CREDIT: Nusrat Durrani.

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with author Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

DEVIN STEWART: I have the great pleasure of being here with Parag Khanna. He is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Great to have you here, Parag.

PARAG KHANNA: Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: As we were talking about earlier, we are trying to get a snapshot of what really makes this time in our history different from other times. What is morally distinct, or distinct in general, about the time we live in today compared to earlier times?

PARAG KHANNA: I think the fact that we are talking about morality, even in the way you phrase it, that it presumes that we are speaking about a global morality, is actually something that is new.

Moralities of the past, or presumed global moralities, were obviously somewhat hegemonic in nature. But what we feel today more and more is that there is this co-creation of this morality, if there is actually a global morality or moral sensibility. So I think that is clearly very different, a sense that there is an openness and participation really in that conversation about what global ethics are.

That is a big shift, from even Asia, that aspired to be universalistic in an egalitarian way, such as the founding of the United Nations, where people today still rebel a bit against that founding morality in the documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on the basis of the fact that it is not sufficiently humanitarian and things like this, that we have heard out of Asia.

But now, in the post-Asian-values era and the post-confrontational era in a way, I find there is actually a greater level playing field around that conversation than there has been before. So I think that is clearly different today than before.

DEVIN STEWART: By "less confrontational," do you mean there is a convergence?

PARAG KHANNA: It is hard to say whether or not we are going to achieve that convergence. I think that's a great question: Do we actually have a universal convergence going on? I do think that principles like reciprocity and the dialogue or discussions around what constitutes fairness in global society, politics, and economics today, are very prominent strains of this conversation.

Again, the directions from which that is coming are actually quite multidirectional, quite broad. So we have a convergence around ideas like reciprocity and fairness and mutuality and so forth, multigenerational logics. Those are terms that are percolating in this global moral discussion, and they are actually coming from and being reinforced from different directions. I think that is a healthy sign of potential convergence, but I wouldn't go that far yet.

DEVIN STEWART: Why are we able to talk about global morality? What is driving that change?

PARAG KHANNA: There are quite a few factors. But I think first and foremost, or to speak about just a few of those factors, one would be the compression of space through globalization, trade and infrastructure connections—really railways, airplanes, trade; and the communications technologies, the Internet, the telephone—everything has meant that there is just more instantaneous feedback loops to our behavior, and therefore there is this sense of interdependence that may have been there statistically to some extent before, but certainly the feedback loops were not as rapid as they are today.

This overall aggregate connectedness I absolutely think is a very substantial driver.

DEVIN STEWART: Tell me about those feedback loops.

PARAG KHANNA: Well, if you look at, for example—there are so many examples really—but if you think about things like foreign policies and the reactions to those foreign policies; the ability of targets of foreign policy, such as smaller powers, whether it's Afghanistan or Iraq or elsewhere; the extent to which there can be an agency of the smaller and the ability to provide negative feedback and pushback—and blowback is really the geopolitical term—to anything that a great power does is something that is happening more rapidly than before. I think that is an example of how no one can ignore anyone else in that sense.

And obviously, the rise of nonstate actors, whether it's terrorist groups or corporations or philanthropists, also plays a role.

DEVIN STEWART: You talked about global morality. One of the things we are doing here at Carnegie Council is to help the world think about what a global ethic might look like. How would you define a global ethic?

PARAG KHANNA: It certainly begins with a common set of principles—or without even saying "common," because common would connote that the convergence has been achieved that we were talking about earlier—but even absent that convergence having been achieved, a global ethic would still be a set of aspirational goals around behavior, whether it's the behavior of nations, of corporations, of individuals, and so forth.

So to me it is again the inspired, the aspirational behavioral code that applies to all people irrespective of how they incorporate themselves or whichever communities they feel they belong to. That would be a global ethic. It would be something that one could speak about in terms of its principles, but one would also have to prescribe certain conduct to it as well.

DEVIN STEWART: The metaphorical "what keeps you up at night?" question: What concerns you most?

PARAG KHANNA: Believe it or not, even though we may be entering this new era, or at least on the doorstep of one and fumbling towards it, that doesn't mean that we are out of the woods on some of the questions that have occupied people for centuries. For me that continues to be some pretty core geopolitical matters around great-power competition and rivalry.

If you look at the world today, every country that the United States tries to label a "rogue state" or "state of concern" and isolate diplomatically, militarily, commercially, or otherwise, is a country that China or Russia is providing an economic, military, or diplomatic lifeline to very actively. That is not just about competition for natural resources. It is happening because power abhors a vacuum and because of what I call this geopolitical marketplace, a multi-alignment among countries big and small, and the possibility of miscalculation and slippage into conflict is very, very real in this multipolar environment.

So, I think, for a very good reason, something that has been with us for centuries, and most certainly through the 19th and 20th centuries, continues to be a major preoccupation of mine.

DEVIN STEWART: How about the greatest ethical challenge of our time?

PARAG KHANNA: I think it is to move away from cycles of geopolitical hierarchy and presumed superiority, or the right of any one nation or empire to be the dominant power in a given era or time, to move away to a completely different psychology around global systems and structures. I think that is really the supreme challenge, because when you switch that frame I think it opens up the door to completely different kinds of thinking around how we do global governance.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you describe that a little bit more?

PARAG KHANNA: For example, two of the kinds of change that we are experiencing right now—one is structural change, which is this move towards multipolarity; and then there is the systems change, the rise of nonstate actors and return of corporations and other players to the scene.

This is a very complex kind of milieu. To apply traditional logic around the right to lead or the necessity of hierarchy and authority in global governance is, I think, to miss the opportunity to leverage this plentitude of actors that can contribute to global problem solving. I think that is a very dangerous conservative viewpoint that many people have.

To my mind, the opportunity to achieve this ethic is not something that is going to come about by presuming that we continue to, or should continue to, live in a world where there is going to be one dominant power or just two dominant powers.

If you look at how the mainstream and leading commentators simply grasp the terms like G20 or G2 to describe what should be our global governance architecture, and that these are some of our leading voices when it comes to progressive, pragmatic global affairs, that is extremely dangerous, because in fact a G2 is a very dangerous thing.

The idea that in a world of great, universal almost, empowerment that is under way for individuals and smaller nations and communities, that still everything hinges on the two powers, the U.S. and China, and whether or not they can agree on climate change or human rights or the global economy, that is extraordinarily dangerous. That means that we are still ascribing a far greater moral strength and position of authority to two almost exogenous players. I think that is extremely dangerous.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the common motif in these challenges?

PARAG KHANNA: The common motif in the challenges around great-power rivalry and global governance is almost a sense of disbelief that we, as individuals or as self-defined communities or as virtual communities on Facebook—cloud communities as some people call them—companies just minding our own business, or just students at universities, or local urban communities, this notion that "we aren't part of the system." So it is almost ignorance of the reality of power diffusion and, therefore, an unwillingness to seize on the responsibility that we actually all have to be part of a global ethical framework rather than being receivers of it.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say "we," do you mean everyone who is socially connected or just the entire planet?

PARAG KHANNA: Well, one doesn't have to be socially connected in terms of technologically connected to form a very important community.

When people speak about NGOs, they so often mean Oxfam and Amnesty International and international NGOs based in western capitals. I think about grassroots civil society organizations in developing countries that have tens of millions of members and that are not international players at all, but are pillars of better governance for, again, tens of millions of lives.

I think of things like the Self-Employed Women's Association of India, which is more or less a credit union of women operating in some Indian states. I think of them as a pillar of the governance of one of the most populous countries in the world. They are not an international NGO.

I think of entities like that all over the world. They don't have to be on Facebook to effect change. Changing the lives of their members is supremely ethical and important and a part of changing the world. We don't give them that kind of credit, for a whole host of reasons, that we should.

DEVIN STEWART: So it's being able to have impact on those who are in your moral spheres?

PARAG KHANNA: No. The best global governance is local governance. That to me has always been more than a punch line. It's almost a checklist. It's a tool. It's a rule of thumb. It is not a punch line; it is a rule of thumb. The best global governance is local governance. We should evaluate all of our actions to determine whether or not they are contributing maximally to empowering individual people where they may be minimizing their dependence.

Today one, of the great buzzwords of international relations and global governance is resilience. Well, resilience doesn't come from strengthening centralized bodies. It doesn't come from having a strong Security Council or General Assembly at the United Nations. Resilience comes from strengthening individual communities sub-nationally and nationally. That's what it's about.

DEVIN STEWART: You have talked a lot about pivot states in your writing, and you said that "resilience" is a bit of a buzzword these days. Certainly it is, especially after the March 11th earthquake in Japan.

Another buzzword has been "pivot." Have you thought about the use of "pivoting" as individuals and states?

PARAG KHANNA: Yes, quite a lot. Focusing really just on the states for now, the pivot states, second-world states as I call them—rising powers, other people say—these are very important players because they are anchor states in regional orders. So whether it's Brazil or Saudi Arabia or Kazakhstan or Indonesia, or Colombia—these countries are extremely important because they help to set local rules.

When they are behaving in a way that is cooperative on a regional basis, they are really helping to form important transnational bonds that allow regions to be more peaceful and self-reliant, and therefore less dependent on international negotiations where they may not have a seat at the table.

So I consider second-world countries to be extremely important, pivotal players—not just pivots in terms of objects of American or Chinese alliance kind of recruitment. I think it's much more about what their vision is for their own region that matters.

DEVIN STEWART: Your thinking is always quite complex. There has been a bunch of stories about the Obama administration, often saying that "We don't really have a choice of making a list of priorities. The world is too complicated. We have to attack all of them, all at the same time." How would you offer to sort through the world's priorities?

PARAG KHANNA: I have been an advocate of non-prioritization, which is perhaps what leads to the very complex kind of frameworks that I use, or at least a complicated system, in which I try not to simplify but, rather, try to find the connections among issues as much as possible. So I sympathize greatly with the Obama administration's statements that the world is too complex, too prioritized.

But what they may not be so great at is finding the connections across the issues and acting in a way that helps to minimize their own burdens and maximize that devolution of authority and empowerment that I was talking about earlier as the all-important rule of thumb: The best global governance is local governance. There is still a lot of rhetoric around just leading for the sake of leading.

I think things have started to change in practice in a few specific ways, but not consistently, like I said. So as I said, I support them but I feel it is not consistent enough.

Leading from behind in Libya is a good example, where I strongly supported that, and I think that it has worked out generally quite well and empowered Arabs and empowered Europeans to manage their own neighborhood.

And yet, when it comes to the Arab Spring as a whole, there has been inconsistent application, a reluctance in a way, to support change where that change is inevitable, for the sake of protecting the status quo and slowing things down. In that instance, I disagree.

So I have agreements and disagreements with how they go out.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see the global and the local as in conflict or as posing a dilemma?

PARAG KHANNA: It depends on what we are talking about. When it comes to things like conflict in Africa, for example, or even in the aftermath, as the Arab Spring unfolds, and conflict rages in places like Syria, I feel that if we had in the last 10 years invested far greater resources in strengthening regional security organizations, they would be better capable of handling and stabilizing their own environment without the need for Western intervention.

I have lamented how in Darfur, rather than giving the African Union the strength that it should have had all these years, the debate has been whether or not an intervention could be authorized in the Security Council of the UN while genocide was unfolding. I think that is hugely problematic that the fate of Africans should depend on a debate where China and Russia have veto power in New York City. I don't see the moral connection between the two.

I see institutions that prevent the expeditious seizing of action and, again, giving the means necessary to those that can stop violence and genocide as the moral priority over existing diplomatic structures just for the sake of it.

So this is where morality and legality clash. My preference is, of course, to focus on achieving the moral outcome.

DEVIN STEWART: So is that the greatest risk?

PARAG KHANNA: One of the risks is, of course, inertia. Inertia is always a great risk, the weddedness to a sticky paradigm or system in the face of the need for immediate action, even if that action does not have precedent. So I think that inertia is really a huge danger that we constantly face and succumb to all too often.

DEVIN STEWART: You talk a lot about futurism in your writing as well. Do you want to make a prediction?

PARAG KHANNA: Futurism isn't really about making predictions. It's actually about forecasting and making scenarios about the future based on things that are happening in plain sight today.

In the vocabulary that we use, we talk about the clear trend towards human and technology co-evolution. There has been a technological evolution, in the sense of how technologies have combined with each other to make very complex objects and devices and gadgets and things today. And then there is our own human evolution, which has been shaped actually by technology through, for example, medicine and nutrition and so forth.

Now we are entering an age where there is more and more evidence that there is a co-evolution going on of humans and technology as we embed these technologies more and more within us, whether they are electronic or nano or otherwise. So there is a tremendous paradigm shift that we are crossing the threshold towards.

That is not a prediction; that is actually a reality. The only prediction one would make is how fast that is going to happen.

DEVIN STEWART: Co-evolution as in we are evolving the machines and the machines are helping us evolve?

PARAG KHANNA: Exactly, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Does this new world that you talk about, with the greater connections and co-evolution between humans and technology, affect our moral responsibilities?

PARAG KHANNA: I think it does, because it is part and parcel of this acceleration that we talked about at the beginning, the sort of rapid feedback loops between ourselves and technology. The moral responsibility to remain in control of those changes that are happening and try to avoid losing control is, I think, an extremely important moral responsibility as this human/technology co-evolution accelerates.

DEVIN STEWART: How would you describe the path to a brighter 100 years? We are talking about our centennial here, but we don't want to dwell too much on the past 100 years. There have been a lot of problems, but we hope that we can offer something to a brighter future. What would you suggest?

PARAG KHANNA: I have become more and more convinced, as a social scientist and a political scientist who has been focused on history and geopolitical issues, who then graduated in a way towards thinking more about economic trends and the role of economics and innovation and so forth, and now thinking more than I ever have before about technology, starting to put a technological frame as almost a causal driver in many ways around change, and realizing that technology holds a lot of potential to break some of these cycles that are geopolitical in nature, to me that is something that is extraordinarily promising.

If you want to think 100 years ahead and you want it to be a world that isn't in the midst of World War IV, let's say—assuming that World War III is predicted to be around the corner, then we would be talking about World War IV 100 years from now—we are not going to get to that World-War-IV-free world based on existing logic that is driven by national interests as defined in terms of ethno-geographic kinds of communities. We are only going to get there through a much more overarching and technology-permeated kind of system in which there is greater sharing of resources through technology. You are not going to solve climate change without technology. You are not going to solve poverty without technology.

So if people want to sit here and say, "In 100 years we'll live in a better world," and they trace the path to how we got there, it is not going to be because the Kyoto Protocol was finally ratified. It really is going to be because technological innovation became the main priority of our political-economic systems and that advancing and spreading those technologies as quickly as possible was not only prioritized but achieved. Everything else is just talk.

DEVIN STEWART: World War III, tell me about that.

PARAG KHANNA: World War III is the one that any geopolitical scholar will tell you is meant to happen in times of very rapid power transition between an incumbent power and a rising power, particularly in a region of heavy concentration of power. That would mean the Pacific Ocean and a war between the United States and China. That is easy to say just based on history.

Obviously, you could craft a narrative of the world as it is unfolding today in which you have a self-fulfilling prophecy and that conflict does in fact take place. Maybe it will be in five years, 10 years, 15 years. Some scholars put the date at around 2025.

Either way, it is self-evident that we are heading in a direction where the proxy competition could become outright friction very, very soon. That would be part of World War III, without a doubt.

Whether or not there is a direct confrontation between the United States and China remains to be seen. The Cold War lasted for decades without the United States and Soviet Union actually fighting directly against each other.

DEVIN STEWART: Finally, who is ultimately accountable for the problems that you have outlined?

PARAG KHANNA: Well, responsible and accountable are two different things, right?

DEVIN STEWART: You can talk about both.

PARAG KHANNA: I am a big believer in accountability as the highest ideal in a way.

I think, going back to the beginning of this conversation—what is a good ethical framework, what are the principles, and we talked about reciprocity and fairness—I believe accountability is the highest political virtue. A lot of people might say it is democracy, but democracy is actually one of many forms of accountability. You can have a reputational accountability, peer accountability, and market-based accountability. There are many ways to achieve accountability.

Democracy is one of them. It's a good one. It's a successful one in many cases. It has been with us for thousands of years and we continue to modify and evolve democracy.

But accountability as the concept, accountability as the principle—to me the truly highest kind of ideal for political systems is achieving accountability. Achieving responsiveness, achieving delivery of welfare and public services; these are demonstrations of accountable behavior.

There is a responsibility, though, of all people in some way to contribute to making a system more accountable, making the leadership more accountable. So I think this dynamic between responsibility and accountability does need to be parsed out.

We are all responsible for making our geopolitical order and making our political systems more accountable.

DEVIN STEWART: Did we miss anything?

PARAG KHANNA: No. We covered a lot of ground.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you, Parag. That was fantastic. I really appreciate it.

PARAG KHANNA: Thank you.