great powers critique: the nation-state in the 21st century

I was going to do another intro post on Economics (Chapter 4 of Great Powers), and then add a post that would offer some critiques/other angles, but Scott has already jumped into that fray, so I think I’ll skip over to the questions part of this debate.

As a wise teacher once told me, you should read a book the first time and believe everything the author says.  Give (him/her) the benefit of the doubt.  The second time trust nothing.  Make them earn it.

In that vein, I am like Scott both deeply influenced by Barnett and in some ways now moving in a slightly different direction.  My different direction is not Scott’s–although it’s not really opposed to his either.  More orthogonal I suppose.  In relation to Scott’s piece, I’ll only say if he can get his thoughts in order on his glocalization, then that’s the book he needs to write.  He is attempting to bring a verticality (picked up from Barnett?) to Hardt and Negri’s (horizontal) Multitude.  A horizontality that by itself is open to Slavoj Zizek’s dead aim critique of the work (from its left flank).  While simultaneously retaining something of the more uplifting elements of Multitude–over in my mind Barnett’s rather thin gruel Chapter 8: Resurrecting the Progressive Agenda.

But before I get into my criticisms, a few praises are still in order.

Barnett’s notion of the SysAdmin and his distinction between War and Peace (the latter being where failure continues to occur because of the lack of a follow-up Systems Administration Force) is alone worth the price of admission.

In Chapter 5 of this book on Diplomacy he offers this view regarding his re-branded worldwide ‘team of rivals’ (basically the G20–that’s right 20).  The G20 would focus on both regional and international security and economics (that’s huge).  What Barnett calls The League of Capitalist Powers [ordinary gentlemen would I presume be  included :D]

1)new regulatory oversight of intermarket financial flows 2)energy  3)food 4)global warming 5)communicable disease threats (i.e. pandemics) 6)security of seaborne commercial traffic (i.e. anti-piracy matey).  pp.249-250

This could be Obama’s foreign policy.  This is what Sec. Clinton could leave as a legacy, bringing the State Department back into actual power in world affairs.  It would end the neoconservative menace/threat.  If nation-states are going to survive in the 21st century this is the agenda they must follow.  Barnett’s hawkishness and desire for interventions could be detached from a policy maker’s pov from this more diplomatic angle.  The SysAdmin force needs to be built whether or not it will follow invasions.  Part of me wishes it could be but frankly I imagine only war/defense budgets will force this move.

That said there are two major unyielding commitments in this work–and therefore places closed off to criticism in the author’s mind.  1.  Globalization   2. Nation-state.  Scott has dealt with the first, and I will now look into the second.

Here my thoughts are heavily influenced by futurist John Robb.  [Sidenote: Barnett and Robb have a very cordial relationship amidst their differences which is a real lesson in how to interact…kudos to them both for modeling civility and intelligence.]

While it is customary to talk of Barnett being the white hat optimist of globalization to Robb’s ultra-black hat pessimistic globalization outlook, I think it’s better to begin with their many deep similarities (similarities that I think are at the heart of their good exchange).

1. Knowledge of global economics and its relation to geo-strategic thinking.  Very few thinkers combine the two (though many like to think they do).  They actually do.  This lack of econ knowledge in foreign affairs is across the board:  neoconservatives (see Kagan) as well as realists (Drezner being a welcome exception) even otherwise partially helpful books from the left (Yglesias).

2. Systems level analysis. Both are deeply versed in systems theory.  Related, both have deep historical understanding of the various forms-structures of human political-economic-legal formation.  Again very rare in international policy circles.

3. Shared knowledge of military history/tactics. (Again combining 1,2, & 3 is very uncommon).

Robb ultimately pins his hopes on the rise of resilient networked communities; while for Barnett it resides largely with the US military (and by extension US government, nation-state governance the world over within The Functioning Core).

Where Barnett sees further integration on the large-scale (his prime metaphor of taming the Wild West Frontiers of Globalization), Robb sees large-scale disintegration and smaller scale (or properly scaled) integration to replace it.

Robb argues that the world global economic environment has become radically unstable and open to major catastrophic unpredictable events (Black Swans in Taleb’s telling).  The rise of the black global market will fuel the end of the nation-state in our post-ideological future.  That future will be dominated by networked (open-source) tribes of criminality (his global guerrillas) as the nation-state gives way to the (now predatory/parasitic) market-state, i.e. the dominance of capital over national boundaries/policy.  The nation-state in Robb’s mind is the dinosaur just waiting for the comet to come that will wipe them out, giving way to the small fury mammalian networked tribes ready to pounce after their demise.

The alternate in Robb’s telling to the criminal tribes are the resilient local communities tribes.  Resiliency is adaptation (ability to flow with changing circumstances) rather than robustness (brute force/ability to take a pounding) more characteristic of the nation-state world.

i.e. Where Barnett sees frontiers being tamed, Robb sees these “wild spaces” re-conquering the civilized world, bringing their chaos with them.  States that become sucked into this downward spiral generally are not totally destroyed/overthrown but rather hollowed out from within (Robb points to Pakistan, Lebanon, Mexico as examples).

Whatever one thinks about Barnett’s position re: military intervention & its feasibility (even with a SysAdmin), he has laid down the diplomatic-legal-humanitarian-security gauntlet like no one else.  Either nation-states step up to the plate (in the absence of some larger trans-national world federation which seems pretty speculative at this point) and take up his challenge or they will fail as Robb states.

I suppose there is some in-between position where Core nation-states continue to muddle along. Maybe.  But I’m more with Robb on that one.  Either they transform or they are done for.  Worse still is the possibility that they merely appear to transform and convince the masses (through propaganda) or transform only to save themselves and become pathological authoritarian forms of government.

What both writers clearly grasp is that given technological realities, the next iteration of human social formation–minus a collapse scenario–consists of networks.  Where will the networks come from?  Will it be from nation-states both within themselves (SysAdmin) and between each other (Core Political Legal Diplomatic Connection Barnett envisions) or through resilient communities?

For someone like me outside of the foreign policy, government, military world, the resilient community idea has more appeal.  It should be said that Barnett also discusses resiliency (another point the two share in common) though it’s not where he is typically focused (at least within the US).

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

9 thoughts on “great powers critique: the nation-state in the 21st century

  1. Chris really is the John Robb expert, so he may well have something to offer. But as a fly-by I would suggest heading over to Robb’s blog, searching for “resilient communities”, and then gobbling whatever comes up.

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  2. Thanks Scott. I found his site and have been having a good look around. I’ve been thinking along similar lines for a while. I look forward to picking Chris’s brain.

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  3. Scott thanks for fixing the link while I was still in the land of dreams.


    Yeah Robb is excellent. Scott’s right if you go to his site he has a search function (lower right bar) and a category tag of resilient community. I think he’s working on a book (his 2nd) on this topic as a balance against the dark side of Brave New War/Global (criminal) Guerrillas.

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  4. Thanks Chris. I spent the morning reading his site. It certainly resonates with me. I’ve been using the term neo-tribal or neo-feudal internally to describe some of my thoughts that are parallel with Robb’s. I quite like the concept of resiliency and iteration.

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