Global Strategist Parag Khanna On Why He's Bullish About Asia
We meet Parag Khanna right after we watch him deftly field questions during an event organised by the Forum Club and the Essec & Mannheim Executive MBA programme at 1880 members club. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when this eloquent geopolitical strategist tells us he was once almost held back in school as a child because he did not speak English very well.
Here’s why: when he was six years old, his parents moved the family from India to the United Arab Emirates, and then to the US, in pursuit of better economic opportunities. They settled down in New York, where Parag soon learned to master his new home’s national language.
More adventures arrived in 1989, the year he turned 12. “The Berlin Wall fell, and my dad said, we’ve got to check this out,” he recounts. A month later, they were on a family vacation in East Germany, where Parag got to sit on a section of that very wall. “That was my geopolitical awakening. Every single thing I’ve done in my career, I can trace back to that moment.”
He later finished high school in Germany as an exchange student, and went on to study international relations at Georgetown University and the London School of Economics, and worked for prestigious think tanks and academic institutions. Today, he is the founder and managing partner of strategic advisory firm FutureMap, and author of six books. The latest of these is The Future is Asian, in which he presents a largely optimistic view of the region’s socio-economic prospects and soft-power influence.
It is a take he has formulated from a very specific perspective—that of a first-generation Asian-American who has moved back to Asia. In 2012, he relocated from London to Singapore, along with his wife—fellow powerhouse strategic adviser Ayesha Khanna—and their two children. “My last three books were written while living in Singapore,” he says. “I can’t imagine what they would have been like if I had been sitting in a cubicle in a Washington DC think tank.”
Indeed, The Future Is Asian was written partly to offer an alternative narrative of the region. Instead of focusing largely on geopolitical tensions, Parag also draws attention to signs of vitality that are perhaps more easily perceived when you are actually here, such as the dynamism of Asian entrepreneurs and cities.
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He also takes a markedly non-ideological approach to assessing the Asian landscape. Take, for instance, his formulation of “new Asian values”, a riff on an old idea. In the 1990s, some regional leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew had championed what they termed “Asian values”, positing that an emphasis on collective harmony rather than individual rights had helped Asia succeed.
“That narrative of Asian triumphalism kind of fizzled after the 1997 financial crisis, but that doesn’t mean Asians don’t share common values,” Parag believes. In his view, Asians tend to favour technocratic governance, helmed by strong leaders with a long-term agenda of national development; mixed capitalism, where a free market is tempered by state regulation in support of critical industries; and social conservatism, which he defines as “balancing collective responsibility and outcomes with individual demands for freedom of expression”.
These values could be—and indeed have been—easily pilloried when seen through the lens of Western liberalism.
But I don’t believe in opinion, I believe in data,
— Parag Khanna
In fact, he says he wrote the book for Asians—a striking statement from someone educated in the Western paradigm. What do you think Asians need to know about Asia, we ask?
“Asia has patterns of commerce, conflict and cultural exchange that go back thousands of years, before Westerners ever entered their lives,” he replies. “Recreating these linkages is much easier than it sounds. Commercial and diplomatic integration within Asia is increasingly robust, it has become the centre of global trade and has almost 60 per cent of the global population. We already live in the Asian century. Only our psychology needs to catch up.”