great powerings

great powerings

“I think if you let journalists become your grand strategists, you are gonna go straight to hell.” –Thomas PM Barnett

Br. Scott and I are embarking on a series of posts digesting (better than reviewing I think) the text Great Powers: America and the World After Bush by Dr. Thomas PM Barnett.  These chewings on this important book are long overdue and the lateness of their arrival is wholly my fault as the last few months I was overwhelmed by work finishing my Master’s Degree.  But with my final paper turned in and all my coursework completed, I’m freed up to begin this undertaking.

This is Barnett’s third (and arguably deepest and most important) work.  I’ve read all of three of those books and have been a daily reader of his blog for going on about 4 years now.  So while I am not expert, I think I have a decent handle on his thought.  This post will serve as a basic introduction to his overall thought which is both broad and deep.  I want first to lay out his ideas as much as I can on their terms and try really to understand what he is saying before forming a strong opinion one way or the other and/or critiquing them.  [I will give my own take on his ideas towards the end of the series.  It will be clear as we proceed that neither Scott nor I are 100% Barnettians by a long shot. But he makes me think even where I disagree with him.]. Warning long post ahead filled with a heavy amount of conceptualization.

Barnett was tasked in the first W Bush term by the Pentagon with coming up with a grand strategy for the United States in the post Cold War world.  The fruit of that thinking became his first two books The Pentagon’s New Map (2004) and Blueprint for Action (2006).  The third installment–Great Powers–lays out a historical reconstruction of American history which Barnett sees as grounding his own grand strategy.  He sees his own vision for America’s role in the 21st century as an extension of the same basic trajectory that has guided the USA since its inception.

But before we get to that historical argument, it’s important to lay out what the core pillars of his grand strategy are.

When doing his research for The Pentagon, Barnett began (as do all systematic thinkers) by framing his problem in context.  He took a map and began to put pins in the map anywhere in the world where there had been interventions (humanitarian missions, military incursions, etc) since the end of the Cold War.  The map is reproduced above (for a better version of the same map, here).  He found that the vast majority of the pins all congregated within a band, which he calls the non-integrating gap.  This is the world of genocide, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, rampant disease propagation, economic misery, lower life expectancy, seen daily on the news.  The Middle East, Africa, Caribbean, Andean South America (e.g. Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia) and Central Asia make up the bulk of The Gap.

Outside the gap consists of the Core–the core economic and political powers.  The Core is comprised of what he calls Old Core (W. Europe, Japan, US, Canada, Australia) and New Core:  the new rising powers of Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Korea as well as Eastern Europe.  And lastly the states that exist at the border between the two regions:  aka Seam States (e.g. Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Thailand, Mexico).

The Gap is primarily indicted by the lack of a functioning nation-state and modern economy.  New Core (and some Seam States) are typically more connected to the global economic platform via one-state party rule (see Singapore, China) or states that went through such a phase (South Korea).

Of course within any country–even within any province or city within a country–there can be (and often are) Core, Seam, and Gap areas.  e.g. Urban slums or ghettos in US and Western Europe.  Or rural China–a vast area of Gapdom.

The goal is simple–condense the Gap.  Bring states along the trajectory from Gap to Seam to Core.

The strategy for doing so consists of a re-positioning and re-aligning of US strategic interests to both A)The New Core Rising Powers (esp. China and India) and B)the people of The Gap (Paul Collier’s so-called Bottom Billion). Economically this comes largely through the exportation of the global market order (Barnett is an unabashed free trader).  Politically this means the formation of regional security pacts along the lines of NATO for many regions across the globe, with the US working with/co-opting the regional players (even ones that are not democracies).

Militarily this means understanding the most crucial distinction/contribution  Barnett makes (imo) throughout his books:  the distinction between War and Peace.

A quick word on this last point.  The rise of nuclear weaponry has ended great nation-state v. nation-state warfare.  Countries that enter the nuclear club do not fight each other nor are they invaded (even if they are bat shit insane like North Korea).

Also since the end of the WWII, there has been the rise of insurgent, guerrilla movements which by and large have always outlasted occupying armies from the developed world (the great powers of the 20th century), forcing them to evacuate.  The Vietcong against America, Mao’s rural insurgency, The Taliban over the Soviets in Afghanistan, The Algerians evicting the French, US in Haiti/Somalia in the 90s, The British in Aden/Egypt, Hezbollah versus Israel in 2006 (and in 1983), and now the US is again learning the lesson in Iraq.  These are so-called Fourth Generation Warfare practicioners.

As Barnett says these insurgents have cracked the code on fighting the Core Powers (at this point essentially the US). These non-state actors realize that they can not win a war against a great power.  So the insurgents lure the big army great power into the conflict zone–until the great power declare mission accomplished in the war phase–and then begin their insurgency, bleeding them out and forcing the occupying army to withdraw (thereby losing the peace not the war).  For the asymmetric reasons why these groups are more prone to victory in this after-the-war “savage peace” phase, see Martin van Creveld.

To prevent this losing of the peace, Barnett calls for the creation of a new cabinet-level position called variously The Department of Reconstruction, The Dept. of Nation-Building, or more often, The Department of Everything Else. Everything that is not Defense (they deal with the war phase) nor State which deals with the global state to state diplomatic world.  The State Department is not the right player because in these conflicts there are no states.  They need to construct one.  The State Dept assumes the existence of a functioning state and that is the not the case in The Gap.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US quickly and decisively won the wars and horribly lost both peaces.

The Department of Everything Else will quickly realize that many other countries have far more knowledge of (and just as strong interest in) these areas as does the US.  Particularly say a China who is going about laying the foundation for the industrialization of Africa.  While the US has the biggest gun (what Barnett echoing Hobbes calls The Leviathan) it is not always the subtlest of reconstructors/nation-builders.

Whether Barnett is right that such a force–what he calls The Systems Administration Force--can be constructed and can effectively hold perform its task is the central question surrounding his work in my mind.  That’s an issue we will discuss in the coming discussion.  But certainly he is absolutely on the money that if any such effective intervention were to ever take place, it would require such a force.  Without such a force, every further intervention will look exactly like Vietnam, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  [Korea and Iraq War I in that sense are somewhat of oddities to the general trend of all post WWII conflict as they were medium-grade state-to-state warfare.  Both ending essentially however in stalemates].  Barnett points to the Balkans Conflicts of the 90s as a successful model that could be replicated–a real world application of his basic ideas.

While Barnett tenaciously promotes globalization and modernization (not Westernization mind you) he is well aware that the process of modernization/globalization is inherently de-stabilizing and therefore evokes violence.  This violence usually historically takes the form of a modernized (educated) but socially dislocated/unaccepted revolutionary cadre who incite revolution under the guise of protecting the traditional world that modernization rubs out.  In European history they are known by the name of the Fascists, The Nazis, and The Communists and lead to the brutality of two world wars, hundreds of millions dead.

The current crop of individuals playing the role of these counter-modern revolutionaries are al-Qaeda and related affiliates.  Whereas the former set (in 20th century Europe) consisted of those who grabbed state power and controlled vast armies/wealth/industry (think Nazis and Soviets), the current crop do not hold any such power.  Therefore in Barnett’s language, the US is not fighting WWIII (or IV if you count the Cold War as WWIII), i.e. not fighting a Long War but rather a Long Peace. This is a crucial distinction which I will discuss in more detail in a later post but Barnett is not lumping various groups into some catchbin of “War of Civilizations”.  i.e. He separates out Islamist groups like the Iranian regime, even a Hamas and Hezbollah from an al-Qaeda.

Barnett could I think honestly be categorized as a liberal (i.e. non-Marxist) structuralist historical materialist.  And he believes the US has formed the code (i.e. guiding structure) for the world politico-military-economic order. He believes in exportation of free markets but is not a necon (he’s doesn’t have some blind naive faith in democracy).  He is willing to engage with, even align with regimes others would find off-limits, but yet he is not a realist because he is willing to tread on the holy sanctum of realism national sovereignty.  He believes in bringing much of foreign conflict under the purvey of the ICC but could not really be called a globalist either (given his pre-eminent role the US plays, especially through its military, in his strategy).

What his newest book lays out most forcefully I think is his deeply held belief that the US is in danger in the post-Bush years of losing confidence in its own DNA, bumbling along with no functioning grand strategy, and should return to that center to gain strength for a new phase of dissemination (which will always grow out beyond the US’ ability to control it as it did in its relation with Europe throughout the 20th century).  Only more so now as the boundaries extend out even further to countries further afield).  That center is a return to the historical trajectory of the US (as he reconstructs it).  It is, as it were, already within us to achieve such a result in his mind.  That formula gives the work (and his three books altogether as a set) both a damning radicality in their critique–radical in the root meaning of ‘to the root’–as well as deeply optimistic.

This is part I of the full version of Barnett’s brief (from 2006).  Sit down on an evening (or day) that you can devote 90 minutes with serious focus and attention. Watch the entire series (you can find them all by following the link).  He puts the grand in grand strategy.  Agree, disagree whatever, he makes so much else covered as foreign policy discussion so much straw.  He just shows up so much of it all as so much unreality.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

11 thoughts on “great powerings

  1. It’s interesting to see that the Gap and the Core correspond relatively strongly to the economic terms of Periphery and Core – the Periphery being former colonial or quasi-colonial states whose economies have been oriented towards the interests of the developed world. Under this theory it is not the lack of free-trade and neoliberal economic policies that keep these nations in their current state, but the overabundance of them. Virtually every major industrialized developed nations became so not by free trade but by managed protectionist measures – from the United States to East Asia. (The exception is Britain which, being the first industrialized nation, had little competition during its industrialization.) Without protectionism, South Korea would still have a rice-based, not a technology-based, economy.

    These non-state actors realize that they can not win a war against a great power. So the insurgents lure the big army great power into the conflict zone–until the great power declare mission accomplished in the war phase–and then begin their insurgency, bleeding them out and forcing the occupying army to withdraw.

    One minor and one major correction to Barnett here. The (relatively) minor one is that the Soviets in Afghanistan were defeated by a wide range of Afghan resistance groups and the Taliban didn’t become predominant until after the Soviets left. The major one is that this is an almost mind-boggling case of victim-blaming. The US was not purposefully “lured” into Vietnam nor the Soviets into Afghanistan so that the resistance movements could employ asymmetrical warfare to defeat them – both chose to intervene, but both were also the clear aggressors; the Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively had no interest in starting any war with them. Hezbollah may fit his statement – they act in a way meant to provoke Israel into intervention – but I don’t see any others in his list in the previous paragraph that do.

    I would say that is the basic flaw in Barnett’s reasoning – such invasions will always provoke resistance. Korea and Iraq I were successful because they fulfilled reasonable objectives: repelling aggression by one state against another. The US would be wise to restrict itself to such defensive wars and avoid entirely the problems Barnett highlights.

      Quote  Link


  2. Katherine,

    You’re right about my rather sloppy use of Taliban as a catchall for the various resistance movements-who largely called themselves mujihadeen. Thanks for the reminder. On the “lure” question he means more in the sense that they don’t take the bait of trying to fight groups at the border. Obviously you’re right that the Soviets and the US intervened on their own. What Barnett is saying is that they play defeated in the first round. Since they are already being invaded, no point in trying to fight them during the invasion (really) so act as if you are defeated, drawing them into the country (now usually urban zones, like in Iraq) and then pounce, attack, and then slip back into the crowds. If the occupying army has to go around kicking down doors and breaking into homes, rounding people up, and then dumping them off at some prison, all the better, as it will turn the local population against the occupying force. Again see Iraq from 2003-2007 for this phenomenon.

      Quote  Link


  3. K,

    On your other point (periphery, too little vs. too much globalization/trade), one while they are dependent they are not really connected. Middle East is a classic example. There is a huge amount of oil and money flowing in and out of the region. But it doesn’t grow wealth. It doesn’t grow social wealth. e.g. Look how many articles that get into major peer-reviewed science journals come out of the Middle East (answer: not many).

    Obviously that part of the world got caught up in the Cold War and were given huge amounts of cash (by either the Americans or Soviets or both) but no real political mechanism to evolve (there were only two options us or them), no desire for them to evolve (since the fear was they could only turn into an ally of your enemy), nor any real capacity/know how about how to manage the money.

    Barnett is really focused on the time period following the Cold War. Though you are correct (and I’ve blogged about it here on the League before) rather than the Clinton-Bush IMF “Washington Consensus” of the 90/2000s those states would be better to follow a connected but somewhat protected nationalist economic course. And actually Britain did do that for sometime. I recommend Bad Samaritans by Ha Joon Chang. Brilliant book. His ideas are largely coming to pass as China is now guiding most of the foreign aid and some countries are routing around the World Bank/IMF to follow the Chinese route. This is labeled in the US as crypto-fascism or the waning of the democratic tide or some other neocon nonsense when actually as you mentioned (and Chang details) they are more closely following the US policy of the 19th century. Barnett’s book btw has some amazing parallels between the US in the 19th/early 20th century and China, Russia, etc. My favorite might be calling Vladimir Putin the Andrew Jackson of Russia.

      Quote  Link


  4. Just because we used to do something doesn’t mean we were right.

    How did it help the US to be good at making steel, when US consumers had to pay more for steel products and got worse steel products as a result? That meant our battleships, for example, had to cost more and were worse quality steel that we would’ve gotten otherwise. Wouldn’t we’ve done better to find more globally competitive things to specialize in? It’s not as though we were short on inventiveness, and IMHO, it would’ve been easier if imported goods’d been cheaper.

    Now, high tariffs certainly helped fund the gummint well while staying out of most peoples’ faces. But there was a cost to be paid, as I see it.

      Quote  Link


  5. I’m not sure that the US is actually internally in a position to continue its trajectory. I don’t think there was ever a time of rosy unity in the country, but I think now it’s as bad as it has ever been. There’s certainly a degree of fatigue with both military adventures and grand national moral crusades. I think it would be better to back off the world stage to focus on internal problems… developing a more decentralized working government while fixing our obvious economic structural problems.

    Some bit of protectionism may be beneficial. I’d suggest that one effect of globalization is to create economic mono cultures. There are obvious advantages to economies of scale but there are also dangers and weaknesses. Many practices which may initially be high yield are ultimately unsustainable. I’d encourage regions to look at their self sustainability and to take this time of global recession to fill in the holes.

    Now is not the time to even be thinking of spending resources abroad.

      Quote  Link


  6. Jon,

    I agree that the old style was not without cost (see the robber baron history of the 19th c. as an example). That said, I think the main portion of Bad Samaritans is correct–that it makes no sense for countries like the US (through IMF/World Bank) to take what is a developmental economic sequence going on for about 200 years in the West (England and US particularly), take the most up to date version of that and then force entry into the global order based on getting 200 years worth of development in in about oh say 2 years. It’s called The Washington Consensus and it failed which is why a number of countries are now going to follow China’a lead on development (which used to be the US version). Again as you say not without flaws (hence the evolution beyond this phase) but you don’t skip stages in my mind. Let them work it out at their own pace.

      Quote  Link


  7. Cas,

    This is an important point you are raising that I plan on addressing in one of the later posts (in the critiques of Barnett). To be fair he is looking to a 20 year window. I think he does downplay the need for spending at home (but again he’s a foreign policy thinker). More on that in a later post.

      Quote  Link


  8. Chris –

    Thanks for such a long answer! I’ll check out Bad Samaritans when I get a chance. The Washington Consensus seems to still be basically in place as regards free trade (and with all the new money given the IMF, the rest of it – capital market liberalization, cuts to services, etc. – is likely to be strengthened too), so the more voices criticizing it the better.

    You’re right that the Middle East is something of an exception to the core-periphery model. There’s a lot of money in the region (at least some parts of it) that ought to be going to better use than it is. But it’s a description of connected political and economic factors – as you said neither side was greatly interested in their successful economic development, and another point that relates to non-democracy in much of the periphery is that so many of the leaders had power not because of popular support but because of funding from the great powers; there was no real incentive for democracy (as the US put a higher priority on anti-communism, and the Soviets weren’t too interested in democracy either) and the strong disincentive of having to deal with an opposition and looking weak to whatever power sponsored the government. And the Middle East still has that system, more or less – the US sends Egypt and Saudis a great deal of money, and did the same for Musharraf.

      Quote  Link


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *