An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 25, 2013

Khanna: How the Run the World? Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance

Khanna, Parag. How to Run the World? Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance. New York: Random House, 2011.

Reviewed by: Aurélie Lacassagne (

If there is one thing this book has in common with medieval times, it is the rather complex and uncertain nature of its goals. If one were to try to map out the ideas defended in Khanna’s book, it would indeed look like a map of medieval Europe, with the constant changes of borders. Indeed, three tensions or ambivalences emerge from the reading contextualized in its relations to medievalism. Sometimes, the author asserts that our current world is neo-medieval; sometimes, he seems to wish this world would enter into neo-medievalism in order to be able to jump into a new Renaissance; and finally, the author often thinks as a medieval thinker, with the same categories and thought processes. These discursive tensions leave the reader with a long series of antithetical statements and prophecies. This substantive matter is probably not helped by the form itself. So we are faced with four problems that I wish to discuss in the following sections.

On the form
This form of writing, a hybrid of scientific literature and vulgarization literature, tends to make many readers uncomfortable. But as this type of book invades the shelves of the Starbucks of this world and is slowly but surely replacing academic books, it is even more important to pay attention to them. Parag Khanna is a thinker as well as a practitioner of international relations (or global politics as he would rather prefer). Considering his academic background, there is no doubt that he could have more systematically used numerous international politics theories in order to back a discussion on neo-medievalism. The works of English School thinkers such as Hedley Bull[1] who was the first one to introduce and discuss neo-medievalism in IR literature come to mind. Such theoretical insights would not have infringed on the will and effort of vulgarization. Vulgarization of scientific knowledge is the most difficult task, and thinkers in medieval studies probably know this more than anyone. How can we make our discourse intelligible while avoiding the trap of gross generalizations, approximation, preconceived ideas, and ready-made solutions? For medievalism studies, it requires first and foremost a deconstruction of popular beliefs such as the Middle Ages as a Dark Age[2]. Yet, P. Khanna almost starts with this very idea of “Europe’s darkest period” (p. 11). Vulgarization is tough to achieve, so somehow it is OK to fail. But more problematically, the form chosen seems to serve a hidden agenda: promoting an ideology advancing that states are inherently bad and inefficient; and that, of course, individuals and private companies are the solutions. Every piece of this book advances the same motto that only a public-private partnership can solve all global problems, from poverty and hunger to climate change and wars. Interestingly in the context of medievalism, although what constitutes the “public” is not explicitly mentioned, for the author, it is not the state (as commonly thought) but individuals (rich and/or famous) or groups of individuals (NGOs, civil society groups, religious groups) who constitute the “public”. That peculiar conception of the “public” seems very feudal indeed. This leads us to the second problem identified: medieval thinking.

Medieval thinking
Maybe I need to assert here that using the phrase “medieval thinking” does not imply from me a value judgment; it is not used pejoratively. It refers to the fact that P. Khanna uses categories or ways of thinking that predominantly belong to medieval thought. I will underline briefly several “medieval” ideas portrayed in this book. Of course, these ideas have existed – and survived – the Middle Ages, but they are emblematic of this period.

Firstly, he clearly has a Manichean view of the world, the “civilized” and the “barbaric”. So for instance, Khanna does not hesitate to write statements such as “We shouldn’t need tribunals to tell who the bad guys are.” (p. 99); and few lines later, “Leaders can quite easily be sorted out between those who are civilized and those who are barbarian.” (p. 100). But this dichotomized worldview is reinforced by a critique of legality.

Indeed, secondly, he does not believe in law, but in morality. “Which countries deserve a crippling blockade to isolate their rogue regimes and which leaders deserve to be assassinated? The question comes down to whether behavior change is sufficient or regime change is necessary” (p. 100-1). It is as if Grotius never existed; as if the whole idea and efforts deployed to develop international law in the last decades (but in fact, centuries, back to Grotius) did not exist. Some deserve to be killed, not trialed and judged. Consistent with this approach, P. Khanna presents a strong defense of terrorism which for him is “a dirty business, but [it] is very much a business” and “if used cleverly, it is undeniable that terrorism works” (p. 109). In fact, the author conceptualizes clearly that law is a hurdle and that politics is about morality. “International terrorist groups by definition violate state sovereignty, so violating it further to catch them should hardly be illegal” (p. 110). Readers will then be unsurprised when reading Khanna’s biography to learn that he served in 2007 as an adviser to U.S. Special Operations Command. And just to make things perfectly clear that law is a bad thing and morality a good one, this morality is based on, inspired by, nobody else than God. “But until popular uprisings can overcome police states and cults of personality, progressive interventionists will have to continue to be guileful, and even play God, in the name of saving people from their leaders” (p. 101).

Third, P. Khanna does not believe in democracy. And indeed, this was hardly a medieval concept. So he does not hesitate to defend the dictators of this world as long as they act and do things that democracies apparently fail to do. “There is no Thomas Jefferson in Africa, but at least President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who rigs elections and marginalizes opposition, also builds roads and boosts education” (p. 139). (Needless to remind the readers that the same arguments have been used about Hitler, who exterminated opposition among many others, and also built roads, planes, tanks, thus reducing unemployment; and that that type of discourse is, in some countries, considered as crimes). Khanna’s priority –and that should be the world’s priority obviously - is business not democracy: “Today’s world features competing political and economic models, and the attractiveness of one over another is judged by the ability to provide material benefits for the people – not on how democratic it is” (p. 122).

Fourth, consistent with the ideas above, what really matters is survival. “There are an estimated one billion urban squatters, twenty-seven million slaves, and two billion small farmers; the only question we should be asking is this: Who needs what to survive without excessive dependence on others? Extending opportunities – not sexed-up campaigns to “make poverty history” – is the right and realistic way to improve lives” (p. 159). On two grounds this sentence illustrates medieval thinking. Firstly, the goal of the social relations we are embedded in is to survive, like in the state of nature described by Hobbes in which a man is a wolf to man[3]. There is no question of thinking about humanity as flourishing; but just surviving. Secondly, he knows the right way. This is a phrase that comes back often through the book; it is the right way. Medieval kings, princes and churchmen knew what was right; they had the right God, so the divine right to decide what was right

Thus, medievalism pervades Khanna’s way of thinking, quite clearly. What is rather unclear is located in his description of the current world: Is our contemporary world neo-medieval or should we aspire to make it neo-medieval?

Is it or should it be?
The author seems to constantly oscillate between a state of things and a sort of aspiration. We do not know really, although we can presuppose that he aspires to create a neo-medieval world, the necessary steps to think about bringing the world to a new renaissance period, as announced in the book’s subtitle and explained in the last chapter of the book. The author starts by asserting “our emerging reality: a new Middle Ages” (p. 11). Throughout the chapters, he draws parallels between the Middle Ages and today’s world. So, he highlights the importance of the cities, their political and economic role (p. 14), the overlapping identities, the resurgence of religious loyalties, the re-emergence of private militaries (i.e. mercenaries), the fear of the future and its corollary the beliefs in rather esoteric ideas, and what he calls the “symptoms of medievalism: economic chaos, social unrest, depraved morals, wild expenditures, debauchery, and religious hysteria” (p. 19). These discourses and parallels are quite well-known. They have been circulating increasingly in the last couple of decades; and actually periodically through the last few centuries. These discourses rely on specific myths about the Middle Ages. As any other myths, they perform a specific function: The mirror, the Other, through which we think of ourselves. As we know thanks to the works of Said and postcolonial thinkers, the Oriental Other has functioned as a way to define the Western identity. This Oriental Other was at the same time a space, a society and people (embodied in specific characters in some cases like Scheherazade for the Oriental Woman, while the “Turks” or the “Arabs” were a mass of barbarian males craving for blood and sex). But I think that the Middle Ages serve as an historical Other. In times of turbulence and uncertainties (and undoubtedly we live in such times, I agree with Khanna on this), we tend to use the medieval period as an historical Other, sometimes as a warning, sometimes as an aspiration. The author’s description of our world as being neo-medieval does not pass the rigorousness of history, and maybe that does not matter. What is interesting – or rather striking – is the appeal it has on the author. Khanna strongly believe that law is an obstacle, but also that the state – and the whole states’ system based on the preeminence of territorial sovereignty – is an obstacle; something obsolete, useless, that we should get rid of. So in these circumstances, the Middle Ages are appealing, because they represent a pre-Westphalian world. As mentioned above, Khanna strongly argues for public-private partnerships; partnerships between individuals, interest groups and companies. The solution to war is a partnership between companies of mercenaries and NGOs (a wee bit like in the Middle Ages, the NGOs replacing the Church). (See for instance p. 93 and p. 104). The solution to development (including poverty, hunger, etc.) is public-private partnerships, what he calls the forces of “new colonialism”; but of course a “good” new colonialism, not a bad one like the old colonialism because “the new colonialism isn’t intentionally exploitative, condescending, or coercive – only unintentionally so” (p. 97). Throughout the book, he lists all these great successes of private companies (including the controversial ones like Blackwater, Monsanto, Brazilian Vale, etc.) working together with NGOs and communities to do “real stuff” the “right way”. The examples given of such partnerships are just too numerous to quote, and of course, there are successes; they achieve a goal where sovereign states and international organizations like U.N. agencies (because of the states) have been failing for so long. But then, at the end, it all becomes blurry. After a whole demonstration of the goods of an Hobbesian world (the Middle Ages), of the wrongs of a Grotian or Lockean world (the Westphalian state system) and a disbelief in a possible Kantian world (“vague notions of global democracy are not the solution to our problems” (p. 25); equality is impossible (p. 158); a defense of relativism contra democracy (pp. 122-23)), he proposes in his last chapter the European Union as the model for the future of the world. But clearly, what the EU is about is to build a Kantian culture of anarchy[4]. He asserts that contemporary Europe is a “neo-medieval universe of linked but autonomous communities”…somehow like in the Middle Ages and that this is the very condition of peace. Only there are two problems with these assertions. First, despite some attempts at destroying the European states, they still continue to exist, and what the EU is today is a Europe of States; is in many respects what Kant has envisioned as a republic or federation of states[5]. European states have created the EU and are still its central actors. Ultimately, if the European states disappear, they would be replaced by a true European state acting as a territorial sovereign entity. What Europe is doing is continuing the historical process of territorial concentration that started in the late Middle Ages. Second, a medieval-like myriad of tiny little communities does not guarantee peace. The Middle Ages saw many wars and violence even if it was not as violent as usually thought. So far as we can see through history and despite returns, pauses and decivilizing processes, the direction of human history has been toward a great integration of territorial units going with an increased differentiation of function and growing relations of interdependencies as Norbert Elias brilliantly showed in his masterpiece on the process of state formation in England and France[6].

To conclude, Khanna’s reconfiguration of the world (by splitting states into smaller “autonomous communities”, by re-diffusing the use of force to companies and other private hands, and by making human survival dependent on the good will of private charity) seems medieval enough, but highly counter-intuitive to create the conditions of a perpetual peace, which, we assume, is the goal of P. Khanna, both as a thinker and practitioner of international politics. There exists a full-fledge paradox to think that coming back to medieval ways of living will ensure peace. It may ensure the survival of some; but is it all that we should hope for? P. Khanna mocks “books on global politics” arguing that the “world needs more rationality, creativity, common sense, generosity, kindness, cosmopolitanism, democracy, or humanism” (p. 208). Otherwise said, he mocks modernity, the Enlightenment(s?); but he does not try to think of a new modernity, not even of a postmodern, or postnational or post-state world that would have learned the lessons of the past. When H. Bull brought “neomedievalism”, he was keeping the idea of society and common good in his argumentation. Instead, P. Khanna bluntly argues for an ante-modern world, a return to the state of nature, a “societyless” state of nature. If he were only a thinker of international politics, it would not matter much, but as he is a practitioner, and adviser, an influential personality, this reading seemed very disturbing indeed.

Aurélie Lacassagne
Laurentian University    

[1] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, London: Macmillan, 1977, pp. 254-55 and pp. 264-76.
[2] See for instance Charles Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927; and in France, among many others, Régine Pernoud, Pour en finir avec le Moyen-Âge, Paris: Seuil, 1977.
[3] Homo homini lupus, Plautus.
[4] This terminology comes from Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 246-312. Wendt describes three types of cultures of anarchy: Hobbesian (based on enmity and thus self-help), Lockean (based on rivalry and the state’s right to exist and live but also conquer and dominate. This Lockean logic characterized the Westphalian state system), and Kantian (based on friendship; the recourse to violence in inter-state relations is not an option). He borrows this idea from Martin Wight (who was not talking of Lockean but Grotian), Martin Wight, “The Three traditions of International Theory”, in Gabriele Wight and Brian Porter (eds.), International Relations: The Three Traditions, Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1991, pp. 7-24.
[5] Kant has used the terminology of “Völkerrecht” because at that time and until the 1930s, the term law of nations of law of peoples was commonly used; but it has in fact always referred to states (thus “Staatenrecht”). But it is crystal clear at the reading of The Perpetual Peace that Kant thinks of a federation of states or a union of states. States are the actors of his proposal even if within the states, there must be a republican civil constitution (i.e. the citizens have to agree to go to war…). Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957.
[6] Norbert Elias, On the Process of Civilisation, Dublin: University College of Dublin Press, 2012 (new and revised edition).