Parag_Khanna_editedCurrently completing his fourth book, Dr. Parag Khanna is  a world traveler, global strategist, best-selling author, co-founder (with his wife, Ayesha) of the Hybrid Reality Institute think-tank, and one of Esquire Magazine’s “75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century.” I first met Dr. Khanna in 2009 when he joined the Board of Directors of the Micro Equity Development Fund, but I’ve never before had the opportunity to speak with him about his academic background and experiences as in depth as here. In this piece I speak with Dr. Khanna about his life in academia. We delve into what draws an international relations scholar to a life exploring topics relating to the world order and why scholarship should transcend disciplinary bounds.

Interviewed by Micro Equity Development Fund Co-Founder Mark Wien.

What initially drew you to academia (and your field specifically)?

I’ve always had academic inclinations, really beginning with growing up abroad. My father worked at Tata so I traveled a lot. My brother was born in Sudan, while I grew up in Abu Dhabi. I read history and social studies, and I’ve always had an interest in diplomacy and global matters. A defining moment was in eighth grade when the Berlin Wall fell. My parents took me right away to see what was left of the Wall and visit the reunified Germany—a very powerful and informative experience. I became hooked on international relations and it was non-stop from there. I was an exchange student in Germany and read lots of history. I also followed the Balkan Wars very closely in the 1990s. For college I applied to the School of Foreign Service (SFS) at Georgetown University. After college, I didn’t do my PhD immediately because I wanted to travel and work at think tanks. I wound up at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and World Economic Forum (WEF). Then I studied for my PhD on the evolution of diplomatic systems at the London School of Economics.

How has your view of academia (and your discipline) changed over time? What does it mean to you to be a scholar now?

While some people become academics for the badge of credibility, others do it because they genuinely want to research and advance theoretical scholarship; I have certainly wanted to enhance and build upon existing models of explaining world order. In my PhD I argued that states do not have to be the sole or exclusive anchors of global governance, but rather how non-state groups like the WEF or Gates Foundation do more than just attach themselves to existing governing processes but create their own.

There’s the saying that a “PhD means you learn more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing.” I’ve evolved from the realist tradition of international relations theory to an assemblage of diverse approaches. You must combine various theoretical traditions and perspectives to get a more accurate assessment of the world. That’s how you make peace with others’ work and reconcile it with your own.

What is your favorite academic work in your discipline and why? How would it be useful for those outside your discipline to read this work?

There are certain books that just change everything. For my PhD, The Anarchical Society by Hedley Bull was seminal and represents a large contribution to what has come to be called the English School or World Society School. Barry Buzan’s From International to World Society is another work that was very defining to me, especially as Buzan was one of my doctoral supervisors.

If you are not trained in the discipline these works spring from, what they ultimately teach is what drives a global system. We take for granted that it’s the US, China, or Russia. These books say it’s deeper processes that shape those states, as opposed to those states that shape the process alone. These works demonstrate a foundation deeper than states, a social process that makes those states what they are, and the process of globalization which shapes states as much as states shape it.

What do you see as the particular challenges in your discipline and how can these be addressed?

The biggest challenge is that it isn’t itself a discipline. There is an intellectual insecurity that motivates scholars in the field to try so hard to define what we do and claim international relations is an independent thing or area that is separate. But in reality international relations is an amalgam of many fields such as history, sociology, economics, and others. It should be interdisciplinary, and isn’t interdisciplinary enough.

What are some of your favorite reads related to your work?

I don’t have one single source. You have to assemble and curate your own resource base in order to keep up with events from the perspective that you want, and that goes beyond the headlines. Lots of informative and cultural publications are out there but no one is ‘better’ than other. The ‘best’ would be the usual suspects like Foreign Policy and The Economist. The quality of online publications in this space is now as good as the print ones.

Lastly, can you tell us a little bit about your next book? What’s the subject and when is it set to be released?

My next book is called Tug of War, and is something of a sequel or conclusion to the trilogy beginning with The Second World and How to Run the World. It has to do with how the nature of economic interdependence has evolved over the past century and how that affects how geopolitics plays out, both in terms of major current disputes such as US-China, China-Japan, and also how great powers expand their influence through supply chains and markets. My new work also discusses how in many parts of the world where states are falling apart, they are being replaced by such supply chains. It’s this global supply chain that’s being tugged, a struggle to be the world’s leading provider in terms of production, raw materials, or leading technology. It’s about how this perpetual war, or tug of war, is supply chain war. The book should be finished this year and published in late 2015.

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About The Author

Mark Wien

Mark Wien is the co-founder of the Micro Equity Development Fund, a for-profit, social initiative focused on connecting investors with investment opportunities in microfinance, particularly micro-equity. Mark also co-founded an e-commerce site which launched in March 2014. After six years in finance, Mark is currently in medical school with hopes of bridging his business background with medicine to improve access to and quality of healthcare worldwide. He will be joining Hippo as a frequent correspondent exploring the topics of public health, the intersection of medicine and business, healthcare, and microfinance. Twitter: @MarkWien;