Chapter 1 From Borders to Bridges
A Journey Around
Let’s take a journey around the world—without ever getting on a plane. If we get an early start in Edinburgh, Scotland, we’ll arrive at London Euston station around noon, stroll quickly past the British Library, and have a quick lunch at the masterfully renovated Victorian-era St. Pancras station, from which we’ll board the Eurostar train, travel under the Dover Strait to Paris, followed by a high-speed TGV to Munich and a German ICE to Budapest. An overnight train along the Danube River brings us to Bucharest, Romania, and another overnight along the Black Sea to Istanbul. Where once a creaky ferry was the fastest way to cross from Europe to Asia across the Bosporus Strait, today we can glide over one or the other suspension bridge or continue by train through the newly opened Marmaray tunnel and onward to Iran. We could also catch the revived Hejaz Railway through southeastern Turkey, stopping in Damascus and Amman before continuing to Medina or across Israel and the Sinai to Cairo, from which we might ultimately descend through Africa all the way to Cape Town on a sturdy upgrade of the “Red Line” British colonialists began in the late nineteenth century. From Tehran, we’ll head eastward on a new Chinese-built railway through the rugged Asian steppe, cross Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan’s commercial hub of Almaty. Several times per week, we can cross into China’s largest province of Xinjiang to its capital, Urumqi, and onward via Xi’an to Beijing.
Back in Paris, we might have opted for an overnight sleeper to Moscow, from which we could catch the fabled Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok—and carry on to Pyongyang and Seoul—or branch off a bit earlier toward Beijing, via either Manchuria or Mongolia. Either way, if we opt for the tropical route, we’ll speed southward along the world’s most extensive high-speed rail network into mountainous Yunnan and its capital, Kunming. From there, we can cross directly into Laos and take in Vientiane before crossing into Thailand toward Bangkok, or take a coastal route along the South China Sea via Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and through Phnom Penh in Cambodia to Bangkok. Now the options narrow with the geography: we speed on down the Malay Peninsula to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, the southernmost point on mainland Asia.
But water hasn’t stopped us so far, so let’s continue by train through a tunnel under the strategic Strait of Malacca onto Indonesia’s largest island of Sumatra, then over the Sunda Strait bridge to reach the capital, Jakarta, on Java, the world’s most populous island with more than 150 million people. Just a bit farther and we’re on the beaches of Bali, from which we can catch a cruise ship to Australia. If we choose the fastest routes and don’t miss any connections, we will have traversed the entire Eurasian landmass—Scotland to Singapore, and then some—in about a week.
And yet we’re only halfway done. Instead of the Antipodes, from Beijing we should actually head north through Vladivostok and eastern Siberia. If you fancy sushi, we could take a bridge to Sakhalin Island and pass through a 45-kilometer tunnel to Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido Island, passing seamlessly southward across Japan’s major islands on high-speed Shinkansen trains. When we reach Kyushu, we’ll loop back through a 120-kilometer undersea tunnel to Busan, zipping northward through the Korean peninsula back toward Siberia to continue our next 13,000-kilometer segment that takes us parallel to the volcanic Kamchatka Peninsula and through a 200-kilometer tunnel under the Bering Strait that emerges in Alaska and takes us to Fairbanks. From there, of course, it’s straight south to Juneau and Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. California, Texas, Illinois, and New York all want more Acela Express high-speed rail (though it’s planned to hit only about two hundred kilometers per hour, about half as fast as the Japanese). Still, we’ll make it from Pacific to Atlantic across the Lower 48 in two days. All that’s left is to catch a zippy but smooth hovercraft to London, followed by any of the more than twenty daily trains headed to Edinburgh. A journey around the world—as promised.
One could fly almost seamlessly along this itinerary, drive much of it too except for the oceans, and indeed eventually do it the old-fashioned way on iron railroads. Many of these routes already exist, and all of them will in due course. The more connections there are, the more options we have.
“Geography is destiny,” one of the most famous adages about the world, is becoming obsolete. Centuries-old arguments about how climate and culture condemn some societies to fail, or how small countries are forever trapped and subject to the whims of larger ones, are being overturned. Thanks to global transportation, communications, and energy infrastructures—highways, railways, airports, pipelines, electricity grids, Internet cables, and more—the future has a new maxim: “Connectivity is destiny.”
Seeing the world through the lens of connectivity generates new visions of how we organize ourselves as a species. Global infrastructures are morphing our world system from divisions to connections and from nations to nodes. Infrastructure is like a nervous system connecting all parts of the planetary body; capital and code are the blood cells flowing through it. More connectivity creates a world beyond states, a global society greater than the sum of its parts. Much as the world evolved from vertically integrated empires to horizontally interdependent states, now it is graduating toward a global network civilization whose map of connective corridors will supersede traditional maps of national borders. Each continental zone is already becoming an internally integrated mega-region (North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Arabia, South Asia, East Asia) with increasingly free trade coupled with intense connectivity across their thriving city-states.
At the same time, maps of connectivity are also
better at revealing geopolitical dynamics among superpowers, city-states, stateless companies, and virtual communities of all kinds as they compete to capture resources, markets, and mind share. We are moving into an era where cities will matter more than states and supply chains will be a more important source of power than militaries—whose main purpose will be to protect supply chains rather than borders. Competitive connectivity
is the arms race of the twenty-first century.
Connectivity is nothing less than our path to collective salvation. Competition over connectivity is by its nature less violent than international border conflicts, providing an escape hatch from historical cycles of great power conflict. Furthermore, connectivity has made previously unimaginable progress possible as resources and technologies move much more easily to where they are needed, while people can more quickly relocate to escape natural disasters or to cities for economic opportunity. Better connectivity allows societies to diversify where their imports come from and where their exports go. Connectivity is therefore how we make the most of our geography. The grand story of human civilization is more than just tragic cycles of war and peace or economic booms and busts. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward connectivity.
Bridges to Everywhere The central fact of the age we live in is that every country, every market, every medium of communication, every natural resource is connected.
Simon Anholt, The Good Country Party
Connectivity is the new meta-pattern of our age. Like liberty or capitalism, it is a world-historical idea,
one that gestates, spreads, and transforms over a long timescale and brings about epochal changes. Despite the acute unpredictability that afflicts our world today, we can be adequately certain of current mega-trends such as rapid urbanization and ubiquitous technology. Every day, for the first time in their lives, millions of people switch on mobile phones, log on to the Web, move into cities, or fly on an airplane. We go where opportunity and technology allow. Connectivity is thus more than a tool; it is an impulse
No matter which way we connect, we do so through infrastructure. While the word “infrastructure” is less than a century old, it represents nothing less than our physical capacity for global interaction. Engineering advances have made new infrastructures possible that were the dreams of previous generations. Over a century ago, crucial geographic interventions such as the Suez and Panama Canals reshaped global navigation and trade. Since the nineteenth century, Ottoman sultans aspired to construct a tunnel that would connect Istanbul’s European and Asian sides. Now Turkey has both the Marmaray tunnel that opened in 2013 and freight railways and oil and gas pipelines that are strengthening its position as a key corridor between Europe and China. Turkey has been called the country where continents collide; now it is the country where continents connect. The early twentieth-century Japanese emperor Taisho also sought to link Honshu and northern Hokkaido Island, but only in the 1980s did it complete the Seikan Tunnel, which traverses fifty-four kilometers (including twenty-three kilometers under the seabed) and carries Shinkansen high-speed trains. Once the tunnels to Sakhalin and South Korea are complete, Japan won’t truly be an island anymore.
We are in only an early phase of reengineering the planet to facilitate surging flows of people, commodities, goods, data, and capital. Indeed, the next wave of transcontinental and intercontinental mega-infrastructures is even more ambitious: an interoceanic highway across the Amazon from São Paulo to Peru’s Pacific port of San Juan de Marcona, bridges connecting Arabia to Africa, a tunnel from Siberia to Alaska, polar submarine cables on the Arctic seabed from London to Tokyo, and electricity grids transferring Saharan solar power under the Mediterranean to Europe. Britain’s exclave of Gibraltar will be the mouth of a tunnel under the Mediterranean to Tangier in Morocco, from which a new high-speed rail extends down the coast to Casablanca. Even where continents are not physically attaching to each other, ports and airports are expanding to absorb the massive increase in cross-continental flows.
None of these mega-infrastructures are “bridges to nowhere.” Those that already exist have added trillions of dollars of value to the world economy. During the Industrial Revolution, it was the combination of higher productivity and
trade that raised Britain’s and America’s growth rates to 1–2 percent for more than a century. As the Nobel laureate Michael Spence has argued, the internal growth of economies would never have reached today’s rates without the cross-border flows of resources, capital, and technology. Because only one-quarter of world trade is between countries that share a border, connectivity is the sine qua non for growth both within countries and across them. Connectivity itself—alongside demographics, capital markets, labor productivity, and technology—is thus a major source of momentum in the global economy. Think of the world like a watch whose battery is constantly charged through kinetic energy: The more you walk, the more power it has. For all the effort we expend calculating the value of national economies, therefore, it is time to devote as much attention to the value of connectivity between them.
There is no better investment than connectivity. Government spending on physical infrastructure—what is known as gross fixed capital formation—such as roads and bridges, and social infrastructure, such as medical care and education, is considered investment (rather than consumption) because it saves costs in the long run and generates widespread benefits for society. Large-scale spending on infrastructure was relatively low for most of the nineteenth century, accounting for about 5–7 percent of England’s GDP and peaking at 10 percent on the eve of World War I.1 The United States ramped up its infrastructure investment to almost 20 percent of GDP from the late nineteenth century through World War I, enabling it to double Britain’s growth rate and become the world’s largest economy. Even though the major American and Canadian canal and railroad companies went bankrupt at the turn of the twentieth century, they left the country with an extensive transportation network that enabled continental-scale commercial expansion right up to the present.
The influential British economist John Maynard Keynes strongly argued for such public works investment as a tool of creating jobs and boosting aggregate demand, policies adopted by President Roosevelt during the Depression. From World War II onward, fixed capital formation rose like a west-to-east wave from under 20 percent of GDP to over 30 percent. Germany’s 1950s Wirtschaftswunder
(economic miracle), Japan’s 1960s 9 percent growth rates, the “Asian Tigers” of the 1970s and 1980s (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong), and then China starting in the 1990s, where it topped 40 percent of GDP and powered sustained growth of close to 10 percent for the past three decades. China embraced Keynes like nobody’s business.
The past several decades prove beyond any doubt that connectivity is how regions move from economies valued in the billions to the trillions. Furthermore, infrastructure is a foundation of social mobility and economic resilience: Urban societies with ample transportation networks (such as southern China) rebounded much faster from the 2007–8 financial crisis, with people able to move efficiently to find work. Spain was among the hardest hit by the eurozone recession but thanks to its high-quality infrastructure is today Europe’s fastest-growing economy. As global debt surges to record levels while interest rates remain at historical lows, the world’s finances should be directed toward underwriting productive connectivity rather than ethereal derivatives.
For a massive country such as America to live up to its self-proclaimed destiny, it too must spend much more on connectivity. Historically, U.S. infrastructure spending has returned almost $2 for every $1 invested, but investment has been tailing off for decades. Today America’s clogged roads and tunnels cause wasteful congestion, its crumbling bridges cause accidents and delays, and its ailing ports and refineries lack both the efficiency and the capacity to meet global demand. Since the financial crisis, dozens of prominent economists including Yale’s Robert Shiller have advocated infrastructure-led investment as a way to create jobs and boost economic confidence. The American Society of Civil Engineers has called for $1.6 trillion in spending for an overhaul of America’s transportation system. Only now—and just before it is too late—is such a national overhaul near the top of America’s agenda with proposals for the creation of a national infrastructure bank.
The same is true across the world: The gap between the supply and the demand for infrastructure has never been greater. As the world population climbs toward eight billion people, it has been living off the infrastructure stock meant for a world of three billion. But only infrastructure and all the industries that benefit from it can collectively create the estimated 300 million jobs needed in the coming two decades as populations grow and urbanize. The World Bank argues that infrastructure is the “missing link” in achieving the Milennium Development Goals related to poverty, health, education, and other objectives, and infrastructure has been formally included in the latest Sustainable Development Goals ratified in 2015.3 The transition beyond export-led growth toward higher value-added services and consumption begins with infrastructure investment.
We are finally witnessing a massive global commitment to infrastructure. Cities and highways, pipelines and ports, bridges and tunnels, telecom towers and Internet cables, electricity grids and sewage systems, and other fixed assets command about $3 trillion per year in global spending, well over the $1.75 trillion spent annually on defense, and the gap is growing. Infrastructure outlays are projected to rise to $9 trillion per year by 2025 (with Asia leading the way).
The global connectivity revolution has begun. Already we have installed a far greater volume of lines connecting people than dividing them: Our infrastructural matrix today includes approximately 64 million kilometers of highways, 2 million kilometers of pipelines, 1.2 million kilometers of railways, and 750,000 kilometers of undersea Internet cables that connect our many key population and economic centers. By contrast, we have only 250,000 kilometers of international borders. By some estimates, mankind will build more infrastructures in the next forty years alone than it has in the past four thousand
. The interstate puzzle thus gives way to a lattice of infrastructure circuitry. The world is starting to look a lot like the Internet.
Seeing Is Believing
Astronauts in low Earth orbit (about 215 kilometers high) have snapped stunning pictures of our majestic planet. They’ve captured natural features like oceans, mountains, ice caps, and glaciers, and even caught glimpses of man-made structures. It turns out that the Great Wall of China and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt are rather difficult to discern without high-performance zoom lenses, but more modern engineering such as megacities, ultra-long bridges, and straight desert highways are easy to spot. The Kennecott copper mine in Utah and the Mir diamond mine in Siberia stretch several kilometers across, making their stepped terrace structure noticeable as well. The two hundred square kilometers of greenhouses in Almería in southern Spain, where up to half of Europe’s annual demand for fresh fruits and vegetables is grown, is unmistakable, especially as sunlight reflects off their plastic roofs.
What about borders? How many of those are physically robust enough to see? Many political borders are formed by natural environmental features, reminding us of nature’s fundamental role in shaping human settlement and cultural differentiation. The border between North and South Korea is best seen when the sun goes down, when the bright lights of the South contrast with the darkness of the North. The most visible border between any two large countries is undoubtedly between India and Pakistan. Stretching diagonally for twenty-nine hundred kilometers from the Arabian Sea to Kashmir, it also stands out from space at night due to the 150,000 floodlights that form a bright orange blaze.
The maps hanging in our classrooms and offices would lead us to believe that all borders were as robust as the Indo-Pakistani border. Yet North America’s two major borders mask the deeper reality of growing connectivity. The three-thousand-kilometer U.S.-Mexico border crosses beaches and deserts and along the Rio Grande River but also between cities that have the same name on either side such as Nogales, Naco, and Tecate. Even with haphazardly patrolled security fencing on the American side, it is still the most frequently traversed border in the world, with over 350 million legal crossings annually (more than the entire population of the United States). The U.S.-Canada border that stretches from the Arctic to the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean is the world’s longest at almost nine thousand kilometers, but 300,000 people and over $1 billion in daily
trade traverse the almost twenty major border crossings.
There are many places where borders are stiffening: Israel’s security barrier, the fifteen-kilometer Évros River fence in Greece, and the two-hundred-kilometer Bulgarian barbed-wire fence aimed at curbing illegal immigrants, among others. And yet all of these borders—and even more unfriendly ones—remain porous. And indeed, almost all such fences are terribly costly and ineffective responses to problems that borders cannot solve.
If borders are meant to separate territories and societies, then why are ever more populations clustering along them? It is a particular irony that our maps show mostly political borders rather than border demographics and economics, which are the embodiment of the anti
-border nature of many border regions. Most of Canada’s population lives near the U.S. border and benefits from proximity to the American market. Since 2010, both
the Mexican and
the U.S. populations on their border have grown by 20 percent.
Even more ironic: The best place to see how connectivity fundamentally changes relations from hostility to cooperation is borders. The thriving business between India and Pakistan and many other pairs of antagonists is a reminder that borders are rarely the solid lines we see on maps but rather porous filters for exchange. In these and dozens of other cases, we increasingly work around our borders—and build straight across them—more than we bow to them. Ultimately, from the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall to the Berlin Wall—and eventually the Cypriot Green Line and the Korean demilitarized zone—forces far more powerful than these barriers prevail. As Alexandra Novosseloff has written, “A wall ends its life as a tourist attraction.”
In today’s world, territorial boundaries don’t even really capture the geography of borders: Airports may be far inland but contain borders within them, while cyber-security forces patrol technology infrastructures that stretch far across borders. Even if political borders remain physically robust, the world has still become more borderless as countries eliminate extraneous visa requirements, currencies are exchangeable in real time at ATMs, content from almost anywhere can be accessed online, and the cost of phone calls drops to zero due to Skype and Viber. The more societies trade and communicate—and depend on each other for food, water, and energy—the less we can pretend that borders are the most important lines on the map.
The absence of the full panoply of man-made infrastructure on our maps gives the impression that borders trump other means of portraying human geography. But today the reverse is true: Borders matter only where they matter; other lines matter more most of the time. Hardly anywhere are they a more significant factor in the fate of nations than what crosses them. We are building a new world order—literally.
Copyright © 2016 by Parag Khanna. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.