Nation-States May Not Last

Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sep 13, 2016, 03:23 PM | Updated 03:22 PM IST

  • Traditional cartography tells us very little about the world. This book draws a new map of Earth, one that is not for the faint-hearted.
  • In the 1980s, Disney World, Florida, offered a gripping, virtual journey as viewed by a blood corpuscle as it rushes through the arteries, veins, into and out of organs in the human body. Parag Khanna’s fourth and latest book, Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution, does much the same for the world of physical and digital infrastructure—roads, railway tracks, power lines, communication cables, oceans, rivers, canals and electrons joining suppliers to customers, uniting families physically and virtually, whilst creating ever-widening value-enhancing networks around megacities.

    In this world, national borders are little more than irritants; national sovereignty a barrier to be overcome; national passports a poor substitute for global identity options, and the ownership of land valueless, unless it is part of global supply chains.

    Parag is a self-confessed global citizen. He was born in India, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in the U.S., works in Singapore, but feels at home anywhere—chatting with Chinese workers in Tibet, Turkish Gastarbeiters in Germany, or breakfasting with the President of Mongolia in Ulan Bator. There are around 300 million others like him.

    This book describes the way the world could be from the viewpoint of global citizens. A world without borders or intrusive governments; self-regulating businesses kept customer-friendly by competition; open markets allowing capital and goods to move freely, perpetually in search of optimising costs and maximising value.

    The virtues of the “open economy, networked” universe are generally accepted today, even if most peoples’ view on markets is similar to their opinion of democracy— not the best option but better than anything else available.

    Parag hammers away at re-establishing these generic concepts with relentless energy via a high-octane delivery, interspersed with a wealth of granular information to buttress his argument. It helps that the book is extensively researched. Its bibliography lists nearly 500 references and almost each page has a quotable quote. An added attraction is the 38 color plates which illustrate what connectography could look like.

    Traditional cartography, which represents geographical or political features, actually tells us very little about the world. These maps are of little use beyond being partial navigational aids. Singapore is a mere dot on the world map with just 0.1 per cent of the world’s population. But if countries were mapped to scale on the size of their GDP, it would be twice the size of Bangladesh. Does Singapore’s land size or population determine its function in the world today or its economic heft?

    The book is divided into five parts. Part One dwells on the truism that connectivity, and not territory or resource endowments, is the arbiter of how nations grow. In a riposte to the reasons listed by Paul Collier on why nations fail, Parag argues that countries can overcome the disadvantage of poor geophysical endowments.

    There is hope even for land-locked nations, like Rwanda. Despite being resource-poor, it is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, because it actively searches out opportunities for becoming part of global supply chains.

    Part Two posits, controversially, that the nation-state is an artificial construct whose longevity is explained by inertia rather than any irreplaceable value addition ascribable to it.

    This is especially true in nation-states which spend much time and effort to reconcile mutually antagonistic and parochial domestic stakeholder identities. Far better then, to devolve power away to homogenous, smaller sub-entities—tribes, communities, companies and cities which, in any case, are the basic framework for solidarity and common interest.

    The recent splintered vote in Britain, with London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union whilst the rest of the country voted to exit, seems to illustrate the inherent fragility of nation-states in the face of sharp internal divisions based on self-interest. The nation-state is similarly powerless against the loss of sovereignty to larger regional aggregations— earlier the United Nations, cold war alignments and now regional trading blocks. Better connectedness and communications foster this trend towards aggregation, driven by Metcalfe’s law that the value of a network increases proportionately to the square of the number of interconnected users. Scale is everything.

    Part Three asserts that a future world of connected sub-national entities aggregated into large regional entities, is a more stable and competitive arrangement than the present geopolitical architecture. Sovereign nations seem besieged by split mandates and dissidence at home whilst simultaneously assaulted by external threats. Competitive connectivity trumps national sovereignty. There is no incentive for destabilising any actor because all are connected for mutual gain. In comparison, Orwellian instability is built into the DNA of competing nation-states.

    Part Four fleshes out the future as a landscape of connected megacities. Multinational businesses will be replicas of the Dutch 19th century colonial empire—a web of small enclaves—business hubs for a global supply chain. The nodes of growth would be the 4,000 Special Export or Economic Zones, which dot the world today and are also the foundation of China’s extraordinary economic growth.

    Part Five is an overview of current issues in the digital economy; the genetic transformation resulting from human cross-breeding inherent in the physical movement of more people across the globe than ever before— provocatively titled “a mongrel civilisation”— and how to best deal with the competing needs of conserving nature and welfare enhancing growth.

    This is not a book for the faint-hearted. The style varies from the explanatory, the exhortatory to being chattily conversational. Some parts are too dense for a lazy afternoon’s read. Others, particularly where the author links his own experiences to more generic issues, are lucid and revealing. The editing is, unfortunately, lacklustre. Rwanda is not a country which is natural resource-rich; the lead paragraph under the attractive title “The digital identity buffet” is an incomprehensible single sentence of 71 words! Deng Xiaoping’s reforms kicked in during the 1980s in China, not the 1970s.

    If you are looking for a new theory of development or growth in a networked planet, it isn’t here. What you do have is masses of information brought together anecdotally in a narrative format.

    This is a tour de force of contemporary world trends with attractive, self-explanatory titles to each of the 78 sub-chapters. Each of these is self-contained, so you don’t have to read the book sequentially. And don’t miss the quotable quotes. My favourite is “A smart rabbit keeps three holes to hide in”, to explain why large numbers of Chinese citizens invest in the U.S. or Canada as a safe-haven option.

    If you are looking for advice on very long-term business investments, check out the heat map on Plate 31. Be warned. India, China, Africa, Southern Europe, the U.S. and South America may all be deserts by 2100, dried out by the ravages of climate change— unlivable, but good for generating solar power.

    Think instead of investing in Canada, Greenland, Northern Europe, Russia and Western Antarctica, where the climate is expected to be salubrious and the resources plentiful for the depleted population which manages to emigrate there.

    Sanjeev Ahluwalia is Advisor, Observer Research Foundation. He specializes in economic governance and institutional development.

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