Arab Spring to Arab Firestorm: Parag Khanna on the Revolutions and the Coming ‘Hybrid Reality’

For many Middle East observers, the promise of the Arab Spring revolutions faded with the ascendancy of Islamist parties to political power. But noted geopolitical academic and author Parag Khanna sees it as a triumph of democratization. As he tells Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, "constant low-level turbulence is better for general resilience than having a very hierarchal system that totally collapses every several decades."

Khanna, who quickly gained prominence with his books The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order and How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance, recently published Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization. In his interview, Khanna notes that "total information" as he envisions it will ultimately help people globally.

Currently a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, and a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Khanna was included by Wired magazine in the "Smart List."

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: In your book, ‘The Second World,’ you practically predicted Egyptian revolt. And you said the Muslim Brotherhood would be an influential party. So what other things should we look out for in the Middle East?

Parag Khanna: In my first book, I said Egypt was ripe for a revolution. Egypt is just one country. It’s the biggest, most populous country. Being populous doesn’t mean you matter. India has the same population size as China. It doesn’t matter because everyone knows China’s economy is fast growing and more important.

So Egypt has 80 million people, but its economy is a fraction of the total Arab economy. Saudi Arabia is 50% of the total Arab economy but one-fourth the population of Egypt. What matters at the end of the day is what Saudi Arabia does, not what Egypt does. What happens in Egypt matters symbolically; symbolic politics matters a lot. Egypt represents the certification of the growing power of the Islamists in formal politics but it doesn’t mean there will be a tidal wave of Muslim Brotherhood parties sweeping elections or sweeping away the regimes across the Middle East. But if it did, that would also be fine because that would also mean the triumph of democracy and would undermine the same Islamist parties because they wouldn’t be able to deliver anything in a superior way than the autocratic or technocratic regimes or even multiparty democratic regimes. So I see the triumph, if there is going to be one, of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a phase in a much longer marathon of the unfolding democratization of the Middle East. That’s just one phase. If it was a marathon, I think we’re at mile 4 out of 26 miles. Egypt has a long, long way to go. I’m very optimistic about the Arab Spring, or the Arab Firestorm as one of my friends calls it. I’m very, very optimistic because what it’s doing is shaking things up. The constant low-level turbulence is better for general resilience than having the very hierarchal system that totally collapses every several decades.

I’m one of the only people to praise the Italian model. And some people say, why would anyone praise Italy? But their multiparty democratic system is so perpetually turbulent that you would at least guarantee you wouldn’t have [former Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi forever. So you would rather have is a parliamentary democracy European style rather than a presidential republic American style. An American style presidential republic is what is prone to these excesses of power for people like [former president Hosni] Mubarak. Egypt is a presidential republic like America. But they’re different presidential republics.

How you minimize the power of the executive branch is strengthening the parliaments and judiciaries and so forth. And that’s what has to happen for Egypt to avoid any one person [having too much power]. Now that you have Mohamed Mursi as a strong president, and a Muslim Brotherhood parliament, what the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces does is to rewrite the constitution. So if the president is weak, the parliament is weak and the military is strong, you can create an extra judicial governing council which will be the actual council that will run the government and that will be more powerful.

And constitutions are just chess pieces. Depending on who wins, you just change the constitution. Look at Russia. When Putin was prime minister, the prime minister was more powerful. Now that Putin is president, the president is more powerful. If you look at Ukraine, you look at Pakistan, you look at any post-regime transition country, and this is what happens. If it looks like democracy on paper, it’s just whatever the de facto power has been shifted in order to favor the parties that want to retain control.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You co-wrote an article titled, "How Technology Promotes World Peace," and used the term ‘Pax Technologica,’ based on your book. I was wondering how could technology enable peace and cooperation in the Middle East?

Khanna: When we talk about technology promoting peace, we talk about technology diminishing the dependence on fossil fuels and other resources that we expect to be very competitive arenas in terms of militarized gain like access to Africa, Central Asia, and Middle Eastern energy. If you had distributing alternative energies wisely, you would have less water-intensive agriculture, you wouldn’t have water wars, mass migration due to drought. That’s the primary macro argument.

The primary philosophical argument is that we name these eras Pax Britannica and Pax Americana, but these aren’t actually peaceful eras. We’ve never actually had a peaceful era. When we name an era, it’s usually not peaceful. Pax Technologica is a far more desirable outcome. You focus on the distribution of technologies to minimize competition, simply put. That’s the argument for the new Pax. That’s the macro level.

At the micro level, it depends if you’re talking about food, energy, disease, economic growth, all of those things are ethical grievances that fuel conflict. There is a technology approach to each of those. Earlier we talked about poverty and how the use of technology can help with those.

In the Middle East, you have Israelis and Palestinians Skyping with each other all the time. You have online gaming that will have massive multiplayer games around peace building between two parties who can’t physically meet each other. You have algorithms that will process proposals from both sides and will find neutral ground. They’re algorithms so it’s the most honest broker and they’re testing things like that.

Technology doesn’t just mean social media and Internet. The most basic technologies also include cross-border linkages like railway lines, roads, trade, commercial, joint infrastructure investment, etc. That’s what my TED talk was about two years ago, about infrastructure — build new lines across existing lines. That was my fundamental message.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: It’s interesting you bring up Rwanda as a role model as a small, nimble country that has remade itself. You point out the country has "revamped its politics and economy and now intervenes militarily in much larger neighbor states — like Congo." You point out that countries need to "think smarter, not bigger." How can some Middle Eastern countries achieve that, say Tunisia or Egypt?

Khanna: By having invested a lot in infrastructure before the Arab Spring, Tunisia has better infrastructure than many other Arab countries. They’re rehabbing a lot faster. Proximity to Europe helps. Educated population helps. The legacy of decent infrastructure investments and minimizing cross-gender divide helps in spite of an autocratic regime. The fact is when a country has 5 million people and oil, gas or proximity to a great power, I don’t really worry about it. It’s great; everyone loves Tunisia and the power of Tunisia, the election of a revolutionary human-rights figure as president and what’s happening with the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s great, that’s hot. I don’t waste a minute on Tunisia. You can fix a small country really fast with technology and great leadership. I don’t worry about that.

I worry about Yemen. I worry about Libya. I worry about places that might physically fall apart. Syria, Libya and Iraq are three countries that might not have the same borders five years from now. There’s a 50-50 chance at best. Iraq, I give a 10% chance. There’s no way that Kurdistan won’t be an independent country five years from now. It would be absurd. I talk about this in my TED talk and all my books. Palestine will be independent as well. So I worry about those places that will be physically split up and need help and have large populations. Those are the troubled nations. Tunisia isn’t going to cause a lot of trouble. The Arab Spring was a good thing. It came from Tunisia.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So what can those countries do to ease the transition?

Khanna: There are four kinds of Arab countries. There are oil-rich monarchies. There are oil-poor monarchies, like Oman. Then there are oil-rich, non-monarchies like Algeria. And then there are oil-poor, non-monarchies like Lebanon. There are 22 Arab countries and there are four different kinds of countries. So there’s no generic strategy. There are four different strategies.

Oil-rich monarchies, not surprisingly, are still all in power like the Gulf Sunni Arab states. Bahrain is on the ropes but they’re all still there. That’s no surprise because they’re all oil rich.

The oil-poor monarchies like Oman, Jordan and Morocco, are still in power but they’re doing a lot to reform. They’re giving more power to their parliaments. They’re sacking their cabinets. They’re shortening their terms so they’re reforming.

The oil-rich non-monarchies, like Algeria, are still also there. Except for Libya. Libya is gone. Algeria is way bigger and more powerful than Libya but no one can name the president of Algeria. Libya was way more sexy because of Qaddafi. Libya was sexy because of Qaddafi but no one can name the president of Algeria. Algeria is substantially way more important than Libya.

The oil-poor non-monarchies, like Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt, are hanging by a thread. Yemen doesn’t really exist already today by any stretch of the imagination. Afghanistan doesn’t really exist. The Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country in Africa, doesn’t really exist. You would be hard-pressed to go there and see a state.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: In an interview you did with Wharton management professor Stephen Kobrin last year, you mentioned "New Colonialism" to speed up reform in Egypt. A year after, what are some specific examples of new colonialism that would help Arab countries that are rebuilding?

Khanna: New Colonialism is a combination of financial, governmental institutions, capital markets and lenders, political bodies like the EU, NGOs, external powers like the U.S., private investors, and others — all of these bodies having a disproportionate impact on the policy decisions of their state. This truly applies to Egypt today. Their economy is really down the tubes. They have no choice but to negotiate with the IMF. Pakistan is also another example. They’re constantly negotiating. There is all this invisible string-pulling and half the countries in the world are subject to this. Those are the sets of actors.

Pakistan and Egypt are two very different situations but have similar dynamics of New Colonialism. The outside forces can influence as much as the internal forces. It’s not to say the outside forces can dictate everything. It’s not like the Americans can dictate the outcome of the Egyptian elections but it can dictate loan conditions.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You quote Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle that technology has become a second self. Because of the anonymity, the revolt was fuelled by a "second self" anonymous identity. Could the Arab Spring have happened without the second self or technical identity organizing through Facebook?

Khanna: That’s also part of the cloud identities that we talk about in our [new] book. You’re being infused into a numeric of mass people who participate in online petitions or online protests, or a group of anonymous hackers targeting the Pentagon or the Syrian government. That dynamic is very powerful. It’s just about a broader ecosystem. When she talks about the second self, I interface with you and then I interact with a second self through a technology filter through following each other Twitter, Skype — that’s what she means about it. It has a mediating impact that people don’t realize. There’s the hidden designer behind Facebook and he’s one of the thousand people who work there. You don’t know his name but they determine how you and I act, except when we interact physically. It creates opportunities as well as limitations.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So would the Arab Spring have happened without the second self or technology?

Khanna: No, it would’ve absolutely happened regardless of technology. People give way too much credence to the role of Facebook. We’ve had revolutions for 200 years. It’s absurd to call it the Facebook revolution. The Arab Spring was completely inevitable. It’s in the middle section of my second book about post-colonial entropy, which is about lack of infrastructure spending, overpopulation, corrupt government spending, high youth unemployment and political secession crisis. Those five things are common to every single post-colonial country on the planet earth. Over 120 countries were born in the last 60 years. When the U.N. was founded sixty years ago, it had 51 members and now it has 193 members. One hundred twenty of them are post-colonial countries. The non-colonial ones are the former Yugoslav or former Soviet Republic but everything else was an ex-French, ex-Portuguese colony, with the exception of Singapore. When you have those five factors occur in one place, you will have the Arab Spring. You don’t need Facebook.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: In Syria, many of the bloggers and activists disguised their identities to protect their well-being. But authenticity became an issue, such as the case of the married white American male graduate student in Edinburgh who pretended to be a gay Syrian lesbian blogger. Is this another peril and what can be done to authenticate identities?

Khanna: My answer is "whatever." You have a cacophonous space. You have winners and losers. You have genuine, authentic voices and you have frauds. How is this different from the real world? More people are going to be using it for good than evil on balance. There will be a lot of evil but there will also be a lot more good.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: On the opposite spectrum, technology in the hands of the wrong people can cause major setbacks in peace progress. The West is fearful that Iran will have nuclear weapons to launch. Are there situations where technology should be detracted?

Khanna: Iran will not use nuclear arms. Ten people with big megaphones think Iran will use nuclear weapons. Five of them are in Israel and five of them are in America. That’s it. Nothing useful or rational can be said on the topic. Most people are trying to rationalize that perception and reinforcing those voices. I think it’s a fraudulent line of inquiry. Just because someone makes a claim or talks about it doesn’t make it true.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: As different societies or countries embrace hybrid reality at different rates, how will it impact the world as we know it today? For example, in Japan you have robotic dogs comforting the sick and the elderly but in Yemen and sub-Saharan Africa, people are struggling with basic needs like food and water.

Khanna: These are the kinds of things we take very seriously in the book. That’s why we use the word "technik" in the new book to describe different levels of adaptation to technology. So it’s not just about income differential, there’s a technik differential. To what extent is society able to finance or innovate or adapt to prepare its people to different technologies and make the most of them. It’s just different technologies applied at different levels of advancement.

So what people in Yemen and South Sudan really need is water desalination technologies, hydration, basic medical care, infant mortality care, basic mortality care, anti-malarial, anti-diarrheal, etc. There are basic technologies for those things that are spreading very quickly around the world. We see a lot more power in those technologies spreading than just aid programs.

You can have a digital divide. You can talk about a digital divide for 20 years. You can attempt to cure a problem with an aid program by just lowering the cost of technology access. That’s the key variable that we focus on as much as possible. One laptop per child program has been adapted around the world. In one of our previous books, we talk about illiterate children who can use a touch interface to navigate the Internet and collect information.

So there’s a lot of that work going on. We think that just because there’s a technology divide, and there will always be a divide of some kind. We talk about the Gini coefficient [measure of inequality among values of a frequency distribution, usually referred to when talking about income or wealth inequality]. There are going to biological divides, technological divides, all sorts of things. So that’s why we try to talk about a better index, not just looking at GDP, to see how societies are prepared or not prepared.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How can it help people in emerging economies or new governments like in the Middle East?

Khanna: Not all emerging economies are created alike. Egypt was hailed by Goldman Sachs as among the next BRICS. All they do, and this is very relevant to the Wharton audience, is take an aggregate or multiply the population size by its headline economic growth and declare it a future BRIC. On the face of it, I can’t think of a more derogatory mechanism. When you evaluate an emerging market, you have to spend time there and look at 50 or 60 factors, like political risks, political succession, degree of inequality, infrastructure spending, etcetera.

For my first book I spent about two to three years backpacking through emerging markets just to write it. And every country got its own chapter. I didn’t just look at economic growth multiplied by population size and then declare these countries to be the new BRICS. I also wouldn’t make any predictions to 2040. I think that’s also preposterous in this day and age. The way I look at it, you can’t treat them all the same.

The point is oil-rich monarchies in Sunni Arab states have a lot of money that they are able to commit to advance up the technology ladder. Hence, what you’re witnessing now is long-term investments in alternative energy, smart cities, etc. When we see governments make long-term investments in new sectors, that’s the diffusion we talk about. That why we talk about the balance of innovation as being more important than a balance of power.

Traditionally, China is not thought of as an innovative country but if you look at their 12th Five-Year Plan, and the impending investments in nanotech, biotech, alternative energy, robotics, food productivity and so forth, you’re seeing huge investments in economic diversification. So that’s what we call the balance of innovation. We think it’s extremely important to judge emerging markets, not only what they’re producing and exporting today, but how can they withstand shocks in commodity prices in new technology. Biotech in India is another good example.

Singapore is another good example. Singapore is a smart city. They’re the place with the most investment in urban technology. It’s a great testing ground for a lot of these new technologies. The joke is all the smart city plans are Power Points and Singapore is the real deal. We need to be there for a little while. M.I.T. has a partnership with Singapore University of Technology and Design and [my wife] Ayesha is going to be affiliated with them.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Your newest book is Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization. What are some risks involved in a new hybrid reality? In Syria, there are civilians who were interrogated and forced to give up their security code or passwords to find their friends and family or had to take on anonymous identities. Is there any way we can protect the innocents in this futuristic hybrid reality?

Khanna: Technology is a cat-and-mouse game. Even the State Department has been funding something called the kill switch for cell phones. There are cell phones equipped with this app. If you get caught, it wipes out everything on your cell phone and sends it up to this cloud and can’t get physically recovered. Again, it’s cat and mouse. The Iranians check your Facebook account at the airport when you arrive to see what you’ve been saying and who your friends are so they can follow them. There are ways to get around that too. Technology is always like that. Whether you’re talking about Syria or China or Iran, technology will win out in the end. There is not a single being in the world that can control technology.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So you can always outsmart technology?

Khanna: Of course, eventually. The more money you put into these things, the more success you have. The New America Foundation pioneered the Internet-in-a-Suitcase and it was on the front page of The New York Times [and featured in Arabic Knowledge@Wharton]. We’re doing 12 things the Syrians don’t know about yet so we will win. There is no doubt about it. Technology will win. Human rights will win. Transparency will win.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: I was curious about the Internet-in-a-Suitcase program because when it received a sizeable State Department grant for technology funding, was the New America Foundation the recipient for that?

Khanna: Yes, that’s our program. It’s called the Open Technology Initiative. [We've written] one of those rare books about technology that has a chapter on politics. Even in politics, you have to rethink the technology paradigm. Today people believe that Data.gov, apps for gov — all of these programs are going to result in sharing more information with Washington, helping to strengthen the efficiency of the government whereas in reality, what all these things will ultimately do is empower citizens.

If I’m Davis, California and you’re Washington, D.C., I have as much information about budgeting, transparency, taxation, revenue, and so forth as you do, why would I pay you taxes? Why would I let you decide how it’s going to be spent? There’s going to so much more devolution as a result of technology rather than empowering the central government. So that’s the next step. Right now, we’re focusing on how can we help Washington? But the truth is in the end, it’ll empower the citizen because we’ll have total information. So I think that’s a great thing. So that’s the main thrust of the [new] book.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What kind of lifestyle changes should we expect in the hybrid reality of the future?

Khanna: I think the kind of changes one would implement is very gradual. I think it depends on a sphere of life. If you’re talking about an educational system, you can expect to be absorbing a lot of online content. Speaking about this concept of free time at home, there’s this concept of flip teaching. You do your lessons at home and your homework at school in the sense of debating things with your teacher. It’s a lot more hands on than the traditional lecture format.

This is very different from the medical sphere and the things you’re going to do to preserve your life. Everything is in some way related to life extension. Not just focusing on age but people will receive artificial limbs and biomedical transplants. You’ll see a lot more presence of people with bionic body parts, advanced prosthetics, and things like that. So that’s healthcare and the way we look at it is different from education.

And then we have social life. We posit in the book the kind of multiple identity, not disorder, but just reality. Your individual physical identity, your avatar that represents you online, those technologies that allow you to act with avatars, allowing them to act almost independently of you or do things without you having to guide or constantly supervise them online.

And then there’s outsourcing social robots like nurses or maids or teachers or babysitters or drivers of automobiles. We posit these three different kinds of identities in this identity ecosystem and those are just three examples of the kind of changes you might expect as this hybrid age unfolds.

Hybrid reality is about social evolution and change. Even though it’s my third book, I feel like it’s the original argument that drives everything else. For me, it’s been a very important evolution to write this book. It represents a bedrock of a lot of other things that have been written and been important. But it took me much longer to learn about technology than politics or economics. Ayesha likes to say she’s the tech and I’m the geo. If we hadn’t gotten married, we would’ve never written this book. She’s taught me everything I know about technology and I’ve taught her everything that I know about geopolitics. This book is like a marriage. I wouldn’t have thought about it without her and she wouldn’t have thought of this book without me.

People have written about technology but not offered this terminology and logic. Or rather, people have talked about this in the 1960s, and people didn’t realize how important this is. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Those geopolitical scholars in the 1960s are voices that need to be elevated and put in the proper context. That’s what this book is about.

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