From the Footnotes: Ignorance of Islam and of the Decentralization of Power

There are widespread calls for an Islamic reformation such as Christianity experienced in the sixteenth century, but the Reformation cleaved Christianity into two major traditions and many splintered sects; each grew independently of the others, eroding any hope of a Christian center that could rein in extremes. After its early division into Sunni and Shi’a, Islam has come to suffer enough from this segmentation without a modern reformation. Indeed, Islam is a democratic religion, so thoroughly decentralized that even muftis are elected. Many Muslims are interested not in further schisms but rather in reconciliation among the competing doctrines and their extremist messengers, ultimately reducing the violence carried out against each other and other civilizations. As Gilles Kepel argues, though the rise of militant Islamism has been spectacular, its hyperviolence has proved to be a liability rather than an asset. (243)

This is from Parag Khanna’s 2008 book The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. This footnote is in most respects a microcosm of the book as a whole: it’s on the cusp of providing theoretical insight into how the world works but just can’t seem to shake a certain type of dogma associated with the technocratic Left (I think he has done a better job of shaking this dogma post-2008).

This footnote is also in most respects why I’ll never be a Leftist again, even as a sleek, trade-friendly technocrat.

This footnote says to me that Khanna is arguing for a hands-off approach to Islam on the part of the West. Khanna is saying that Islam does not need a Christianity-style reformation. So far, so good. Khanna and I are in agreement. Then he goes off his rocker, though, by arguing that Christianity (and by implication European society) became a net loser because there was no Christian center to temper extremists.


Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t Christian Europe have higher standards of living/tolerance/pluralist values today than anywhere else in the Old World? And isn’t Christian Europe the one place in the Old World where it is awfully hard to find Christian religious extremists? Wouldn’t you have a better argument if you stated that is was the lack of a Christian center which has been responsible for the dramatic increase in standards of living/tolerance/pluralist values in the West?

Maybe Khanna is thinking of medieval Europe, with its devastating series of religiously-inspired wars, but somehow I don’t think this is the case.

The Muslim world is decentralized culturally (like Europe) and is trying to decentralize politically (again, like Europe). The political decentralization is being hastened by trade liberalization and global economic integration. This same decentralization is being resisted by the international order (including, especially, Russia and China) due to nefarious but understandable interests of state but also to the severe lack of understanding that Western intellectuals like Khanna have of social organization. A center of cultural or political or economic power does not guarantee a waning of extremes. In fact, in some cases (in most?) such a center of power actually contributes to extremes.

Khanna was so blinded (and, again, I think he’s changed his tune post-2008) by technocratic Left-wing theory that he could not see what he was arguing: that a decentralized Christianity gave rise to Europe as we know it, therefore the West should step back so that the Muslim religion can build a monolithic consensus in order to combat “extremes.” Am I mischaracterizing Khanna’s footnote? Am I knocking down a straw man?

Khanna’s latest stuff has been much better than what I found in his 2008 book. He still doesn’t go far enough, though. He needs to undertake Brandon-style libertarianism in order to really be a bad ass: let the process of decentralization happen, but (but) recognize new states where it is smart and safe to do so (Kurdistan? The Islamic State? Baluchistan?) and then integrate them into the imperfect but important international order that the West has slowly been building for the last hundred years or so.

Khanna’s incoherence on geopolitical matters is not limited to interesting footnotes. Check out what he wrote in the introduction (again, this is from 2008):

Many believe that the emerging world order is polycentric: China will remain primarily a regional power, Japan will assert itself more nationalistically, the EU will lack influence beyond its immediate region, India will rise to rival China, Russia will resurge, and an Islamic Caliphate will congeal as a geopolitical force. (xviii)

This is basically what has happened so far, and it largely falls in line of where I would bet my money (but not place my dreams) on future events (the Muslim world excepted; see above). Khanna has none of it though:

All these views ignore a much deeper reality: The United States, the European Union, and China already possess most of the total power in the world. (xviii)

I think this argument, if anything, reveals Khanna’s (and, by implication, the technocratic Left’s) authoritarian impulses and desires. The United States is the world’s sole hegemon, and it will be for a long, long time. The EU is a basketcase and China’s GDP (PPP) per capita stands at Intl$ 11,907 in 2013, just below the Dominican Republic, Serbia, the world average, and Iraq. Khanna’s inclusion of the EU – with the social democratic values that technocratic Leftists mistakenly believe Europe harbors – and China – an ode to both the condescending identity politics of the same technocratic Left and its fixation with centrally-planned but privately-run enterprises (“corporatism”) – in the troika of world powers illustrates nicely the weaknesses of the Left.

Khanna’s dogma gets him in more trouble (still on the same introductory page):

Russia, Japan, and India cannot assert themselves globally, militarily or otherwise […] In fact, they are being gradually outmaneuvered by the United States, the EU, and China in their own regions. (xviii)

Don’t cry for Khanna. Last time I checked, he was on the board of several prominent think tanks.

Khanna’s best chapter is on the Middle East (it starts with a useful map on p. 168 and ends on p. 253). His treatment of post-Soviet Europe is laughable (“Ukraine: From Border to Bridge”) and his treatment of China (“Asia”) is overly laudable. India gets just three dismissive pages.

Would I recommend reading it?

Yeah, sure. I like the concept of “second world” that Khanna tries (but fails) to convey. I like the way he thinks and his post-2008 work is especially good. There are a lot of facts that aren’t really facts in the book though, and he applies those facts to theories that I think are weak at explaining how the world works. Then again, when has reading a book ever hurt you?

Around the Web

  1. A review of The Iraqi Christ
  2. Looks like the folks at the Atlantic have been reading NOL (though no hat tips were to be found)
  3. Men on Horseback
  4. The one area of political ingenuity where Europe still leads the world

Does the New York Times read NOL?

Parag Khanna definitely reads Notes On Liberty. From his latest op-ed in the New York Times:

Devolution is even happening in China. Cities have been given a long leash to develop innovative economic models, and Beijing depends on their growth. One of the most popular adages among China watchers today is: “The hills are high, and the emperor is far away.” Our maps show a world of about 200 countries, but the number of effective authorities is hundreds more. [check out “Federalism, Chinese Style” by Gabriella Montinola, Yingyi Qian, and Barry R. Weingast for a fascinating look at the ongoing devolutionary trends in China – BC]

The broader consequence of these phenomena is that we should think beyond clearly defined nations and “nation building” toward integrating a rapidly urbanizing world population directly into regional and international markets. That, rather than going through the mediating level of central governments, is the surest path to improving access to basic goods and services, reducing poverty, stimulating growth and raising the overall quality of life.

Connected societies are better off than isolated ones. As the incidence of international conflict diminishes, ever more countries are building roads, railways, pipelines, bridges and Internet cables across borders, forging networks of urban centers that depend on one another for trade, investment and job creation.

I’ve been making this same argument here at NOL for quite some time now, but Dan Drezner disagrees. He has three bones to pick with my argument (as augmented by Dr Khanna in the NYT):

  1. People were writing about devolution all the way back in 1995, so Khanna’s insights aren’t particularly new or exciting. This is true; if you’ll remember my recent post on federalism as an alternative to imperialism you’ll recall that Adam Smith was making the same argument as Khanna in 1776.
  2. Contra Khanna, states have always been in competition with other forms of governance (not government). Khanna needs hard empirical evidence to prove that the devolution he writes about is as prominent and fast-moving as he claims it is.
  3. Other academics, mostly economists, have been claiming precisely the opposite of what Khanna is arguing; namely that states have been increasing in size and scope over the past few decades. Drezner hesitantly errs on the side of the economists, who at least bring data to the table, but claims that there is probably a middle ground between Khanna and the economists.

As far as throwing out ideas to back up the devolutionist argument, it might be a good idea to look at the nation-state’s loss of monetary sovereignty to supranational (or quasi-national) organizations in the West. Or the separatist tendencies of regions within supranational organizations like the EU that threaten to break up nation-states. Or the fragility of African and Islamic states, as evidenced by the dictatorships and wars often found in these regions. Or the multilateral trade agreements that are becoming more and more inclusive, and more and more complicated. There are probably many more, and if you can think of any feel free to leave them in the ‘comments’ section.

With all of this said, Drezner has a point. The state has found a number of ways to counteract the various effects of globalization, and proving that the state is in decline is, for the moment, extremely hard to do. Yet Drezner’s point says nothing about Khanna’s overall argument, which is merely that devolution is a good thing and ought to be embraced by more progressively-inclined people.

The interesting question here is not the current situation of the state itself, but rather if a consensus can be forged, among thinking people, around the idea that political decentralization and economic integration leads to freer societies. Until a consensus built around this idea can be reached among intellectuals, I fear despotism will reign in most parts of the world at most times.

Bizarre Love Triangle: Towards a New Internationalism

Isolationist screeds in the United States are extremely rare these days, which, in my opinion, makes those who promote this noble doctrine to be individuals of exceptional character.  I am a regular reader of the blog Eunomia (authored by Dr. Daniel Larison), which explicates isolationist critiques of current foreign policy (among other things), and I always enjoy what Dr. Larison has to say.

I also happen to find it rather odd that I am often slandered by my sparring partners on both the Left and the Right as being an isolationist, for one reason or another.  I wouldn’t particularly mind being called such, except for the fact that, for reasons I hope to clarify shortly, my positions are hardly in line with those of the paleoconservative isolationists that I have grown to admire (if not disagree with more often than not).

The libertarian philosophy is one of individualism, internationalism, free trade, and the rule of law.  My sparring partners often accuse of me of being an isolationist because of my opposition to wars and “nation-building” abroad, yet this opposition does not stem from a prejudice of robust international diplomacy.  Rather, the war-weariness of libertarianism stems from the fact that war brings misery for the individual, it shatters international consensuses, it disrupts free trade, and it enables governments to ride roughshod over the rule of law in the name of security and of a centrally-planned war effort. Continue reading