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“How to Run the World”

May 29, 2011

Twenty-first-century diplomacy is coming to resemble that of the Middle Ages: Rising powers, multinational corporations, powerful families, humanitarians, religious radicals, universities, and mercenaries are all part of the diplomatic landscape. Technology and money, not sovereignty, determine who has authority and calls the shots. This can be a good thing if it means getting all hands on deck to manage challenges that no government or organization can tackle alone. Success in this new world of mega-diplomacy hinges on bringing the key players together-governments, businesses, and organizations-into coalitions that can quickly move global resources to solve local problems. This is not your grandfather’s diplomacy, but today’s Generation Y intuitively get it.

This is from a relatively new book by Parag Khanna, who is also the author of “The Second World”. Khanna is an exciting big picture thinker. He deals in grand sweeping narrative, weaving anecdotes, statistics, and opinion to tell his story. The main theme of this book is that the future of world governance lies not so much with institutions like the United Nations, which are hopelessly ineffectual and bureaucratic, but instead with decentralized actors-corporations, governments, NGO’s, philanthropists, civil organization etc., collaborating quickly and often ad-hoc to solve specific problems. It is relentlessly upbeat, too much so; it gives the reader a sense of blithe optimism. Also, by trying to cover so much ground, from war and terrorism to poverty and sustainability in a relatively short book, it inevitably fails to provide enough perspective or dig very deeply into the challenges of any one issue. Here is just one example.

The Gates Foundation, G-20, and World Bank have pledged billions of dollars for an African agriculture development fund, while the Rockefeller and Gates foundations subsidize Monsanto to invest in developing high-yield strains for the seeds Africans need most-cassava, sorghum, and millet-and give credits to ten thousand African ago-dealers to upgrade small-scale rural food storage centers. Proving Malthus wrong is still possible if global food production and policy are actively devolved to the world’s farmers themselves and to science rather than special interests.

What he fails to mention here is that the percentage of development assistance given for agricultural research has plummeted in the last twenty years. Reaction to the recent global food crisis paired with the Gates Foundation’s new substantial push for agricultural development in Africa might be an important game-changer, but it doesn’t change the fact that the world was much more committed twenty years ago. He also fails to mention that almost all African countries (which the important exception of South Africa) have effectively banned the production and importation of GMO crops, taking their cue from Europe who they rely on the most for trade and aid. Any new efforts by a Gates-Monsanto-Rockefeller collaboration to introduce drought resistant, nutrient-fortified, or higher yield transgenic seeds in African will, for better or worse, face enormous and likely prohibitive political resistance from the governments themselves, Europe, and influential NGOs.

Important omissions like this called into question for me the substance of some of his other arguments on other less familiar topics. Nevertheless it is definitely an original book that provides a new framework for thinking about the concept of global governance in an age of decentralized power. I recommend it.

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