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A future worth creating: An interview with Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 3, 2004

Dr. Thomas P.M. BarnettDr. Thomas P.M. Barnett exploded into the public's consciousness in March 2003 with a controversial article in Esquire magazine. Entitled The Pentagon's New Map, Barnett's essay argued that the United States needed to stop thinking of the world in Cold War terms and to craft a new military, political and economic rules to deal with the new reality. Barnett's key argument is that globalization is the key to peace and that the United States had to use its political, economic and military might to extend it to those countries disconnected from the two-thirds of the world enjoying greater economic liberty. Not surprisingly Barnett's thesis has provoked debate on both the left and the right. It's also prompted The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century, a book length version of the essay. Dr. Barnett was kind enough to sit with ESR and discuss his ideas.

You began your career specializing in Soviet affairs. How did you feel in the late 1980s to know that your career was threatened before it really even began?

Actually it was a huge relief. To get the Ph.D. is to engage in very specialized research for several years. It was a great rite of passage that taught me much, but it also convinced me that I was not a drill-down artist who wanted to remain trapped in a very narrow subject matter -- such as East European-Third World relations. So when the wall came down, I felt like I too had been given my freedom. I just knew I was at the creation point for that which would follow. The only questions were: what was that global future we were staring at? And what new role could I cast for myself in trying to help the U.S. government adjust to this new global environment?

How did you make the transition from focusing on the Soviet Union to the wider world?

U.S. military planning had become so isolated and pristine due to the overlay of the threat of WWIII, that I knew instinctively that if I was going to spread my wings, so to speak, I needed to get out from under that paradigm and explore the seams that exist between war and peace, between conflict and stability, or between national security and global economics. So I did a lot of work on navy strategy, because the early 1990s featured a big re-think on that whole subject. Then I migrated toward foreign aid, putting in many months as a consultant with the U.S. Agency for International Development. But the big step for me was to leave the Washington think tank scene and forge this unique research partnership between Wall Street and the Naval War College in Rhode Island, with the focus being how globalization was altering America's definitions of national and international security.

The Pentagon's New MapI know it's difficult but in a nutshell tell us what you're arguing in The Pentagon's New Map?

This book does nothing less than try to enunciate a successor to the Cold War strategy of containment -- in effect to diagnose the true source of mass violence and terrorism within the global community so as to facilitate their containment by military and diplomatic means, and ultimately their eradication by economic and social integration. Winning this global war on terrorism entails making globalization truly global and -- by doing so -- eliminating the disconnectedness that defines danger in this age. By locating the GWOT within the larger historical process of globalization and linking it explicitly to its continued expansion, I seek to move America out of the habit of waging war solely within the context of war and into the habit of thinking about, preparing for, and waging war within the context of everything else.

In hindsight your dividing of the world into basically two camps, the Functioning Core of nations that are economically developed, politically stable and integrated into the global economy, and the Gap, those disconnected from the Core, should be self-evident to most people. Why do you think that most of us are still stuck in Cold War era thinking of clash of cultures or ideologies that lead to wars you refer to as The Big One?

The Defense Department was created back in 1947 around the singular ordering principle of great power war because that's what we knew and that's what we foresaw in the years ahead. In reality, nuclear weapons killed great power war, as no two great powers have ever gone to war with one another since we've invented nukes. But until the Soviet bloc fell away, we had to honor that ordering principle because the war we deterred was the Big One for all the marbles. Since the Pentagon spent so many years in that mind-set, they naturally looked around for someone to replace the Sovs in the post-Cold War era, settling on the Chinese with the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1996. So we continued to buy one military (high-tech for great power war) even as we spent the 1990s doing mostly low-tech Military Operations Other Than War. That yields the military we have now: able to do 2-3 Saddam-style takedowns a year but undermanned, under-equipped, and under-imagined in terms of the challenges we now face in trying to rehab Iraq. That's why the Pentagon's mindset matters: it generates the force over time that we end up using, whether it's particularly suited for the job or not. And when it's not, like in Iraq since the end of the war, it's reasonable to argue that the lives of our personnel are put unnecessarily at risk. So this vision stuff really matters in the end.

As for the breakdown of the world in the book being self-evident, I agree. Too many people with a couple of Poli Sci courses under their belt will criticize the book as simply replicating the old Have-Have Not breakdown, or -- worse -- Immanuel Wallerstein's Core-Periphery breakdown. But while similarities exist, neither is logically considered a precursor concept. I'm not talking who's simply rich or poor, but who's connecting up to the global economy or not, so it's a matter of direction, not degree. As for Wallerstein's brand of watered-down Marxism, let's remember that he posited that the Core needed to keep the Periphery down in order to stay rich. I'm making exactly the opposite argument. If anyone wants to link me to Wallerstein, they better note I turn that now outdated (it worked for a while in the 1970s) argument on its head. So it's time to move on in international relations theory as well as Pentagon's planning.

Why is globalization so necessary to the cause of peace?

Simply put, globalization spreads connectivity. Connectivity increases options and opportunities for economic transactions on all levels, but especially for individuals. Those rising transaction rates and growing levels of connectivity generate freedom of choice, information, etc. Over time, connectivity requires code, as my software friends like to say, and more rules mean less conflict and more peace. Globalization certainly shakes things up as it moves into traditional societies, and that process will generate social anguish, political changes of the strongest sort, and hostile reactions in certain societies. So there's the rub, as globalization advances, expect more conflict associated with that advance, because it tends to challenge traditional societies toward great change. But over time the lasting effect of that connectivity is peace. Does the new trump the old in the process? Yes. Does the individual trump the collective? Yes. Is this bad? Only if you think progress is (or conversely, that life was better in the old days). But in my mind, most of the resistance to globalization is not about direction, but speed of advance. The real battle cry of anti-globalization forces should be "slow down!" Not "go away!" Of course, a bin Laden and an al Qaeda are going to fight globalization's advance into the Islamic world tooth and nail, because they see their chances to hijack societies there back to their 7th century definition of paradise slipping away with each year that globalization encroaches a bit more into the region. So expect their struggle to get more desperate with time.

You argue that China isn't the threat -- the new Soviet Union – that many conservatives and those in the Pentagon have made it out to be because it has too much to lose economically, not to mention militarily, by challenging America's commitment to Taiwan and the rest of southeast Asia. What do you see from China then in 20 years time and why?

I see the potential for tremendous strategic partnership, if the U.S. has the wisdom and courage to make the compromises necessary for generating that bond. China will be a challenge to the U.S. on many levels -- economically, diplomatically, socially, and especially politically given its slow pace of reform -- but none of those issues necessarily segue into a military challenge, unless you think a lot of Americans should give up their lives defending one China against another. I have a hard time with that scenario, because I continue to witness wholesale economic integration between Taiwan and China. It's that inexorable coming together economically that fuels the tough political talk on both sides, which we need to manage skillfully and without emotion. China twenty years from now can and should be a huge partner for the U.S., cemented in a NATO-like security alliance for East Asia that arises out of the shared commitment of South Korea, Japan, China, and the U.S. in successfully removing the brutal Kim Jong Il regime from power and reuniting Korea.

You laud the Bush Administration for realizing that a new security rule-set and strategic vision was necessary after 9/11 -- such as the doctrine of preemptive military action -- but take it to task for not explaining them to the world adequately. How would you go about this?

The key thing we need to forge is an A-to-Z rule set on how the global community processes politically bankrupt states -- in effect how we remove bad leaders from power with the expressed approval of the community of great powers. We have one for economically bankrupt states, but we don't have one for politically bankrupt states. That rule set will require a dedicated international organization, like the IMF is for economic rehab jobs. I see that evolution coming about far more logically in the G-20 venue than the UN Security Council, so that is where I would make my case.

Beyond that specific task, there is simply the need for this administration to explain itself better in its speeches and in this national election campaign. The conversation has to start with the American people themselves if we are going to move the pile on this one. Once the American public gets a clear sense from this administration -- or any that follows -- as to where this whole global war on terrorism is going, then we'll be better able to explain ourselves to the outside world. But until we get past these outdated myths about "global policeman," "perpetual war" and "American empire," we won't be able to conduct the national debate we need to conduct to get the real tasks -- like the one I mention above -- out on the table for serious action.

How would you react to Robert Kagan's argument in Of Paradise and Power that "It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world"? If Europe and the U.S. have a fundamentally different view of how power is to be exercised, how can two ever reach agreement on the security, economic and political rule-sets that you say are now necessary?

I think we concentrate on getting a new understanding with the New Core powers (as I call them) first and let that process draw the Europeans into the fold. So I would concentrate on making things happen first with China, India, Russia, Brazil, etc., or basically the Group of 20-plus that have emerged in the Doha Development Round negotiations in the WTO. If we spend forever trying to get the Europeans signed on, we risk not making the deals and compromises to secure the deep cooperation of all these emerging powers. So I'd focus on the New Core and let the Old Core come along on its own pace. Europe will remain focused on internal integration for years, while a Japan will follow wherever China goes, simply because their economic fates are now so intertwined.

As the title of your book implies, it's the Pentagon perhaps that needs to remake itself the most of any government agency for this new era. In fact, you advocate a complete transformation of the Department of Defense, including splitting the military into two components – a Leviathan force capable of fighting the big wars and a System Administrator force that would administer nations that are being integrated into the gap. What's the response been like from the senior military officials you've passed this idea by?

You'd be surprised how many of the younger flag officers realize that not only is this pathway possible and necessary, but it's already happening all around them. The real question is how long it will take for our government to recognize and codify this growing bifurcation of DoD, because the rise of the Sys Admin force really requires a huge coordination of effort between the Pentagon and the rest of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. In the end, the Sys Admin force is only partially manned by DoD, with the bulk coming from elsewhere and the "bodyguards" coming from the military services.

But the real answer to the question is this: when you change the minds of the captains and the colonels on this subject, you set in motion the potential for change within the next ten years, because that's how fast they move up and into control in the up-or-out culture of the military. What tends to drive that change more is failure as opposed to success. I think that failure is brewing today in our occupation of Iraq, so I think the potential for my concept of the Sys Admin force to emerge grows rapidly with each month. Already we see proposals, respectively, out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and White House for dedicated "stabilization forces" within the U.S. military and a "global peace operations force" that involves us with other states' militaries, so I definitely see this ball rolling and picking up speed with events in Iraq. My job, therefore, is simply to seed the minds of the future admirals and generals who will ultimately oversee this profound transformation.

How realistic is it really though to think that America's military could be reorganized in such an ambitious fashion? It's not only a reorganization of a Cold War force, but a reorganization of an organization dating back over two centuries.

All we do in bifurcating the Department of Defense is simply to return it to the same breakdown that defined the U.S. military for the bulk of its history -- in effect a Department of War and a Department of Everything Else (or what used to be called the Department of Navy). So my Leviathan-Sys Admin breakdown is not only not new, it's not even hard to imagine because it's far closer to U.S. military tradition that the oddities forced upon it over the course of the historical aberration called the Cold War. Go back and read your histories of the navy and Marine Corps. What I describe as the role of the Sys Admin force is basically the history of both military services prior to World War II.

You see the spread of globalization as a moral mission of the United States, not simply an exercise to make America safer. That implies a greater American role overseas both militarily and politically. How would you respond to accusations that this is merely the creation -- even if unintentionally -- of an American Empire?

Empire involves the enforcement of both minimal and maximal rule sets, or not only what you cannot do but what you must do. America has never been about the enforcement of maximal rule sets, either at home or abroad. The use of that term, empire, is simply bad history -- simplicity masquerading as sophistication. Moreover, if done right, this pathway does not require a greater effort on the part of the U.S. militarily. Check your history of U.S. military activity across the post-Cold War era, which I detail at length in this book. We're working far too hard at managing the global security environment now because we're not well-balanced and because we're doing a poor job at attracting important allies to this mutually-beneficial vision. This is not a budget-busting effort. This is about managing the world more intelligently and sharing that effort with others united in common vision. That's a bigger effort diplomatically yes, but last time I checked that doesn't exactly break the bank since it's mostly just talk.

There is a lot in your book that will make both liberals and conservatives nervous, whether it's an increased military presence around the world or American soldiers in the future actively operating within American borders. How hard do you think it will be to sell your vision of the future?

Again, check out your history since the end of the Cold War. We've been hugely involved and present all over that Gap I describe in the book. So we're not talking more presence or more involvement, just a better use of our people and efforts. Remember, the Gap isn't the entire world, but encompasses roughly one-third of humanity. Within that population, we're talking 8 to 10 situations that need military responses at any one time, and we'll get to each in turn. But remember that we spent -- on any given day -- most of the 1990s involved in 5 to 7 major response situations spread around my Gap. So this workload is very much something we're used to. It will actually get a lot easier with a rebalanced force more efficiently spread around the Gap (and not the "world").

The Sys Admin force that evolves will feature service that's far closer to the Coast Guard than to the Cold War military you're imagining "patrolling the streets" of America. The Sys Admin force will look and feel a lot like the current National Guard in many ways, so the change won't be a big deal, unless you're someone who imagines the UN "black helicopters" bearing down on you every time you see a National Guard soldier on a street corner during a heightened terrorist alert. I didn't see America panic when the Guard was all over the place during the recent Iraq war. I say trust your political system more than giving in to those fears. Orwell continues to be wrong: technology far more empowers the individual than the state.

At one point you state that we have to expand our concept of the national security crisis to include 'system perturbations.' Could you explain what you mean by that term and what new challenges and opportunities they offer?

The concept of System Perturbations is just my attempt to recast crisis from the concept of sheer destruction (smoking holes, conventional war, etc.) to sheer disruption (the temporary depression of the rule sets that define peace and stability). The terrorist attacks of 9/11 did not involve much destruction when compared to wars in general, and the loss of life was not unprecedented when compared to something like how many people die in car accidents each month or from handguns each year. Remember, we lost more men on the beaches of Normandy one morning back in 1944, and then followed that up with similar losses on a regular basis for months on end. What defined 9/11 the shock-to-our-system was not the sheer destruction or the level of casualties, but the sense that rule sets were thrown temporarily out of whack or called in question for a serious length of time. All of a sudden Americans didn't have a sense of what it meant to be safe or how they should understand the concept of war/terrorism/what-should-we-call-this-exactly? The attacks of 9/11 are felt most in the huge influx of new rules created in its aftermath, two of the most important being the Patriot Act and the new strategy of preemptive war. So the concept of System Perturbation measures a crisis by how many rules are replaced/generated, not by the level of death or destruction. I think that way of defining crisis and instability makes more sense in the interconnected world we live it. The opportunity here is the same as the danger: until we get good at handling disruptions of connectivity like a 9/11, our enemies in this global war on terrorism will continue trying to inflict such disruptive events upon our societies. So expect more 9/11's until you can demonstrate that such efforts are meaningless because our systems (economic, political, social, security) are so robust that the disruptions suffered are minimal.

You devote much of your time explaining what the Core must do to expand globalization -- or in other words peace -- but what responsibilities do nations in the Gap -- those not connected to the globalization process -- have?

Basically, the societies of the Gap have to move beyond the historical suspicions they still carry with them from the Colonial Age. Globalization comes with rules, not a ruler. To join the global economy is simply to put in place sufficiently stable rule sets within your political system and economy to attract the foreign direct investment that drives real integration. It means rotating your leadership every 4 to 6 years, as 90 percent of the Core does. And if you cannot achieve that happy medium, you need to accept the aid of the Core in making it happen, even when that means taking down your corrupt, authoritarian "president-for-life."

In the end, though, most of the compromises will have to come from the Core, like in the Doha Development Round.

One criticism of The Pentagon's New Map is that you see the world in an entirely rational manner. Some cultures and even entire nations, including some in the Middle East, seem to be completely uninterested in joining this new global order despite its perceived benefits. How would you react to that criticism?

This criticism baffles me, since I define this huge resistance to globalization throughout the book, citing that resistance's willingness to engage in catastrophic acts of terrorism as the main danger to globalization's advance. All of that violent resistance is logically defined as non-rational (meaning more drive by emotion than logic), so where exactly do I fail in this model to account for it, since I make it the centerpiece of my view of global struggle? Perhaps I should have employed more obscure poli sci jargon throughout the text, but frankly, I consider this criticism to be a non-issue. I say it quite clearly in the book: everyone welcomes connectivity but not every society can handle the content flows that come with that connectivity because it challenges traditional definitions of a life well led. So will we see resistance to globalization? Definitely. Does my model seem more robust if I label such resistance "non-rational"? Maybe to egghead academics, but I didn't write this book for them.

Related to this somewhat obtuse criticism is the charge that I'm the second coming of Norman Angell, because I argue that connectivity necessary breeds the logic of cooperation among great powers. The history on this one is just stunningly bad. I'm Norman Angell with nukes, if you must know. Again, great power war died with the invention of nuclear weapons. We invent them in 1945 and no two great powers have ever gone to war with one another since. It's not woolly-headed to see this era's globalization as ultimately a source of global peace among great powers, it's simply realizing that this historical version of globalization has proceeded in the aftermath of the development of a stable nuclear deterrence among great powers. As for non-rational actors who get their hands on WMD, as I say in the book, you preempt them with all deliberate speed. So again, how I'm ignoring non-rational actors in this book is simply beyond me.

Then again, you've gotta give the academics their shot to tag you with the charge of "ignoring" their preferred jargon. I mean, heck, I never even use the phrase "soft power." Shouldn't I get at least a B-minus for that alone? Then there's my complete refusal to work in "hegemony" or "hegemonic."

But I digress . . . or perhaps just regress.

The Pentagon's New Map is ultimately an optimistic manifesto since you clearly believe that not only is permanent peace possible but doable. How optimistic are you that we can actually shrink the Gap and bring the remaining 1/3 of the world's population into the Core?

Globalization will continue to advance so long as we don't screw it up. By advancing, globalization will generate a lot of tumult in traditional societies, in turn generating a lot of irrational violence that will have to be suppressed (see, I'm learning to address my critics better!). So the future I describe is rather inevitable so long as we don't lose our cool or our resolve in dealing with the tough-but-clearly-boundable security issues ahead. Just 15 years ago we still spent our days in this business worrying about global nuclear Armageddon, and now we're all about hunting down and disabling bad guys who either seek to engage in terrorism or who keep this societies cruelly isolated from the outside world (and yes, I am thinking about that mass-murdering Kim Jong Il next). It may seem like the road ahead is harder, but it isn't. All the big problems, like war among great powers, have been solved. Now we move onto the tougher nuts to crack, meaning sub-national violence and transnational terrorism, but these issues are nowhere near the problem sets we faced previously. We are on the verge of ending war as we have known it for centuries. Interstate war is going the war of the dinosaur, and globalization continues to spread around the world, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in the last two decades alone. All I am talking about in this book is how to invite the remaining one-third of humanity into the good life most of us already enjoy -- a life without mass violence and a life with growing economic connectivity and individual freedom. It's a future worth creating, as I say, and it is completely within our grasp.

Thanks very much for joining us Dr. Barnett.

Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Buy The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century at Amazon.com for only $18.33 (32% off)

Visit Dr. Barnett's web site at www.thomaspmbarnett.com.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • A vision for the future by Steve Martinovich (May 3, 2004)
    Steve Martinovich found Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett's The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century to be an engaging and remarkable call for a new grand vision for the United States
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