With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Why Some Are Calling Thomas P.M. Barnett Our Age's George F. Kennan

Americans tend to be a practical people. When faced with a problem we experiment, improvise and muddle through until we succeed or we move on to more fruitful endeavors. De Tocqueville wrote, “The spirit of the Americans is averse to general ideas and does not seek theoretical discoveries.” A truism evidenced even in our greatest politicians – Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt – who during a crisis, broke from tradition but did so without any grand design. As a result America has often suffered from the early results of “muddling through” until we found a Ulysses S. Grant or a George Kennan who could provide not merely a tactic but a strategy.

The War on Terror sharpened and embittered a debate over national strategy that has plagued America’s elite since 1991 when the Soviet collapse eviscerated the need for containment. Globalization, the unification of Europe and the rise of the new economy badly shook all of the assumptions upon which the old, bipolar, Cold War world rested. America may have been--in Madeleine Albright’s phrase--the “indispensable nation,” but it was also a hyperpower without a role. A reluctant policeman at best, babysitting Saddam, cutting and running in Somalia, dithering in Haiti and gamely whistling through the graveyards of the Balkans and Rwanda.

Then came the morning of September 11. Swiftly followed by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, in the Sunni Triangle, signs of “muddling through” can be discerned.

Into this breach strides Thomas P.M. Barnett, a Naval War College professor and DoD strategist who seems to have written not an “X article" but the “X book” of the decade, still riding high on Foreign Affairs bestseller list, a briefer to both Rumsfeld’s senior staff and John Kerry’s campaign advisers. Barnett, whose overarching paradigm in The Pentagon’s New Map is really the Convergence of Civilizations, not the Clash – seems poised to join George Kennan on the short list of American grand strategists who like Alfred T. Mahan or Herman Kahn, stimulated policy changes that were broad and deep.

The Pentagon’s New Map (PNM) argues that military strategy can work only in the context of everything else and that a major part of the context that the Pentagon must recognize are the geopolitical tectonic shifts wrought by Globalization, which he describes using the following PNM terminology:

The Core: The industrialized, connected to the information economy, mostly peaceful, rule of law abiding, liberal democratic world.

The Old Core: The heart of the core, the old G-7/NATO/Japan states led by the United States.

The New Core: Those modernizing states that joined the Core in the 1980's and 1990's – not as liberal, democratic or law-abiding as the Old Core but they have more or less irreversibly committed to moving in that direction - China, India, South Korea, Mexico, Brazil and the like.

The Gap: The Third World regions mostly disconnected economically and politically from the Core. Hobbesian in character, ridden by violence, oppression, poverty and anarchy. Ruled by despots--if ruled by anyone--committed to keeping their nations disconnected as a political survival strategy.

Rule-Sets: The explicit and implicit rules that provide the framework by which nations interact and function internally. There is a clash of rule sets between the Gap and the Core and within the Core between Europe, which mostly cannot and will not intervene in the Gap to enforce rules, and the United States, which can – if it chooses..

Connectivity: The degree of acceptance of globalization's many effects and the ability of a nation's individuals to access choices for themselves. Most international hotspots are in the most disconnected parts of the Gap.

Global Transaction Strategy: Barnett's equivalent to "containment" - a national and Core strategy to "Shrink the Gap" by connecting and integrating into the rule sets of the Core.

System Perturbation: The ultimate shock to a system that by “turning the world upside down” forces a response and a re-ordering or Rule-Sets. 9/11 is the most recent example.

Barnett argues that Globalization is a dynamic exchange relationship defined by “four flows” between the Core and the Gap that affect international stability:

  • Migration of people from the Gap to the Core
  • Movement of energy from the Gap to the Core.
  • Movement of money from the Old Core to the New Core
  • The export of security from the Core to the Gap – that only America can provide.

The unity of the Core is maintained, in Barnett’s view, by the common adherence to Rule-Sets that promote peace, transparency, markets, liberal values. This Rule-Set is what prevented wars among members of the Core since 1945. Rule-Sets are enforced in the Core but can be exported to the Gap in two forms: “Leviathan” – a massive, crushing, military sledgehammer -- think D-Day-- or by "System Administration” – the nation-building, humanitarian intervention operations typified by the UN in East Timor.

The two forms of military power are almost symbiotic. Without a Leviathan force in Bosnia, lightly armed UN blue helmets could not prevent Serb paramilitaries from committing mass atrocities. In Iraq, without a Systems Administration force, the United States has not been able to rebuild the country or restore order. The Pentagon, geared up to fight the Next Big Enemy, is now poorly positioned, Barnett argues, for System Administration missions, which account for the majority of U.S. military deployments. Afghanistan and the Iraq Wars are exceptions. Even the Terror War against al Qaida depends, ultimately, on the nation-building expertise that the Europeans have and the Pentagon needs to acquire.

What the United States and Core requires, according to Barnett, to deal with the terrorism, rogue states, WMD proliferation, anarchy and pandemics is a Global Transaction Strategy to “shrink the Gap” by fostering “connectivity” to the Core. Calling for a new vision of “war in the context of everything else,” PNM strategy cannot be conceived in traditional military terms but as full-spectrum intervention to foster the flows of globalization. Soft power here is equally important, as is access to technology, humanitarian programs by NGO’s and the exchange of ideas that could potentially strengthen fragile civil societies. As a Leviathan, present circumstances make the United States truly indispensable but removing tyrants alone is not enough. The rest of the Core is needed along with international organizations to help dysfunctional nations make the jump from Gap State to a newly industrializing member of the Core.

As a doctrinal possibility, Barnett’s ideas are currently being very serious attention by CENTCOM, Special Operations Command (which already conceived of “ warfighting” as only one small part of their mission arc) and the Joint Forces Command and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Comparisons to containment are frequent but there are some significant differences between containment and Shrinking the Gap.

George Kennan’s prescription was essentially to “hold the line” by walling off or “containing” the Soviet menace from the West until monolithic totalitarian Communism began to mellow as a system or collapsed. The stakes of failure were extremely high during the Cold War for the United States but the tasks to implement containment were familiar and relatively easy ones. The Truman administration established on a global scale the old “Cordon Sanitaire” that the French had tried without success in Europe after Versailles: vigilant, defensive military and diplomatic alliances, deterrence and measured responses to Soviet provocations over time.

Thomas Barnett is really proposing “integration” instead of containment. The economic and political conditions that generate terrorism, genocide, WMD proliferation, dictatorship and anarchy in the Gap are to be ameliorated by a comprehensive civil-military engagement by the Core to “connect –up” to functional rather than dysfunctional Rule-Sets in priority problem states. This is a more complex agenda diplomatically than containment, which had the advantage of a truly malevolent enemy in Josef Stalin. Chaos does not have a human face – though Osama bin Laden vied for that title – and the problems of today’s world are intersecting and interconnected in a Gordian knot of diverse security threats.

The advantage Barnett has in having his ideas become the sword to cut this Gordian knot is that unlike the preemption strategy of the Neocons, PNM is a non-zero sum game. The United States gets to wear the White Hat again in allied eyes by pushing a strategy that stresses mutual interests instead of just unilateral survival. China, which is not even an ally, has already accorded The Pentagon’s New Map a respectful hearing by senior academic advisors to the Chinese government. PNM strategy, unlike the National Security Strategy of the United States, does not scare the hell out of the rest of the world.

Instead The Pentagon’s New Map offers a hopeful ending, “a future worth creating.” When skeptical leaders of foreign states ask American ambassadors and Generals “Yes, but what are you fighting for? What is in it for us to help you?” – we’d better have an answer.