Since the end of the Cold War, controversies surrounding the future direction of American statecraft have often been prompted by the publication of surveys offering an easy-to-follow reconnaissance of the geo-political terrain for Beltway planners and pundits. The 90s were perhaps especially propitious for thinking about current events through the historical and civilizational categories of an earlier Age of Empire. But despite a number of efforts to formulate a grand strategy for a new era of police operations against terrorists and their backers, the post 9/11 fixation on ‘asymmetrical’ forces did not readily lend itself to the terms of this older genre, according to which world history is an eternal struggle of Great Powers for Lebensraum and prestige. Even the more evenly matched Cold War was rarely framed in this way, as the universalistic ideological agendas of the two blocs effectively relegated the language of traditional Machtpolitik to the margins.

The classical problem of early 20th-century geo-politics was whether the era of international disputes between Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the us and perhaps Japan too would eventually give way to the unification, or—alternatively—the break-up of capitalist civilization into antagonistic imperial zones. The actuality of this question depended on the real possibility of what Lenin called inter-imperialist war. In the absence of this epochal context, today’s rhetorics of the geo-political can be regarded as simply one of many forms of postmodern anachronism. Such regressions are now a familiar feature of our politico-ideological conjuncture, and have come to possess their own sub-historic logics and indefinitely extended life-spans. After the 30-year restoration of ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism, accompanied by an improbable ‘return of the sacred’, who might reasonably doubt that the scenery of the Great Game could be reinstated as the panoramic backdrop of international relations? The recent deflation of American confidence, in the midst of foreign-policy setbacks and mounting economic turbulence, may occasion another round of publications on ‘the rise and fall of empires’. But perhaps at this still early stage of blowback and stagflation, the market-place of geo-political ideas is not yet ready for Spenglerian doom, and will initially just see the re-release of some of the big-ticket items of the previous decade—the rise of China, the decline of Russia, the future of the European Union—and, of course, the long-awaited expansion of the Security Council to include India, Brazil and Japan.

Parag Khanna’s The Second World is one of what will likely be many attempts to outline the features of the coming ‘post-unilateralist’ era of international relations. The curriculum vitae of this young policy intellectual is a roster of high-profile academic and diplomatic attainments. Khanna is the Director of the Global Governance Initiative at the New America Foundation. Last year, he was employed as a senior geo-political advisor to United States Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. From 2002–05, he was the Global Governance Fellow at the Brookings Institution. From 2000–02 he worked at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, where he specialized in scenario and risk planning. Prior to joining the wef, Khanna was a Research Associate at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Born in 1977 in Kanpur, he graduated from Georgetown and has a Masters degree from its Security Studies programme; presently, he is working on a PhD in International Relations at the London School of Economics.

The same publication that features the foreign-policy musings of Thomas Friedman has conferred upon The Second World the coveted ‘Idea of the Year’ award, although Khanna’s observations are largely free of his Pollyanna-ish infelicities. From a more disabused, cosmopolitan perspective, Khanna is here to tell the Americans that they need to get their act together, or face punishing decline. Less beholden to the civilities of politically correct foreign correspondence, he casts a harsher, Naipaulean eye on the corruption and squalor of ‘Second World’ nations, albeit rather selectively. The limits of the book are not merely of the stylistic kind. In fact—pace the nyt —it is not even clear what the main idea of the book is. Although it has been touted as prophesying an ascendancy of the Second World, it actually begins with a claim that could plausibly be understood to entail the exact opposite. ‘Big is back, the dominant forces of this age are empires’—an ‘unfashionable’ claim, according to Khanna (which is literally true, if only because such notions were at their height roughly five years ago). In fact, the following convoluted observation makes it clear that for the author, history has been and will continue to be an unending geo-political saga of the rise and fall of empires:

For thousands of years, empires have been the world’s most powerful political entities, their imperial yoke restraining subjugated nations from fighting one another and thereby fulfilling people’s eternal desire for order—the prerequisite for stability and meaningful democracy.

The reference to democracy taking root under the shelter of empire suggests that Khanna might initially have set out to write a book with a wholly different thesis, and even title, and was compelled to change course in mid-stream as evidence of American failures began to mount. Khanna’s basic lesson is that a self-righteous, Wilsonian America has yet to learn the dialectic of geo-politics and globalization—two forces which, as he explains at the start, have been responsible for shaping modern history. So how does this dialectic unfold, according to the author? ‘Globalization has always advanced and receded on the back of empires’—the two trends work in tandem, then. But no, Khanna maintains that globalization is a linear and progressive tale, while imperial geo-politics is an endless cycle, and only the first can save us from the ricorsi of the second: ‘Today only one force has emerged that could grind the cyclical wheels of global conflict to a halt: globalization.’ What then is the nature of this globalization that it could either stop or, alternatively, grease the wheels of geo-politics—is it driven by markets, immigration, technology, or some combination of these? The reader only learns that it is here to stay. ‘Whether globalization will continue is not the issue—only its extent.’ But, upon reflection, is it certain that globalization will prevail against all obstacles? After all, like empires, globalization too ‘has ebbed and flowed throughout history’ even though, no doubt, ‘today it is wider and deeper than ever.’ In sum, the reader will discern no determinate relationship between these two ‘trend lines’.

After this preliminary bout of confusion, The Second World advances the claim that the coming period will be defined by the course of inter-imperial relations within the First World, not—to repeat—by a rise of the Second. The geo-political core of the world system consists of the us, the eu and China, each pursuing their aims with a unique diplomatic approach, corresponding to competing conceptions of legitimacy: America’s bilateralism and coalitions of the willing, Europe’s transparent criteria of consensus and ascension, and China’s aloof and courteous tradition of consultation.