Mind the gap

Peace & Security07 Jul 2008Ko Colijn

Thomas P.M. Barnett has given well over a thousand presentations worldwide. Barrett is a well known defence expert whose career trajectory has run from Harvard University to the US Naval War College, and from being just another Soviet Union specialist to the general strategic futures explorer in the Bush Administration. Of late, he has been a hard-hitting but influential speaker at conferences organized by the government and NGOs in the Netherlands – a country that has just started to reflect on its own ‘strategic futures’ for the armed forces.

Barnett’s presentation, called ‘The Pentagon’s New Map’, is a bristling, music-larded, one-hour slide show based on his bestsellers The Pentagon’s New Map and Blueprint for Action. A blueprint indeed. Barnett explains how to understand the world, the US mission to manage that job, and its implications for all policies we used to call ‘external’. Barnett is also senior managing director of a company called Enterra Solutions, a platform for pushing ‘new rules sets in the military and market worlds’. What is Enterra all about? In Barnett’s own words: ‘Enterra is all about systems integration with a focus on rule-set automation as the engine for boosting enterprise resiliency or what I like to call “smart connectivity”.’ Not quite clear? Let’s have another try.

Globalization is not a universal phenomenon encompassing all of the world’s 192 countries. It is an American project, started after the Second World War, that unfortunately happened to split the world into two parts. These are called the Core, to which two-thirds of the world belongs and the rest probably wants to, and the Gap, which makes up the other third. Don’t think in post-Marxist terms of a world divided into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, with the haves doing well only by suppressing and exploiting the have-nots. It is about connectedness.

Two-thirds of the world is connected and the rest is not. The disconnected part defines the danger. Rather than threatening the Core with its destructive power, the Gap causes fear by its disruptive outside acts. It challenges its rules and may harm Core countries by causing pinpoint crises and ‘system perturbations’. The mission of the Core (read the US) is to meet the threat by making the Gap connected. How? By an external policy mix of flows: by exporting security, letting investment money flow into the Gap, and somehow sustaining the global flows of people and energy that cross the line between the Core and the Gap. You call that policy mix ‘system administration’, which essentially deals with the disconnected in order to protect the connected, and thereby the world itself. It is the moral mission of the US to conduct and manage that kind of system administration. This is a job requiring ‘functional unilateralism’, if only for the sheer power and resources that the US has at its disposal, which are nowhere near matched by Europe or any of the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China, and other emerging powers. Besides ‘system administration’, the US mission is to lead the Core and do the classic fighting, a necessary evil that requires a Leviathan force, which for obvious reasons can hardly be generated by anyone but the US, with the help, possibly, of some nasty Anglo-oriented allies. But not the Netherlands, apparently, which in Barnett’s blueprint seems to be a mere assistant system administrator.

Thomas Barnett doesn’t like academic nitpicking. Any international relations scholar who criticizes him for ignoring their preferred jargon (such as soft and hard power, hegemonic stability, global governance, core and periphery theorizing) is brushed aside or even called ‘egghead academic’. In short, says Barnett, ‘I’m not interested in doing studies any more. I don’t want homework assignments. I simply feel like I’ve moved beyond that, and frankly, many of my potential clients think similarly’ …. ‘So it’s time to move on in international relations theory as well as Pentagon’s planning’. Enterra Solutions is plugging the gap.

Barnett’s presentations to government officials and foreign policy elites take his audiences by surprise. Speaking in staccato sentences, articulated in contrasting styles, using black-and-white jargon, separating international politics into easy sets of problems and solutions, his anti-academic approach offers some refreshing thoughts that run counter to conventional wisdom.

First, Barnett challenges the academic legacy of the 1990s that defined globalization as a truly global process, presuming a global security agenda for which universal rules, institutions and solutions – indeed global governance – might be the right paradigm.

Second, he amends and indeed relaxes the famous democratic peace thesis. In order to get Gap countries connected, we need minimum rules set upon them, not democracy per se. China and Russia are already inside the Core, but are far from democratic countries.

Third, connectivity implies that ‘dependency’ is not a bad thing. Are we vulnerable to Middle East oil supply cuts, and must we aim at energy independence? Not at all – it is better to have a relationship that integrates these countries into the system than to have them isolated by making ourselves oil-independent.

For all its confidence in America’s natural leadership, the Barnett blueprint of course also has its Achilles’ heel. Will the rest of the world help him close the Gap? Will the Core countries show unity in defending the advantages, the security benefits and the prosperity that connectedness has brought them? In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Asian scholar Kishore Mahbubani replies with a reproachful and angry ‘no’. In his article ‘The case against the West’, the first paragraph may surprise anyone who believes that the West’s role is self-evident. He writes: ‘There is a fundamental flaw in the West’s strategic thinking. In all its analyses of global challenges, the West assumes that it is the source of the solutions to the world’s key problems’. The article’s conclusion hardly provides more support to the Barnett blueprint: ‘(u)nfortunatedly, the West has gone from being the world’s primary problem solver to being its single biggest liability’. Whether we like it or not, a voice like Mahbubani’s is not an unrepresentative one in the Asian world, and cannot be ignored.


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in the text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.
  1. Thomas P.M. Barnett (2004) The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century, Putnam. Thomas P.M. Barnett (2005) Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating, Penguin. Thomas P.M. Barnett, ‘The Pentagon’s New Map’, Presentation, Strategieberaad Rijksbreed (Strategic Council Nationwide), The Hague, 11 June 2008. Thomas Barnett weblog: Press Release: Enterra Solutions Acquires the New Rule Sets Project Interviews with Thomas Barnett and others with the Council on Foreign Relations: interview1, interview2. For information on ‘Strategic Futures’, see the website of the US Department of Defense Office of Force Transformation. For a biography of Thomas Barnett, see the Naval War College website.
  2. Kishore Mahbubani (2008) The case against the West, Foreign Affairs 87(3): 111-124, May/June. This essay is adapted from his latest book, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (Public Affairs, 2008). Kishore Mahbubani is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.