The Second World

When it came out this past weekend, I didn’t immediately leap to read the excerpt from The Second World by Parag Khanna in the New York Times Magazine because, well, it looked like it sucked. From the reception it was getting, there didn’t seem to be much other than “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (2008 Remix)”, and considering how right the original version turned out to be (didn’t the US decline in power from 1987 to 2000?), I was inclined to disregard the retread. I briefly considered giving it a looksie after Dan Nexon praised it, but thankfully Drezner was there to set me straight:

I will heap praise on Khanna’s agent for getting the excerpt placed into the Magazine. There’s less demand than there used to be for prose stylings that read like Benjamin Barber after a three-day coke bender in Macao.

Ouch. And I mean that even excluding the Macao coke bender. Comparing anything to Benjamin Barber, the kind of person who thinks the neologism “McWorld” is clever, is and should be a tremendous insult.

On more substantive ground, I think Robert Farley is right to bring up Ken Waltz’s quip that “To say that militarily strong states are feeble because they cannot easily bring order to minor states is like saying that a pneumatic hammer is weak because it is not suitable for drilling decayed teeth.” Waltz is wrong on a lot of things, but he gets this right. Hegemony is not omnipotence; it’s relative coercive strength. And relative to other states in the system, America’s coercive strength is huge. 48% of the world’s defense spending is done by us; next in line are China, Russia, the UK, and Japan, with about 4-5% a piece. We spend more than the next 14 countries put together. Our GDP is more than triple that of the #2 slot holder, Japan, and more than quadruple that of #3, Germany, and #4, China. The EU’s is slightly larger, but to consider that a functional state-like entity is a conceit on Khanna’s part that bears no relation to reality. In every quantifiable way, we aren’t just more powerful than any other country, we dwarf our nearest competitors. Unless something dramatic happens to either disrupt our economic growth and military spending, or to outrageously increase those in another nation, we should expect to keep our position in the international system for a good long while. Let’s make the best of it.

One thought on “The Second World

  1. I think you’re largely right here. But I do think it’s acceptable to consider the EU a state-like entity when it comes to economic matters. Certainly, the EU flexes a lot of muscle in the WTO, for instance. And the European Commission plays a huge role in international mergers. And the EU has or is negotiating a number of FTAs with other countries. And the Euro has started to eat into the dollars position as the international default currency.
    Of course, Khanna’s point is that the EU is a competitor to the US in more than just economic affairs, but in political and military affairs. And here, his argument comes apart for the reasons you say.

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