A Conversation with Thomas P.M. Barnett
1. Q: Why did successive administrations and policy makers - in the White House, in the Pentagon, State Department, and so forth - have such a hard time recasting America's national security strategy from the old Cold War, balance-of-power mindset to one that reflected the new strategic environment?
A: First, there was the tendency of many national security strategists to view the world almost exclusively in terms of great powers and their military relationships with one another. The assumption was, get that chunk of the world down right and everything else will fall in place. The same basic approach applied to long-range planning for the U.S. military itself: we assumed that if we figured out how to fight great big wars against other great powers, we'd likewise be well set to handle all the other security situations that might arise around the world.
Planning for the "big one" (or WWIII with the Soviets) was such an ingrained habit that we spent the nineties largely ignoring what I like to call "the rise of the lesser includeds," which involve all those things we are now focusing on heavily in this global war on terrorism - to wit, counter-insurgency operations, nation-building, counter-terrorism, and other general small-scale combat operations or humanitarian operations. You could say that the Pentagon spent the 1990s buying one military (a high-tech "large war" force) while operating another (a lower-tech "small war" force for lots of "military operations other than war" all over the world).
2. Q: In what way did 9/11 save the Pentagon from itself?
A: What 9/11 did for the Pentagon was to jerk it out of its long-range fixation about high-tech war with China and forced it to redirect "transformation" on the here and now - this global war on terrorism. The Pentagon now has a networked opponent - namely transnational terrorism - to match its desire to wage so-called network-centric operations. Meanwhile, China is largely left off the hook and I say thank God, because if there was ever a major economy working desperately to integrate itself into what I call globalization's Functioning Core, it is China today. Now our national security strategy, as well as the Pentagon's long-range planning, is suitably redirected on what really matters: dealing with the myriad security situations that define the Gap. When U.S. "exports" security to the Gap, it works to shrink the Gap by extending globalization's integrating reach and, by doing so, reducing the operating environment of those terrorist threats that thrive within those disconnected states. That's my strategic vision's motto: disconnectedness defines danger.
3. Q: The Pentagon's New Map basically divides the world into two groups: a Functioning Core and a Non-Integrating Gap. What are the main hallmarks of these two groups?
A: The Functioning Core consists of basically those states or regions that have already integrated themselves deeply into the global economy or are currently working to do so. By my way of thinking, that includes North America, Europe (both old and new), Russia under Putin's "dictatorship of the law" (yes, with some recent slippage), India, China, Japan, Australia/New Zealand, South Africa and the ABCs of South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile). My Core therefore includes not just the West, but a host of emerging markets that have joined globalization over the past twenty years. That collection accounts for roughly two-thirds of the global population.
Contrasting the Functioning Core of globalization are those regions I categorize as falling into its Non-Integrating Gap. These regions include the Caribbean rim of Central and South America, virtually all of 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 "bald spot," where connectivity - no matter how you measure it (trade, people movement, communications) - is relatively thin and, in many cases, getting thinner over time. These countries either reject globalization because of its content flows, or new ideas (think of the ruling Muslim clerics in Iran) or are losing out to its advance because they simply cannot attract the foreign direct investment that ultimately leads to economic integration.
What's crucial about this global breakdown is this: virtually all of the U.S. military crisis response activity (or overseas military interventions) since the end of the Cold War have occurred inside the Gap. So either we shrink the Gap and eliminate those endemic conflicts and diminished expectations that give rise to transnational terrorism or America had better be prepared to retreat from the world dramatically and let globalization possibly suffer the same fate it did in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Frankly, those are the historical stakes we face today. Either we make globalization truly global or we condemn one-third of humanity to long-term violence and suffering that will inevitably intrude upon our "good life" on a regular basis. This isn't about charity or any religious-inspired crusade. It all comes down logically to acting in our own best interest while making the world a better place over the long run.
4. Q: One of the clear messages in this book is that we can no longer think about war solely within the context of war. What do you mean by that?
A: Thinking about war solely within the context of war means you focus strictly on how to fight wars, not on what causes them or, more importantly, what concludes or prevents them. During the Cold War, the two sides were clearly drawn, as were the opposing ideologies, so our military could focus strictly on the "how" and "what" of warfare, giving little thought to the harder "why" questions. Today we fight "wars" that are never declared, and increasingly we fight them not against states, or governments, or even militaries so much as against particular individuals. In our "war" with Al-Qaeda, we're tracking down individual combatants across a global security system. We've migrated from battling an "evil empire" to toppling "evil regimes" to tracking down and killing "evil leaders." Our enemy grows smaller and more dispersed with time, but our models of warfare have not changed in response. We have to start planning for wars within the context of "everything else," like global trade, immigration trends, international energy markets and investment flows.
5. Q: To what extent has this new vision of America's security role in global affairs - and the new map of the world - been adopted by the State Department, the Defense Department, other agencies, and the White House itself?
I developed this vision while working as the Assistant for Strategic Futures in the Office of Force Transformation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. I got the opportunity to brief my vision to a host of senior and mid-level policymakers throughout the U.S. government, but primarily in the Department of Defense. What I learned in those dozens and dozens of intense interactions fundamentally shaped my vision over time, so by the time I wrote this book, it basically stopped being just my vision and took on the basic insider logic that I know first-hand is animating the major changes we've witnessed in national security planning and policy since 9/11. So it's become a decoder ring of sorts - a grand unifying theory for sorting out global security issues in this era.
Why this vision has resonated so strongly with the current administration is because they feel it accurately describes the governing dynamics of the international security environment they find themselves addressing in the aftermath of 9/11. If I hadn't come up with this description, eventually someone else would have. In effect, my timing and my skills allowed me to enunciate the vision right when it was needed. That small feat matters less in terms of how decisions are made in this administration (and in succeeding ones) than in how they are explained to the American people and our friends around the world. That's why I felt compelled to write this book. I just don't feel like the world accurately understands the strategic logic that underlies all these seemingly "radical" changes in U.S. national security strategy, and that's not only scary, it's dangerous over the long run. Perceptions matter.
6. Q: You write that up until now, at least, you'd have to give George W. Bush a failing grade in terms of strategic vision. What would he have to do change that to a passing grade?
I think this administration has the right strategic vision and has taken many of the steps needed to get that long-term strategy rolling. Where I give them the failing grade is in explaining that vision to the American public and the world. Key example: this White House enshrines preemptive war in the latest National Security Strategy and that scares the hell out of a lot of Americans, not to mention our allies. Why? This administration fails to distinguish sufficiently under what conditions that strategy makes reasonable sense. My point is this: when you are explicit about the world being divided into globalization's Core and Gap, you can distinguish between the different security rule sets at work in each. Nothing has changed about strategic deterrence or the concept of mutual-assured destruction (or MAD) within the Core, so fears about preemptive wars triggering World War III are misplaced. When this administration talks about preemption, they're talking strictly about the Gap - not the Core. The strategic stability that defines the Core is not altered one whit by this new strategy, because preemption is all about striking first against actors or states you believe - quite reasonably - are undeterrable in the normal sense.
Moreover, when you are explicit about the different security rule sets at work in the Core versus the Gap, you're able to get to the punch line, or the "happy ending" that any long-term strategic vision must provide: when we wage preemptive wars inside the Gap our goal must ultimately be to shrink the Gap out of existence, to extend the security rule sets of the Core throughout the world, and to make - once and for all time - globalization truly global. The happy ending, therefore, is the end of war as we know it. There are some things in this world worth fighting for, and a global peace that unlocks the potential of one-third of humanity to enjoy the peaceful fruits of globalization is one of them.
7. Q: Some people consider recent changes to our system - such as the Patriot Act or the Bush Administration's new policy of preemption - as dangerous turns in our nation's history. How do you view these changes?
I view them as necessary corrections - to a point. Basically, we let rule sets get out of whack across the 1990s: economics raced ahead of politics and technology raced ahead of security. Huge holes were thus created; we simply didn't have enough laws to account for all the new forms of connectivity. Those elements of global connectivity were exploited on 9/11 to pull off one of history's great acts of mass violence. The Patriot Act and the policy of preemption simply represent this government's attempts to close those perceived loop holes - a rule-set reset, if you will.
The danger, of course, is that we can go too far in these corrections. Fortunately, with regard to America's domestic rule sets, we have a legal system to deal with any perceived failures of the Patriot Act. With regard to the preemption strategy, we're talking about the global community as a whole, which means how America sells this new security rule set is crucial to its ultimate acceptance by the Core as a whole. So far, this administration hasn't done too well in that sales job, but that's where I'm hoping this book will have a positive impact. But let me be absolutely clear here: this vision is not about apologizing for the Bush administration's past missteps; it's about bringing the American public to the point of understanding the world for what it truly is today - divided between those societies seeking progressive and peaceful integration with one another and those forces of disconnectedness determined to prevent that integration from occurring.
8. Q: What sort of structural changes will need to be made to the military in the years ahead to deal with the new realities of the international security situation? And what will it take to transform the military in the ways you're suggesting?
The Pentagon needs to acknowledge and deal with the institutional rift that's been progressively widening since the end of the Cold War between those portions of the U.S. military that logically focus on high-end, large-scale combat scenarios and those which logically focus on all those so-called "lesser includeds" or "military operations other than war." In effect, America needs to recognize that while we need both forces to deal with the strategic environment as we currently find it, it's wrongheaded and damn near impossible to expect one unified force to wage both war and peace. In others words, we need two types of militaries. Moreover, as we are learning in Iraq, the "war" force that is most adept at toppling regimes is not the same force we need to win the peace that must inevitably follow if this preemption strategy is to have any meaning beyond sheer vengeance or "who's next?"
In my vision, we break up the Defense Department progressively over time into a Leviathan force that focuses on waging wars on an intermittent basis and a System Administrator force that focuses on exporting security throughout the Gap on a continuous basis. In effect, we create a bifurcated military to match this bifurcated security environment - a new era demanding new rules. Many people may consider this a radical jump into an uncertain future, but it's really a careful return to the past when America possessed both a Department of War and a Department of the Navy.
9. Q: There are plenty of people who think the global war on terrorism is nothing more than the twisted creation of a war-mongering Bush Administration. Others say our policies in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East are guided simply by our need for oil. What's your reaction?
The changes this administration has pursued in national security policy are, by and large, logical reactions to the strategic environment of the post-9/11 era. You can blame it all on a "cabal" of so-called neocons, or maybe just historian Bernard Lewis, but that confuses the midwife with the miracle of birth. These changes would have eventually been made by any administration - Republican or Democrat. So all the Bush Administration really did is get the ball rolling, much like the Truman Administration did in the early Cold War years. But the question is, can the Bush Administration enunciate and sell a strategic vision that outlasts its time in the White House?
As for the Iraq war or any other U.S. military interventions in the Middle East being "all about oil," I don't dispute the essential logic. I simply decry the myopic cynicism behind it. The reality is, all the Middle East offers the world right now is oil and terrorism, and the only way that is going to change is to encourage broadband economic connectivity between the societies trapped there within overwhelmingly authoritarian political systems and the larger world outside.
I'm not interested in getting America out of the Middle East by getting off oil. I'm far more concerned about making sure the Osama bin Ladens of the region do not succeed in hijacking the Middle East out of the global economy much like a Lenin did with Russia early in the twentieth century. We spent the better part of a century dealing with that horrible pathway, and there's nothing that says history could not turn similarly sour in the Middle East in coming years. America needs to see the big picture here: we need to bring peace to the Middle East because the Core as a whole needs to find some way not to leave a billion Arab Muslims behind in globalization. If we do, we had better be prepared for many more 9/11s in coming decades.
10. Q: You've said America has had difficulty defining the enemy out of the fear of appearing racist or intolerant. You've also said that our fixation on quick fixes and "big bangs" undermines our ability to keep our eyes on the prize. How so? And what is the real prize? Who is the real enemy?
The real enemy is neither a region (the Middle East) nor a religion (Islam), but disconnectedness. Toppling Saddam's regime in Iraq did generate a sort of "big bang" effect in the region, but our goal in doing this cannot just be about scaring our enemies straight. Ultimately, it has to lead to greater connectivity between that region and the outside world. Bin Laden realizes he's running a race against globalization's progressive advance. That's why al Qaeda and forces like it are going to wage an increasingly perverse and desperate sort of war on globalization, hoping that if they drive the U.S. out of the region, the rest of the Core will ultimately abandon the Middle East to bin Laden's dreams of civilizational apartheid. I know it's tempting for Americans to say to themselves, "These people are crazy, so maybe we should just get off oil and pull out of there to leave them all to their own murdering ways." But that's not going to make a safer world for our children. That's just going to leave a ticking time bomb for the next generation to deal with.
We can pretend to ourselves that we can ignore all the pain and suffering in the Middle East forever, but 9/11 tells me otherwise. The ultimate goal, therefore, has to be to make globalization truly global. That's the future worth creating that diminishes the transnational terrorist threat over time. If America commits itself to such a long-range security vision, we'll be doing nothing more than taking on the historical task that logically follows that of the Cold War containment strategy. We need to shrink the Gap out of existence, to invite them into our "good life" and by doing so end mass violence for all time. In many ways, we need to love our enemies more than ourselves.
11. Q: What do you think will most surprise readers of this book?
That it's not just another book by a doom-spouting futurologist intent on scaring them half to death about a world of "perpetual war" and "global chaos" inevitably devolving into Armageddon. An even worse variant would be yet another book brimming with right-wing machismo that brags endlessly about how America rules all - sort of an American empire, love it or leave it. The vision I offer here hopefully strikes a far different tone.
I believe the world is at a historical tipping point where, if we play our cards right, we can expand globalization beyond its current, tragically closed "club" into a planet-wide reality that effectively kills off war for good. So, not only do I think the world is not going to hell in a hand-basket, I think we're on the verge of a lasting global peace - but only if we rise to the challenges of shrinking the Gap and do not give into the temptation to wall ourselves off from its pain and suffering. The America I know and love is more than up to that challenge, because it has demonstrated such far-sighted generosity many times in the past.
12. Q: What surprised you most as you began putting all this together?
This whole endeavor began with the PowerPoint briefing I developed and gave dozens of times throughout the U.S. government. What drew me and the material into the larger world outside the Washington Beltway was this essential hunger I felt from ordinary citizens for some way of understanding the current global security environment. Instead of being presented with a future worth creating, most Americans have had to survive the last couple of years on a pretty thin diet of scary images, empty sloganeering, and outright fear-mongering by "experts" intent on convincing them that we're on the verge of "World War IV." When I published the original article in Esquire in March 2003, the response was overwhelming. Many readers, caught up in the debates concerning the war in Iraq, saw the piece as myopically pro-war, but plenty of others saw it as I intended it to be received - as an argument for a larger strategic vision regarding the interplay of global security and globalization's progressive advance. My book is fundamentally a vision of hope at a time when everyone else seems so intent on selling fear and loathing.
13. Q: What happens if America continues to dream up or act on a whole new set of security rules (preemption, the global war on terrorism, the Patriot Act) and other advanced societies in the Functioning Core fail to go along?
The real danger is that we end up splitting the Core into competing rule sets, probably divided between Europe, America, and China-dominated Asia. Many experts will tell you that's not only natural but good, as it's nothing more than the return of multipolarity to the international security system. Personally, I fear this outcome because I see a lot of unnecessary military spending as a result, as the three big pillars grow mistrustful of one another's intentions over time. When that has happened in the past, it's always the world's poorer regions that tend to get ignored, and to me, that's a recipe for letting the Gap grow and spread. So America's strategy really needs to be both multifaceted and multilateral. First and foremost, we need to strengthen Core-wide security cooperation because, if we can't keep the Core strong and united, we cannot grow the Core. And if we cannot grow the Core, we cannot shrink the Gap, which remains our ultimate goal.
14. Q: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about America's security role in global affairs?
I think the most pervasive myth out there right now about America's role in global security is that we're the "global cop" waging "perpetual war" across a world of "chaos." The notion that America is fighting wars all over the planet all the time is complete nonsense. In reality, we've spent the last decade and a half intervening almost exclusively inside the Gap. That Gap represents only about a third of humanity, so two-thirds of the world seems to get along just fine without any combat effort on our part. Within that Gap, there are typically only about two to three dozen truly chaotic security situations at any one time. Of that collection, America is typically involved in about one-quarter, meaning maybe eight to ten situations at a time. So think of a global community of almost two hundred states and then realize that America is involved militarily in only about five percent of those countries.
This is really a huge step forward from the scary, hair-trigger nuclear standoff we so long endured with the Soviets. And yet, many Americans choose to see today's world as more frightening than the "stable" Cold War. Why is this the case? Frankly, I blame a lot of the "national insecurity experts" in my business who insist on selling fear as a way of justifying their time on camera.
15. Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
I want them to put down the book feeling a whole lot more hopeful about what I see as a future worth creating, and a whole lot more willing to do their share in making it happen. Many readers will pick up this book expecting me to say that war is the answer for everything, only to realize upon reading it, that what I'm selling here is not war, but the quickest route to global, perpetual peace. The challenge I hope to lay down at the feet of every reader is: what else besides America's willingness to wage the right kinds of war in the coming years will make that dream come true? I hope this book will be the start of a great national debate regarding what grand strategy America should pursue in the years ahead. I honestly believe that—right now—we are all present at the creation of a much better world.