«The BRIC label doesn’t really make sense»

Parag Khanna, 32, a current new-yorker born in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, raised in the Emirates and in Germany, a globetrotter, surprised the geopolitical community last year with a book entitled The Second World (translated into over a dozen languages).

Parag reengineered the concept from the 1970s’ three worlds theory (the two superpowers – US and Soviet Union, the rest of the capitalist OECD countries, and the Third World). He also imported for geopolitics the image of swing states (battleground electoral states) from the US presidential politics and coined the term “geopolitical marketplace” to refer to the dynamic where the first world superpowers, the current three empires (US, EU and China), compete for the influence of the swing states of the second world (where he include the three other BRIC – Brazil, Russia and India).

The author compares the three empires to three big spiders trying to involve the swing states in its particular webs. These swing states are located in pivotal regions of the globe. It’s a new image of the great power politics of the 21st Century first decades.

It was announced a new book, entitled How to Run the World, also from Random House. It is about the future of diplomacy in a world that looks like the Middle Ages.


. «I believe we already live in a multi-polar world but it is different from the 19th and 20th centuries because it is multi-cultural as well as multi-polar.»

. «Today it is very much a variable geometry. No one power will be the hegemon.»

. « I think the Persian Gulf region and East Africa as well as the Indian Ocean will be an ever more prominent theater of rivalry.»

.« I am most surprised by how little attention is played to Saudi Arabia’s very diverse roles. »

© Interview by Jorge Nascimento Rodrigues, October 2009

QUESTION: You refer the geopolitical hypothesis of a great power web of three spiders. Let’s name it a G3 for US, China and European Union. Is this a wishful thinking, a solid near future scenario or even current reality? Can we see this troika working inside and on the backyards of the G20 meetings and summits? Most people say that it is a G2 (US-China informal axis) that we can see working in the G20 dynamics…

ANSWER: I do say that the three superpowers/empires are like big spiders in a web, projecting their own influence through globalization. But I do not say that there is a G-3, rather that there should be a G-3. It is essential to have Europe there because Europe sets the highest normative standards for human rights, environment, and social democracy. I would like to see back-channel and overt dialogue and progressive coordination among the G-3 either before or during the G-20, and perhaps we are moving in that direction

QUESTION: Mainstream anti-hegemony analysts will say that the most probable scenario is a multi-polar word, something similar with the great power politics before the 1st world War. You think so?

ANSWER: I believe we already live in a multi-polar world but it is different from the 19th and 20th centuries because it is multi-cultural as well as multi-polar. It is also truly global, not just through European colonies but genuinely geographically distributed worldwide. So the order may be similarly unstable, but it is certainly on a much larger scale as well

QUESTION: Goldman Sachs in 2001 invented the BRIC concept for the four emergent markets. Today people comment that the group is a real geopolitical entity maneuvering with success for the emergence of the G20 during the Great Depression and the eclipse of the G7. Others say that the BRIC is an axis of opportunity, not a strategic one. What is your comment?

ANSWER: The “BRIC” label doesn’t really make sense since the four countries act very independently and have different growth and development trajectories, and different geopolitical ambitions. Just look at how some people have also begun to drop Russia from the “BRIC” concept. Also, their aggregate growth and economic size does not mean that the G-7 will be replaced. It simply adds to the complexity of the global economy and geopolitics

QUESTION: You refer a new second world of swing states, a second layer after the G3 great powers. Who will win the future, say in 2020 or 2030, depends on this swinging dance in the geopolitical marketplace (as you coined). What are your forecasts particularly for the three other BRIC – India, Russia and Brazil?

ANSWER: Each will have a different fate. Russia will for demographic and economic reasons be more integrated into Europe, and may have ceded territory to China. Brazil will be a great power and have influence in emerging markets across Asia and Africa. India will be a naval swing power between the Middle East and Far East, which will be dominated by China

QUESTION: Certainly most readers will react to the idea that Russia is in the second layer. It has nuclear capacity, strategic resources and a past (Soviet Union). In the book you designed two scenarios for Russia: an almost annex of Europe or a vassal of China. Russia is bluffing today?

ANSWER: Today Russia is indeed bluffing, but it in fact no longer does this either. It is acting more pragmatically now. [The new President] Medvedev is leading an effort to find a more modest role for Russia with respect to Europe, America, and China.

QUESTION: Referring to the vast majority of the second world (a significant part in the G20, in economic terms), it seems we will assist to an ad hoc dance. As you said, they will dance with one or two of the Big Three over a given issue, but then with another over another issue. You mean a variable geometry? No one of the Big Three will assume (or reassume) hegemony easily?

ANSWER: It is very much a variable geometry. No one power will be the hegemon.

QUESTION: Due to this swinging status and the power politics involved, this will mean critical problems and turbulence in certain regions of the globe. Which of them you will refer as the most “hot” in the future?

ANSWER: I think the Persian Gulf region and East Africa as well as the Indian Ocean will be an ever more prominent theater of rivalry given the volume of energy supplies and trade which flow through the waters there.

QUESTION: What is the role of the third world? Only a playground for tragedies?

ANSWER: The third world will benefit tremendously from the second world’s economic growth – which is already happening due to China’s growing demand for commodities, for example. But Africa might see serious neo-mercantilism unless each country gets its act together to use resource revenues to improve governance and sovereignity rather than being bought out by foreign powers.

QUESTION: In the old times of great power politics we refer to the shatterbelt regions, nations and states with an ill fate in geopolitics. Bad luck for its geographical location. You refer today about the swing states, the new kind of battleground for great power politics. Some of them are too big indeed to be shatterbelts. Or not? What’s the difference with the old shatterbelts?

ANSWER: The traditional shatterbelt regions of Eastern Europe and the Middle East are actually finding a new unity. They are no longer divided by foreign imperial powers. Eastern Europe instead has been subsumed into the European empire. North Africa too is increasingly finding itself within the European sphere of influence in a consistent way, while the Arab world as a whole is finding an organic unity through what I call the “new Arabism” of trade, finance, culture, media, etc.

QUESTION: In a certain sense we are coming back to the 15th-16th centuries when the Portuguese in its globalization wave “transformed” the Indian Ocean and the near Pacific – the heart of the world economy at that time – in the battleground of great power politics. History repeats itself?

ANSWER: That was the first strategic wave for the Indian Ocean region and now is indeed the second with the growing role of the US, India, China, Europe, and Persian Gulf states. It could get very complicated there particularly given issues of oil security and piracy

QUESTION: What do you expect from the financial summit of the G20 next week? Do you think they can deal with this mixed phase of the Great Recession? Is there a risk of a double dip in the cycle? Can the financial ministers sort out with an “exit” strategy?

ANSWER: Each is pursuing its own course in terms of the size of required stimulus, protectionist measures, and so forth. I don’t believe that they are really coordinating, only discussing. The failure to address the mounting public debt crisis is a bad sign

QUESTION: How do you see the future of the dollar as an international currency?

ANSWER: The dollar will have to transition towards a more distributed basket of currencies including the Euro and Renmimbi. To some extent this is already happening as countries shift their reserve composition. Hopefully it can happen without creating more monetary instability

QUESTION: From the global actors you have been watching in your travels and in the research for your books and articles, which surprised you more?

ANSWER: I am most surprised by how little attention is played to Saudi Arabia’s very diverse roles in the Middle East in economic terms, through OPEC in energy markets, and worldwide in terms of religious and financial activities.


Parag Khanna currently serves as the Director of the Global Governance Initiative and Senior Research Fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.. He holds a Bachelor of Science in International Affairs and a minor in Philosophy from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, a Masters Degree from Georgetown’s Security Studies Program, and is earning a PhD in International Relations at the London School of Economics. Khanna also attended the Freie Universität Berlin. He speaks German, Hindi, French, Spanish and basic Arabic.

He has worked as an analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations, the World Economic Forum in Geneva and the Brookings Institution. In 2007, he was a senior geopolitical advisor to United States Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, he also served in the foreign policy advisory group to the Barack Obama for President Campaign.

He is also on the Executive Committee of the Young Lions of New York Public Library. In 2008 he was named one of Esquire’s 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century, and one of fifteen individuals featured in WIRED magazine’s “Smart List.” He was honored in 2009 as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. He serves on the board of Independent Diplomat and the New Ideas Fund, and as an advisor to Ergo Advisors and Business for Diplomatic Action.

One Response to “«The BRIC label doesn’t really make sense»”

  1. You know, I have to tell you, I really enjoy this blog and the insight from everyone who participates. I find it to be refreshing and very informative. I wish there were more blogs like it.

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