Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE PENTAGON'S NEW MAP....On the recommendation of several people, I have finally finished slogging through Thomas P.M. Barnett's bestselling book, The Pentagon's New Map. It was an intensely frustrating experience.

Barnett, a military theorist and consultant formerly with the Naval War College, presents the following thesis: the primary division in the world today, he says, is between two sets of countries that he calls the Core and the Gap. The Core consists of advanced countries that play by the rules and are committed to globalization (primarily Europe, North America, and Japan) plus countries that are committed to getting there (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and some others). The Gap is everyone else: a collection of disconnected, lawless, and dangerous countries such as Colombia, Pakistan, and North Korea, plus most of the Middle East and Africa. (A detailed map of the Core and the Gap is here.) American military action since World War II has been confined almost exclusively to the Gap, which means the task of the United States over the next several decades and in particular the task of the United States military is to shrink the Gap and eventually convert the entire world to the values of the Core. Only then will America and the rest of the current Core be safe.

So why was the book so frustrating? Because normally it's not fair to summarize booklength arguments in a single paragraph this way. You really need to read the entire book and absorb all the author's evidence to understand what he's saying. In this case, though, you don't. Barnett doesn't really present supporting arguments as much as he simply relates anecdotes about the personal journey that led him to his conclusion that globalization is the key security issue of our time a conclusion that's eventually presented as sort of a personal epiphany. Either you buy it or you don't. (If you want a longer summary of the book anyway, Barnett's own version in the March 2003 issue of Esquire is here.)

In my case, I don't have a problem with Barnett's idea that Gap countries pose a greater danger to America than, say, China although apparently this is a tough sell in the military. That takes care of his first 300 pages or so. But the final hundred pages have their own problem: a sense of destiny that goes way beyond mere optimism and turns into something little short of religious faith in America's ability to be right under all circumstances. For example, here is his argument about why America should feel free to intervene in Gap countries whenever we feel like it:

What gives America the right to render judgments of right and wrong, or good versus rogue?....What gives America the right is the fact that we are globalization's godfather, its source code, its original model. We restarted globalization after World War II and we have made it largely in our image....This gift of global connectivity generating peace is one we must keep on giving, because to let the process stall is to risk its demise, to possibly lose all for which we have sacrificed so much in the past.

This isn't an argument, it's just an assertion, and one that will convince no one aside from Americans who are already believers. Barnett spends a lot of time insisting that we need the support of the rest of the Core in our mission to eliminate the Gap, but there are damn few Core countries that are going to feel comfortable trailing along to clean up after our wars if this is the extent of our justification.

And make no mistake: that's exactly what Barnett thinks the rest of the Core should do. America has the only military capable of projecting power, he says, and we should feel free to use it unilaterally whenever we feel it's necessary. But the nation building that comes afterward well, that's everyone's problem. In other words, America should decide where to wage war, and the rest of the world should follow our lead. The example of Iraq doesn't give me a lot of confidence that this is a workable strategy.


The book is unsatisfying in other ways as well. For starters, it suffers from a bad case of Tom Friedmanism: rah rah globalism leavened with simplistic lists and preciously named rules. For example, here's a summary of how he thinks American military power will create world peace:

America as global cop creates security. Security creates common rules. Rules attract foreign investment. Investment creates infrastructure. Infrastructure creates access to natural resources. Resources create economic growth. Growth creates stability. Stability creates markets. And once you're a growing, stable part of the global market, you're part of the Core. Mission accomplished.

But there's no analysis of even the first part of this chain: does America as global cop really create the security needed for all the rest of this to happen? I'm not sure history is kind to this notion, but in any case I'd expect at least a full chapter justifying it. But there's really nothing. Again, it's more assertion than argument.

In the end, Barnett makes two big proposals. The first, of course, is that American has to be ready and willing to enforce security everywhere within the Gap. The second is that we need two militaries: the standard one we have now, which fights and wins conventional wars, and a second one, which occupies countries and performs nation building. This is an interesting notion, but he never takes it anywhere. Could such a military force work? Would other countries really join us in this? What does it take to perform successful nation building anyway? There's a rich literature in these topics, but very little of it is reflected in Barnett's book.

I feel like I'm being unfairly harsh toward Barnett, who seems like a good guy who's been thinking about this stuff for a long time. But in the end, the problem wasn't that he failed to persuade me, it was that he didn't even try. I kept waiting for the argument to start, but instead I just kept getting more and more description. Sure, the Gap is unstable and disconnected, but can American power connect it? Yes, we can wage war unilaterally if we want to, but can we also get the rest of the Core to follow our lead if we do? Maybe evangelizing globalization to the Gap is a good thing, but is it enough to stop war? It didn't stop World War I. And what's required in addition to military power anyway? Barnett never really says.

Thus my frustration. It's possible that Barnett is on the right track, but he needs to write a book that makes his case, rather than just states it. He's writing a second book now, and maybe he'll do just that. We'll have to wait and see.

Kevin Drum 12:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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