The American Trajectory: Chapter 3 Great Powers

Having successfully replicated the economic construct of our American System among the vast majority of the world’s population, we are now faced with the long-term challenge of replicating it’s political constructs–its laws, its institutions, its culture and associated freedoms of religion, speech, and leadership choice–not merely within nations but across the international system as a whole (and yes, that does mean our global leadership is likewise anything but assured).

–Great Powers p.79  (italics in original)

Chapter 3 is the central chapter of Thomas Barnett’s Great Powers (and not surprisingly it is the longest as well).  As I mentioned in my earlier post, the core purpose of this book is to ground Barnett’s strategic vision in his grand sweep of US history.

He begins with the notion that the majority (though by no means all of) the states that go through (successfully) marketization and head into modernization typically do say as single-party states:  e.g. Japan, South Korea, Malayasia, Singapore.  Today see Russia, China, and a whole host of others.  Even states that the like neocons typically like to pronounce as beacons of democracy against the rising tide of tyranny have their illiberalities (see Georgia).


“But take a trip back with me to the beginnings of our own country, and let me try to convince you that America needs to summon more patience with such developments, because we often demand of others what we certainly didn’t have ourselves as we struggled to our feet as a nation.” (p.74)

The United States is the first continental sized federal republic in the history of the world.  With the demise of the European-style (largely autocratic) form of globalization (known as colonialism), the US system serves, according to Barnettt as the source code for the era of contemporary globalization.  The EU, he argues, is a form of a continental republic, a kind of United States of Europe.  Pushes for an African Union follow a similar potential arc. Therefore US history shows the initial foray into this mode of human political existence.  Not all countries are going to be exact replicas of the US–some are not (e.g. Switzerland)–but there is a certain logic I think to his argument.  While we may think of today’s single-state parties as anti-democratic, Barnett’s reconstruction of US history highlights the ways in which this political way of being is not so foreign to our (US) own history.  Re-learning US history will give us insight he believes into the way in which US policy should be operative today.

What is driving the need for a global strategy in Barnett’s mind is that he sees the US standing astride Europe and Asia.  Europe has gone through its nationalistic phase–with bloody results.  Asia is rising and rising nationalism is a source of potential friction or worse catastrophic consequences for the region.  The US must offer the Asian nations (China, South Korea, Japan particularly) a way forward together (an Asian NATO security apparatus).  Else Asia go through its own version of what Barnett calls the Continental European Civil War 1914-1945.  Without an such offer of a bargain, China stays out of this politically integrative game and lets the US continue to bleed while Russia seeks to play spoiler.

If we do not recall where we have been or come from, we do not know where we are headed.  In order to find this strategy, Barnett says we should look to US history.

Barnett is strongest when he talks in real terms about both the strengths/promise but also the brute reality of America during its history.  Particularly its deeply undemocratic history. e.g. Barnett points out that we “elected” (though he ran unopposed) the leader of our insurgency, then a few years later instituted a one party rule (from 1800 which was decided by Hamilton’s backroom deal).

The man who finally broke the power of the revolutionary cadre was a war hero (surprise) who then led a bloody counterinsurgency and as Barnett points out handpicked his successor.  Making him (Jackson) sound essentially exactly like Vladimir Putin.

As a sidenote it’s worth pointing out that he begins US history with the Revolution, making him therefore a (classical) liberal.  He does not see the Puritan experiment as foundational to USA’s DNA.  No social con is he. He points rather to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as the backdrop.  [For this argument in more depth see Walter Russell Mead’s God and Gold and Michael Barone’s Our First Revolution). For the argument that the Revolution changed Christianity fundamentally, see Norman Hatch’s magisterial The Democratization of American Christianity.

Barnett sees US history as divided into two arcs:  Arc 1) 1776-beginning of 20th century where the states unite particularly through the revolutionary experience of the Civil War and the opening of the West (a favorite metaphor of his)   Arc 2)20th century exportation of this model to the world.  The transitional figure (in his analysis) being Theodore Roosevelt.  Barnett is here influenced by Robert Kegan’s (re?)writing of US history:  Dangerous Nation.  An alternate read of US history–say a Michael Lind version–would put Wilson more in the driver’s seat of founding US 20th century policy.

Barnett (as liberal, centrist, progressive, and American) has a number of heroes who reflect his point of view:  Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln.  Hamilton initiated the policy of US manufacturing (more on economics as we discuss Chapter 4).  Clay began the US system of political compromise.  Lincoln essentially re-imagined the Constitution and the US (or perhaps created the fiction of the US to impose Northern reality if you hold to the Southern position).  This is a big government, expansionist liberal (Republican?) view of US history.  See Lincoln’s investment in the Railroad’s, his Sec of State Seward’s purchase of Alaska, and earlier the government’s involvement in the construction of the Erie Canal.

We’ve already lost the social cons and now many a (paleo?) libertarian are jumping ship as well.

In Woodrow Wilson, Barnett sees a man who largely had the right vision–with the League of Nations–but was a near total failure in execution.  Wilson’s inability (along with help from say the French) to settle the post-WWI landscape set the stage for round 2.  Roosevelt and Truman in many regards succeded where Wilson failed.  The Marshall Plan help keep Western Europe in the capitalist economic order; NATO gave the security blanket to Europe–creating thereby economic and military connectivity which then grew over time into the social democracies of Western Europe as an alternate to the Soviet satellite system.

The Cold War, for Barnett, is the triumph of a connecting economic system which helped favor political freedoms over a failed one [his economic materialist side is here quite present].  At the center of his Cold War tale stands Richard Nixon who (more than Reagan in Barnett’s telling) won the Cold War by 1)detente  2)nuclear treaties  3)essentially ending any prospect of war on the European continent between the two superpowers  4)going to China and initiating (with Deng) the spread of globalization outside the Western sphere.  While the Soviets would make one later final push exteriorly (Afghanistan, support for Sandinistas in Latin America) and interiorly (under Gorby with the failed economic-political reforms) only to come up against Carter/Reagan using the bulwark of various (counter)insurgents (e.g. mujihadeen), the Soviet goose was already cooked.  It was rooted from within.  Barnett studied in USSR in 1985 and saw firsthand the domestic Russian response to the failed system in the form of pervasive black markets and feigned loyalty.

With that we come to the 90s and 2000s, the so-called Era of American Hyperpower.  The US under both Clinton and Bush II has largely to stick to this basic great American strategy, succumbing to a notion of having won the Cold War for The End of (Political) History.  Clinton sold the world on the so-called Washington Consensus which took the most developed and current form of US capitalism–which had 200 years to build its structures, culture, practices, etc.–and then placed it directly upon countries with no interim time.  W Bush did the same thing except in the realm of politics seeking to impose the latest variant of American politics (full-scale democracy) which again took something like 200 years or so to build and expected it to be done overnight (neo-conservatism).

In response to the first developing countries are looking to China as their prime economic model–China who of course is practicing the 19th century American (and before that British and French) model of development.  Without that historical contextual and economic sense, neoconservatives are mistaking developing countries looking to China as economic model as them looking to China for political model as a sign of rising autocracies.  But again–one party state soft authoritarianism is not particularly unknown in American history.  Not only in our allies but within ourselves.

The good Dr. Barnett here prescribes a deep breath and some perspective. The Chinese are practicing a style of capitalism known to the US in its own historical formation.  This is not the fight against the Nazis/Fascists or the Soviet Empire both of which not only had an alternate (revanchist) political ideology but just as importantly an alternate ECONOMIC one.   No one today is promoting an alternate economic reality–even the Taliban are masters of the capitalist drug and gun markets.   Ahmadinejad is not Hitler and every US president does not therefore need to judged by whether he is Churchill or not.

If Michael Ledeen for example wants to call China Fascist then only insofar as the US of the early 1800s could be considered (quasi/soft) fascist.  [There is a legitimate counterpoint regarding the Chinese having surveillance technologies not available to say a John Adams, I get that, but still….really???].  If Ledeen and Naomi Klein are in agreement on something politically, it probably means the analysis is wrong.

Between a neocon view of returning autocracies in a league of (ordinary?) repression and a notion that it is a post-American world, is a vision for the United States role in global affairs for the 21st century.  A vision that is lost amidst all the hysteria over terrorism, which will obviously a deadly serious matter is not an existential crisis for the US (unless it chooses for it to be by over-reacting to attacks, even horrific ones).  It is not a time to sit back and claim victory at the end of all history, but neither it is time to create the newest baddest most pure distilled form of evil at the center of a worldwide conspiracy of destruction meant to unite all “us” against the maloevent “them” (Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Iran….). A vision that seeks a way for markets to work for the vast majority of human beings (in a manner consonant with a life that will not destroy the carrying capacity of earth to sustain said life) while at the same time over the long term (“the long arc of history”) create room for the indigenous political evolution towards greater freedom within countries themselves.  This space created by deep and broad connection across a number of domains–economic, military, security, technological, medical, etc.  A vision that will not be deterred or held captive to the ADD mania-obsessed ignorant US poliitical cum media cycle.

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2 thoughts on “The American Trajectory: Chapter 3 Great Powers

  1. You guys always lump the Erie Canal in with US Government. The Federal Government wanted nothing to do with helping to build the
    Erie Canal, so New York State paid the 7 million Dollars to build the canal and reap the rewards. New York City is still a center of world commerce.

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