An Operating Theory of the World
WHEN THE COLD WAR ENDED, we thought the world had changed. It had-but not in the way we thought.
When the Cold War ended, our real challenge began.
The United States had spent so much energy during those years trying to prevent the horror of global war that it forgot the dream of global peace. As far as most Pentagon strategists were concerned, America's status as the world's sole military superpower was something to preserve, not something to exploit, and because the future was unknowable, they assumed we needed to hedge against all possibilities, all threats, and all futures. America was better served adopting a wait-and-see strategy, they decided, one that assumed some grand enemy would arise in the distant future. It was better than wasting precious resources trying to manage a messy world in the near term. The grand strategy...was to avoid grand strategies.
I know that sounds incredible, because most people assume there are all sorts of "master plans" being pursued throughout the U.S. Government. But, amazingly, we are still searching for a vision to replace the decades-long containment strategy that America pursued to counter the Soviet threat. Until September 11, 2001, the closest thing the Pentagon had to a comprehensive view of the world was simply to call it "chaos" and "uncertainty," two words that implied the impossibility of capturing a big-picture perspective of the world's potential futures. Since September 11, at least we have an enemy to attach to all this "chaos" and "uncertainty," but that still leaves us describing horrible futures to be prevented, not positive ones to be created.
Today the role of the Defense Department in U.S. national security is being radically reshaped by new missions arising in response to a new international security environment. It is tempting to view this radical redefinition of the use of U.S. military power around the world as merely the work of senior officials in the Bush Administration, but that is to confuse the midwife with the miracle of birth. This Administration is only doing what any other administration would eventually have had to do: recast America's national security strategy from its Cold War, balance-of-power mind-set to one that reflects the new strategic environment. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 simply revealed the yawning gap between the military we built to win the Cold War and the different one we need to build in order to secure globalization's ultimate goal-the end of war as we know it.
America stands at the peak of a world historical arc that marks globalization's tipping point. When we chose to resurrect the global economy following the end of World War II, our ambitions were at first quite limited: we sought to rebuild globalization on only three key pillars-North America, Western Europe, and Japan. After the Cold War moved beyond nuclear brinkmanship to peaceful coexistence, we saw that global economy begin to expand across the 1980s to include the so-called emerging markets of South America and Developing Asia. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we had a sense that a new world order actually was in the making, although we lacked both the words and the vision to enunciate what could be meant by that phrase, other than that the East-West divide no longer seemed to matter. Instead of identifying new rule sets in security, we chose to recognize the complete lack of one, and therefore, as regional security issues arose in the post-Cold War era, America responded without any global principles to guide its choices. Sometimes we felt others' pain and responded, sometimes we simply ignored it.
America could behave in this fashion because the boom times of the new economy suggested that security issues could take a backseat to the enormous changes being inflicted by the Information Revolution. If we were looking for a new operating theory of the world, surely this was it. Connectivity would trump all, erasing the business cycle, erasing national borders, erasing the very utility of the state in managing a global security order that seemed more virtual than real. What was the great global danger as the new millennium approached? It was a software bug that might bring down the global information grid. What role did the Pentagon play in this first-ever, absolutely worldwide security event-this defining moment of the postindustrial age? Virtually none.
So America drifted through the roaring nineties, blissfully unaware that globalization was speeding ahead with no one at the wheel. The Clinton Administration spent its time tending to the emerging financial and technological architecture of the global economy, pushing worldwide connectivity for all it was worth in those heady days, assuming that eventually it would reach even the most disconnected societies. Did we as a nation truly understand the political and security ramifications of encouraging all this connectivity? Could we understand how some people might view this process of cultural assimilation as a mortal threat? As something worth fighting against? Was a clash of civilizations inevitable?
Amazingly, the U.S. military engaged in more crisis-response activity around the world in the 1990s than in any previous decade of the Cold War, yet no national vision arose to explain our expanding role. Globalization seemed to be remaking the world, but meanwhile the U.S. military seemed to be doing nothing more than babysitting chronic security situations on the margin. Inside the Pentagon, these crisis responses were exclusively filed under the new rubric "military operations other than war," as if to signify their lack of strategic meaning. The Defense Department spent the 1990s ignoring its own workload, preferring to plot out its future transformation for future wars against future opponents. America was not a global cop, but at best a global fireman pointing his hose at whichever blaze seemed most eye-catching at the moment. We were not trying to make the world safe for anything; we just worked to keep these nasty little blazes under control. America was hurtling forward without looking forward. In nautical terms, we were steering by our wake.
Yet a pattern did emerge with each American crisis response in the 1990s. These deployments turned out to be overwhelmingly concentrated in the regions of the world that were effectively excluded from globalization's Functioning Core-namely, the Caribbean Rim, Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and much of Southeast Asia. These regions constitute globalization's "ozone hole," or what I call its Non-Integrating Gap, where connectivity remains thin or absent. Simply put, if a country was losing out to globalization or rejecting much of its cultural content flows, there was a far greater chance that the United States would end up sending troops there at some point across the 1990s. But because the Pentagon viewed all these situations as "lesser includeds," there was virtually no rebalancing of the U.S. military to reflect the increased load. We knew we needed a greater capacity within the ranks for nation building, peacekeeping, and the like, but instead of beefing up those assets to improve our capacity for managing the world as we found it, the Pentagon spent the nineties buying a far different military-one best suited for a high-tech war against a large, very sophisticated military opponent. In short, our military strategists dreamed of an opponent that would not arise for a war that no longer existed.
That dilemma is at the heart of the work that I have been doing since the end of the Cold War. How do we describe this threat environment? How did we fail to heed all the warning signs leading up to 9/11? How do we prepare for future war? Where will those wars be? How might they be prevented? What should America's role be in both war and peace?
I believe I have found some answers.
Now might be an appropriate time for me to tell you who I am.
I grew up-quite literally-as a child of the sixties, somehow maintaining my midwestern optimism in America's future through the dark eras of Vietnam and Watergate. Captivated by the superpower summitry of the early 1970s, I set my sights on a career in international security studies, believing there I would locate the grand strategic choices of our age. Trained as an expert on the Soviets, only to be abandoned by history, I spent the post-Cold War years forging an eclectic career as a national security analyst, splitting my time between the worlds of Washington think tanks and government service. Though I worked primarily for the U.S. military, my research during these years focused on everything but actual warfare. Instead, I found myself instinctively exploring the seam between war and peace, locating it first in U.S. military crisis responses and then America's foreign aid, and finally focusing on its leading edge-the spread of the global economy itself. What I found there in the late 1990s was neither "chaos" nor "uncertainty" but the defining conflict of our age-a historical struggle that screamed out for a new American vision of a future worth creating.
And so I began a multiyear search for such a grand strategy, one that would capture the governing dynamics of this new era. Working as a senior strategic researcher at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, I first led a long research project on the Year 2000 Problem and its potential for generating global crises-or "system perturbations," as I called them. Early in the year 2000, I was approached by senior executives of the Wall Street bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald. They asked me to oversee a unique research partnership between the firm and the college that would later yield a series of high-powered war games involving national security policymakers, Wall Street heavyweights, and academic experts. Our shared goal was to explore how globalization was remaking the global security environment-in other words, the Pentagon's new map.
Those war games were conducted atop World Trade Center One; the resulting briefings were offered throughout the Pentagon. When both buildings came under attack on 9/11, my research immediately shifted from grand theory to grand strategy. Within weeks, I found myself elevated to the position of Assistant for Strategic Futures in the Office of Force Transformation, a new planning element created within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Our task was as ambitious as it was direct: refocus the Pentagon's strategic vision of future war. As the "vision guy," my job was to generate and deliver a compelling brief that would mobilize the Defense Department toward generating the future fighting force demanded by the post-9/11 strategic environment. Over the next two years I gave that brief well over a hundred times to several thousand Defense Department officials. Through this intense give-and-take, my material grew far beyond my original inputs to include the insider logic driving all of the major policy decisions promulgated by the department's senior leadership. Over time, senior military officials began citing the brief as a Rosetta stone for the Bush Administration's new national security strategy.
But the brief was not a partisan document, and the Defense Department was not the only audience hungry for this strategic vision. Within months, I was fielding requests from the National Security Council, Congress, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security. When Esquire magazine named me one of their "best and brightest" thinkers in December 2002, I began getting more requests, this time to brief in the private sector, concentrating in the field of finance and information technology. After I then published an article in the March 2003 issue of Esquire, called "The Pentagon's New Map," which summarized the strategic thrust of the brief, invitations from both the public and private sectors skyrocketed. The article was republished many times over in Europe and Asia, and e-mailed to generals and diplomats and policymakers worldwide, and when I found myself in London one fall evening speaking in the House of Commons, I knew the material's appeal had vastly outgrown my ability to deliver it on a room-by-room basis.
Thanks to this book, I am finally able to deliver the brief to you.
I was once asked by a visiting delegation of security officials from Singapore how my vision of future war differs from traditional Pentagon perspectives. My answer was, "Pentagon strategists typically view war within the context of war. I view war within the context of everything else." This book will be mostly about the "everything else" associated with war in the twenty-first century, or that essential connectivity between war and peace that defines globalization's advance.
This vision constitutes a seismic shift in how we think of the military's place in American society, in how our military functions in the world, and in how we think of America's relationship to the world. All such "contracts" are currently being renegotiated, whether we realize it or not. As citizens of this American union, we all need to understand better the stakes at hand, for it is not the danger just ahead that we underestimate, but the opportunity that lies beyond-the opportunity to make globalization truly global.
This book will describe that future worth creating. It will explain why America is the linchpin to the entire process, not because of its unparalleled capacity to wage war but because of its unique capacity to export security around the planet. It will provide a way to understand not only what is happening now, but also what will happen in matters of war and peace across this century. It will explain where and why conflicts will arise, and how we can prevent them. It will explain why this new strategy of preemption and this new global war on terrorism must be subordinated to the larger goal of spreading economic globalization around the planet. My purpose here must be clear from the outset: I am proposing a new grand strategy on a par with the Cold War strategy of containment-in effect, its historical successor. I seek to provide a new language, or a new context within which to explain strategic choices that America now faces. By design, it will be a language of promise and hope, not danger and fear. Some will interpret this as na•vet, others as unbridled ambition. I choose to see it as a moral responsibility-a duty to leave our children a better world.
Thanks to 9/11 and the two wars it has so far spawned, Americans now understand that there is no other great power like the United States. Instead, we begin to see the world for what it truly is: divided into societies that are actively integrating themselves into globalization's Functioning Core and those that remain trapped in its Non-Integrating Gap-that is, largely disconnected from the global economy and the rule sets that define its stability.
In this century, it is disconnectedness that defines danger. Disconnectedness allows bad actors to flourish by keeping entire societies detached from the global community and under their control. Eradicating disconnectedness, therefore, becomes the defining security task of our age. Just as important, however, is the result that by expanding the connectivity of globalization, we increase peace and prosperity planet-wide.
This is the ultimate expression of American optimism, which right now is undoubtedly the rarest and most valuable commodity on earth. The simple fact is, an optimistic belief in the future is quite frightening for a lot of people. If I were to paint a future beyond hope, more would find satisfaction in the description, for it would leave us all more easily off the hook. My business-the business of national security strategy-is the business of fear, but it need not be. My colleagues far too often market that fear to the public, demanding trust in return. By doing so, they extort the public's sense of hope in the future, and this is wrong. It is wrong because America's hope in the future is what has for well over two centuries driven this amazing experiment we call the United States. I believe life consistently improves for humanity over time, but it does so only because individuals, communities, and nations take it upon themselves not only to imagine a future worth creating but actually try to build it.
Despite our tumultuous times, I remain wholly optimistic that it can be done. My hope is that this book may help convince you of the same.
Thomas P. M. Barnett