Two hours of Tom Barnett in twenty – thirty? – minutes

Tom Barnett spoke at Pop!Tech two years ago, when I spoke here. His talk literally electrified the room – whether it insired people, challenged them or pissed them off, everyone was on the edge of their seats. Tom, at that point, was experiencing the amazing rise of his first book, “The Pentagon’s New Map”. He’s now published a second bookk – “Blueprint for Action” – which tries to move from diagnosis to prescription. It hasn’t sold as well – “people love diagnoses, they don’t love prescriptions.” His question now is how we get better at post conflict, post disaster, “post whatever”.

We run through his New Map slides very quickly, taking a slightly different tack on the subject than he’s offered before. He posits Samuel Huntington and Tom Friedman as opposite poles on an ideological map. Huntington has a dark view of history: “people clash, states clash, blocs clash, civilizations clash – it’s the grand march of human progress.” Friedman argues that globalization is coming, like it or not: some folks get it, some don’t, but all will be forced to. He describes it as “Marx on steroids”, softened by some psychology. Huntington, on the other hand, believes that some folks will never get it – they don’t have “the democracy or market gene”.

Barnett wants to add a third leg – the military-political leg. He believes that globalization is inevitable, but that the spread of globalization is guaranteed to create political and military conflict. He points to his famous 2003 map of the countries where the US has intervened militarily – 95% of interventions are circled by a line: “the non-integrating Gap”, sometimes called “the arc of instability” by the US military. The Gap is surrounded by the Core – nations that have bought into capitalist, free market, transparent principles.

Barnett believes we need to work across the core to withstand problems like 9/11. We need to firewall the core from the Gap’s worst exports: pandemics, narcotics, and terror. And we need to shrink the gap by exporting security into it. This requires two forces – the Leviathan (the warfighting force) and the SysAdmin (the peacemaking, rebuilding, stabilization force.

The Leviathan is young, male, unmarried, and “slightly pissed off”. They’re uniformed military, move quickly, and they “take down networks, but don’t explain themselves well.” They need to be complemented by the SysAdmin – it will be largely civilian, more privately funded than government funded, interagency, and multinational. It’s “your Mom’s military, the military that embodies everything your Dad fears.”

Barnett talks about “war versus peace versus everything else”. He points out that insurgents would prefer not to fight your leviathan force. But once you declare mission accomplished, then he shows up, “after you’ve sent in the B-team.” This is how Hezbollah took on Israel in Lebanon. It’s not a good idea to win the war and lose the peace.

We need many more boots on the ground to win the peace. We have a deparment of war – the Department of Defense – which wants to fight China, but is stuck with the Gap. Our department of Peace is the State Department, which “knows the core, doesn’t know it’s ass from his elbow in the gap.” We need something working the middle – a center of bureacratic weight – that can work the seam between war and peace.

When a state goes bankrupt, the IMF intervenes and nurses the country back to financial health. We need a force that stabilizes politically bankrupt states. This may require military intervention, and it will be guaranteed to include foreign investment. Barnett believes that a few parts of this system are in place: the UN security council “they can indict your ass – ‘Do it, or else, we’re going to send you a more strongly worded letter'”. We’ve got a US-enabled leviathan, which would be “happy to take that guy down. I’ll do it tuesday, it’ll cost $23 billion.” And we’ve got an international criminal court that has teeth, but no way to arrest the bad guys. The ICC and the Leviathan are
“our peanut butter and their chocolate”, because we tend to try the bad guys in secret.

What we need, going forward, is three new entities:
– a core-enabled sysadmin force, at least 300,000 strong, with troops from countries like China, Russia and India
– a “functioning executive” that has decisionmaking capacity
– an international reconstruction fund

Building prosperous nations requires we address the entirity of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The Powell doctrine suggests that we just need security – this is an attractive error. We need infrastructure, social well being, a legal system, some state power and security. The goal is to turn least developed countries into “low cost countries”, where people want to invest.

Barnett talks about a package of services and templates to help countries make it to the “new minimum standard”. This might include hardware and software to scan containers on ships, software to set up central banks – customizable for Islamic banks. It’s a common set of tools and solutions that many nations could take advantage of, including pre-packaged training.

Looking at the contemporary Middle East, Tom sees “three seams” – the border with sub-Saharan Africa, where Al Qaeda hides guns and gold. He predicts we’ll see the US focus south after handling conflict in the Middle East. There’s a seam with Europe and Russia, demonstrated by the fact that Al Qaeda can reach Madrid, London and Beslan. And the third seam is with China and East Asia – that’s where the oil is going. “It’s their oil, and our blood – they don’t like to talk about it.”

The US can’t expect to isolate Iran – they’re too close to China and India, who can effectively veto our efforts. Barnett thinks it’s logical that Iran is looking for nuclear weapons: “There’s three guys sitting on a bench. I shoot the guy on the left, and double tap the guy on the right. The guy in the middle reaches for a weapon – is he irrational?” Given that the jihadis are sunni, shouldn’t we be trying for “the soft kill of connectivity” in Shia Iran, where the “people like us and the government hates us”?

Demographics will help us in the Middle East, as the populations age. “I’m 44 – there’s no jihadism for me in my future.” Instead, he predicts a religious reformation led by American muslims, specifically women. He sees a political reform coming from Islamic parties in Europe, and an economic reform coming from the East, where nations like Malaysia have some real economic clout.

As for China, Barnett asks us to think about what the UK did as they realized their age of empire was over: they sided with the new great power, the US, and acted as our mentor, allowing them to fight above their weight for decades to come. China is very clearly the new rising star – will we make the choice the UK made, or will we fight them?

Together, we’ve got great potential – we’ll invade anyone in the gap, and China will invest anywhere in the gap. As a result, they’re an ultimate sysadmin to our leviathan. But we have great potential to get this wrong – “Archduke Ferdinand lives in Taiwan.” It’s a terrible mistake for us to guarantee Taiwan’s future forever. With Taiwan on the table, we’re bound to “overfeed Leviathan and starve the Sysadmin.”

Kim Jong Il is a great example of why we need China – there’s “no soft kill available because there’s no connectivity.” We need China’s buy it, so they can get rid of him (“a train that comes back empty”) or overthrow him in a coup. The other option – an invasion – requires China as well. Even if we could invade, we need China to help rebuild: “The Sysadmin is a body problem – you have to go to the body shop to solve it.” Those body shops are India and China.

China and India are already building the infrastructure in the Gap. They’re not doing it perfectly, but they are doing it quickly. “f chinese had reconstructed iraq, it would have been finished on time.” Africa won’t be the US – it will be a copy of China, which is a copy of Singapore, which is a copy of Japan, which is a copy of the US.

Barnett tells us by telling us that if you were born before 1960, you’re beyond hope of understanding this. You tend to be infected with cold war thinking, a belief that people have the same political systems as we do are our friends. But in the future, economics will matter more than politics in terms of alliances. In the future, the US will have more in common with China than with Japan, more in common with India than the UK, and more in common with Iran than France… which might not be that hard to imagine.

He ends by showing us the painting Pablo Picasso made of Gertrude Stein – she saw it and exclaimed, “It doesn’t look like me.” The master smiled and responded, “Don’t worry, it will.” A great closing line for all futurists, political or otherwise.

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7 Responses to Two hours of Tom Barnett in twenty – thirty? – minutes

  1. Pingback: ArtLung Blog : Archives : » Great TPM BArnett Quote

  2. Sean says:

    love these notes Ethan. thanks for posting them. i’m writing up the linking post right now.

    a couple suggestions:

    + i think you mean to start your third paragraph with ‘Barnett’

    + “Together, we’ve got great potential – we’ll invade anyone in the core, and China will invest anywhere in the core.”

    i think those ‘core’s should be ‘gap’s.

    best –

  3. Ethan says:

    Barnett, Friedman; gap, core – who can keep up with all these piddling little distinctions, Sean… :-)

    Fixed, both of them.

  4. Pingback: Gus diZerega » Thomas Barnett and a world transformed

  5. Gus diZerega says:

    Really a good write up of Barnett’s talk, which was perhaps the best and most mind expanding short summary of America’s future place in the world I have heard. Nevertheless, I found certain key assumptions of his so problematic as to undermine part of his perscriptions. Two were particularly questionable: his blurring the distinction between democracies and undemocratic states. The first are emergent orders, the second are instrumental organizations, and they act differently. The second assumption is that societies can be rebuilt using a kind of engineering mentality. This assumption seems to underlie his proposal for an international force to create viable societies after intervention. I explore these criticiusms at greater depth on my own blog at http://www.dizerega.com/?p=44

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