Bookshelf: Thomas Barnett's Blueprint for Action

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Thomas Barnett won a lot of attention back in April 2004 with his book The Pentagon's New Map. Now he comes forward with a sequel, Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating. Barnett's PowerPoint presentations have attracted many in the Pentagon and defense establishment, and rightly so. His analysis in New Map of where we stand in the world is original and illuminating. His policy prescriptions in Blueprint I find not entirely convincing, but others will disagree, and they are at least worth thinking about.

Barnett divides the world into the Functioning Core and the Non-integrating Gap. The Core consists of the developed countries with the rule of law and is held together by globalization, by trade and mutual economic dependence. It includes what Barnett called the New Core—China, India, Brazil, etc. The Gap consists of the parts of the world not linked to the global economy and plagued by war and conflicts of various kinds—splotches of Latin America (the Andean countries, Central America, the Caribbean), sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, much of the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal of policy—diplomatic. military, and economic—should be to expand the Core and shrink the Gap. Barnett argues in Blueprint that progress is being made—in the Balkans, in Iraq, in Southeast Asia and Indonesia.

If Barnett's PowerPoints have been influenced by his contacts with Wall Street financial types, they have been aimed mostly at people in the Pentagon and the defense establishment. He distinguishes between two kinds of U.S. military forces—the Leviathan and the System Administrators (SysAdmin). The Leviathan force, he argues persuasively, can produce victory in major military conflicts rapidly and with casualty levels that are minuscule by any historical standard. That is what we saw between March and May 2003 in Iraq. The SysAdmin force, he argues, needs more work. It does what conservatives used to refer to derisively as nation-building. Barnett believes that the United States has employed too few SysAdmin troops in Iraq. But he believes that the Rumsfeld Pentagon has done a good job of improving the SysAdmin force and has widely embedded jointness—cooperation between units of the different services—into the culture of the Pentagon.

This is in contrast to the longstanding Pentagon culture of concentrating on equipping the Leviathan force with ever more capable weaponry and technology. That's no longer so important, Barnett argues, because we have no major competitor now and none in sight in the future. He argues strenuously and at great length that China is and will not be such a competitor, because China's leaders have decided instead to embed their country into the world economy. Others argue that that doesn't necessarily prevent wars: Germany was embedded into the world's free-trade economy before 1914 but decided to go to war anyway. Barnett says that the next generation of Chinese leaders is quite sophisticated and looks on the United States as a long-term ally, not adversary.

Similarly, Barnett says we should try to engage and incentivize the regimes in Iran (by encouraging India to use its leverage there, among other ways) and North Korea to provide "connectivity" with the Functioning Core. He sees possibilities there that are not visible to me. And he believes that the United States should accept coverage of SysAdmin troops, but not Leviathan troops, under the International Criminal Court.

After the publication of Map, I wrote that "Thomas Barnett may turn out to be one of the most important strategic thinkers of our time." Whether because of his work, or simply parallel to it, the Pentagon has been reshaping our military forces in the direction of more SysAdmin work. Blueprint carries his work a step further. It also calls for policy changes that are likely to appeal more to a future Democratic administration than to the current Republican administration. His emphasis on global connectivity is in line with many of the pronouncements of the Clinton administration, as are his policies with respect to Iran, North Korea, and the International Criminal Court. But Barnett's focus is less political than institutional.

"My team is never out of power," he told me in an interview. "The political masters come and go."