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Davos Boy

Parag Khanna, the director of the Global Governance Initiative at the New America Foundation, is part of a generation of young foreign policy thinkers who believe that we have entered an altogether different era of international relations, one in which power is diffuse, the nation-state is far from omnipotent, and transnational problems threaten to unleash global chaos. Like the “Davos Men” described by Samuel Huntington, members of this cohort are committed internationalists and see national identity as increasingly irrelevant. But unlike their ideological predecessors, these young globalists—call them “Davos Boys”—have little faith in the traditional channels of statecraft and existing international institutions. The body best identified as their professional association is the Forum of Young Global Leaders, a group of up-and-comers under the age of 40 that recently inducted Khanna into its ranks. And Khanna’s new book might prove to be their bible.

This is not meant as a compliment. The book is representative of the muddled worldview of the Davos Boys, and of their addiction to their own globo-babble. Khanna, conveying gravitas by means of italics, tells readers that we are now living in a “hyper-complex ecosystem,” a “fluid, neo-medieval labyrinth” characterized by “islands of governance” and diasporic “spheres of responsibility”—new words, it seems, for a new world. He is the type of writer who uses “dot-com” and “dot-gov” as adjectives when “corporate” and “governmental” would do. But the biggest problem with Davos Boys is not their convoluted writing; it is their misguided thinking. They overestimate how unprecedented today’s world is and how unfamiliar today’s problems are, and so they place too much faith in newfangled solutions.

Khanna has a point when he says that the current international order, based on state-to-state interactions in forums such as the United Nations, is out of date. His proposed replacement is something he calls “mega-diplomacy,” a do-it-yourself approach that involves nongovernmental organizations, people-to-people deal-making, and partnerships between governments and companies. The anecdotes he collects of people and organizations taking matters into their own hands are often illuminating, and they suggest that something new is indeed afoot. In India, banks are helping stabilize the supply of electricity, since their ATMs break down without it. In Peru, multinational mining companies are training mayors in fiscal management. Across the globe, CEOs developing emissions-reducing technology, not politicians, are taking the lead in combating global warming.

But even if the state is losing ground to non-state actors, it is much too soon to pronounce the former dead. The biggest international problems are still solved by governments, not by organizations or individuals. It was states’ stimulus packages that got the world economy back on track after the recent financial crisis. And most of the nongovernmental organizations that Khanna sees as symptomatic of a post-Westphalian world are still aimed at changing states’ behavior, not at solving problems themselves. He heaps praise, for example, on Independent Diplomat, an organization whose freelancing diplomats advise stateless groups. Many of its clients’ demands, however, are merely pleas to governments, such as the Burmese exiles’ exhortations to reform their country’s military junta. (Khanna could have helped readers put his enthusiasm for Independent Diplomat in perspective had he disclosed that he sits on its board.)

Even as Khanna describes the world as tangled and troubled, the proposals he puts forth tend toward the simplistic. What is to be done about financial crises? Khanna suggests that banks regulate themselves, guild-style. (Isn’t that how we got into this mess?) Instability in Pakistan? Build natural gas pipelines in the region. Border disputes in the Middle East? Connect countries with high-speed rail. Warring African states? Set up trans-boundary conservation parks and redraw, somehow, the continent’s internal borders. (“Make safari, not war,” he advises.) As for corrupt autocrats, just restrict their travel and, if that does not work, assassinate them.

Davos Boys reject top-down schemes of global governance, seeing bottom-up solutions as the answer to much of the world’s strife. In this spirit, Khanna champions regional security institutions, which, since they are more representative and closer to the ground than global ones, he considers better suited to easing neighborly tensions. “Where regional security organizations are strong, there is order; where they are weak, there is chaos.” But that is too tidy. It gets the causality backward: regional institutions are the products of peace, not the reasons for it. The organizations that eventually became the European Union took root only after World War II settled Europe’s balance of power. It is hard to imagine a strong regional organization sprouting anytime soon in the Middle East: if the region has not yet chosen to build one, it probably will not come.

Many of the bottom-up ideas in How to Run the World are based on little more than hyperventilating techno-optimism. Khanna appears positively obsessed with mobile phones, which in these pages become near-magical devices that can boost GDP, serve as symbols of individual freedom, diagnose diseases, help African diplomats lobby for free trade, and undermine authoritarianism in North Korea and Myanmar. “If you have a mobile phone and can tweet,” he writes, “you can reach out and touch someone.” Not for the first time, a catch phrase passes for analysis.

Khanna also extols the deeds of a relatively obscure online petition web site named Avaaz. The group, he explains, floated a giant banner on top of the Great Barrier Reef to get members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to agree on binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and it bought billboards in China to shame the Communist Party into doing something about the genocide in Darfur. He does not mention that neither of those efforts worked: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum never adopted binding cuts, and China never reformed its Darfur policy.

Had Khanna followed up on another project that he touts, the One Laptop per Child program, he would have found similarly disappointing results. Khanna sees the program as an example of a successful public-private partnership, proof that innovative outsiders can help the poor. The program was announced in 2005 at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos, an event he spends three entire pages gushing about. (“At WEF gatherings, everyone at the table is at the top of their game.”) But with its cost overruns, lower-than-expected orders, and let-them-eat-cake attitude toward the needs of poor people, the project has in fact become the very symbol of well-meaning globalism run amok.

Herein lies the identity crisis facing Davos Boy. On the one hand, he thinks that mainstream international organizations are out of touch with the countries they are supposed to help, and so he sees the devolution and diffusion of power as a good thing. Believing that outside interference is the root of much evil, he sympathizes with the developing world and is wary of condescending to the oppressed. Yet on the other hand, Davos Boy also has great faith in the ability of the innovative NGO, the jet-setting philanthropist, or the plucky diplomat to slay the most vexing of problems with just the right silver bullet. This tension—between the globalist impulse to intervene and the localist impulse to distrust the resulting efforts—is difficult to resolve. At one point, Khanna commends Madonna for helping “put Malawi on the map by adopting children from there” and Bono’s ONE Campaign for convincing governments to increase their foreign aid. At another point, he dismisses “sexed-up campaigns to ‘make poverty history’”—a phrase that just so happens to be the motto of the ONE Campaign.

Despite his optimism about his own proposals, Khanna’s assessment of the future is rather pessimistic. He writes that the proportion of democratic countries has been declining in recent years, that the number of slaves in the world is at its highest ever, and that the spread of AIDS and other diseases “raises the specter of another Black Death.” In reality, the news is not so bad. While democracy, by some measures, has suffered a setback over the past five years, the long-term trend is promising. In 1973, when the NGO Freedom House began collecting data, it deemed only forty-three countries as “free”; today, that number is eighty-nine. (The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia certainly give one hope for more.) Although figures that place the number of slaves today at 27 million suggest that there are more of them than every before, such estimates are at the high end of the range, and any given person had a far greater chance of being trapped in slavery during the mid-nineteenth century. Thanks to advances in prevention and treatment, the number of AIDS infections and deaths is falling. It is not clear what measure Khanna is using when he claims that national borders “rarely represent orderly calmness”: as statistics gathered by researchers at the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management show, interstate conflict is rare and, since the end of the Cold War, getting even rarer. All the while, economic development has lifted billions of people out of poverty.

By every conceivable metric, there is no better moment in the course of human history to be born than right now. Yet had Khanna acknowledged this, he would have been committing heresy against the church of neo-globalism that he represents. He would have been robbing his fellow Davos Boys of the pessimism that grants them license to discard the existing global architecture in favor of faddy cure-alls. After all, as the cliché goes, don’t new problems require new solutions? And so the only optimism that this school of thought permits is optimism about its own solutions. But as Khanna’s book demonstrates, they leave awfully little to be excited about.

Stuart A. Reid is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs.