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The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order by Parag Khanna
The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order

mark_nuckols, July 21, 2008

Having been generously praised in book reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times, among other publications, I ordered the book with great interest. And as I began to read this book, I was at first shocked, and then increasingly appalled, at a systematic pattern of serious errors of fact, ludicrous assertions that jarred with reality, fundamental misunderstandings of basic economics or history, cheap clichés, and recorded conversations which struck me as obviously fabricated. Every chapter is riddled with astonishing flaws, but here I will simply address those dealing with the Balkans and the former Soviet Union.

Khanna’s basic thesis is simplistic and in those parts where he is not obviously wrong, he merely states what is clearly obvious. States compete for influence and power. Duh. But rather than going through the tedious exercise of explaining how and why he gets so much of the analysis wrong, I will merely not some of the more obvious factual blunders and apparent fabrications that mar this terrible book.

Some of the various, and numerous, factual errors that riddle the book are relatively trivial, but suggest serious sloppiness and disregard for getting facts right. For example, Yugoslavia was not part of Warsaw pact, as Khanna states. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov was appointed to office in 1992 by Boris Yeltsin, and not by Vladimir Putin. Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Albania are not all smaller by population than Manhattan, and the death toll from the civil wars in former Yugoslavia was not greater than half a million. Other obviously wrong assertions seem to be made up simply to provide lurid background color to Khanna’s travelogue: the former KGB headquarters in Moscow has not been turned into “a high-class disco,” expensive Moscow malls do not charge entrance fees, and police road checkpoints in Uzbekistan do not stop and check all vehicles. And other gross misstatements of fact display a simple complete lack of understanding the history and culture of the countries of which he writes: the (Orthodox) Uspenky cave monastery in Crimea is not representative of Ukraine’s “proud Catholic heritage,” Zoran Djindjic was not the first democratically elected leader since World War II in former Yugoslavia (ironically, Slobodan Milosevic has the strongest claim to that honor) , and in the 1980s Yugoslav republics like Bosnia and Macedonia were not richer than Spain. Many of Khanna’s wildly wrong claims sound like local myths that he has taken at face value. I can easily imagine some misguided elderly Belgrade resident waxing nostalgically for the days “when every one of our republics was richer than Spain!”

Yet more of Khanna’s assertions are not merely factually wrong, but far exceed the ludicrous. In the fast paced and dangerous Russian business world, “one is safe only in the sauna, where everyone is naked and no weapons are allowed.” (Khanna obviously never visited my ex-wife’s family sauna, where everyone is armed with a fully loaded Kalishnikov!) It was news to me to learn from Khanna that every winter “waves” of Russians and “thousands of Ukrainians” freeze to death in “crumbling heatless apartment blocks.” And he employs gross mischaracterizations of fact to buttress his claims. For example, according to Khanna, in 2006 Greek GDP increased 25% when the government started to account for prostitution and cigarette smuggling in its figures. In fact, the government said it would include all unreported economic activity, mostly in construction and trade, but including a “small” amount for illegal activities such as smuggling. And this is merely a sampling of patently ridiculous claims.

And for a “foreign policy whiz-kid,” Khanna makes numerous and serious analytical mistakes, showing a clear misunderstanding of economics, international institutions, and international relations. The unhedged statement, “Russia’s diplomatic position is purely residual,” will surely surprise diplomats from Brussels to Tokyo. Noting that Gazprom’s market capitalization is $300 billion leads Khanna to the conclusion that Gazprom is one third of the Russian economy, confusing market capitalization with GDP. And his bald assertion that “[n]one of Central Asian legal systems have evolved beyond Kakfaaesque” is belied by the numerous successful legislative accomplishments of Kazakhstan and its quite sophisticated legal code, for example.

He has harsh words for the United States, bordering on hysteria. Likewise, he sees the European Union as a beacon of progress and a model for the future. And yet he betrays a clear lack of understanding of EU institutions. For example, Britain does not share with Turkey a similar status of “privileged partner” of the EU, converg[ing] with the EU only when it suits their interests.” And while he manages to drop the names of hundreds of obscure statesmen and scholars, there is not one mention of Jean Monnet.

And this awful book is chock-a-block with cheap clichés. Vladimir Putin is a “steely former KGB official.” A “Soviet era foreign ministry building” and “Soviet era apartment buildings” alike are “hulking.” Here in Moscow, there is a “perpetually insecure business caste that lives each day like its last, partying with exotic lions and dominatrix dancers, complete with plenty of caviar.” One must pity the “champagne-soaked, Hummer-driving scions” of Kiev, who must settle for “fancy nightclubs such as Decadence.” And “Kiev, like Moscow, is a Potemkin village.”

And many of the clichés regarding Russia and Ukraine are not merely examples of poor imagination and lack of writing skill, they are downright ugly. “From cars to construction, if something in Russia works it is probably European.” Khanna obviously has not been to any modern Russian manufacturing facilities. He also writes that the Baltic states view “the formerly great Russian bear like an alcoholic uncle, with a mixture f pity and concern.” In a stunning bit of cultural hubris, Khanna sneers “Georgians may be Christians, but they are not European in any meaningful sense – no matter how relentlessly they fly the EU flag across the capital city, Tbilisi.”

But the worst moments of Khanna’s book are when he quotes conversations that seem of such dubious authenticity as to make me believe they may be fabricated, or at best the result of very selective reporting, only relating those comments that fit within his pre-existing views. “’Our pride has suffered’” explains a “Moscow intellectual over a narrow glass of [of course] ice-chilled vodka, ‘but this only drives our nationalism further.’” In Kiev, the locals “give lifts to strangers for a token fare.” Why? “We suffered enough together, so we still trust each other.” There are just too many such (anonymous) quotations that fail to ring true to trust in the author’s integrity. And he also reports statements by national leaders as if they were heard in personal conversation, yet in a curiously implied fashion that suggests otherwise.

And Khanna makes innumerable observations that he believes show particular insight, but are shocking banal if thought over for a mere moment. He notes dryly that Turkey is “a country that has fought wars with nearly all its neighbours.” Well, so is France. And in fact just about every country which has been around for the 20th century, or earlier, has fought its neighbours at one time or another. He also notes with immense concern that “Russian and Chinese firms now control most of [Uzbekistan’s] mineral deposits.” It doesn’t seem obvious to Khanna that Russia and China are quite natural trading partners and sources of foreign investment.

It also seems apparent that he has not been to all the countries he purports to have visited. He just gets too much of the local feel and atmosphere wrong to be credible. And I am pretty sure some of the comments he presents as personal conversations with national leaders, like Georgian President Saakashvili are in fact merely repeated from published press stories.

I could go on for pages, but I think this short summary of Khanna’s mistakes and perhaps outright fabrications is sufficient.

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