For some time now I have had a stack of books I’ve been going to blog about. The top of the stack is Thomas Barnett’s book The Pentagon’s New Map. First, the book is good, it is worth reading, and you should do so. Barnett is engaging and smart and is seriously trying to think through important questions. This is demonstrated not only by the book, but also by Barnett’s website. Barnett’s book has been reviewed far and wide, and on his website he publishes the reviews and responds to them. In fact, his website is almost the ideal of what a web-minded author can do. He engages in a dialogue with reviewers and responds to criticisms. Others, hopefully, will adopt his approach. May they also have the stamina to sustain it.
I read the book a few months ago and I hope I can make sense of my notes. I’ll focus on points that relate to issues which interest me. There is much in the book which I simply won’t touch on here. There are plenty of summaries on his site, if mine is too cryptic. But everybody reading this blog has heard about it and has some idea what it is about — The Core and The Gap, to get it down to five syllables. These terms, as well as many others, are part of Barnett’s idiosyncratic nomenclature.
Barnett asserts throughout that globalization means increasing “connectivity” to “content flows”, and that “disconnectedness is itself the ultimate enemy.” The Core is that part of the world in which is “functioning within globalization” because it “accepts the connectivity and can handle the content flows associated with integrating one’s national economy to the global economy.” How countries handle the “content flow” turns on their internal “legal rule sets”. Traditional-minded (or just oppressive) countries try to limit the content, e.g. Internet pornography or criticism of the government. Core countries also succeed in “harmonizing their internal rule sets” to the “emerging global rule of democracy, rule of law, and free markets.” Success at synchronizing with the global rule set, itself an evolving set of norms, means investment and other “connectedness” increasingly links a country to the functioning Core. The pace at which countries make these transitions, and which parts of the global rule set they adopt first, vary. A good index of “connectedness”, as Barnett notes, is the way a society treats its women, a point Ralph Peters has also made.
Barnett addresses at length the more strictly military side. He correctly notes that the United States has been spending more and more “billable hours” in the last 20 years, starting before the Cold War even ended, sending its military into the disorderly and violent regions of the Gap (Haiti, the Balkans, the Middle East). It has done so on an ad hoc basis as crises boil over, with no over-arching rationale to these various ventures. This is in part because the military has resisted acquiring the capability, equipment and knowledge needed to intervene with long-term success in these places. Each intervention has been treated by the Pentagon as a distraction from some forthcoming major war, which looks less and less likely to occur any time soon. The military, according to Barnett, still clings to a planning and training and acquisition mindset focused on one Big One akin to WWII or the Cold War, with China nominated to sit in the Bad Guy chair. Barnett sees this fear of China as overblown, if not unfounded. The military needs to learn that the Gap is not a distraction from its job. Its job is the Gap and there is no exit strategy.
Barnett says we need to recognize that the security goal of the United States is to eliminate the sources of disorder and terrorism at their roots, in the Gap. We need to learn and accept that connectedness has raised the cost of fighting within Core way too high for sensible people to contemplate. And most compellingly, nuclear weapons are always in the background as a deterrant if anyone were foolish enough to start an intra-Core war. So, the Core states have too much to lose by fighting among themselves and they know it. Hence we are happily surprised to find something like a firm basis for perpetual peace in the nicer parts of the world.
According to Barnett, a big part of why people worldwide have “freaked” about Bush’s assertion of preemption and apparent unilateralism is they don’t realize, because the Bush team has failed to clearly articulate it, that the “rule set” for the Core (Mutual Assured Destruction, deterrence, collective security) is still in place. We we only mean to operate in the rougher, more Hobbesian fashion in the Hobbesian badlands of the Gap.
So much for the descriptive part. Barnett goes on to advocate making it an express goal of United States policy to “shrink the Gap.” One way to do this is to encourage trade and particularly technology transfer to the Gap. He believes it is futile to try to prevent dangerous technology from reaching rogues in the Gap by restricting trade. Barnett advocates a robust system of threats and preemption instead.
… if you have a bad actor, whether he is a superempowered terrorist like Osama bin Laden or a rogue leader like Kim Jong Il, who has a long list of boxes that says he is not to be trusted or that the world would be a better place without him, then I say you move on to preemption. There is no negotiation at this point in the process, because you have given them plenty of warnings and requests to cease and desist. In the case of a regime, you simply keep ratcheting up your demands for compliance, and when the regime cannot comply and cannot be provoked into a precipitating action by your constantly growing military pressure, you preempt. In the case of a terrorist group, you skip even these preliminaries and preempt the moment you have any of them in your crosshairs.
Barnett notes “that may sound pretty harsh”, and rightly so, though I like the sound of it. I think those who don’t like Bush’s “unilateralism” will also ‘freak” if we do things way, especially if we announce we are going to. Barnett asks rhetorically, what “gives America the right to make such decisions”? He answers that “‘might makes right’ when we are talking about America playing Gap Leviathan.” And when the French get in a snit, what then? “[I]f the other Core powers want a greater say in how we exercise that power, they simply need to dedicate enough defense spending to develop similar capabilities.” In the meantime, “America will need to act unilaterally inside the Gap on a regular basis … because … quite frankly — no other military power on the planet even comes close to matching our capabilities. [H]ave no delusions: the United States owns the only ‘fist’ in the business.” Again, this sounds pretty realistic.
However, Barnett says the problem is that the United States cannot do Part 2 of a war all by itself. We can conquer anybody, but getting the conquered territory up and running requires lots of help. We need to get the rest of the Core to assist us in these ventures, not just “the Brits and Aussies” (i.e. the Anglosphere, a word Barnett does not use). How, do we get other Core powers to join us in the “follow-through effort”? Mostly, “we need to be more explicit with [our] allies about the better world we want to create whenever we undertake these necessarily difficult tasks.” Bush et al failed to articulate this vision, hence isolating us unnecessarily.
I’m not exactly sure why we need the other guys to help us do Part 2, assuming we were to acquire the skills needed, but let’s just take it that Barnett is right that we do need help. Barnett goes on to ask what happens if others do not buy our vision of a “happy ending”, what then? Uncharacteristically, he does not provide a plausible seeming answer to this.
This points up one of my biggest problems with the book. The Core is an amalgam of countries with interests and beliefs which conflict. Yes, intra-Core warfare is highly unlikely, especially in the “Old Core”. But explaining ourselves more carefully before we invade somewhere in the Gap is not ever going to make the Russians or the French or the Chinese support us. These countres have learned over the centuries to survive in a harsh, zero-sum world in which their own unique and prized identities were always in constant, mortal danger. All of these ancient countries resent American power. All of them want more freedom of action in the World. All perceive the United States as in some degree hostile to their interests. None of these countries wants to blow up a trading partner, or get in a war with another powerful country. But any of them could very well want to see the United States suffer some spectacular failure in the Gap because they may well believe that such an outcome would enhance their own status and opportunities. The Core is still a realm of zero-sum competition for some of the players. Shrinking the Gap is not a project they are going to want to invest a nickel in if the USA will do the heavy lifting anyway. And there is always the chance the USA will suffer some exploitable setback while policing the Gap. Many countries would, sensibly enough from their perspective, rather stand on the sidelines and see what opportunities emerge from the smoke when the USA ventures into the Gap. Barnett is aware of this dynamic, but I think it is more important than he apparently does.
This leads me to another related point, which is something which Barnett hints at, but is not explicit about. As I read the book, I repeatedly thought, “the Core of the Core is the Anglosphere.” The Core “rule sets” which Barnett refers are classically those of Anglo-American liberalism — representative democracy, apolitical militaries, strong sovereigns with delimited powers, flexible common law, free trade, free markets, openness to immigrants, economic dynamism and openness to change. These values and institutions were spread around the world by the maritime trading powers, Britain, then America. I think Barnett is therefore mistaken when he says that the United States is “globalizations godfather, its source code, its original model”, “its first great multinational state and economic union”. He acknowledges that the USA restarted a previously derailed globalization in 1945. However, I would attribute more than he does to this older globalization of the 19th Century and earlier. (See Kevin H. O’Rourke, Jeffrey G. Williamson,Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy). So, contra Barnett, the true “first great multinational state and economic union” was the British Empire, which we were once part of. It was this first globalization, which was ruined in 1914, which laid much of the foundation of the globalizing order the USA picked up in 1945. The “source code” Barnett is looking for is therefore not the architecture of the early Cold War Wise Men. They put upper stories on a structure that stared much earlier, whose foundations go back to the middle ages in England. This very ancient civilization originated in England, and is the source of the liberal order established in its colonies, and which is the source of the “rule set” which is now spreading around the world.
Why does this remote ancestry matter, since Barnett is addressing what the United States should be doing now? Because to “shrink the Gap” we need to understand how the Core became the Core in the first place — a process which began in a particular place and time, i.e. England in the Middle Ages. (See Alan MacFarlane’s wonderful books The Riddle of the Modern World, and its sequel The Making of the Modern World: Visions from the West and East.) (And while you are at it, pre-order Jim Bennett’s forthcoming book on the Anglosphere.) We need to accurately understand the foundations of our political and economic success — our “rule sets” in Barnett’s parlance — if we wish to understand what it will take to “shrink the Gap”, i.e. to build states and to spread the benefits of our values and institutions around the world.
The fact that the dominant “rule sets” we hope to spread into the gap are Anglo-American is yet another source of intra-Core tension. These Anglo-American values and institutions enjoy at best mixed popularity in Old Europe. France in particular does not like “Anglo-Saxon” liberalism. (See this earlier post, citing Walter Russell Mead’s review essay of recent French books.)
On the military side, Barnett repeatedly and accurately points out that Britain, Australia and the United States are reliable allies who are increasingly intermeshed and interoperable. This is the Anglosphere in arms. While Uncle Sam is the Leviathan, these junior powers continue to make disproportionate contributions. (The United States and Canada are joined at the hip economically, though Canada has long remained in our shadow militarily. Even so, we have a long-standing defensive alliance (NORAD) with Canada.) So, nothing in Barnett contradicts the notion that the Anglosphere is the core of the Core in terms of institutions and values, strength of alliances with the USA, or military capabilities. He just does not focus on it, or the ongoing intra-Core tensions this fact will continue to provoke.
Barnett mentions astutely notes that of the “New Core” countries, “China is the most worrisome” and India is the most promising.” I think he gets this almost exactly right.
China faces the biggest challenge to changing its “rule set” — moving away from one party rule. The Party is maintaining itself in the saddle by playing up nationalism and by bribing the People’s Liberation Army with rhetoric and funding which keep the PLA dreaming and planning its big showdown with the USA over Taiwan. Barnett notes that the “rule set fallout from a United States-China conflict” would “effectively bar Beijing from stable Core membership for the foreseeable future.” That is correct in my view. Let us hope the hard-faced men in Beijing manage to ride the tiger and not get into a war with the USA. Even if they “win” it will be a disaster for all parties. China can make the world a monumentally better place, or do horrendous damage, and it is all a matter of luck how the Party oligarchs handle the next few decades. I wish there was a way to put more certainty into the equation, but I don’t see it. Offer a decade of the rosary daily for things to go well in China. (Yes I am literally suggesting you pray for this. I do.)
And India. One of Barnett’s most unusual insights is his awareness of the critical importance of India. This is a point I have long believed and few others seem to focus on it. Barnett intriguingly mentions India as a “former colony” of Britain in the same breath with Australia, and even refers to India as “a crucial military partner” of the United States. Barnett sees India moving more and more toward the Core Anglophone states, both economically and militarily, a point made several times on this blog. He quotes approvingly a comment that India is “the most important country for the future of the world” because “if globalization succeeds in a democratic society where half the population is impoverished and one-quarter is Muslim, then it can succeed anywhere”. I don’t exactly agree. India will succeed relatively early and briskly precisely because it is a former British colony, which has a large population with a facility with English, a large and relatively wealthy diaspora population which wants to return and invest in India, a functioning democracy and a fairly well-functioning court system a relatively competent and law-abiding military all of which it inherited from Britain. India is not a long shot to succeed at globalizing, once it abandons the socialism it also inherited from Britain, it is an odds-on favorite to do very well indeed. (See the much-discussed essay Can India Overtake China?.)
Barnett offers a nice rebuttal to the claim often made by British scholars (e.g. Niall Ferguson, Paul Kennedy, Paul Johnson) that we are in fact (or ought to be) an “Empire”. This is a pet peeve of mine, and Barnett pithily points out in his own unique consultant-speak that Empires are about “maximal rule sets” where the globalized world order America is establishing is about “minimal rule sets”. (At some point I’ll finish a partially written post in lawyer-speak about why the United States is not an empire, but Barnett’s riposte will have to hold you for now.)
Barnett makes a two-pronged argument for America exerting itself to shrink the Gap. On the negative side, he points out that Gap is the source of disorder, criminality, terrorism and other Bad Things in the world, and this is only going to get worse unless conditions there improve. So, we need to do it to protect ourselves. On the affirmative side he makes an impassioned and evidently sincere argument that the United States, to be true to its own patriotism and its own destiny must help to spread the blessings it enjoys to the rest of the world, to end “disconnectedness” and bring everyone into the globalized Core. He addresses many of the obvious counter-arguments, which discussion I won’t summarize here. He forthrightly says that American lives will be lost in the process and that it is a cause which is worth that price. I’m not sure that he is right because I’m not sure that “connectivity” is a cause which can inspire the Jacksonian core of America to go to war, or that they will perceive need to bring order to the Congo to protect America in the long run. They have tended to want to stay home and only venture abroad to destroy specific threats. In Walter Russell Mead’s parlance, Barnett is offering a modernized Wilsonianism, an approach which has never enjoyed strong majority support. Also, I found myself asking whether this venture is this really something which is demanded by our founding principles and our very identity? Barnett has not fully convinced me it is. But he’ll keep writing and I’m still listening.
The practicality aspect in particular concerns me. I’m also not sure we really can pull off the kind of rock-bottom nation-building which would be necessary in the worst parts of the Gap. Does this mean millions of people are condemned to tyranny or poverty or both? Maybe. Not by me. By history, by fate, maybe. I wish it were otherwise. Maybe it is. Maybe very great improvements can be made for the lives of vast masses of people, even if the United States has to conquer the places to bring it about. Barnett has not yet convinced me it is possible. (Francis Fukuyama’s book on state-building, which I read and hope to write about on the blog, takes up this question.) And if it is a long-shot, I don’t want our soldiers dying in the mud for it. But I am open to hearing and seeing more arguments on this point from Barnett and others, because he may be right about the scope of what is possible. Iraq is a test case, even though it is not the test he would have preferred.
Another facet of the book seems mistaken to me. Barnett’s Gap is all one color. Core, Gap. Two zones. Now, such a bipartite division is a useful simplifying tool as far as it goes. But just as I think there is a Core-of-the-Core (the Anglosphere, potentially eventually including India), I think there is a heart of darkness in the Gap — the Arab Middle East. Barnett hates this idea. In Pentagon-speak, this represents a focus on the so-called “Arc of Instability”, and is code language for keeping a lid on the oil-producing regions of the world. That issue aside, and even accepting Barnett’s framework generally, the most threatening part of the Gap is this region — Islam famously has “bloody borders”. We have a huge population surge there, with many young men who have no opportunities in horribly stunted economies, oil revenue which has allowed exposure to the Core and access to its products and weapons without having to adopt its values and institutions, a popular and violent ideological mutation of Islam which presents a particularly serious menace, a strong aversion to much of the Core’s liberal values based upon even a more benign interpretation of Islam, and the problem that we are reliant on the material located under the surface of these places. Whether spreading “connectivity” into this area is going to lead to pacifying it is a very open question. It is just as likely to provoke a violent response. And we cannot choose to ignore what happens there, as we can and do about places like Burundi. We have to take an interest in these places. Barnett has not convinced me that a program for dealing with the Gap generally (1) will work in the Arab Middle East, or (2) will not be a distraction from the most urgent menaces we face, which do originate there. We need to focus on the primary danger first, and if we eventually get to Colombia and Zaire and Burma, good. But the recruiting grounds for a future Mohammad Atta and his colleagues has to be dealt with first. If the Gap is to be shrunk, if it can be shrunk, we should start there for our own good.
Barnett has many interesting things to say about the changes which will be necessary in the military and other arms of government to carry out the tasks he is proposing. His proposal that the military be divided into a Leviathan force, to fight wars, and a SysAdmin force to manage the peace, seems like a wise course. The great fear the military has is that it will become diluted if it gets into too many ancillary roles. If we do it his way, one part of the military can retain a total focus on shattering America’s foes without too much distraction. It could stay focused on high- and medium-intensity operations. As Steven Biddle put it in his brilliant recent book, our enemies only resort to unconventional warfare because we have such an overwhelming edge in conventional warfare. We should make absolutely sure we maintain that. The way to square the circle is to create an arm of the military which has the specific job of supervising the post-war phase. This force, as Barnett notes, would be composed of older personnel, would have more of a police function, would have a range of reconstruction skills, would have a high level of interagency cooperation, and would otherwise possess distinct capabilities which did not overlap with Leviathan. (Incidentally, Leviathan is a darn cool name. We need to come up with something better for SysAdmin.) Building the SysAdmin force makes sense to me whether or not we make transforming the Gap our primary focus.
This relates to a point I have thought about a lot. Our Army is always, always, always surprised when it has to do occupation, nation-building and constabulary work. They never learn. They don’t want to learn. They refuse to prepare or to commit resources or people to the task. They want to spend money on fancy weapons, train for and fight “proper” wars, and come home. But it rarely works out that way. This persistent, culpable negligence is something the military really needs to deal with. (See this essay, and this one for good books on lessons learned the hard way and then ignored.) We cannot afford to relearn for the umpteenth time these same hard lessons.
There are a lot of reasons why this has repeatedly happened. (1) The military is properly focused on the biggest dangers, and defeating those. Insurgencies are not perceived as existential threats the way the Wehrmacht or the Red Army were. You can lose Vietnam and survive. If you fail to defeat the blitzkreig coming down both sides of the autobahn into the Fulda Gap, you have lost everything. (2) The military is driven by budgets, and counterinsurgencies don’t have many big-ticket purchases associated with them. (3) The military is driven by career-enhancing postings, and counterinsurgency operations have few glamorous, resume-building opportunities. A victory is when nothing happens. And they offer many, many opportunities for career-destroying mistakes. So, the expertise always evaporates. No one wants to go near this stuff. With good reason. That is why political leadership is necessary to make the soldiers think about, equip for, train for, and do well the distasteful but necessary things they don’t want to do. Barnett’s proposed SysAdmin force would be an institutional home for these capabilities and this knowleged, and it would be composed of a group of people who would lobby for their organization and its budgets.
(The military is already thinking somewhat along these lines. See this fascinating article, which proposes something akin to Barnett’s SysAdmin force. The author proposes an interagency government task force to be attached to each Marine expeditionary unit and Army brigade, particularly in urban combat, so that the reconstruction process can start in the immediate aftermath of the fighting, even during the fighting.)
This post is insanely long and it could be a lot longer. Go read Barnett’s book.
(It got longer. The sequel is here.)