Rushing to Conclusions?


Review of Move: The Forces Uprooting Us, by Parag Khanna 

New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021


If ever an author seemed to write specifically for airport bookshops, it might be Parag Khanna. With titles that seem to span the spectrum between management speak and pop-geopolitics (How to Run the World: Charting the Course to the Next Renaissance; Technocracy in America: The Rise of the Info-State; The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century) it’s easy to imagine his works finding favor with hurried executives looking for something to serve as an appropriate aperitif between their welcome drink and meal service in lie-flat class enroute to Abu Dhabi. Khanna’s latest, Move: The Forces Uprooting Us, concerns global mobility and migration—subjects that may be particularly intriguing to audiences invested in constant travel—making it deeply ironic that discourse about it has been muted by the global crisis in cross-border transit that arose with the pandemic and has now been extended by flight disruptions into and over Ukraine and Russia.

The aversion may also be because some of Khanna’s works have been mercilessly torn apart by previous reviewers. Tufts political scientist Dan Drezner called Evgeny Morozov’s evisceration of a previous Khanna “pamphlet”, “the most scathing review [he had] ever read.” Hardly a line of Morozov’s appraisal failed to fire scalding insults, letting loose against Khanna and his coauthor/spouse as a “techno-babbling power couple” putting forth “slick ahistorical jeremiads” of which the example in question, Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, was “digito-futuristic nonsense” and a “jargon-laden farce.” 

In his own take on Khanna’s 2016 Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, Drezner gave the author more benefit of the doubt, but hardly spared references to the book’s “globaloney” that made reading it like “struggling through the transcription of a TED talk on a recursive loop”—Khanna’s earlier Hybrid Reality was, in fact, actually published by TED—before even taking on its “inchoate ideas.” 

Yet five years on, parts of Connectography—like Khanna’s reference to “supply chain wars” involving competitive economic relationships, which were heavily critiqued by Drezner—actually seem more prescient amid serious discussion of “weaponized interdependence” between economic powers like the US and China. What Drezner saw as Khanna’s “blasé” invocation of globalized doux commerce smoothing over differences still invites skepticism, yet might actually be somewhat evident in the restraint that economic ties have had on US-China competition relative to the crushing sanctions more easily rained down on Russia. Is there more value in Khanna’s perspective than critics have been willing to acknowledge?

Discerning the most important contributions in Move still requires, as Drezner felt necessary to do for Connectography, seeing through some “voluminous fluff” to the “interesting essay” hidden within. The “fluff,” for all its personal blind sports, is not unimportant or without value. The book’s meandering yet wide-ranging overview of global migratory patterns will, for many readers, supplement what are often merely local immigration debates or less accessible discussions, and it deserves scrutiny on that basis. Yet nested inside are also more serious arguments about how climate migration could radically reshape the world. To his credit, Khanna seems to understand that mass movement on a not-recently-seen scale could be powerful enough that existing global and international legal orders would be insufficient to tackle it. Whether what he sees as necessary or likely responses will fully address this problem is another question.


*    *    *

Move’s first big set of claims might be boiled down to the idea that migration is not only omnipresent but that far more of it is necessary. In demonstration of this point, the book explores human mobility around the world in its broadest possible sense, including everything from assimilationist policies in Europe to the potential long-term effect of urbanites remote-working from US suburbs during the pandemic. There is material here that could come as a surprise to many readers, like the diversity of Chinese universities, reflecting both the global reach of the Belt and Road Initiative and better career opportunities for Japanese scientists. Nearly everyone moves, Khanna suggests, devoting sections to the growing number of American expats to hammer home his point, except those who don’t: people he sees as left behind. What is more, people are moving ever more and faster, meaning that, Khanna enthuses in a somewhat overwrought metaphor:

[W]e are experiencing a phase shift like when matter transitions from solid to liquid to gas: molecules heat up and loosen from one another, vibrating more rapidly. One might even say that humans are becoming like particles in quantum physics, their velocity and location always in flux. It would be nice to return to some semblance of stability, but that’s not how things work in a quantum world. Instead, the complexity of today’s world makes it increasingly difficult to settle permanently anywhere. Highly paid digital nomads and billionaires with multiple passports as well as the migratory underclass of Filipino maids and Indian construction workers are all part of the diverse and growing global demographic of quantum people.

At the same time, Khanna suggests, more people could and should be moving; four billion are potentially eager to do so, he assumes. Having himself moved “every three to four years,” and boasting the kind of jetsetter CV that includes stints in “Dubai, New York, Berlin, Geneva, London, and Singapore,” not to mention an interlude “advising US Special Operations Forces in Iraq,” he argues that he is just the person who can testify to mobility’s benefits, although it is left unsaid that his own moves may not necessarily resemble others’. 

The policy prescriptions derived from the book’s voluminous information about global migration consequently open questions about how migrants unlike Khanna may be seen and how people unlike him may perceive them—and, with them, further questions about how these prescriptions might be achieved politically. If simply exposing the economic need for immigrants and advocating for opening borders would lead Europe to do so, as Khanna seems in places to push it to do, many of the continent’s problems would have been addressed long ago. Objectors, he also claims, will soon die off, while he takes much more pro-migration “young professionals” to represent the region’s future. At times, it can be hard to tell whether the book is trying to be prescriptive or descriptive.

Some suggestions may also prove more difficult for polities unlike Khanna’s current home of Singapore, on which he heaped praise in The Future is Asian and of which he notes, in what is perhaps the most concise possible crystallization of Lee Kuan Yew thought, that “the task of nurturing community stability is never complete.” In this formulation, of course, “nurture” does quite a bit of work smoothing over the approaches available to Singapore compared to more liberal democratic states, where multiculturalism and clashing political priorities can prove more difficult to curate from above. Khanna, for example, views Singapore’s use of migrant domestic servants for childcare and homemaking as a practice that could help local women enter the boardroom worldwide. Perhaps other societies would see things the same way, if there were not concerns about the women’s rights of migrant laborers themselves. Khanna’s sometimes rather Singaporean lens can also place an emphasis on infrastructure and security that can be more in tension with cosmopolitanism in other contexts. He contrasts relatively affordable and “orderly” Shenzhen with the “failure” of expensive and less predictable Hong Kong, but has nothing to say about the advantages the latter has possessed in attracting migrants from outside China.

The lack of nuance in such arguments is sometimes a consequence of Khanna’s unfortunate tendency toward snappy categories, quick conclusions, and trend-chasing terminology.  In its most superfluous form, such self-satisfied playfulness often appears to punctuate or round out a paragraph as if anticipating the moment when its airborne reader is about to nod off too soon over that welcome drink. Did the point about the growing number of American expats, for one, need to be made by suggesting that the US could go the way of famine-stricken “Ireland in the 1850s,” with its large-scale exodus? 


*    *    *

Khanna bookends his discussions about contemporary mobility with arguments about climate migration, though whether the latter merely serves as another example of the likelihood and necessity of movement can be unclear. It is possible to read the book uncharitably, as an attempt to demonstrate the breadth of the author’s global knowledge (albeit often drawn from eye-catching headlines and sometimes illustrated through Tom Friedmanesque anecdotes about the ethnic composition of taxi drivers) that can be brought to bear for clients of his consultancy, FutureMap. But a more sympathetic interpretation might be that Move’s overview of contemporary migration helps argue that its volume and growing acceptance is paving the way for climate-induced mass movement in the future, demonstrating how political opposition to the latter can or will be eroded. 

Such a claim would be key to Khanna’s contention that the primary legal obstacle to climate migration–the sovereign right to police borders—could dissipate, especially with movement at a sufficiently large scale. “Political sovereignty has been a defining feature of our geography for only three centuries—but our seas will be rising for the next several centuries. Ask yourself which force will give way,” he writes. This is, arguably, the juridical science of “quantum people.” 

In Khanna’s telling, migrants from climatically-ravaged regions could claim subarctic landscapes and bring them under cultivation, justified on the basis that these lands were going relatively unused by the small populations of far northern states despite a warming world making them more habitable. “We have wealthy countries across North America and Europe with 300 million and counting aging people and decaying infrastructure—but roughly 2 billion young people sitting idle in Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia who are capable of caring for the elderly and maintaining public services,” he observes. “We have countless hectares of arable farmland across depopulated Canada and Russia, while millions of destitute African farmers are driven from their lands by drought.”

Questions about the actual, likely complex impacts of climate change and the extent to which it will motivate large-scale, cross-border migration aside, these arguments about how contradictions between sovereignty and the need to migrate might be overcome can get speculative, and it may have been instructive for Khanna to have explored past precedent. Doing so may have raised concerns about the book’s echoes of Lockean arguments about establishing rights to property and territory on the basis of who might best put them to use. He may have also considered the dangers lurking in arguments linking sovereign rights to the inevitability of migration toward higher yield lands, such as when the international lawyer John Westlake wrote in 1894 that,

[t]he inflow of the white race cannot be stopped where there is land to cultivate, ore to be mined, commerce to be developed, sport to enjoy, curiosity to be satisfied. If any fanatical admirer of savage life argued that the whites ought to be kept out, he would only be driven to the same conclusion by another route, for a government on the spot would be necessary to keep them out.

In truth, there were, of course, “governments on the spot,” but they were often subverted or annihilated. The consequences were sometimes even more calamitous when governments could put up more sustained and serious resistance to would-be settlers’ claims. By the early twentieth century, as Alison Bashford has shown, arguments for reassigning the sovereignty of under-cultivated “wastelands” were becoming common among “Geopolitiker” concerned with overpopulation. Yet when states in possession of desirable territory did not yield, borders were opened by force, at least partly in pursuit of Lebensraum or spazio vitale. As Sean Brawley argued, the inability of Japanese migrants to access unused land in Australia (or for Japan to be able to claim a portion of it, as many then argued it should be able to do) helped drive Tokyo toward a devastating war to seek territory in China instead. 

The fact that there was plenty of migration prior to these conflicts hardly made states more likely to relinquish their sovereignty to avert these conflicts. Of course, climate migrants from the Global South will likely be rebuffed at the borders of the Global North more easily than aggressors motivated by “overpopulation” were resisted in the past. Yet questions remain about the lengths desperate states might go to provide for populations in need, and where they will direct them. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change draft report predicts that movement compelled by the climate will not involve large-scale surges of people into cooler latitudes as much as back-and-forth movements among neighboring states. Much climate migration, like contemporary migration in general, will be from parts of the Global South to others. Northern states may even take aim at one another. Khanna mentions in passing possibilities such as instability and indigenous displacement and even, in other contexts, momentarily references neo-Malthusian thought about Lebensraum and arguments about “underutilized” territory. But he seems reluctant to disclose how the consequences of his observations on sovereignty and the logic of climate migration may themselves lead to the violent potential conclusions that he is aware climate change might bring. 


*    *    *

In often pointing to a more Panglossian version of how climate migration might unfold, Khanna arguably displays some of the naïvité claimed by his critics. There are many points in Move where Khanna displays an unjustified level of certitude. (He claims that climate change will make an oft-prophesized Detroit comeback inevitable while asserting that emigrating Hong Kong youth will be easily replaced by mainlanders, who do not necessarily feel eager to move there.) He sometimes expresses entire optimistic paragraphs purely in the conviction of the future tense:

The Arctic will also be tempting for scientists, engineers, environmentalists, and financiers seeking to establish research settlements. They’re already coding their community in the digital sphere through simulating architecture in VR and transacting in cashless blockchain contracts. Next they’ll raise funds from investors and negotiate with governments to grant them land to colonize in exchange for investment and access to the benefits from these new businesses. 

Yet Khanna hedges his views on climate migration, at least, by envisioning four potential futures, each dependent on the extent of climate change and how far governments will go to alter their migration policies. They range from a world not unlike today’s, featuring intensified border control around a fortified North, to scenarios sci-fi enough to keep our proverbial business traveler from drifting toward the in-flight film selection: archipelagos of city-states surrounded by Mad Max-like chaos, or humanity clinging to survival as one in Arctic or Alpine redoubts. How we arrive at the least dystopian, most inclusive possibilities—if getting used to more migration doesn’t entirely do the trick, as Khanna suggests it may not—nonetheless remains an open question. 

What if there were a better way to prepare? Khanna largely takes for granted that states operate as independent actors. This opens a coordination problem that he hardly addresses in detail. Even if some states adopted enlightened policies toward climate (or other) migrants, it would not necessarily follow that others would, placing potentially unsustainable pressure on the former. A natural solution might seem to be a framework somewhere between unlikely voluntarism and undesirable violence: the tools of global governance or international law. International institutions, my research has found, have attempted to resolve the seeming contradiction between “idle” workers in “overpopulated” countries and “unused land” elsewhere throughout the twentieth century, often arguing in ways not unlike a McKinsey researcher that Khanna quotes who argues that “the solution to mass unemployment is mass redeployment.” Could there be a way for international organs to overcome individual states’ lack of political will and negotiate with them to try to oversee and organize mass migration once again?

Khanna’s previous work suggests that he might be hesitant to embrace such an approach. As he wrote in How to Run the World, Earth “needs very few if any new global organizations. What it needs is far more fresh combinations of existing actors who coordinate better with one another,” citing public-private partnerships. “Cloud computing,” he added, “not big buildings and bloated bureaucracies—is the future of global governance.” He seems willing to embrace international institutions that are not “top heavy,” although organizations that he does praise, like the UN High Commission for Refugees, can be fairly bureaucratic. 

None of these hang-ups are, of course, incompatible with a better international legal or institutional approach to migration. And in Move, Khanna does not entirely dismiss deepening international cooperation, appearing somewhat interested in patterning the coordination of resettlement on forms of existing environmental networks. Yet his dismissal of these approaches’ likelihood of acceptance by states contrasts with optimism elsewhere that states might individually take an enlightened view of migration. A combination with some of his comments in How to Run the World might be said to suggest a worldview. 

A distinction is sometimes drawn between “globalists,” who favor the freedom of transnational forces (such as multinational corporations), and “internationalists,” who seek to govern such forces through interstate negotiation and its implied democratic legitimacy. Globalism may be a better fit for Khanna’s view of migration, a force that he often seems hopeful will shape the practice of states. He also explicitly seeks to overcome the oft-observed dichotomy between freedom of movement for capital and the lack of it for people. Yet without a tool to secure states’ compliance, the latter still seems unlikely to be realized for most migrants. It may be telling that one of Khanna’s most concrete proposals is for highly skilled expats to build a network of cloud-based utilities that would allow them to live anywhere easily and force states to compete robustly for their presence. 

At the same time, such an approach means retaining considerable state power over migrants who do not have similar leverage. This difficulty is exacerbated by Khanna’s elevation of order. Another proposal—digital passports that emphasize skill over nationality, with states’ ability to choose preferred skillsets—would not only require the construction of an unprecedented global surveillance network (perhaps the one form of international cooperation for which Khanna shows the most explicit enthusiasm) but would have less than emancipatory consequences for less in-demand migrants. It would be hard for migrants to reshape world attitudes and sovereign structures if they were subject to levels of state control everywhere that seem inspired by those of “smart city” Singapore. To what extent would loose collaboration and public-private partnerships overcome jealously guarded sovereignties in this case? In prescribing these approaches to global governance in How to Run the World, Khanna effectively embraced the kinds of fragmented structures that already inadequately tackle migration problems in the present.

Given the risks and tensions with which these suggestions come, perhaps Move’s most significant contribution lies in providing raw material that could allow a broader audience to think their way toward different approaches to migration in law and policy than either Khanna or specialists have suggested so far. Such undertakings could also carry the debate back to the general public. To find fault with some of Move’s arguments and more unfortunate bids to coin catchphrases should not mean that attempts to tackle migration as a planetary phenomenon have no place in the public eye. There are many ways to engage the public, and there is room for more books about global migration at the airport bookstore.  




Posted on 30 June 2022

CHRISTOPHER SZABLA is a Global Academic Fellow at the University of Hong Kong, where he researches borders and migration, international law, and global history. His most recent article, “A New Foundation for Freedom of Movement in an Age of Sovereign Control: The Liberal Jurisprudence of August Wilhelm Heffter,” appeared in Law and History Review.