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How People on the Move Shapes the World

The globalization naysayers can take a seat. We're about to enter an era of mass migration, says global strategy advisor Parag Khanna.

The pandemic be damned—despite border closures and lockdowns, humans are on the move more than ever. Climate change, government collapse, economic opportunity, and numerous other reasons are driving us toward what The Progress Network member and global strategy advisor Parag Khanna understands will be an era of mass migration. As we become more and more mobile, what will the world map of the future look like? 

Below, The Progress Network founder Zachary Karabell speaks to Khanna about why the globalization naysayers are wrong and other themes from Khanna’s new book, Move: The Forces Uprooting Us. You can watch the interview in full or read an excerpt, which has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Zachary Karabell (ZK): I’m sure you are aware of how striking it is to be publishing a book called Move, about the mobility of human beings as one of the driving forces of the 20th and 21st centuries and of the next decades, at what is hopefully the tail end of a year and a half when movement stopped and reversed. There is a tendency of human beings, which did come out at the beginning of the pandemic, to say, “This is it. Globalization is done. We’re back to renationalizing, to borders closed, to some weird version of the pre-19th century.”

Parag Khanna (PK): It’s been odd in a good way, because I think that this ironic moment, as you rightly describe it, has actually been a perfect time to stop and take stock of where we’ve come in terms of human geography and the grand migration story of our species. I do go back 100,000 years to point out that we have been, for the vast majority of our time as Homo sapiens colonizing the continents, nomadic. Only in the last 10,000 years did we become ever so slightly more sedentary, particularly in the last couple of millennia, for those of us who live in modern societies with stable climates and so forth. Now, I’m not advocating for, prescribing, or predicting that 8 billion people will suddenly become nomads again. But mobility will be our destiny, which is one of the punchlines of the book for many concrete reasons. 

In January 2020, just as we were hearing about Covid-19, we had just gotten the full 2019 data on human mobility. As it happens, the maximum number of people that have ever crossed borders in a single year—1.5 billion—did so in 2019. That is not all going to come crashing to a halt simply because of Covid. If you break down the actual reasons, the tangible, material, driving forces of people moving from place A to place B, in my assessment, every single one of them is in overdrive. So it may seem temporarily paradoxical that people just stopped. And, the lockdown was truly the single most coordinated action on a global scale in the history of the world. But that said . . . 

The maximum number of people that have ever crossed borders in a single year—1.5 billion—did so in 2019.

That’s a vital point, which many of us made at the time, that the pandemic was the first-ever full-stop, simultaneously-experienced-in-real-time human crisis. World War II doesn’t even come close, because it touched a lot of the world, but also left a lot of the world untouched. And response to crisis, right? Whether by coordination or as a fait accompli, countries decided to, in a copycat way, close down and close borders, to have lockdowns and so forth. It didn’t happen through supernational imposition. It happened through a kind of noospheric coordination and a brief moment of common sense. 

We will not handle the great reopening and then the next great migrations of humanity with anything like that degree of coordination or precision, because of course the one sacrosanct area of sovereignty that remains is control over who gets to cross the border. You can’t control pandemics or cyberattacks. Many countries don’t have real sovereignty over their monetary policy, and so on. The one thing left is who comes in and who comes out of your borders, although a lot of countries don’t control that particularly well, either. I don’t think we’ll ever have a global migration compact or anything of the sort. However, it is also true that the great drivers of human migration are, as I said before, in overdrive. 

They are, one, demographic imbalances. The gap between old and young is only getting worse, internationally and domestically, because of low fertility. So countries need young people. Two, political crises: turbulence, volatility, refugees, civil wars, international conflicts. Whether it’s Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, you name it, there’s no shortage of those. Three, economic crises: just taking the last decade or so, the people being driven from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, from Southern Europe to Northern Europe. We are in a way economic migrants in terms of the number of people who moved in the 20th century, to take just that one period of time. Economic migration was a far larger number than, say, even political refugees. 

When people posit a future of mass migration that is somehow a ‘barbarians at the gate’ scenario, they are forgetting that we have gone through more than a century of mass migrations across the planet.

And of course the 20th century produced a hell of a lot of political refugees. But by and large peacefully. This is one of the positive points, that we have achieved a world of enormous volume of human mobility, largely peacefully. Largely in a stable, gradual way. Otherwise we would not be the immigrant societies, migrant societies, in many cases, melting pot societies that we are. So when people posit a future of mass migration that is somehow a “barbarians at the gate” scenario, they are forgetting that we have gone through more than a century of mass migrations across the planet.

Four, technology. Labor automation in one place forces people away because factories close; remote work and digitization is another kind of technological intervention that allows people to move anywhere they want. And last, climate change. I managed to come this far without even mentioning what has been for the last 100,000 years, and will be for the next thousand years, the biggest driver of migration, which is a shifting climate. 

You don’t get to pick your crisis or your driver—they’re all happening at the same time.

The devil’s advocate pushback to some of what you’re saying, and while neither I personally nor The Progress Network be in that camp per se, would be this. Migration was all fine and well when the world was more fluid. Europeans were conquering, maps were being redrawn, populations were being either uprooted or conquered or eliminated, but nonetheless, there was a massive population on the move and a lot of demographic growth from 1 billion people on the planet in about 1800 to close to 8 billion now. We’re at the end of that demographically, which you’ve alluded to. So whatever is going to happen from here on is likely to be a reshuffling of a static and declining population, not a “where do we put more bodies?” question. And then, because there’s a staticness, and that challenges economic growth, any mass movement of people has proven politically destabilizing.

It only took 2 million Syrian immigrants to rejigger a lot of the politics of Central and Eastern Europe. It doesn’t take a lot of Mexican, Guatemalan, or Honduran immigrants trying to get into the southern border of the United States, far fewer than were legally coming in 20 years ago, to create a political crisis. Isn’t movement of people, in a world where there is a perception of a zero-sum and shrinking economic pie, much more disruptive? There is even controversy over high-skilled labor, for example H-1B visas in the United States, which used to be “come, come, bring us your talented.” First of all, let’s distinguish between intensity and volume. Like you say, when it comes to the Syrians in Europe, it was a particular intensity, not the volume, right? Germany letting in close to a million total refugees over a one-and-a-half, two-year period was a problem of intensity, not of volume. Germany can absorb that number of migrants. Germany’s census, about four or five years ago, was off by nearly 3 million people that they had previously overshot. So the country turns out to be smaller by several million. All of Europe could use more people. They don’t have an immigration problem. They have an assimilation problem.

You’re saying the rate of change was the issue, not the quantity. Exactly. When you look at, again, the variance in terms of the political impact, not surprisingly it is in some ways in inverse proportion to the size of the country. When you’re talking about very small countries, they’re obviously by nature going to feel overwhelmed. That said, it’s not like a lot of people who are migrants from Arab countries or other impoverished parts of the world want to settle in Hungary per se. So you can’t really blame the Syrian refugee crisis for Viktor Orban. There are factors indigenous to these countries and their politics, and the migration crisis is just an excuse for many of them. 

Here’s the good news, because this is The Progress Network. Let’s look at where politics is today. A couple of years ago, we thought that the AfD party was going to be a systemic force in German politics. Well, there’s a German election right now, and the AfD is nowhere to be seen. Trump is out, and H-1B quotas are going to expand. And not only are H-1B quotas going to expand, but the right to work for spouses of H-1B holders will also be allowed. So you will have even more chain migration; it will normalize the status of more than 10 million undocumented migrants in the US. The most recent US Census that just came out shows just how much more diverse the American population has become. We will look back and say that from a demographic standpoint, Trumpian, xenophobic populism, in terms of its impact—not on national culture, which is a fairly traumatic episode no doubt, with long-lasting consequences, but on net inward migration figures—was pretty trivial. 

Let’s look at Brexit. It is easier to migrate into the United Kingdom right now in 2021 than it was in 2015 before Brexit. You might ask yourself, what was that all about, then? Because once they realized that they had labor shortages across the board, including crucially in the National Health Service (NHS) medical sector, they realized, “oh my God, we really need to bring in people of all stripes.” Five years ago you’d have to pay a security bond and show proof of employment in the UK, whereas now you just have to be a graduate of anywhere, and they will let you in. You need to have a pulse, right, and you can get into the UK. Supply and demand always wins. 

In the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned globalization and people saying, “well, this is it, renationalization.” I’m old enough to remember 9/11, the financial crisis, Trump and Brexit, and the pandemic. Four times in my short conscious span of studying this stuff have people proclaimed with great confidence, trumpeted from the rafters, “This is the end of globalization. This is retrenchment. This is backsliding.” And they’ve been wrong every single time. Please, everyone, spare me your anti-globalization so-called analysis, because it’s nothing of the sort. Globalization is a lot bigger than all of us. It’s a lot bigger than the individual “pick your favorite metric” that people trot out when they want to undermine the pro-globalization thesis.

Talk about the digital for a moment, because that is a different kind of movement than physical. A lot of your work over the past decade has also been about the connectivity of the digital, for instance the process of a public conversation like this one, in which people all over the planet are congregating virtually. This ethereal globalization, just because it’s difficult to quantify, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or have value. It has an immense value, and the better our economic methodologies get at unraveling cloud-based, digital services work, the more we’ll appreciate the value of digital globalization. And we’re getting there. Some parts of it will remain forever what I would call “quantum” in nature, because you have forces at play that are completely global and in the cloud and are ever-present everywhere at the same time. 

You might say it’s the Spotify problem, in economics. Spotify is downloaded in one country, but the trade data and the money is not repatriated to Sweden. It’s not going to show up as an international trade or sale cross-border in anyone’s trade statistics, and yet it’s an exceptional part of globalization. GitHub, where so much of the world’s coding is done, is a cloud-based platform. Every video game you play was coded by collaborative teams that will never physically meet, all over the world. Hundreds of billions of dollars—the value of a bunch of gaming companies is bigger than Hollywood—rests on this. Then you have the intangible value of being able to go online and learn a language just by Skyping with someone and never needing to even travel there if you can’t afford to otherwise. 

So all of that, but that does rest on a kind of physical globalization too, which as you know is the whole point of my Connectography book. Connectivity is a physical thing. Everyone says, “oh, what do you mean by infrastructure? I’m wirelessly connected.” It’s like, okay, wait a minute: internet cables, right? Highways, railways, oil pipelines, electricity grids, all that stuff. That investment and that build-out of capacity is very much evidence of physical and functional globalization, you might say, as well. We are continuing to do lots of that. Out here in Asia, there’s a new internet cable being laid down from Singapore, where I live, or through various channels of the South China Sea practically every six months. There are hundreds and hundreds of them. I say that just to emphasize that we’re always enabling more mobility. 

Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the founder of the Progress Network. His next book, Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power, will be published by Penguin Press in May 2021.