A Journey Into ‘The Second World’

Speaker's Corner: Some bureaucrats joke that they would never claim expertise about countries they had not at least flown over. In an excerpt from his new book, Parag Khanna argues that real global understanding can only come from serious travel.

05.22.08 | 10:40 AM ET

Sao Paulo skylineNo one knew the world like Arnold Toynbee did. His 12-volume A Study of History is the most cohesive treatment of human civilizations ever written (and the longest work composed in English). But Toynbee waited until he retired from London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs before boarding a ship with his wife to “meet people and see places that were already familiar to us from our work, but only at second hand.” Over 17 months, they circumnavigated the globe, traveling from London to South America, the Pacific Rim, South Asia and the Near East. The dispatches Toynbee penned—containing observations on the remnants of empires long extinct and predictions on an uncertain future—were published in 1958 under the title East to West: A Journey Round the World.

A half century later, a leatherbound first edition of Toynbee’s narrative was my most insightful guide as I set out around the world to explore the interplay of two world-historical forces he grasped intuitively without ever using the terms: geopolitics and globalization. Geopolitics is the relationship between power and space. Globalization refers to the widening and deepening interconnections among the world’s peoples through all forms of exchange. Toynbee had been the first to chronicle the rise and fall, expansion and contraction of history’s empires and civilizations, and his life spanned the major waves of global integration that began just before World War I and then exploded with the rise of multinational corporations in the 1970s. Since Toynbee’s time, geopolitics and globalization have so intensified as to become two sides of the same coin.

I wanted to separate the inseparable, so I set out to explore the “second world”—the regions and countries that are today the central stage on which the future course of global order is being determined. That term, second world, once referred to the “socialist sixth” of the earth’s surface, and then briefly to the postcommunist transitional states, but mention of the second world gradually disappeared. Yet there are more than twice as many countries in the world today than when Toynbee set sail—and an ever-greater number of them fall into this new second-world space where geopolitics and globalization clash and merge.

Like elements in the periodic table, nations can be grouped—according to size, stability, wealth and worldview. Stable and prosperous first-world countries largely benefit from the international order as it stands today. By contrast, poor and unstable third-world countries have failed to overcome their disadvantaged position within that order. Second-world countries are caught in between. Most of them embody both sets of characteristics: They are divided internally into winners and losers, haves and have-nots. Will second-world countries react by repelling, splitting or merging into compounds?

Schizophrenic second-world countries are the tipping-point states that will determine the 21st century balance of power among the world’s three main empires—the United States, the European Union and China—as each uses the levers of globalization to exert its gravitational pull. How do countries choose the superpower with which to ally? Which model of globalization will prevail? Will the East rival the West? The answers to these questions can be found in the second world—and only in the second world.

The Second World coverWorld Bank officials joke that they would never purport to be experts about countries they had not at least flown over. Experts of this kind point to statistical indicators and declare “things are getting much better” in this or that country. Usually, this means a capital city has been cleaned up, provided with sprouting hotels, banks with cash machines, and shopping malls, while crime has been isolated to outer neighborhoods. What about the rest of the country: cities that don’t have airports, provinces that have poor roads and dilapidated infrastructure? Are things getting much better out there?

Saint Augustine declared that “the world is a book, and those who have not traveled have read only one page.” Only firsthand experience can validate or challenge our intuitions, giving us confidence about risky political decisions in a complex world of instant feedback loops and unintended consequences.

During travel, perception and thought merge; a contradiction can emerge as a truth to be revealed, not some exception to be disproved. Such ambiguity is the corollary of complexity, after all. Reality is famously resistant to theories that measure the world according to what it should be rather than how it really is. Instead, exploring the patterns of the second world aesthetically, honoring the value of purely sensory judgments—this exposes characteristics that are common to the entire second world; differences are revealed to be more relative than absolute.

For example, the civility of people’s behavior tends to reflect the decency of their governments, which in turn often correlates to the quality of their roads. In the first world, roads are well paved, and the view is clear for miles, whereas clogged third-world roads are a mix of both. First-world countries can accommodate millions of tourists, while visiting third-world states often involves choosing between exclusive hotels or low-cost backpacking; many second-world countries simply lack the infrastructure for mass tourism. Garbage is recycled in the first world and burned in the third; in the second world, it is occasionally collected but is also dumped off hillsides.

A journey around the world reveals an increasingly clear underlying logic: The imperial norms of the American, European and Chinese superpowers are advancing. Political borders matter less and less, and economies are integrating. The world map is being redrawn—and the process is not driven by Americans only. Yet even as the world becomes increasingly non-American, American attitudes toward the places that suddenly appear in U.S. headlines reflect a deep cartographic and historical ignorance. War may be God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but there is a new geography of power that everyone in the world must understand better. If we do not find common ground in our minds, then nothing can save us.

This essay is excerpted from The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. (C) 2008 by Parag Khanna. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.

Photo of smog over Sao Paulo by thomas_hobbs via Flickr, (Creative Commons).

Parag Khanna directs the Global Governance Initiative in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

4 Comments for A Journey Into ‘The Second World’

Maria Llanca 05.29.08 | 3:18 PM ET

Very good point!

Yesh Prabhu 06.03.08 | 8:08 AM ET

Well said. Until now Americans have been smug and content, pleased with their wealth and prosperity, and so they never felt the need to look at the outside world. They appeared to be self-centered. Now thanks to Bush’s unilateral war, his spending a trillion dollars of borrowed money to bomb Iraq and there-by weakening the dollar, and driving up the price of oil, and ruining the American economy, and driving our economy into recession, Americans have finally opened their eyes and have noticed that in addition to Europe there are countries called India, China, and Brazil. So there is hope. Let us hope they will learn to get along with the rest of the world, especially with the people from eastern countries.

Yves 06.24.08 | 2:01 PM ET

Can you pleae name the second world countries.

For me this are all socialism/communism countries.

Which countries more?

Torah 10.20.08 | 7:04 AM ET

I agree with this 100%. Just reading and studying about a place is not nearly as encompassing as actually being there. This lesson can be applied to any experiences, not just places. This is partly the source for the phrase “with age comes wisdom”—because elderly people have so much more experience than younger people. Rather than young people “learning” about things, elderly people have experienced them.

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