5 Questions for Thomas Barnett

5 Questions for Thomas Barnett

Thomas Barnett has answered five questions I posed to him about his new book, Great Powers: American and the World After Bush.  This is the final piece in my week-long series on Barnett for the New Atlanticist.

Your strategic worldview doesn’t fit neatly into any of the traditional IR schools of thought.  Is it fair to characterize it as combining the transformational optimism of the neoconservatives with the patience of the Realists?

I would describe both of those camps as far too political-military in their thinking and vastly under-appreciative of economic factors in their interpretation of the past several decades of global change.  Both, for example, tend to view globalization as primarily a complicating factor but not as the primary driver of system-level structural change—as I do.  They see a world of classic great powers (and a few rising ones) and define most of the strategic reality that matters to them using relational analysis (Who’s up?  Who’s down?  Are we gaining or losing power/primacy?).  To me, they are mirror images of each other, concentrating on the extreme shoulders of globalization’s reality: too much fixation on hard power with the realists and too much fascination with accelerated democratization with the neocons.  In between those extremes (baseline security, high-end political organization) lies the vast middle of transformative socio-economic change being wrought right now by globalization’s spread.  When confronted by all that change, both camps tend to reach instinctively for late-19th-century analogies of international struggles between colonizing powers, where I prefer to look at America’s internal integration of the same time period, when a collection of sectional economies were rapidly knitted together into a continental precursor of today’s globalization dynamics—the integration of trade among states through the disaggregation of production chains.

Where I’ll bite on your proposed blending is that I tend to exhibit the optimism of the pro-globalization thinkers like Tom Friedman and Martin Wolf, while blending in the sort of Huntington realism regarding civilizational clashes that result whenever previously off-grid regions are rapidly integrated into a global economy—meaning, in my patience, I expect things to get worse with ramped-up connectivity before they get better.  That is where I tend to get misinterpreted most: the presumed assumption that I see connectivity leading to instant peace.  I don’t.  In fact, my original “Pentagon’s new map” predicted just the opposite: where globalization is moving in (my Non-Integrated Gap), there we should expect to find virtually all of future mass violence (just like we have since Cold War’s end, meaning my Core-Gap diagnosis is based on observable data).

I guess I’d say I also don’t have the patience of the developmental aid community, because I see globalization’s profound speed necessitating something besides foreign aid as a “catch-up” (or better put, a “connect-up”) model of development in this day and age—thus my company’s Development-in-a-Box™ market-based effort in northern Iraq (described in the book).  I mean, we let the radical left and authoritarian right provide all the great catch-up models across the 20th century, and all that got us was two world wars, a Cold War, environmental damage galore, and a lot of political repression.  The emerging global class deserves better than the warmed-over versions currently offered by—say—a Hugo Chavez.  We simply have to offer a more logical pathway than that dead-ending nonsense.

Where I am supremely patient (something I learned by reading American history) is on the question of political pluralism.  I know that democracies tend to have big middle classes, incomes above $5,000 per capita, and populations featuring middle-aged centers of demographic gravity.  Virtually none of those conditions exist in concert inside those Gap regions, even as globalization’s many destabilizing dynamics intrude with increasing speed.  So getting the connectivity and economics right first is what should matter most to American grand strategy in the decades ahead, letting the political pluralism follow in its own good time (typically two generations in).  And that’s a basic message of the book: America has gotten the world to accept our baseline economic model of development and integration (with variations, of course), and if we’re just patient enough on the politics, the emerging global middle class will force that function nicely on its own with time.

The world has never enjoyed more pervasive and persistent peace and stability and economic progress than it does now (don’t get me started on the voluminous statistics here…).  Great-power war has gone the way of the dinosaur and state-on-state and ethnic violence has decreased dramatically since peaking in the late Cold War era, and yet our schools of thought on international relations remain largely trapped in the middle of last century—or worse, the end of the 19th century.  It is time to move on intellectually—dare I say, turn the page.  We need schools of thought that capture a whole lot more global reality than the 4-5% we get from the realists and neocons.  The holism that’s missing there has just grown too great to stand anymore; the more time I put in doing international business development and investing, I find that I can barely talk to professionals from those camps.

You like NATO enough to want to clone it for other regions of the world, yet at the same time seem to have little confidence in the military capability or willingness to fight of the non-U.S. members of the existing NATO.  What future do you see for the transatlantic relationship?

Ha!  That’s a neat observation.

NATO served a huge purpose in binding France, Germany (West) and Britain into a security alliance that undergirded and made possible economic alliance (the EU).  That accomplishment alone makes it a hugely successful organization, in historical terms.  Having a strong, increasingly prosperous, and peaceful quartet of the UK plus France plus united Germany plus (despite its youthful indiscretions) 18-year-old Russia is a glorious achievement.

America’s grand strategy since the late 1970s (what some call Bretton Woods II, or over-consuming on imports from Asia so long as they bought our debt and in-sourced our Leviathan role) pulled off a similarly magical feat in the East, where we now see—for the first time in modern history—a strong, increasingly prosperous and peacefully integrating Japan plus China plus Korea (South) plus India.  But there we don’t have the NATO equivalent (something I’ve long advocated should be constructed over Kim Jong Il’s grave).  Get that, and we kill off for good two of the three last remaining great-power war scenarios (Taiwan, North Korea), plus we free up those nations, along with our military assets there, for frontier-integration duty elsewhere.  So at least one new NATO is clearly needed fast.

But beyond that, you want to re-run Europe’s experience of integration in other regions.  Not that it’s unique (America is the world’s oldest and most successful multinational economic and political and security union), but because—as Europe itself proved—it’s replicable.  For example, the Middle East desperately needs an OSCE-like entity to create an umbrella for regional security dialogue.

Where I am pessimistic on NATO is not the model but the current version in Europe.  Show me a collection of states with declining demographics, increasingly smaller defense budgets and few combat casualties over the past few decades, and I don’t think I’m looking at future allies for the frontier-integrating conflicts of the years ahead.  But show me million-man armies, rising defense budgets and growing nationalism (like India and China), combined with a rapidly increasing global network of economic interests (see America in the 1880s), and I see rising great powers to be mentored and co-opted as future allies.

So give me an Asian NATO with India and China as twin pillars and I have few fears about America finding enough incentivized friends to defend globalization’s future advance.  But if you tell me that our only “true” friends going forward are the old West (and it’s getting a lot older …), then I think you need to update your great-power Facebook, because—you know—a post-Caucasian world is not a post-American world.  Just check out LA or NYC and get over yourself, I say.

You rightly point out that casting our foes as “evil” creates outsized goals while also making negotiation and regional cooperation next to impossible.  At the same time, you envision the U.S. military in a state of constant deployment to “close the Gap.”  How do you generate the popular support for that in a democracy without creating bogeymen?  Can the public do nuance in wartime?  And do you really see it as patient enough to sustain operations for generations?  And will they be willing to pony up to pay for it all?

Here is where the frontier-integration metaphor comes in handy.  Think back to how America sustained itself in the decades-long integration of its Western territories.  We’re talking decades-long insurgencies, criminal networks, outlaw scheming of all sorts and plenty of might-makes-right until rule by law is superseded by rule of law.

How did we manage the patience for all that?

First, you play it smart and keep your security exposure reasonable.  Our casualties in pre-surge Iraq were completely unacceptable, reflecting the wrong strategy and a huge build-up of mistakes by Bush-Cheney.  If we had replicated in Iraq the sort of alliance burden sharing and loss-rate of our 1990s Balkans interventions, we wouldn’t even be entertaining this question.  So if you avoid the “want it bad, get it bad” demands for primacy, there’s no reason why the costs involved and the losses suffered should be at Iraq-levels going forward historically.  I mean, I don’t extrapolate our entire future regarding interventions from the bad initial job we did in Iraq.  Those mistakes have triggered a profound evolution of our military forces, from training right up to doctrine, so go easy on linear projections and respect that change for the costs it took to trigger it.

Plus, if we don’t view future interventions as largely Western-dominated, then we’re into far different possibilities.  But that doesn’t work if your Pentagon insists on keeping China primarily in its “near-peer competitor” sights while Washington expects Beijing to finance both our trillion-dollar deficits and roughly one-third of the world’s global stimulus package in response to the financial crisis.  So it all depends on whom you view as potential frenemies in this frontier integration process.  I mean, India and China are all over Africa, making all sorts of economic integration happen.  Doesn’t it make sense that, over time, we draw out their militaries in collective efforts to spread stability in dangerous places?  We already see them willing to step up on Somali pirates, when threatened enough.  We need to build on these small bits of cooperation and expand them dramatically.  Note that China chose to call for more mil-mil cooperation with the U.S. at the time of Obama’s inauguration.  I think that both the logic and the signaling here are getting pretty straightforward.

Let me be more explicit: Americans don’t want casualties that seem out of proportion to gain.  When we go it alone, it’s pretty hard to avoid that, but recent history says that when we get a quorum of great powers, our casualties can drop to virtually zero, and when that happens, and when American citizens see the world’s other great powers working in concert with us, they’re more than willing to see their sons and daughters and husbands and wives contribute our fair share on global security.  That sense of activism isn’t hard to sustain, so long as people feel like their time—much less their lives—aren’t being needlessly wasted.

Bigger point: globalization’s advance will shrink the Gap no matter what over the next two to three decades.  The sheer demand of those three billion new capitalists dictates that path.  So it’s not a question of whether or not America will sustain the challenge or mount the effort, nor whether we talk aging Europe into one more campaign.  By turning the East onto globalization, we created a critical mass—a moment of global majority that will only grow in coming years.

Our choice to participate is all about caring enough about how this integration process goes down.  Do we care to avoid another 5-6 million unnecessary deaths in central Africa like we’ve seen over the past generation?  Is it in our best interests or part of our moral obligation to prevent that holocaust-level event from repeating?  We participate or we don’t participate, fine, but globalization will still roll on.  The question will be the resulting political outcomes and how much bloodshed occurs along the way.

So it all depends on how you want to rack and stack our global enemies list.  If you want to keep all the Cold War enemies, then it’s guarding against them plus working all the unstable regions plus dealing with every terrorist and so on.  But if you’re able to move off that legacy, Cold War mentality (finally, please!), then we’re not talking global war, nor great power war, nor any significant frequency of state-on-state war.  In short, we’re working the weeds and should be damn grateful it’s gotten that easy.  Plus, we need to process old enemies into new allies, because those who have joined globalization most recently are most willing to defend it.

And that’s where Bush-Cheney got it all wrong: trying to sell this to old allies as a war of survival when we did no such thing with the American people (i.e., “go shopping”).  Radical Islam has zero chance of toppling the West.  Anybody selling you more than that is pulling your leg out of greed or sheer stupidity.  But if radical Islam succeeds in creating enough global turbulence to seriously destabilize globalization, then it’s not the West that is endangered, because we’ll still be rich.  Instead, it’s the rising East and South.  Those are the countries, therefore, that we should be logically tapping as our key allies going forward.

And when you add up their incentives, their power, their populations, their budgets, and their interests, you’ve got a quorum for domination at acceptable costs.

And when I say “domination,” understand that our “empire” (globalization) is the first that enriches and empowers individuals the world over, and that—I think—is something worth defending.

Final bit: watch casting to your readers the notion of “constant deployment” as something new and unreal.  We’ve been deploying troops around the Gap for the past two decades at high frequency.  Clearly, when you cut troop strength by one-third across the 1990s and then expect two big-number situations (Iraq and Afghanistan) to be processed simultaneously with little outside help—that’s too much, no question.  But an America that successfully taps the rising great powers of our age to start shouldering some of the burden regarding this globalization that features plenty of their own economic interests, that’s another animal altogether on operational tempo.  So my advice: avoid casting it in terms of America alone, because those days are over.  We can pull out of the Gap completely and let other rising powers police it as they see fit, but I don’t think we’ll like that pathway, so I don’t think we’ll pursue it.  So expect some sort of serious realignment on our part that makes the burden-sharing more reflective of the world we now inhabit.

You seem to think chaos is ultimately a good thing, in that it forces creation of “new rule sets” and the final result is generally better than the status quo ante.  You oppose, for example, missile defense, attempts to stifle proliferation of nuclear weapons and modern technologies to rogue states, preparing against the rise of China as a peer competitor, and even think stirring up the hornet’s nest in Iraq was worth it even though we haven’t been successful in our ambitious goals.  But, as John Maynard Keyes observed, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”  Aren’t the short term costs in blood, treasure, and fear too easily discounted?

I am perplexed by this question in the sense that I don’t think I express any normative appreciation of chaos—one way or the other.  In fact, I just searched the book and find the term only used sarcastically or in reference to other people’s usage, meaning I don’t use the term myself.  So I guess I would say that I tend to be highly suspicious of the term’s use (i.e., I find almost no instances of real chaos in life) because it’s typically employed hyperbolically to frighten people.

[Editor’s note:  Perhaps “chaos” wasn’t the right word. Perhaps “disruption” or “system pertubances” would have been better to describe a theme I saw running through the book.]

What I have always argued is this:  rules are great and they come with connectivity.  With rapid increases in connectivity, humans often let rule sets get out of whack with one another: a shorthand being, economic connectivity/rules tend to race ahead of political connectivity/rules, and network connectivity/rules tend to race ahead of security connectivity/rules.  When those gaps get big enough, somebody tends to exploit them or things just break down.  In the resulting tumult (almost never chaos in any real sense of the word, but that term has become the equivalent of “literally,” meaning people overuse and misuse it a lot), new rules naturally appear as order is restored.  We discover, in effect, that we were lacking some rules that we did not know we lacked, and so we create them.

So, to me, “chaos” or crisis or whatever you want to call it, is neither good nor bad so much as it is inevitable in its periodicity, and we get better at handling such times through increased resiliency.

I am uncomfortable extrapolating from that reasonable discussion (at least, to me) the notion that missile defense is bad because it stifles the “chaos” of nuclear weapons.  That’s an entirely different argument.  MAD (mutual assured destruction) is plenty stable.  Missile defense attacks that stability and is arguably far more destabilizing in its influence.  I don’t believe international “gun control” on nuclear weapons works if certain nations really want that capacity.  I also don’t see many nations wanting it.  I mean, we’re 64 years and counting at 9 nuclear powers, with as many having willingly given it up after having it.  So I simply don’t hype the nuclear threat as others do, believe in the stability of MAD, and see missile defense as a bad idea.  That hardly makes me an agent of CHAOS!

As for China, I don’t see “preparing” for its rise to be any big trick.  We outspend the planet on defense.  Don’t you think we can manage to squeeze in just enough hedge technology on China?  If we can’t, then we’re screwed anyway because we’re incompetent strategists.

As for Iraq, I disagree with your diagnosis.  If you want all the right answers lined up in a row 6 years past Saddam’s toppling, then I refer you to Zhou Enlai’s take on the French Revolution.

As for discounting short-term costs, again, there you’re guilty of extrapolating the future based on Iraq, which is a bad idea.  And if you haven’t noticed the profound nature of our military’s successful evolution in response to our early failures in Iraq, then I think you’re the one who’s guilty of shortchanging our sacrifice.

I don’t think the Middle East has a chance of going back to what it was pre-Iraq, and I think that’s a good thing.  Don’t reduce the entire region to just southern Iraq, because the Kurdistanis don’t.  I wish the Bush administration had handled the postwar better, but America tends to learn little from victory and a lot from defeat.  You can say, Wouldn’t it have been better for us to learn all these things without the war?  And I would agree with you.  I just don’t think our discussion would be based in the real world at that point.

In sum, I don’t and never have argued that disruption for disruption’s sake (chaos for new rules) is simply the best way to go.  I think things get out of whack on a regular basis and that somebody will always trigger a rule-set reset—eventually.  Being smart to realize that means we should be smart enough to understand that we have—at various points in our history—tried to play that game ourselves.  Do I see virtue in that attempt?  Sure.  Unless you think killing 50k Iraqis a year on sanctions across the 1990s was “virtuous,” I think people of reasonable outlooks can disagree on the utility of toppling Saddam.

The pre-release version of the book I’ve read was written months ago, when the current financial crisis appeared contained to the mortgage industry.  Have recent developments changed your view on anything?  What impact do you see the crisis having on globalization?

For me, the financial crisis began in 2007, as I was writing the book.  That’s why I entitled one section, “From Indispensable Superpower to Insolvent Leviathan,” and the next one, “America the Contained.”  I mean, those are pretty clear titles, yes?

So while the latest iteration of the crisis was stunning, it came after a lengthy process that was fairly undeniable.

Simple point: grand strategy doesn’t stipulate “no financial panics allowed along the way.”  Markets, especially as they spread as rapidly as they have over the past three decades, are going to create bubbles.  I mean, we’ve gone more than a quarter century without a true global recession, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty along the way, so how good does globalization need to be to make you happy or satisfied, world?

Clearly, America is at the end of this Bretton Wood II package: we can’t leverage anymore and we’re at our limits on global policing.  Good news!  It just so happens there’s a slew of rising great powers appearing on the stage much like we did in the latter decades of the 19th century.  If that dynamic makes you automatically assume “imperial wars” and “resource wars,” then we don’t have much basis of discussion (and there are plenty of you out there, I know).  But if you see more interdependence than zero-sum competition, then I think you can imagine a realignment of America’s grand strategy that takes into account the new help available and therefore becomes more realistic on burden sharing.  So let’s not—again—extrapolate our entire grand strategic imagination going forward on the basis of the neocons’ record since 9/11.  I realize they put us all in a substantial funk—and deep hole—but I see an America that has dramatically upgraded its leadership just this week, so I count on our ability to learn from our mistakes and make the necessary realignments with this world that America deliberately sought to create—meaning our problems going forward involve too much success on our part, not too much failure.

Is there danger we can rerun the early 1930s in terms of viral stupidity on trade?  You bet.  But I don’t see that with Obama or the Chinese, and together, those two leaderships are enough to prevent any spiraling of trade contraction.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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