Interview by Jeffrey Donahoe
The career of Parag Khanna (F'99, MA'05) resists categorization. It includes serving as a foreign policy advisor for Barack Obama's first presidential campaign and senior geopolitical advisor to the United States Special Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's an author of several books, a CNN Global Contributor, TED Talk regular, and has been named to Esquire magazine's "75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century" list and Wired magazine's "Smart List."
His most recent book—which came out in April—is Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization. In it, Khanna offers an original rethink about the borders that define the world's 200-plus nations.
Khanna talked with Georgetown Magazine from Singapore, where he lives with his wife and children and is Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy at the National University of Singapore. (This interview was edited for length.)
What do you mean by "connectography"?
The book proposes that instead of geography and politics creating separate nations, the new mapping is connectivity. Consider this: We have less than 500,000 kilometers (about 310,00 miles) of international borders, but we now have about 80 million kilometers (about 50 million miles) of connectivity—highways, railways, pipelines, electricity grids, and internet cables.
What argument do you make in Connectography?
More important than how we legally divide the world is how we functionally use the world. I say that connectivity is the most important asset class of the 21st century. We should be investing in connectivity, because it's the most important way to optimize the world's distribution of land, labor, and capital—as well as to empower people and mitigate inequality.
You write a lot about megacities. What are they and why do they matter?
Most of the world's population lives in very large urban centers, and those centers are increasingly connected to each other through infrastructure. This megacity structure has enormous consequences for economic competition, geopolitical tension, climate change, and economic growth and development. In many ways, megacities have superseded in importance the nations to which they belong.
Connectography has really provocative, nontraditional maps. Is it time to change we how think about borders?
I would ask, what is the more accurate map of the world: 200 discrete nations or 50 major megacities with dense connectivity connecting them rather than borders dividing them?
Have megacities peaked or are they still growing?
Still growing. The research shows that by 2030 more than 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities.
How does this affect people in the non-urbanized world?
I believe that connectivity is hugely empowering for people anywhere in the world, particularly landlocked countries. For example, when an internet cable comes to landlocked Zambia via Mozambique, it increases bandwidth speed, cellular connectivity, access to information for farmers and businesses, and of course education.
Does your megacity concept apply to the United States?
It certainly does. One of the maps in the book provides a layering of America's main economic zones, major urban clusters, and proposed high-speed rail corridors between them. This results in what I call the "United City-States of America." Much as other countries such as China are functionally reorganizing around large and productive urban centers, so too should the U.S.
What was your first job after graduating from Georgetown?
My first position out of SFS undergrad was at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. I wound up being paired with none other than Col. Stanley McChrystal, who spent one year there as a visiting fellow. At the time no one really knew who he was. Then I worked in Geneva, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum before I came back to Washington to work at the Brookings Institution and do my master's in the security studies program as SFS.
Did you ever connect again with Col. McChrystal?
I did my Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. During that time, I went back to work for now-Gen. McChrystal at Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq and Afghanistan, where I was a civilian advisor to him. I can't describe just how profound an impact it had on me.
Does Georgetown still have an impact on you?
Professor Charles Pirtle created and taught Map of the Modern World, which is the legendary course at SFS. You had to master all the political geography of the world, as well as a great deal of natural geography. He was the single most intimidating figure in the entire curriculum. He's an institution for three decades of SFS alumni. Everything I have written since 1999 has been grappling with the lessons of Charles Pirtle's classes.