Great Powers: America and the World After Bush

Americans may be short on certainty about how the post–Cold War, post-9/11 world runs, but we’re certainly not short of big thinkers trying to sort it out. One could fill a groaning shelf with recent books trying to spot the big trends. Primus inter pares is New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s globalization classic The World Is Flat, but there are plenty of others who’ve been taking careful notes from the master.

Among their ranks is Thomas P. M. Barnett, a brainy former Defense Department official and Esquire magazine columnist who carved out a niche all his own in 2004 with The Pentagon’s New Map, which Washington Post columnist David Ignatius called that season’s “red-hot book among the nation’s admirals and generals.” He wasn’t kidding; the book, which became a New York Times bestseller, was such a smash that Barnett has been regularly called in to brief newly promoted Air Force one-star generals. It sold well over 50,000 copies, with a sizable portion of those winding up on the shelves of folks with stars on their shoulders.

What’s particularly interesting about Barnett is his military background and mind-set: he’s no simple-minded globalization evangelist. “Imagine a combination of Tom Friedman on globalization and Karl von Clausewitz on war,” Ignatius noted dryly, “and you begin to get an idea of where Barnett is coming from.”

In both The Pentagon’s New Map and his new work, Great Powers: America and the World After Bush, Barnett urges defense planners to think not in conventional terms of state power projection but in terms of a world riven between a thriving, functional core group of countries being drawn closer together by globalization and a messy, chaotic group of nations that have fallen into the abyss of disorder, poverty, and rage that he calls the Gap. The good news is that the former group is attractive and growing, drawing such rising giants as China and India into its orbit. The bad news is that the Gap knows it’s being left behind and, in an increasingly wired world, doesn’t have to just take it. The Pentagon traditionally worried about strong states such as the Soviet Union; now, Barnett argues, it needs to redraw its mental map to focus on the places that are mostly likely to demand intervention — the basket cases of the Gap, not the powerhouses of the Core. The problem isn’t nationalism or smugness in places on the way up; it’s anarchy and fury in those on the way down.

Like his fellow big thinkers, Barnett is keen to find “a grand strategic vision,” and he doesn’t like the one George W. Bush came up with — a fear-based, “none-too-subtle lust for primacy” — or the isolation and alienation that resulted. We can be top dog, Barnett argues, without being a cur. America is exquisitely positioned to lead today’s globalized order, he argues. “This is a world of our making,” Barnett writes. “This ‘flat world’ is fundamentally our design.”

So forget the chest thumpers “hell-bent on defining our current age as a ‘global war of survival’ or a bloc-defined clash between democracies and autocracies.” Rather, keep an eye on the forces connecting one side of the planet with the other.

Barnett’s grand strategy is, in a word, globalization, which is in the deepest sense, he argues, made in America. Not only that, he thinks the globalized world will be made like America — that is, that the slow stitching together of the United States out of the various colonies and the slow perfection of that union is the best available historical analogy and metaphor for the haphazard progress toward a more integrated and networked 21st-century world. “We are modern globalization’s source code — its DNA,” he argues. We are also its exemplar: “In this world we find no strangers, just younger versions of ourselves.”

That, unfortunately, is not terribly convincing. Barnett is surely right about the attraction of what used to be called the American way of life — the lure of middle-class prosperity, political openness, and social stability. But the leaders of China and India would be amused to hear themselves described as simply younger variants of the United States; both rising giants are convinced that they have manufactured their own distinctive synthesis that will give them the ability to compete and thrive in a competitive world, and they would find more than a hint of condescension in the implicit view of them as praiseworthy toddlers wobbling in a parent’s oversized shoes.

Barnett’s otherwise entertaining outlook suffers from some other overly exuberant leaps of analytical logic. Many readers will remain unconvinced that the next few years — scary as today’s financial meltdown is — “will constitute the first true test of globalization.” Most severe, yes; first, no. The 1998 Asian meltdown was just one earlier earthquake that shook the increasingly level post–Cold War landscape. As for his pages about how acquiring nuclear weapons would be one of the best methods available to “sober up” the failed Iranian revolution — well, if Tehran gets the bomb, we’ll all be hoping he’s right.

And critics of the Iraq war will cringe at Barnett’s blithe endorsement of the Bush-Cheney “Big Bang strategy” to introduce democracy to the “traditional societies” of the Middle East by a unilaterally waged war of choice: as he puts it, “if a center of gravity was to be had, better it be located over there than over here, and better that it involved our professional warriors instead of our untrained civilians.” But the entire point of al-Qaeda, as cunningly built by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, is that it has multiple centers of gravity; it’s a false choice to assume that waging war on Iraq’s secular Baathist dictatorship ensured that bin Laden’s fanatical henchmen and resentment-riddled admirers would opt not to train their firepower on U.S. targets. It’s a mistake to write off the Arab world’s Gap residents as simply tribal and traditional. And it’s by no means clear that America’s civilians won’t find themselves on the front lines again one crisp and unsuspecting morning.

All of which suggests one of the problems of the big-think genre: Barnett’s lively mind is ranging so swiftly over such a panoply of problems that he winds up coining formulations that are catchy but overly neat. This is a big, fat book, seemingly written in haste and enthusiasm. His overview chapter of American diplomatic history is particularly wan, and some of his would-be Friedman-esque formulations land with a clunk (“As such, arguments for a rededication to a Leviathan-only force amounts to a ‘Calgon, take me away!’ request in national security terms”).

Which is a shame, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here. “The world desperately wants America back,” Barnett argues, and then offers a 12-step program to recover from our excesses: admit that globalization runs itself, embrace bipartisanship, eschew unilateralism, recognize other great powers’ interests, and so forth. He’s drawn to the hard realities of military and commercial power and interested in turning problems around from the perspective of a cheerful “economic determinist.” He’s particularly shrewd on the coming battle inside the Pentagon over the shape of our post-Iraq military between more traditional thinkers (“the big-war crowd”) and the “monks of war,” the acolytes of the nimble counterinsurgency doctrine that Gen. David Petraeus used as Iraq slid toward the brink.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about Great Powers is that Barnett, the defense intellectual, ultimately concludes that economic might matters more than anything that could come out of the barrel of a gun. “America’s revolutionary grand strategy is globalization itself,” he writes,” and globalization thrives on peace while delivering justice first and foremost through income growth, expecting the locals to master the political equations in a direct relationship to their greed for more success.” Self-interest will, he hopes, narrow the gulf between those getting wired up and those wasting away. Until then, we’ll have to mind the Gap.