Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett, Part 6
HH: I am now joined by Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett, author of The Pentagon’s New Map, one of the most important books within the Pentagon and outside of it in many circles in the last few years. Dr. Barnett and I are spending an hour a week going through this book. We are on Chapter 6. Dr. Barnett, welcome back. You’re in the District of Columbia tonight?
TB: Yes, I am, in a cab heading toward the hotel.
HH: Well, we’ll do the best we can, and we’ll make it work. As I read Chapter 6, The Global Transaction Strategy…
HH: I think it’s an eloquent and a persuasive argument on the necessity and indeed the morality of projection of the two American militaries, the leviathan and the system administrator into those conflicts around the world that threaten the gap’s growing connectivity. And I know we’ve got to unpack that for people.
HH: Before I do that, though, because I think it matters, we’ve never talked politics. And since you’re making a Wilsonian argument here, I’d like to kind of get on the record…you’re a Catholic kid, grew up in Wisconsin, a Harvard PhD, and if my e-mailers are correct, you were a supporter of John Kerry in ’04?
HH: And are you a Democrat?
TB: Registered, yes.
HH: And have you always supported Democrats? I think this is important for people to understand that we’re going to agree a lot in this chapter, and I want them to understand you’re a Democrat.
TB: I guess I’d call myself a conservative Democrat, or sort of a Tony Blair, Scoop Jackson sort of Democrat. So pretty much a hawk externally, and pretty much a Democrat internally.
HH: Would you agree that you’re a pragmatic Wilsonian, if we have to come up with sort of categories to put you in?
TB: Yeah, pragmatic Wilsonian, kind of an idealist/realist. I hate the binary choices. You know, when I was over in China the first time, they said you’ll never be accepted in America, because in America, they always want you to be either one or the other. And you’re very pragmatic in your short term analysis, but very idealistic in your long term analysis, and that’s a tough balance to maintain.
HH: How have you earned the trust of the uniforms, not being a veteran yourself?
TB: Well, you know, I don’t talk about things I don’t know, and I’m not asked to advise them on things that I don’t understand. I’m a grand strategist, and my role has always been about helping the military to understand the larger context, the whys and the whens and the whos of conflict, but not the how. I leave the how completely to them, so they don’t come to me, for example, for tactics or operations. They come to me for insights about under what conditions they’ll wage war, and for what reasons.
HH: You know, Dr. Barnett, I find it very encouraging, though, that the uniform services are open to a civilian of your background and writing, coming in and talking about those things, and don’t automatically say he hadn’t been there, he hadn’t done that, he can’t possibly project how force is going to be necessary and used in the decades ahead.
TB: Well again, it’s the role I play. I help them understand the larger world they’re operating within. I don’t tell them how to suck eggs, as they say in the military. I don’t tell them stuff they already know, or they know better than I. I focus on what they don’t know as well as I do, and by keeping myself in that niche, and by working with the military across a 17 year career, and sticking with it, and dealing with very, very tough audiences day after day after day, which is why when I get this sort of criticism, you know, Barnett’s in the ivory tower, Barnett’s detached from reality, Barnett’s never faced tough audiences, you know, I get up in front of four stars and three stars all the time. I face plenty of tough audiences, very demanding audiences, people who demand very real answers.
HH: I want to go to the double imperative that you were talking about, but I want to do that after bringing up one of those exchanges you had with an Admiral Tom Weschler, who was at the Naval War College, and says you’ve explained this gap, and you’ve explained this new form of crisis, I’m on board, I want to shrink your gap and get better at dealing with your system perturbations. My question is, what do we get in return for doing all these difficult things? Dr. Barnett, what do we get in return for doing all these difficult things?
TB: What we get is the end of war as we’ve known it. Classic state on state war basically goes away, and if we’re persistent enough in dealing with these largely internal or civil sources of strife, we basically get peace on the planet, which is completely within our wherewithal, because if you imagine all the money that my core, all these advanced powers of the West, and now the East, spend on preparing for war with each other, you think about all the foreign aid these countries give, all the money they pour into these gap countries, post-conflict, if you looked at that entire pool of money, do we have the resources, do we have the manpower? Absolutely. And we have the overlapping security interests. We all want safe, secure access to raw materials coming outside of the gap, and we all want a more peaceful planet.
HH: All right. Now let’s get to the specifics of Chapter 6. The moral imperative of American intervention, we can and we must, because we can and no one else can. Is that a fair summary?
TB: Yes, in the sense that we’re the only military power in the world that can go someplace and be someplace and sustain itself and operate distant from our shores. Nobody even comes close to that. So if we don’t show up, basically nobody shows up. There are a lot of myths out there that other countries can wage war distant from their shores. They cannot. There’s a myth that the U.N. can step in and replace us. It cannot. If we don’t show up, the unspoken power of our leviathan force is, we basically decide when not only we wage war, but if and when other countries wage war. Any war on this planet is basically with our okay, because we’re the one country on the planet that can basically stop it, and that is a tremendous moral power that we wield. It’s an unspoken power. It’s not one we easily address, but when people accuse us of doing nothing in Sudan, and the only reason they can accuse America of something like that is because we’re the only country that if we want to, we can basically stop Sudan.
HH: And so, when you argue that we are under an obligation to use force when we can in the priorities that you organize here, it’s a moral argument about our not acting in the face of evil
TB: Absolutely. The peril here is, I mean, look at the last time we really engaged in serious isolationism, right after another big bout, the first great bout of globalization. That was waged under the guise of the colonial powers, you know, 1870, roughly, to 1914. We backed off from that world, and that thing fell apart. That globalization self-immolated, and we basically took all that connectivity and drove it back to zero, put our planet through a massive world war, 100 million dead, and we could have prevented that with a more interventionary, activist foreign policy. I don’t want to go down that path again, because I don’t believe that the effort we made on the Cold War basically ended everything. It ended the conflict among the great powers, but there’s still roughly one third of humanity, my so-called non-integrating gap, that has its noses pressed to the glass, wondering when they’re going to get into this party called globalization, and this poverty reduction program that’s unprecedented in global history. And until we let them in, they’re going to be a constant source of danger not only to ourselves, but largely to themselves. We estimate maybe 13 million people have died inside my gap since the end of the Cold War. Much of it could have been prevented. I mean, that’s a couple of holocausts on our watch that we need to care about, because we need to identify our definitions of national security with a global definition of international stability. We had that in the Cold War. It was called mutual assured destruction. Our basic rationale was you attack America, by God, I’ll blow this planet up, okay, and that’s how we threatened the world, and made the world inherently interested not only in our security, but in the planet’s stability. That connection between America’s national security and international stability is gone. Bin Laden kills a million tomorrow inside Chicago, I say quick, name the country we can bomb in retaliation, because if you can’t name that country now, I can’t threaten them in advance. And if I can’t threaten them in advance, I don’t have deterrence, and we’ve lost the link between U.S. security and international stability.
HH: I want to go back to the comment you just made, 13 million dead since the end of the Cold War, a couple of holocausts on our watch. Are you saying, Dr. Barnett, that because we could have stopped that, we ought to have stopped that?
TB: I’m saying if we can do anything, we have to do something. I mean, the slippery slope argument that says I can’t save them all, therefore I save none, is not just good enough in this day and age. I mean, it was good enough across the 90’s when we had the go-go 90’s, and we said Powell doctrine limits our interest in doing the post-war, so we just round up bad guys and come back as quickly as possible. But as events have unfolded and been proven time and time again, where we don’t fix things, we have to go back. And in between our visits, lots of death occurs. So where we have the most egregious instances of violence and civil strife and genocide, where we have any ability to motivate ourselves, and to motivate others into action, I say it’s our responsibility to do something, because to say we can’t do everything is not an excuse for doing nothing.
HH: There’s a second imperative in addition to the moral imperative. We’ve got about a minute to the break. It’s that there’s a pragmatic, self-interest here. If we take holidays from history, as we did in the 20’s and the 90’s, the costs are too high, not just in dead people around the globe, but here in the United States.
TB: Well, absolutely. And you know, the more positive spin on this is the more we extend our networks, the more we extend globalization, and the transparency that comes with it, the safer we are. There was a famous statement by Catherine the Great that Bob Kagan quotes in his new book, Dangerous Nation, which is a brilliant book. Catherine the Great said of Russia’s borders, I can’t defend them, so I must extend them. And that’s almost the way we need to think about globalization. Our security, the security of our network called the United States, it’s only as good as every other nation to which we connect in this process called globalization. So it’s safer for us to extend our networks to put that kind of instability and danger more distant from our show, then to firewall ourselves off from it and pretend we can stop things at the border.
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HH: Dr. Barnett, you describe the United States as globalization’s bodyguard. Can you expand on that a little bit?
TB: Well, I think we have to understand that basically, we’re globalization’s source code. Our country, in terms of the model we represent, as an economic and political union, really gives rise to the sort of model of globalization that comes out from the experience of the Second World War, after that colonial globalization model of the Europeans kind of self destructed in a massive civil war that raged over 1914-1945. Our model of globalization, transparency, collective security, free trade, free markets, a kind of a leviathan over all of us in the form of the federal government, that’s the role that in effect, we walk into after the Second World War. So we played bodyguard to globalization’s spread around the planet. It doesn’t mean that we’re the ruler. I like to say globalization comes with rules, but not a ruler. So we have to understand the limitations of that, and we have to understand that our application of military force needs to be contextualized within some larger rule set, that we get the rest of the advanced powers of the world, not everybody on the planet, not every Podunk country, but the big powers need to agree upon so that we understand collectively under what conditions it makes sense for us to wage war, and we’re not going off doing things others can’t support.
HH: Now you posed the question which I’m sure many anti-interventionists are having, are forming as they yell at the radio. Quote from Page 301: “What gives America the right to render judgment of right and wrong, or good versus rogue? If America takes on the worst offenders in order to extend the core’s rule sets, then why not take on all offenders? Why not just admit we run an empire?” Why not, Dr. Barnett?
TB: Well, because an empire is about enforcing maximal rule sets, what you must do. And what we do is we enforce minimal rule sets. That’s the nature of our political system, you know, what’s not written into law is everything you can do. That’s different from other parts of the world. I remember being almost arrested in the Soviet Union in 1984 for playing Frisbee in a park, and the cop came up to me and said that’s against the law. And I said where is it written, and he said buddy, it’s not written that you can play Frisbee in a park. And that’s how most of the world is governed. But our system has always been based on the notion that if it’s not written down as prohibited, then it’s basically fair game. And that’s the way we’ve ruled the world, if you want to call it that, as we basically enforced minimal rule sets, certain bad things that you must refrain from, so that we can have a relatively stable and free flow of commerce around the planet. You know, the most minimal rule set we’ve pursued throughout our history, and it’s the reason why we had a Navy all these years, is simple freedom of the sea, because in the global economy right up the Second World War, that was basically the only rule you needed. Just keep the fees free, and global commerce can move effectively. But it’s a lot more complex now. I mean, it’s not just sea travel, it’s air travel, it’s networks, it’s all sorts of connectivity that we can barely control, much less understand, and it just behooves us to understand that our role has expanded, and yet we’re not an empire. We don’t seek political control over places. We don’t seek to enforce maximal rules. We seek to keep a level playing field. And others like us in that role. That’s why nobody’s built a force to counter us over the last 17 years, despite all those predictions from realists that it was inevitable.
HH: But it seems to me to make that work, we need to have one certain confidence, and I remember after giving a lecture a few years ago, an exchange student from Asia approached me upset. They said you believe that the West is best. And I looked at him and said yes. And it seems to me, Dr. Barnett, so do you.
TB: I do, but I like to put it in a different way, not so much in terms of we’re better. You know, I think we’re there first. I think we’re there earlier. You know, I talk about America being the source code for globalization. It doesn’t make us right in all instances. It means in terms of that journey towards an integrating, fair sort of environment, you know, bound by rules and bound by a certain culture of tolerance and acceptability of others and their differences, we’re further along in that process, and it creates tremendous responsibility, that wisdom and that understanding. But it doesn’t give us the right to abrogate the rights of others. We have to be patient in many ways, and understand that as other countries make that journey in a similar direction, their change will come at a pace that their culture will handle, which is why…
HH: But we still need to…but do we not have to recognize that what we are exporting, slowly or rapidly, generously or not so generously, coercively when necessary against a bad guy, or not coercively when simply pushing those borders out, is nevertheless a premise that how we organize things is in fact best.
TB: And is organized by rules, okay? And our rule set has come about with many clashes across our history, the most famous one being the Civil War. So I mean…and we constantly adapt our rule sets. Our legal system, our Supreme Court is on a daily basis, almost, declaring certain rules invalid, and asking Congress or the President to come up with better ones. So it’s a constant evaluation process that keeps us strong, not some inherent cultural superiority. It’s that we are an amalgamous, synthetic culture of many rules that have been time tested and put to use over time, and give us a confidence in their efficacy. And again, that’s a responsibility to help others understand that pathway, not to lord it over them, and certainly not to give people the appearance of empire, but to give people a sense that we’re there when they need us, and we’re the force that shows up time and time again.
HH: But what I’m driving at, Dr., is that we have confidence of an efficacy, and in its universality…
HH: …because I’ve often heard the argument that the Arab peoples just aren’t cut out for this kind of globalization, and I think that’s profoundly wrong and immoral, and I think you do as well.
TB: Well, because I heard the same thing about other people in the past.
TB: I heard the Japanese couldn’t do it, and they did. In fact, they’re almost better at it than we are in some ways, thanks to our efforts and our willingness to go and fight and stay. And that’s the key part. Any…you know, any kind of empire in the world can go and fight. But we’re the ones who go and fight and stay long enough for the stability and the security and the peace to ensue, so I absolutely disagree with the notion that anybody’s genetically defective. It didn’t take the Russians that long to adjust, and it certainly didn’t take the Chinese that long to become as capitalistic or more capitalistic than we are.
HH: Of course, we don’t always stay. We didn’t stay in Vietnam, and holocaust followed. We did not stay, people don’t want us to stay in Iraq. We did not stay in Lebanon in 1983. And the dangers of not staying, what you call drive-by regime change, are exponentially higher now than even in the holocaust era of South Vietnam and Cambodia, Dr. Barnett. I think that’s your conclusion.
TB: Yes, I’d give a slightly different take on history. I say we went to Europe and we stayed, and now Europe is peaceful and safe. I say we went to the Berlin Wall, and we instituted the policy of containment, and we stayed. And eventually, 3 billion new capitalists joined our system. I’d say we went to Vietnam, and we fought a bloody war, and we retreated into an off-shore balancing role that was profound over the last thirty years, that was a key input to the Asian miracle, because it allowed countries there to basically focus on economic development, and not be constantly hedging against one another militarily. And that’s a collective good we supply the world, which I argue the world has paid for fairly effectively by keeping our currency as the global currency, and in effect, financing a lifestyle, plus that military obligation that we would otherwise not be able to afford.
HH: That’s the essential transaction.
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HH: Dr. Barnett, part of your warning in Chapter 6, a precipitous withdrawal from when we are engaged with the gap was echoed, or actually anticipated by John Burns, New York Times correspondent, just back from Baghdad in a conversation I had with him Friday. I’d like your reaction to is prediction about the effects of a precipitous withdrawal. Here is John Burns from Friday:
JB: If the United Nations is correct in saying that 3,700 Iraqi civilians died in October, and that’s a morgue’s count, it may be an underestimate, we don’t know. But he said if it’s correct that 3,700 people died in October across Iraq, he said think about this. You take the American troops away in this situation, leaving Shiite death squads to move into Adamiya in force, without any kind of protection, he said it won’t be 3,700 dead in a month. It’ll be 3,700 dead in the night in Adamiya.
HH: Do you agree with that sort of an assessment, Dr. Barnett?
TB: I agree with it with regard to Iraq, and I would make the argument for the gap in general, that Iraq represents in many ways just a microcosm of the sort of long terms dangers that would ensue if America withdrew from the world, that eventually, you would see other countries have to step up, other great powers like China and Russia and Europe, to protect their interests, to pick proxies to wage their wars, and to slowly but surely pull us into conflict on a much broader scale than what we have to engage in when we do something like Iraq. It’s hard for us to remember in terms of the scope of our effort in the past. I mean, we’ve put just a phenomenal chunk, like one third of our GDP, to make World War II happen. And our percentage burden of GDP across the Cold War steadily decreased. It was about 10% in the 50’s, down to 9% in the 60’s, down to 6% in the 70’s and 80’s, and in the post-Cold War era, down to about 4%. So we’re spending as a percentage of GDP about half of what we spent during the Cold War. And if you think about it in terms of the burden of our troops abroad, we have 368,000 troops abroad now, out of a country of 300 million. That means about one out of every 800 Americans serves abroad. You go back to the height of the Cold War, 1968, our efforts in Vietnam, we had one out of every 200, not one out of every 800, but one out of every 200 Americans serving abroad. So when you look at that sort of effort, which is decreasing over time, and you compare that effort to other efforts we made historically, what we have gotten for this effort in the post-Cold War era is absolutely phenomenal. We’ve helped engineer a reduction of poverty around the planet, and we’re down to cracking some of the toughest nuts, and really are living in a world more peaceful than it’s ever been, with a global economy that’s more expansive than it’s every been. So for sacrifice to gain ratio, this is a pretty tremendous gift we’re giving the world. It doesn’t negate whatsoever the sacrifice of individuals, or the families involved. It is a very profound thing. I worries a lot…I’ve had three nephews serve already, and I worry about two of them going back very, very soon. But in the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty great generation that we’re putting forward, and I think we need to be pretty proud of that fact, and understand that we’re really providing the world a lot more than anybody else is, but we enjoy the world’s stability as much or more than anybody else does.
HH: Now a key recognition in this chapter, I think it’s profound, actually, is that we need connectivity, because it guarantees our safety, and it is a moral choice that we’ve got to make, but you can’t buy connectivity with enough expenditure of treasure. Some of the world’s bad guys aren’t for sale, or if they are, they won’t stay bought. Now how understood is that…I mean, it’s obvious to me, it seems obvious to you, but I don’t think a lot of people on the center-left buy that, Dr. Barnett.
TB: Well, I think…I don’t think a lot of people in…maybe in some parts of our military buy it, either. I mean, I think that idea is bought off by the Marines and the Army, and the SOF guys, the Special Operations guys. I think it’s bought off by our military far more than our civilian world. I think it’s bought off by our government more than it is our public, but I think it’s a matter of us understanding, increasingly over time, this is a story we have to tell and make clear to people. It’s not as sexy, and it’s not as obvious, and it’s not as binary as the Cold War. It says that when we make this effort, we make good things happen for everybody, and we generally benefit more than the rest, so it’s in our self-interests, it’s in our secure interests to make sure these networks extend, and as connectivity ensues, there’s a moral obligation here to invite those one third of humanity that are noses pressed to the glass…
HH: But sometimes, it takes force. But sometimes, it takes force.
TB: Sometimes it takes force, because there are always going to be elements who make the offer that dictators make throughout history, which is just give me these people, and I’ll leave you alone. Just let me have these people to do with what I will, and I’ll leave you alone. And there’s an obligation when you know…when the neighbor in your apartment building keeps their 5 year old kid locked up in a closet, and when they open the door six years later, it looks like a 4 year old instead of a 12 year old, that’s some of the suffering we find in countries like North Korea, and places like Iraq and other situations where dictators have ruled for decades.
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HH: Dr. Barnett, I’m going to just sort of sit back here and let you explain what I think is a very complicated subject on the bifurcation and evolution of the American military that you think has to happen into a leviathan set of forces, and a system administration set of forces, their different jobs, and how that happens.
TB: Yeah, and I don’t make this argument that this is something that’s going to happen in the future. I think it’s been happening for quite some time. I think it’s a natural kind of evolution that’s been going on inside the U.S. military since the end of the Cold War, when we’ve really kind of returned to society, and kind of moved off that abstract model of global Armageddon that kind of dominated our thinking in the Cold War. And if you think about it, this is the course of our history. I mean, we always had a Department of War called the Army, to wage war, but we always had a department of what I like to call everything else, otherwise known as the Navy, to maintain our economic connectivity to the outside world. So there’s a myth that what our forces do abroad is only combat, when the truth is if you look at the operational experience, I mean decade after decade after decade, unless you go back to the Second World War, it’s always been the case that about 95% of our activity are operations other than war. So I posited that we had established such an overmatch in our war fighting capabilities between ourselves and the rest of the world, we’re the last military superpower on the planet, and nobody’s really trying to catch up with us, that we had to kind of make more explicit this divide between a war fighting, or first half force, the force that can change regimes, topple regimes, crush any traditional opponent in conventional war using conventional firepower, and that second half force, the force that does the everything else, the 95% of the workload, the day to day stuff, the military to military cooperation, the presence, the power projection to deter a Country A from attacking Country B, the crisis response, the humanitarian assistance, a force that’s always out there in a continuous interaction with the outside world, mostly engaging in capacity building, and preventive application of U.S. military force. And so I argue that that’s the everything else that we have to get better at, because enemies won’t fight the leviathan anymore.
HH: Because they’re not crazy.
TB: Because if you do, you just get crushed.
TB: Here’s a good example. I know the last Air Force pilot ever involved in a dogfight. He’s a one-star general now. Ditto for the last Naval aviator ever involved in a dogfight. And that just gives you a sense of the disparity, and how distant we are, already more than a decade, from that kind of force on force experience. So the average guy we’re going to fight in the 21st Century is going to be an insurgent. He’s not going to take on our leviathan, because you know, go figure. He thinks it’s an unfair conflict, him versus a B-2. He’s going to sit out that war, he’s going to wait until those crazy Americans declare mission accomplished too early, and then when the B team gets sent in, all the ground troops, which historically have been kind of under-funded, under-equipped, and in this instance, they were definitely undermanned, and then he goes after that force, and his goal is to kill two or three Americans a day, and he’s going to throw unlimited labor at that problem. And so unless we get better at the second half, we’re going to be forced into it under the worst sorts of conditions which is basically what Hamas and Hezbollah did to Israel in August. They started a war they had no intention of winning, much less waging, simply so they could get to the post-war, where they thought they could get their just desserts. And they’ve done a pretty effective job of it.
HH: Two crucial insights from this, one that if you buy this bifurcation of the American military, still under one command, one chain of command, secretary of defense, et cetera, it will profoundly impact what you buy to equip the Pentagon.
HH: Explain that for people.
TB: Well, transformation has really been focused on the air quality of our forces. And as Vernon Clark, the former CNO told me when I did a story on Rumsfeld for Esquire, he said you know, in terms of the air power, we’re basically there in terms of transformation. Eight out of ten, maybe nine out of ten, but we’ve got to get the boots on the ground that work the same way that the air platforms and the ships are networked. And that’s really where we have to take things. So it has to be less naval and less air force, and more bring that connectivity, bring that firepower, make the strategic corporal on the ground the most potent and efficient force that he could be, and the most connected force, so he can do not just the shooting back, but he can do the kind of peacekeeping and nation building effort that’s really far more complex. I mean, you could train a 19 year old to do the leviathan war fighting on instinct. We’ve been doing that for about 4,000 years. But to train the sysadmin officer, the paradigm there is more like a 40 year old cop, serious wisdom.
HH: That’s what…that’s my second insight. When you said that, I nodded, but I’ve read a lot of military history for a lot of years, and this goes back to Plutarch’s Lives, and Caesar’s Commentaries, right up through VDH, Victor Davis Hanson on Sherman and others. And warriors love glory, Thomas P.M. Barnett. What you’re describing about the system administrator, will that attract anyone?
TB: Well, what we find is that the Army, which is going to have this experience more than any others, because for the Marines, it’s not much of a trip back in history. They’re really only going back to about the 1930’s, because they’ve always been about small arms, small wars, the three block war, and all that kind of concept. For the Army, you’re really going back to almost the Cavalry frontier days. It’s a big journey. They’ve become kind of the main frontier integrating, peace building force, a kind of role we haven’t had since we conquered the American West, and they get out of the business of the big war, because basically, we can crush anybody in terms of the big war with air power. So it is a shift, they do worry about losing their war fighting ethos, and yet we know from reenlistment rates, kids love doing this. They love feeling this kind of connectivity, they love this kind of interaction with the population. It makes them feel like this is a real difference maker, their efforts around the world. And when you look at the echo boomers, who really are the generation that we’re bringing online in terms of this sort of effort, this fits very nicely with their view of the world. I mean, they are service oriented. They’re horizontally networked. They’re less hierarchical. They’re more willing to entertain notions of diversity and our interdependence with the outside world. We’re raising a better generation for this. It’s not going to be as hard as you think.