Thomas Barnett: Mapping The Next Neo-Snafu

Thomas Barnett: Mapping The Next Neo-Snafu

A couple of days ago, C-SPAN aired Thomas P. M. Barnett’s lecture at the National Defense University in Fort McNair. While it didn’t “transfix” me, as it did drdave, I’ve to admit the guy does know how to make Powerpoint slides fly. Barnett speaks like he’s firing bullet points, and has the relaxed certainty of those who think in mutually exclusive necessities.

According to Barnett, in the summer of 1998, Admiral Art Cebrowski— the current head of the Orwellian-sounding “Office of Force Transformation”– asked him to:

…look at the Year 2000 problem and treat it as a heuristic opportunity to explore how globalization– spread of the global economy, the rise of all this connectedness– was altering our sense and understanding of the very essential nature of international stability, international instability, definitions of crisis.

What the Admiral was saying, I think, was that he wanted his staff to spend time– what little remained– with their families, stocking up on dog chow and AAA batteries, trying on Mad Max outfits, etc. before Y2K hit the non-working fans. Barnett, however, took Cebrowski at his word.

To his credit, Barnett did a good job. Rather than google obscure extracts from Sun Tzu or rehash Toffler and/or Prisoner’s dilemma, Barnett came up with something original: a cartographic representation of ignorance. To wit, a political map. The map led to Powerpoint presentations at the Pentagon, and then to a couple of books, talks, and doubtless, moist DoD groupies. The map– detailed at length in The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century — led Barnett to the one thing it hadn’t predicted: celebrity.

Most recently, the map has monstrogrified into a blueprint for action. The C-SPAN lecture I watched was about the blueprint.

Barnett’s basic thesis is that there are countries that are functional (the “Core”), that are mostly functional (the new-Core) and the malfunctioning (the “Gap”). The Gap consists, more or less, of countries whose leading cause of death is hunger and/or whose people mill around shouting “Death to the USA.” The Gap is where the bad news comes from. The Core and the Gap are not really places; they’re kinds of populations. And to understand what populations will do, it’s a good idea to look at demographic data. Demographics, as Peter Drucker wrote in one of his essays, is the “future that has already happened.” This seductive idea may be true of gas dynamics, but not for social movements; besides, cohort analysis– the statistics of hazard curves– is nucking futs.

On Barnett’s slides, scimitar like arrows slashed towards the Middle-East: Muslim women clamoring for equal rights, west-inspired Islamic reform movements, oil scarcity…. The arrows were inevitable forces of globalization slicing and dicing the forces of darkness. He was somewhat dismissive of Britain and “10-weeks-off-a-year” Germany. He urged that China, India and Brazil be roped in– “integrated”– into the Core. Entire nations were re-conceptualized as “body-shops.” If Iraq needed, say, new power plants, well, call in the Chinese, for god’s sake! They’ll do it on the cheap, and in time, and with a minimum of scrutable exposure. He urged that the US drop its commitment to protect Taiwan from China; it was ridiculous, he said, that a little island should have the license to start a world war.

Managing the whole process were the “sysadmins”, crouched over the world like Rushdie’s Gibreel Farishta. The sysadmins consisted of US, Britain, Germany, Russia and Australia with fodder from body-shops in NATO. The sysadmins job was to staunch terrorist viruses, aid and abet regime changes, snoop on loser activity and keep the system, well, admined. In his book, Barnett refers to the sysadmins as “pistol-packin’ Peace Corps.”

Now, I’ve worked in software. Experience tells me that most sysadmins are quietly insane. There is something about standing watch on the wall, holding back the vermin horde, that does one in. Sysadmins are often just one chkdsk¬† command away from head-jerkin’, gear-spillin’ meltdown.

While Barnett is an unapologetic outsourcer of the White Man’s Burden, he’s not a neo-conservative¬† He’s interested in effecting economic similitude: free markets, rule of law and stable institutions. But he’s not interested in recasting other cultures in America’s image. For example, during the Q&A session, he said something like:

Nigeria will never become like the United States. Nigeria is a knockoff of India which is a knockoff of China which is a knockoff of South Korea which is a knockoff of Singapore which is a knockoff of Japan which is
a knockoff of the United States. So yeah…

I don’t think Barnett meant it in a disparaging way. A knockoff is often an improvement. Evolution is basically the story of knockoffs knocking off the knocked off.

As I watched Barnett Powerpoint his way through the next twenty/thirty years, it became clear why the model’s gotten the attention it has. It’s not the model. It’s him. He’s a compelling speaker. Were a typical graduate student to present Barnett’s model, its flaws would be obvious. Barnett’s vision of the world is pretty much that of Gunsmoke, with the US as Marshal Matt “square-jaw” Dillon, Britain as auburn-haired Kitty, China as Quint and the Core countries as easy-going Festus. Much to my delight, at one point Barnett invoked Deadwood, HBO’s version of Gunsmoke. “Watch it,” Barnett barked, and I obediently reached to program my remote.

Conservatives tend to be fond of Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom. Neo-cons would profit even more from a perusal of Karl Popper’s Poverty of Historicism. About the kind of thinking exemplified by Barnett and Drucker (and Tolstoy, the author of the other War and Peace), Popper wrote:

Historicism is a very old movement. Its oldest forms such as the doctrine of the life-cycles of cities and races, actually precede the primitive teleological view that there are hidden purposes behind the apparently blind decrees of fate. Although this divination of hidden purposes is far removed from the scientific way of thinking it has left unmistakable traces upon even the most modern historicist theories. Every version of historicism expresses the feeling of being swept into the future by irresistible forces. Modern historicists, however, seem to be unaware of the antiquity of their doctrine….

And Popper identified the basic problem with historicism:

There are, indeed, countless possible conditions in our search for the true conditions of a trend, we have all the time to try and imagine conditions under which the trend in question would disappear. But this is just what the historicist cannot do. He firmly believes in his favourite trend, and conditions under which it would disappear are to him unthinkable. The Poverty of Historicism, we might say is a poverty of imagination. The Historicist continuously upbraids those who cannot imagine a change in their little worlds; yet it seems that he cannot imagine a change in the conditions of change.” [src]

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Barnett. The nice thing about the man– and indeed, most American historicists– is that he’s an optimist. He believes the world can be changed for the better. And he seems harmless enough with his collection of Powerpoint slides and dismissive quips and round glasses and ersatz historical analogies. But it’s depressing to think that Barnett and his horoscope of a map represents the best that the Pentagon can requisition at this juncture.