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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Book Review

Thomas Barnett is a genuine grand strategist. His two previous books, “The Pentagon's New Map” and “A Blueprint for Action” have demonstrated that he is someone to be listened to in the world of post September 11 strategic thinking.

Central to his thesis is the concept that the main challenge facing the world in the 21st century will be integrating the areas of the globe that he calls the “non-integrating gap” with the “core.” This is also focus of this book, however he explicitly begins to outline what the post-Bush era will need in this regard.

I have to say that I agree with many of his precepts, including the notion that what we fundamentally lack is not a big war force, the military that he calls the Leviathan force, but rather what he calls a “SysAdmin” force. A military/civilian structure to fight irregular wars, perform stability ops and nation build.

This is currently at the heart of the Pentagon debates over what our force structure should look like in the next 10 years. Should we be gearing up for war with potential peer competitor like China? I agree with Barnett that this scenario is ludicrous and is damaging to the United States' needs in the post-September 11 strategic environment. Similarly, I agree that post September 11 strategy has been too focused on *political reform.* Specifically, spreading democratic institutions.

Barnett has a lot of interesting things to say and should be listened to very carefully. However I do disagree with him in several areas. I think he goes wrong fundamentally when he begins to argue that it is not political reform that is needed, but rather economic reform. That the gap countries need to be integrated in to the globalization system and that the U.S. and other core nations should focus on a strategy that looks to increase the linkages and communications flows necessary for that economic system to flourish.

I absolutely agree with Barnett that the most important strategic challenge facing the United States is integrating the gap with the core. I also agree that this is mostly an economic function. I essentially buy that what is needed is for the gap countries to become successful and to develop the linkages and communication necessary to develop the networks allow for that economic success. But where I think he goes wrong is that this economic integration must be preceded by *cultural* change. The inhabitants of the gap, what I would call traditional societies, want to keep their traditional culture and also be successful. *This is impossible.* They cannot be successful and retain the elements of their traditional culture that retard that growth.

Therefore, although I agree with Barnett's eventual end state goals, I think he is missing the cultural forest for the economic trees. Barnett is too dismissive of the role of culture in this regard. He thinks that with the establishment of the connectivity and the networks from the modern world into the pre-modern that economic success will follow, but in reality it is necessary for the traditional culture to begin to change first. Otherwise, the build out of that connectivity will fail. This does not mean the traditional culture must change all at once. However you *must* start an actual path to liberalization. And that liberalization cannot be economic without first engendering some cultural liberalization.

I also think that Barnett is too dismissive of the concept of a nuclear terror strike and its second order effects. Barnett seems to think that a nuclear strike is not likely at all and that we spend way too much time and effort on the issues surrounding this fear. I'm not so sanguine. Anyone who dismisses the significant possibility of a nuclear strike by the traditional culture on an American city is simply suffering a failure of imagination.

And more so is ignoring the second order effects. He is correct in that United States is the most successful political, monetary and cultural union in history of the planet. He is also correct in noting that we are exporting the system to the rest of the world and have been for two centuries. But there's no reason that a society has to continually move forward. Societies can also move backward. If Barnett thinks that we made rash mistakes in the aftermath of September 11, he will be absolutely horrified at the steps the United States takes after New York is destroyed in a nuclear terror strike. We will destroy, or rather we will disassemble, the connectivity and the networks which are so crucial to our success, which Barnett focuses on as the great engine of progress.

And that is where the critical problem lies. Barnett is more sanguine about this eventuality not only because he sees it as unlikely, but he has great faith in the ability of the American system/the globalization system to integrate traditional cultures. After all this is what we've been doing for the past 200 years. He notes, very perceptively, that we fought a very similar war to the one that we are fighting now in the mid-to late 19th century integrating the American West into the American system. After World War II we integrated about a third of the world into the system. Our record of success stands for itself.

The problem I see is that Barnett thinks we have all the time in the world for the gap countries to integrate with the core. The prospect of a nuclear terror strike on New York hinges on that assumption. I agree with Barnett that the connectivity and integration that he seeks is mostly a “pull” function. A demand side function. But I'm not convinced that we have so much time that we can ignore the need for a bit of a “push” function from our side.

The fact is that we are in a race to integrate the traditional culture into our system before it can do us so great damage that we ourselves dismantle that system. This is not idle speculation. The Realist has always thought that liberalization, be political, economic or cultural, will come in its own time. And Realist that I was, I bought this argument. After September 11, I came more around to the Neoconservative point of view. There are millions of people in this world who feel that their traditional culture is under threat of extinction, and actually they are *correct.* What's more, hundreds of thousands of them are willing to do anything, absolutely anything, to destroy that threat to their way of life. Given such realities, the fact that we cannot rely on any moral restraint on the part of our adversaries, we must seek to integrate the gap into the core as quickly as possible by any means available. We simply do not know how much time we have left.


For a look at Barnett's power point show (doesn't everyone have one these days?) take a look below:







Also take a listen to his series of interviews with Hugh Hewitt

1 Comments:

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