it’s a combination of devolution and transparency, combined with these new technologies, which has enabled them together to create these laboratories of more effective governance and information gathering at the local levels around the world. And that then has a feedback loop that further accelerates devolutions. The better that San Francisco and Barcelona and Stockholm and Mumbai can figure out these new technologies to optimise the provision of government services in their local areas, the less they will want to be controlled by their federal capitals. I think it’s this interplay, rather than just the technology itself, that is the most interesting dynamic.

"Politics can only do so much damage; it has damaged a lot, but not everything."

Relying on the political system

So devolution is a positive force?  

I’m a believer in devolution most of the time. A lot of people view it as a nasty form of tribalism and denounce it as an evil force. In my mind devolution ultimately leads to more aggregate. Societies splinter apart but larger societies come together. I wouldn’t have believed in Scottish devolution if Scotland hadn’t wanted to join the EU, but Scotland did want to join the EU. The Brexit is interesting because I think Britain benefits much more from being in the EU than not being in it, and Britain alone doesn’t necessarily have the kinds of broader memberships and loyalties that justify weakening one of the broader geographic partnerships such as the commonwealth of the European Union. So I think the Brexit is terribly misguided. But ultimately, the more you splinter, the more you come together. This is obvious because smaller countries can’t survive on their own. They become even more dependent on each other. Tribalism fuels globalism.

The Brexit may have positive consequences for Scotland, and perhaps for London. As I’ve argued, devolution is a spectrum of autonomy, not all or nothing. We hear Mayor Sadiq Khan talking about the need for more fiscal autonomy for London, for example. That is an example of further devolution.

Do you think Brexit was inevitable? 

No, I don’t think the Brexit was inevitable. Had there not been a migration crisis in Europe, the vote may well have swung a few percentage points in the “Remain” direction. However, what is far more inevitable is that London’s population voted quite differently from the more provincial regions. This gap in world-views within the UK itself is a major lesson.

I don’t worry about the possibility of other countries following in the UK’s lead and leaving the EU. Britain has always been a special case, culturally and geographically, and is not part of the Eurozone. British people like to think that they lead Europe, but that’s actually not true. The voices heard the least in the Brexit debate have now become the most powerful: The leaders on the continent who want to accelerate Brexit and be rid of the burden of Britain interfering in their agenda of greater continental unity. It is true that there are far-right movements in Europe that are skeptical of the EU, and even broad dissatisfaction with the politics of austerity, but I don’t see France, Italy, Germany or even the weakest EU members leaving. Remember that despite the Brexit, there are countries lining up to become new members of the EU.

"British people like to think that they lead Europe, but that's actually not true...Remember that despite the Brexit, there are countries lining up to become new members of the EU."

On Britain leaving the EU

What do you see as being the most significant long-term consequences of the Brexit?

We have to look at the full spectrum of relations such as trade, investment, migration, finance, transportation, education, and so forth. Measured along these many dimensions, the political shift of Brexit is put in context. The other areas will remain very strong because of the organic linkages that already exist. I don’t expect Channel train traffic to dry up. I don’t expect fewer European students to study in the UK. The weaker pound will encourage more investment, after all. So the UK in general, and London in particular, will remain very connected to Europe and the world. Fortunately, politics can only do so much damage; it has damaged a lot, but not everything.

The rancour in the Tory party today shows why it is so important to be rational and analytical – not to mention informed and educated – on strategic decisions rather than emotional and politically opportunistic. Now there are calls for a civil service committee to be formed to investigate the consequences of the Brexit. But in smart governments, you convene the committees to do the studies before you make decisions like Brexit, not after!

You recently wrote an article for CNN with the headline, ISIS is everywhere – is it time for a global passport? In it you talk about movement as a human right. Would you go so far as to advocate a borderless world? 

It’s easy to plead for a borderless world and many people have accused me of advocating such a thing, but I don’t. It’s not really credible, feasible, and not necessarily even desirable.

But even when there is talk about borders going back up in Europe, in fact they just let in a record number of migrants. So we always have to focus on the realities on the ground. Migration is fundamentally about supply and demand. Western European societies are in decline. So they are the last places on earth that should be putting up walls. Now I’m not such a heartless technocrat that I don’t appreciate that there are emotional and cultural factors at play in the resistance to migration. But I also believe that we should be presenting all of the evidence, pros and cons, in an honest way. If there were any European politicians with spines, and if they weren’t so afraid of whatever the consequences may be of speaking the truth, they would say, “look, we are perfectly capable of integrating foreigners into our societies, and in fact there are enormous economic benefits to doing so.” I don’t know why I’ve never heard a politician say that. It disappoints me.

But Europe is not even remotely representative of planet earth. Even if borders were to go up in Europe it still would not be statistically significant because for every European country that puts up a border to make it difficult for a few thousand migrants to get in, you have a country like India declaring it’s going to offer Visa on arrival so that tens of millions more people can get in; and China is trying to issue more residency permits to more foreigners to get them to live there. The rate of internal migration in Africa is the fastest growing component of cross border demographic flows, and the flows of people across the British Commonwealth are surging. So to my mind, the euro-centric conversation is numerically irrelevant to the global picture. No matter what happens in Europe the world is becoming more borderless. There are now more people living outside their country of origin than ever before in history. Almost 300 million people are expats, and that number is growing.

There are no more impenetrable borders in the world. I mean, I’ve been to North Korea, so even the most supposedly sealed country in the world is quite open. You can get internet access there and use your mobile phone, the people are watching Gangnam style videos and whatever else. So there are no more totally closed societies. Borders are really just a tool, a friction that you either reduce or intensify.

Are you really saying that you found North Korea to be a free and open society? 

God, no. Who would say that? I’m saying that even the most hermetically sealed country in the world is now witnessing increasing access to information. But there’s nothing free or open about the society. It’s a hopeless tyranny.

You talk about the importance of increased infrastructure in connecting the world, but there are concerns with this too. I’m thinking about the proposed Chinese funded railway in South America connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. That’s an example of something that could have devastating environmental effects. How do you balance the economic benefits with the negative environmental consequences?  

Well there already is sort of a trans-Amazonian corridor connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It’s just being made a lot more efficient. And China is not the driver of the project, it is just a partial financier.

Of course there are environmental consequences to a lot of the infrastructures that are built, especially in these sensitive areas. But I think we have the knowledge to simultaneously manage the ecological impact along with the economic priorities. There is evidence that more countries are learning in this way so I think we can get that balance right if we’re cautious rather than reckless.

I have a map in this book that superimposes all of the marine, forest and other sorts of protected habitats that have been declared by governments in the last ten years. You’ll be fairly shocked when you see it. It’s quite substantial. We are learning and this map proves that.

"Western European societies are in decline. So they are the last places on earth that should be putting up walls."

On the migration crisis

You write, “by 2030, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities” and that “by 2025, 600 cities will produce 60% of the entire world’s GDP.” I wanted to get your opinion on the issue of slums. How do we combat things, particularly poverty, that come hand-in-hand with mega-cities? And what becomes of rural life?  

Look, unbridled reckless urbanization, lack of investment in infrastructure, unaffordable housing and tens of millions of people clustered in slums, is not my idea of a good life either. Just because I write about mega-cities analytically doesn’t mean that I think all of them are a good thing. I think that some mega-cities are absolutely horrendous. Really a mega-city is a world unto itself, with enormous discrepancies and variations within that same geography. So I’m not convinced that it’s entirely a good thing. But I believe that if we make the right kinds of investments then it can be.

Not all mega-cities are repeating the mistakes of urbanization of the past. First of all, the scale is so different that the comparisons may not even be worth making. The largest cities of the entire western hemisphere have populations of only about 10 or 12 million people. Asian mega-cities have populations that are reaching 60 or 70 million people.

China is the only country that forces urbanization to any degree. It is a voluntary process across the entire planet and it’s not going to be reversed. I’ve taken the time to look at every instance in the world of de-urbanization and look at the numbers. There’ve been reports that 50 thousand British people have moved away from London because it’s getting so expensive and they’ve decided to move to more affordable towns. Okay, that’s 50 thousand people. You could write a whole article about it and pretend that Britain is de-urbanizing. But you’d be a fool because as you well know, the population of London is growing. Despite the high cost of living, people gravitate towards these large cities voluntarily. Yes there are cases of Japanese people deciding it would be nice to be a farmer, and Israelis going to live on a Kibbutz and Americans trying their hand at growing marijuana. There are instances of de-urbanization everywhere in the world. But I would say the ratio of urbanization to de-urbanization, to put it very safely, is about a million to one. I’m not saying that I think this is either good or bad, it’s a fact. You can’t stop people coming to cities just because you don’t think that cities are healthy. You have to deal with the fact that everyone is going to cities and make cities healthier. Mega-cities are an inevitable fact of life today, and certainly of tomorrow.

"I think technology is winning out over sovereignty, rather than the reverse."

How technology is changing nation states

With the demise of urbanization and with mega-cities growing, local culture dies out, right?

I think it’s unfortunate that this particular debate has been so one-sided. We see a flourishing of the visibility of local culture as a result of globalization. I think there’s been a lack of appreciation for that.

Of course there is a clear pattern of the stamping out of indigenous cultures in many countries. Cases of languages going extinct in the same way that plant species do, and obviously I think that’s very sad. But you can’t blame globalization for that. That’s modernization. You and I did not kill the languages of Amazonian people or the people of Papua New Guinea. Their countries did. Perhaps there’s some remote connection in the sense that Brazilians are tearing down the rainforest faster to sell timber to China because China is growing very fast in order to sell goods to Britain and America. Okay, then you and I are indirectly responsible for the tragedy of the Amazonian tribes. But I think we have to be careful not to blame globalization for everything, because then we don’t achieve anything in the process.

I don’t think that all cities feel the same. I spend my time travelling to cities, mostly large cities, and I find that each of them has a unique rhythm and charm.

There is an inherent paradox here, that being that whilst everyone modernizes and mega-cities grow, borders still cause a lot of friction like India and China for example, how do we deal with friction at borders?

This happens to be an issue I’ve spent a lot of time working on in both countries and in various policy groups. You could have definitely argued this case a few years ago more than today. The new Chinese regime is busy dealing with tensions with many of its other neighbours and it has de-emphasised its border disputes with India. The Indian government is much more nationalistic and is investing in the military and therefore creating a certain sense of parity. You have two fairly pragmatic governments that are approaching a certain degree of parity. China is still far more powerful than India. I don’t think that either side wants anything of the sort.

Of course we should always be afraid of World War Three. But in the shadow of that allegedly inevitable war, we’re also doing a lot of things that will prevent countries from wanting to start it.

Can you sum up what you think will be the biggest changes we’ll see in the world in the next 10 – 20 years, in terms of global trends? 

We will see continued urbanization and openness of access to information. Some people believe that the internet is being splintered and starting to look more like the real world, but I think that in the long run actually the trend is still towards more openness and more access to information. I think technology is winning out over sovereignty, rather than the reverse.

There’s a real restructuring of the world’s economy going on as well as a megatrend, because we’re no longer an oil-based world. There’s a huge distribution of energy provisions both geographically and technologically, which I think is a very good thing. Since the Gulf war of 1991 we’ve lived in a world where oil prices were artificially inflated because of geopolitical threats or even the mere fabrication of those threats. But in the last few years we’ve seen wars between Russia and the Ukraine, the collapse of Iraq, the disintegration of Libya, tensions in the South China Sea and hostility with Iran, and still oil prices have fallen through the floor. That’s a very important megatrend.  Most of these trends that I’m thinking of right now are positive. I think if we can concentrate on managing political geographic tensions, and focus more on that functional integration that is clearly going on, then my outlook for the next ten years is quite positive.

Connectography: Mapping The Future Of Global Civilization is out now on WW Norton