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

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Mr. Safranski is an educational consultant to secondary schools. He frequently writes about the military. Click here for his blog.

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.

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Tom Clark - 3/11/2005

Well you shouldn't be quite so hard on our Green, Leftist friend. Sure Lefty's tend to look to the state for solutions, but you can't say that, say the EPA, was a 'natural' development of an unfettered free market. It took the consciousness of environmentalists and a call for a 'ruleset,' to use Barnett's term, to make the market come up with its solutions.

On another of your points, what do you mean about 'post-modernist' values being the basis for socialist values? I think I understand your connection between post-modernism and 'nihulism' [sic], but what do they have to do with socialism?


melvin bernstine - 2/1/2005

Steven L. Frank, thank you for that last, concise and comprehensive post!

Steven L. Frank - 1/9/2005

What utter nonsense. The war was fought to make a statement that if you are an enemy of the USA you might be next; so shut down teror opperations in your little piece of @#!$#@ country. Oh and by the way, we will be true to our revolutionary roots and export the Age of Enlightenment's politics, representative democracy, property rights, and individual rights.

As for secularism being antithetical to a robust support for the exportation of our revolution; I find that a non starter. The whole thrust of the Enlightenment was to build upon the role of Reason and the reduction of the use of Religous Faith as an organizing principal of politics.That is what is at corethe biggest dispute between the West and the Islamofascists.

As for the correlation of being Green and Leftist, I think you have it the other way round. Leftists promote Green policies not to promote the enviroment. There are many market based approaches to do that that are quite more effective. Leftists promote Green values as a way to enhance the power of statist politics. I find it quite revealing the the world's greatest polluters were the Socialist Bloc not the West because socialist governments were not restrained by the people's natural desire to live in a clean and safe enviroment.

If you really cared about the enviroment; capitalism is the only form of social organization that leads to the creation of enough wealth and voter input to actually clean up the enviroment.

As for your comments on Sexism and Racism; in the immortal words of John Lennon, "You better free your mind instead" You're carrying around some dead concepts from the rapidly deflating world of Post-Modernism. Post-Modernism is dead. In was intered with the bones of the Soviet Union. It was the value system that drove the socialist experiment that has now been utterly falsified. To maintain a post-modernist point of view today requires on ultimately to adopt nihuilism as the post-modernist has no satisfactory end-state to suggest to us who are concerned with how we actually have to live in the world we actually inhabit or are likely to inhabit in the future.

Start trying to have some original thoughts that might explain where we are going next. We need new rule sets and new discriptors for this world and that is what Barnett is doing. If you can't come to grips with the Promethian change in what is required of our habits of thought if we are not to return to some new dark age of unreason; then just go back to your outdated text books and keep discovering all the needed footnotes that need to be written for an evolutionary dead end in human thought.

Andrew D. Todd - 1/3/2005

It is useful to compare the illicit drug trade to the illicit music trade.

Music bootlegging is driven by the fact that just about everyone has a computer, and a computer can copy things. The recording industry's efforts to suppress music bootlegging merely result in it becoming more perfectly dispersed, to the point that each illicit listener does his exact proportionate share of the work. Enforcement is nearly impossible. The Recording Industry Association of America has reached the desperation measure of going after little girls who live in housing projects, and who share Britney Spears recordings back and forth. Who else, after all, would even want Britney Spears recordings?

Imagine the same principle operating with respect to molecular biology. One suitably skilled person can create a micro-organism which replicates, and produces a desired biochemical, in much the same fashion that brewer's yeast turns grape juice into wine. At a certain level, biology is just another information science, similar to computer programming, with the same basic properties. This method is being used, legitimately, to produce things like insulin. However, the method can also be used for recreational drugs. Unskilled users can share their starter cultures back and forth. An early formulation of this idea is found in Diana L. Paxson's science fiction novel _The Paradise Tree_ (1987). The present assumption in the illicit drug trade is that users use up their supply, and have to go back for more. When that assumption ceases to be true, enforcement will become effectively impossible. The only remaining question is when.

George Bernard Shaw summed the drug problem up for all time: "Whiskey is a very necessary article... It makes life bearable to millions of people who could not endure their existence if they were quite sober..." (_Major Barbara_, 1906, Act II). Instead of addressing the question of why large numbers of people could not endure American society if they were quite sober, we project the drug problem outwards, pretending that it is something the evil foreigners are doing to us. On a larger scale, this is of course the paranoiac behavior of a certain type of drug-user. Using the Army to fight the War On Drugs by invading Columbia or Bolivia is ultimately futile.

Stuart Berman - 1/2/2005

I just read that the folks that make Sudafed are changing a key ingredient in order to prevent the sort of abuse you mention. Since this change is supposed to be viable (cost effective and doesn't impact the products ability to 'perform as advertised') it makes sense. I have no idea how long it took them to get to this stage (research and testing) nor what significant pressures were applied to them to make this change. Reason says that they would do this as responsible corporate citizens and to prevent any inevitable consumer backlash to the charges you make. The case is obviously more difficult in basic products (such as ammonia or bleach) which may also be abused.

Andrew D. Todd - 1/2/2005

Well, I take the view that the disagreement between the United States and Europe about Kyoto Protocol is ultimately a theological dispute. Do you know what a "rice burner" is? It's a derogatory term for a small Japanese car, and by extension, for its driver, who may himself be an Asian-American.

Here are some links to usage. I should warn the more sensitive readers that these tend to be fairly foul-mouthed.

























"Rice burner," in its most literal sense implies that Japanese are running their automobiles on grain alcohol distilled from Sake, because they aren't sufficiently manly to go and kick the Arabs' teeth in and take the oil. Within this world-view, energy conservation, or concern about pollution, is immoral, and makes one a "girly-man." This world-view incorporates not only elements of racism and sexism, but also a deep resentment of the upper middle class, dislike of pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. The speaker is apt to refer to "euro-trash," and assert his God-given right to drive drunk. I grant that this may only be five percent of the population in its more extreme form, but that is still more than the President's margin of victory.

This cultural conflict is manageable, provided that neither side is asked to do too much. The problem about war is that it tends to ask too much of too many people, and sometimes triggers a revolution within one of the combatants. That is of course what happened with Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.

Of course there are always oddities, but I think I would be fairly safe in saying that there is a broad correlation between Green sentiment, pacifism, secularism, etc. and, on the other side, between the opposing ideologies. If I am correct, the concessions necessary to meet Europe's stipulations would tend to antagonize precisely those Americans who provide the political support for military intervention in the Third World.

Stuart Berman - 1/1/2005

Barnett's rule sets are principally described as mutually agreed upon rule between nations of the Core (G20). He uses examples such as WTO, whereas the Kyoto Protocol is a force that may eventually alter our position or may itself be altered until suitable to all significant players. Barnett offers insight into the impact of environmental concerns to all Core nations (such as the rising impact China will have upon the global environment as their energy usage bloom in the upcoming decades, the current mecury output of China's dirty coal and how they sidestep Kyoto, as well as the impact caused by the peak in global population growth followed by a drop in global population.

Friedman's analysis is not incompatible with Barnett's, but it is more narrow and doesn't focus on many of the significant global factors such as finance, population and energy flows. It seems that Friedman offers a traditional intelligence assessment that feeds on conflict whereas Barnett offers a reconciliation between cultures (win-win) to participate in globalization (the big losers being despots and those seeking to subjagate the free will of people).

Andrew D. Todd - 1/1/2005

The problem is, whose rule set? European rule sets differ in important particulars from American rule-sets. Take Kyoto Protocol. If you believe in global warming, it follows that American automobile usage will cause Antarctica to melt, putting London three hundred feet under water. Similarly, from an engineering standpoint, it really isn't all that difficult to conform to Kyoto Protocol over a period of decades. It would cost a good deal of money of course, tens of billions of dollars, which would have to come from the government, but in terms of defense spending, that isn't so big a deal. Here is a website covering some of the possible solutions.


The American response to Kyoto Protocol is not practical so much as it is moral or ethical. Look at the way that working stiffs burn rubber on their way out of the parking lot of a highly regimented factory. I know a place where you can see ten cars in succession run a red light which was put in to protect the pedestrian approaches to an elementary school.

Steven L. Frank - 1/1/2005

Thank you, I'll give your book a try.

What attracted me to Barnett's work was an understanding of where (The Gap) and why (Non-networked States)instability will eminate in the 21'st Century. I tend to agree with him that a "Great Power" war between the United States and anybody else (Russia or China) is a very low probability for economic as well as technological reasons. We should therefore focus our thinking about those high probability future conflicts arising from "The Gap".

Weither you accept his solutions or not; I believe he is on the mark when coming to understand how much of "The Core" of networked states has outsourced its security to the United States (Europe and Japan) and why they have therefore relinquished both the ability and will to use hard power. Barnett also makes some good points about the fact that the new rule sets governing international behavior must be different between those states that are now networked into "The Core" and those who live inside "The Gap". Maintaining a double standard makes quite a bit of sense,ie resolving disputes with laywers and diplomats with states that play by The Core's rule set; and preemptive military action followed by an integrated program of nationbuilding to take countries from The Gap and networking them into The Core.

Andrew D. Todd - 12/31/2004

Here is a book that is much sounder than what I have read of Barnett.

George and Meredith Friedman, The Future of War: Power, Technology, and American World Dominance in the Twenty-First Century, 1996.

The Friedmans adopt a Mahanian position ("sea power"), revised and corrected for modern technology. By contrast, Barnett's position, so far as I can gather, is essentially Makinderian ("control the heartland"). Mahanianism is the traditional strategy of the Anglo-Saxon democracies, going back to William Pitt the Elder (if not before). It has a much better fit with democratic values than Makinderism does, whose natural heroes are people like Temujin, Phillip II, Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin. My impression is that the Friedmans have a much sounder command of technology than Barnett has.

Steven L. Frank - 12/30/2004

Is the best work on where historical trends are leading us in print today. If you would like to view Mr. Barnett in action, here is a link to his latest appearance on C-SPAN:


John H. Lederer - 12/29/2004

George Kennan?

John H. Lederer - 12/29/2004

George Kennan?

Andrew D. Todd - 12/29/2004

I think that _The Pentagon’s New Map_, as described by Safranski, is based on the economy as it used to be, not the economy as it is becoming.

The "flow of energy" in practice means oil, which is to say, gasoline to power automobiles. As a general principle, if you use more energy than can be obtained locally, it becomes a pollutant. Importing energy from the far corners of the earth is not an ecologically sustainable strategy. Manufacturing in the third world is based on cheap labor. However, no human labor is cheaper than that of machines, once the machines get to the point of being economically priced. For example, a personal computer costs hundreds of dollars, not tens of thousands of dollars, and its raw operating expenses in the right context might be on the order of a penny or two per hour. What applies to a computer ultimately applies to a robot as well. The single biggest manufactured good is the automobile. There are few if any tasks in the manufacturing of an automobile which cannot be robotized. Further, all the transportation-related industries are in competition with computers and telecommunications. The latter are winning-- we are not at a convention, after all. This will inevitably result in a scaling-back of manufacturing, and reduced rates of consumption of natural resources. The developed countries will import less from the third world. At a certain point, the military industrial complex will cut in as a form of price supports. There will be firms which are paid by the Pentagon to maintain a certain manufacturing capacity of certain commonly useful items, and as a byproduct, supply the rest of the population for free. The interstate highways are an example of something analogous. The lucrative business opportunities will all involve getting paid by the government to do something, but they will carry a condition that the resulting employment has to be distributed along lines of political advisabity.

Third-world economies will practically have two choices: autarchy or contraband. Autarchy means essentially producing for the needs of one's own population, and not for export, modifying designs as necessary to avoid having to import raw materials.

The other possibility is contraband. The United States proceeds on the assumption that drugs are a problem of certain South American countries, not a problem of the United States itself. Attempts to project our own internal drug problem onto foreign countries are ultimately doomed to failure. A cocaine molecule only has forty-three atoms (C_17-H_21-O_4-N). The gross chemical composition approximates that of the B-complex vitamins. What makes cocaine cocaine is essentially in the ordering of those forty-three atoms. Sooner or later, it is inevitable that the end user will develop the ability to make his own supply for immediate consumption, probably via a genetically engineered yeast . In any case, cocaine is being superseded by "crank," that is, amphetamines refined by essentially traditional bootleggers or moonshiners from over-the-counter medications. Respectable pharmaceutical firms do all the heavy lifting of producing the stuff, and turn a blind eye to its actual use. These firms make all the right political campaign contributions, of course.