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« Preface for "Blueprint for Action" | Main | Preface to the Turkish edition of Blueprint for Action »

The transcript of Tom's Politics & Prose speech

Tom's note: This is a word-for-word transcript, which I modified from my prepared text (I ad-libbed quite a bit), so in some places I actually misquote the excerpts from the book..


First, I'd like to thank Politics and Prose for hosting me here tonight.

Throughout my writing career I've been described as a pronounced optimist, which--I gotta tell you--is a distinct niche market--both in these times and definitely in this town.

I want to spend tonight sharing some of that optimism about the future, but looking ahead always necessitates a certain amount of looking back as well, so I want to spend a few minutes exploring the amazing historical arc that animates my book--a story that begins with 13 colonies, quite improbably, and ends with a world-spanning phenomenon we now call globalization.

We are at a point in history where America's status as the world's sole superpower is being radically redefined by the emergence of numerous great powers. Some experts interpret this situation as the onset of a post-American world. I interpret it as America's greatest success: the expansion of an American-inspired international liberal trade order to encompass the near entirety of this planet. The point here is that these great powers are emerging within a distinctly American world--a world of states uniting, economies integrating, networks proliferating, state-based wars disappearing, transactions of all kinds skyrocketing, religions competing, and--most importantly--a world in which zero-sum defense yields to a future of non-zero sum security. This flat world is neither accident nor providence. It's so damn competitive merely because we don't know how to build it any other way.

In this world we find no strangers, just younger versions of ourselves, who are prone to all the same sins and manias we once suffered. How can I make such a statement?

These United States (I emphasize these United States)--not the European Union--constitute the world's oldest and most successful multinational political and economic and security union--for now (I emphasize for now) 50 members strong. Everything we had to do to create this amazing globalization-in-miniature--all the rules, institutions, regulations, laws, systems of governance, the middle-class ideology, all of it--all of it pertains to globalization as a whole and what it is experiencing today. So much so, that I like to say that everything I needed to know about globalization, I learned in American history--all the good, all the bad, all the absolutely ugly--we have done it all. We didn't so much invent globalization as merely pioneered its more just and fair form--states uniting so that INDIVIDUALS could pursue their happiness--not kings, not colonizing empires, not ruling parties or castes.

Our international liberal trade order, for a long time known as the West and now known as globalization, replaced the corrupt, unjust, and exploitative colonial world order maintained by Eurasian powers over the previous several centuries--a world order that finally self-destructed in a massive civil war that ran from 1914 to 1949. And when that West, created and protected and nurtured by American power and wealth, grew so wealthy itself, that, by 1980 a mere fraction of the world's population controlled two-thirds of its productive power, it finally attracted the attention of the socialist East, leading Deng Xiaoping, new leader of post-Mao China, to decide that the Middle Kingdom would both marketize itself and join the world for the first time in half a millennia. When Deng made that most fateful decision, he turned America's international liberal trade order into a truly global affair, giving globalization its critical mass and yielding the inescapable reality we face today: globalization is no longer a national choice but a global condition, with merely a bottom billion or so still left out of this global economy, noses pressed to glass.

And for those who insist on deriding this globalization as mere storefront of American imperialism, let me note that this is the first so-called empire in the history of mankind that both enriches and empowers individuals--in fact, that's part of our problem, the super-empowered individual.

Yes, today we are experiencing the first true test of globalization's staying power--the first truly global recession in the first truly globalized economy.

We find these prospects quite frightening, and we should, because we have no good precedents upon which to fall back in retreat.

And yet we have more history to call upon than we may realize.

So let me offer you a different perspective, one that animates the entirety of my book. I ask you to focus not on the global affairs of the late 19th century, as so many experts do today, but direct your attention instead to American history of that same time period.

Some background first:

This historical journey, that I describe in Great Powers, encompasses two great arcs. The first consists of the creation, transformation, and taming of these United States from 1776 to the start of the 20th century. The second arc describes that model's subsequent projection upon the global landscape, beginning with the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, whose presidency marks the great tipping point between America the national system and America the global model.

And here I'll dive into the text for an excerpt--page 78.

In the first arc, we'll see an American System proposed by our revolution and increasingly imposed across a continent's wilderness, tested by the scourge of civil war and transformed by the process of frontier integration, and then finally shamed by its cruel excesses and tamed by a progressive spirit that marked our true flowering as a nation. Once defined, this United States proposed, with utmost sincerity, a similar solution for the world as a whole, defensively imposing such structure on part of it only after a period of unprecedented global strife, then to have that model immediately tested by its ideological opposite--the Soviets' empire of force. Meeting that challenge, and better yet, ultimately co-opting it, the American System of states found its historic moment at the end of the Cold War. This "end" of the Old World's history saw the exuberant resumption of the New World's destiny as source code for freedom's viral advance around the planet, even as that code remains largely "uncracked" by today's grand strategists and unarticulated by a succession of post-Cold War presidents.

But just as assuredly, the tsunami of integration that is globalization generated many new forms of upheaval and even more forms of local modification, triggering great unease in its modern originator and protective Leviathan. Why? Because this United States failed to recognize its own history in these integrating processes--these states uniting--and thus, in its fears and in its impatience, began to describe the emerging system it had unleashed as "unmanageable" and "chaotic," constituting a threat to our future. And when that threat was made manifest on 9/11, our search for a new destiny began, albeit one immediately and instinctively defined in the most selfish and zero-sum terms: securing the homeland from the chaos of globalization's many untamed frontiers. To their credit, other poles in the system (the EU, Russia, China, India, Brazil) have since stood up to balance our mania, and it is now our challenge to realign our sense of historical purpose with their mix of needs and knowledge, for in our combined assets we locate more than enough resources to master the global challenges that lie ahead. Our American System, tested and transformed by the Cold War into a global platform that we now share with the world, subsequently enters into the same "shaming and taming" period that once marked our own graduation from nearly unsalvageable union to rising world power. Only this time the stakes are not merely our nation's health but the survival of the world.

Having successfully replicated the economic construct of our American System among the vast majority of the world's population, we are now faced with the long-term challenge of replicating its political constructs--its laws, its institutions, its culture, its associated freedoms of religion, speech, and leadership choice--not merely within nations but across the international system as a whole (meaning our leadership is far from assured).

This is the world we have created. These are the forces we have unleashed

Some key points I'd like to make about this journey:

This is not about imposing our identity upon this world but of discovering a new identity for that world.

When America reconstructed itself after our disastrous Civil War, that reconstruction wasn't merely the case of a victorious, industrial North imposing its identity on a prostrate, defeated, agricultural South. No, the American identity that soon emerged was one of an integrating East absorbing its "wild West" frontier and knitting together, over the next couple of decades, a truly continental, networked economy--a modern globalization in miniature. Since then, America's identity has remained centered on that Western ideal--that Western man, who we love to bring into Washington and clean things up every once in a while--that middle-class ideology that has sustained us through times both dark and dangerous and which today is under attack by globalization's supremely competitive landscape--which we created.

Shift to the Cold War's end and you'll see a similar logic emerge: at first, we made assumptions about the "end of history." The victorious, industrial West would impose its identity on the prostrate, defeated, still underdeveloped and surprisingly rural East--specifically Asia. But in that assumption we underestimated Asia's desire to catch-up as quickly as possible, which it has done, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty with great rapidity and suggesting, in their rapid rise, the possibility of a post-American world.

And that assumption of one identity trumping another--again--it's all wrong. A post-Caucasian world, I like to say, is not the same thing as a post-American world. Even in America itself, that post-Caucasian world arrives all around us today--in our major cities, in our biggest state--California, and in our zero-to-five demographic cohort. [Pay attention to Cartoon Network.] It's "we the people," not "we the Europeans" that still defines America's future and its leadership in this most American world.

Moreover, it is the joining of East and West in facilitating the South's integration where we find our new global identity in the emergence--and this is the key point--of history's first truly global middle class. We add about a billion people over the next ten-to-fifteen years; we add about two billion to a middle class.

How does that long-term projection matter amidst today's economic crisis? In the immediate and for the foreseeable future, roughly 4/5ths--80%--of the world's economic growth will be found in emerging markets (something I pay attention to as an international businessman), suggesting that there is indeed a fortune to be made at the bottom of that pyramid--my nod to C.K. Prahalad, University of Michigan.

Yes, there will be plenty of tumult ahead in this period of frontier integration of the global economy's still poorly connected regions:

I'll give you another excerpt, page 99:

Yes, in this process of global integration there will be insurgencies galore. There were plenty that raged on in the American South and parts of the West for decades after the Civil War, and as today, the lines between legitimate activists and "dangerous agitators" and simple criminals were often blurred. Back then, in our fears, we reached for many of the same options that we employ today:

• Long-term occupational forces to settle down the "badlands"

• Private security corporations whose scary agents operate outside the law

• Ethnic enclaves that are part sanctuary and part prison

• Squatters' rights finally recognized with land titles

• Individual ambition finally addressed with installment plans and micro-loans

• Sweetheart deals given to big corporations so they'll move in (sometimes under fire, so we'll give them security players too) and build transportation and communications infrastructure

• First-time voting for previously disenfranchised populations

• Special treatment for various utopian religions that demand separation from an "evil world"

• Universal education that actually includes women as much as men--quite radical

• Retailers that master the art of selling to poor people the things that everybody deserves to have

• New state governments created seemingly out of thin air

• Making sure the farmer and the cowboy will be friends

• Electrification for all and a chicken in every pot!

As I like to say, so many frontiers, so little time.

This period of American history tells us, however, that we must do more than simply settle and integrate frontiers. That time period featured American-style capitalism at its most unequal, most unfair, and most unjust--also, I might add, at its most environmentally damaging. That social pain quickly led to a period of great popular anger--a period of populism that eventually segued into a progressive age in which America's competitive religious landscape (we compete for believers in this country--all religions) yielded numerous armies of individuals committed to fixing the system--huge positive impulse. Again, we learn much from this period that is relevant to today's global capitalism.

There's no question that America has taken on--for decades now--the role of globalization's bodyguard. After World War II, we financed Europe's recovery, letting it outsource its security concerns to our growing military-industrial complex. And now, what do we have to show for it? For the first time in history, we have in Europe: Britain, France, Germany and Russia--all peaceful, all relatively prosperous, all integrating with one another--no great power war on the horizon. But together they now hold about a trillion of our debt.

Then, starting around 1980, we pulled off the same grand strategic sleight of hand with East Asia. In what some call the informal Bretton Woods II agreement, we got East Asia to adhere to a dollar standard that facilitated their export-driven rise, so long as they funneled--this was the implicit agreement--their trade surplus into US debt markets while allowing America--yet again--to play dominant regional Leviathan. Again, it worked like magic. Again, we owe them a ton of money--roughly 3 and a half trillion dollars.

But also again, for the first time in modern history we see--all at once and all prosperous and all peaceful and all integrating: Japan, China, Korea and India. Never happened before in human history--all powerful at the same time.

That's what America's role as globalization's bodyguard has resulted in--the death of great power war across Eurasia, the end of the kind of wars that murdered approximately 100 million across the first half of the 20th century. This is our gift to the planet. We should definitely be proud of that accomplishment.

But just as clearly as that American grand strategy of spreading globalization has worked wonders, it now comes to an end--consummated as it has been by its fantastic success. We are too overleveraged in our government finances and too overstretched in our military forces.

So what happens now?

In the book I describe five great realignments that must happen, realignments in which America rejoins this world of our creating, and I summarize greatly here.

First, in the economic realignment, the great compromise is as follows: We, the West, asked you, the rising East and South, to join this international liberal trade order. Having done so, overwhelmingly on our terms, we now need to do whatever it takes to meet your demand for a middle-class lifestyle. Making Mr. and Mrs. Middle-Class Chindia happy in the 21st century defines most of geopolitics. They are the two most important characters going forward. So no, we will not be cutting your legs out from under you on global warming, even as we must collectively struggle to slow down and mitigate its effects.

Our diplomatic compromise is a bit trickier: If you--world--connect your population in a broadband fashion to the global economy and its many networks, we'll allow you to pursue control over unwanted content--especially pornography. While we may find such censorship offensive, we're not too ignorant of our own history to realize that we didn't reach this level of . . . sophistication overnight. While we believe that all people want the same basic freedom, we recognize that democracy is a dish best served cold, to a large and aging middle class.

On security, our offer is simple: In this increasingly connected world, where danger respects no boundaries, we understand that our homeland is only as secure as every other homeland to which it is connected. If you--world--can find your way to accepting what we consider to be the minimal security rule sets that allow for safe connectivity between us, then we'll promise to document all our violence--all of it--in defense of these proposed global rules. As hard as it may seem from today's messy conflicts, that means that someday soon we'll be able to offer complete transparency regarding every act our military takes around this planet--as in, every round accounted for. If you don't believe it can be done, I'd point you to the New York Police Department, which has done it--every round fired--last two decades. And that's the goal we're shooting for.

Moving on to globalization's networks: If you allow us to enter your networks, or construct those networks connecting us, and to flood those networks with our sensors, achieving the transparency we think is necessary to keep both our peoples safe, we'll grant you fast-pass access to our markets--without bias. If you can't afford such network connections, we'll make sure that that's the basis of our foreign aid, because, in this age of surging globalization, we know everybody's afraid of being left behind--everybody.

Finally, on the question of identity: The 21st century will move the remaining bulk of humanity from economic conditions of sustenance--which they've lived in, some of them for centuries upon centuries (the Malthusian trap)--to that of abundance (the most revolutionary force you can give somebody), and as such, people's need for religion as a source of identity--not to mention enduring rule-sets that guide personal behavior--will grow dramatically, making the 21st century the most religious century in human history. Let me be clear on this point: we do not fear this future, so long as it features a competitive religious landscape, such as the one our American union has enjoyed these many decades now. If you--world--can find your way to allowing freedom of religion within your lands, we will do our best to reciprocate regarding any demand some of you will inevitably have for cultural separatism. While we don't believe such separatism is good or healthy, because it tends to prejudge the talents and ambitions of those we fear are trapped within its walls, we believe in voluntary associations--even those that won't have us as members.

None of these compromises are alien to America's history, indeed, they define the very evolution of this American Union.

To sum up:

America is modern globalization's source-code--its DNA. If we own up to our past, we can command our future. We can realign ourselves immediately to a world transforming. Our main challenge today--indeed, our great opportunity--is not those super-empowered few seeking to do us harm but those unprecedented many seeking to do us one better.

Yes, we have displayed the temerity to bring the mountain to Mohammed, extending our American-inspired globalization to the most traditional civilizations still thinly connected to its networks, and we have triggered great friction with the power of that force. But in obsessing over that friction since 9/11, we have lost all perspective on the forces we have created--the great powers unleashed. Globalization is not some elite conspiracy; it is the demand of billions of people for a better life.

The American System blossomed into an international liberal trade order, which in turn gave birth to the globalization we enjoy today. These are the United States' most powerful acts of creation. This world-transforming legacy created the twenty-first century environment, one marked by more pervasive poverty reduction, more wealth creation, more technological advance, and--most important--more stabilizing peace than any previous era in human history. That legacy is worth preserving, defending, and expanding to its ultimate heights--a globalization made truly global, truly just, and truly sustainable.

This book, Great Powers: America and the World After Bush, asks you, the reader, to consider a globalization-centric American grand strategy for this century, because I believe that to be the most logical and courageous choice we can yet make as a people. But as our own history as a nation clearly shows, such courage is familiar to us. Indeed, it defines who we are.

That courage remains this country's--indeed, the world's--most precious resource. I ask you to treat it with great care in the tumultuous days, months, years ahead.

I'll be happy to take questions.

Reader Comments (12)

Just caught you on C-Span. In a word: Awesome. There's about 3 people in the world who I listen to with equal intensity. And in each case I have to amp up my mental game just to get the content. Which is a roundabout way of saying that you provide content, in an almost pure form, which is a damn rare thing in this ocean of text-foam we call life. You have my deepest respect and appreciation.

Best to you and thanks
March 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKev Ferrara
First time hearing you today, and thought your talk was brilliant. However, I need to properly listen to it again, and appreciate the full impact of the points you made. I should also mention your delivery was absolutely engaging.

Will there be a Podcast made available of this?

I also look forward to reading your books!
March 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSal
Just caught the 7PM broadcast. Congratulations on maintaining your message & style the old fashion way...without powerpoint!Your strategy is so refreshing, powerful & relevant. Also your answers to the questions continued the building of your story. Any possibility you could add the transcript of this as well?I intend to use all this material for book reviews which I'm planning to make soon.Congratulations on a job well done.
March 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElmer Humes
I also saw the presentation and agree that it was a very effective in getting the message out. CSPAN seems to be one of the few TV sources to address important and complex topics.
March 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLouis Heberlein
Well done.

Pure Thomas P.M. Barnett, but then we've come to expect that . .
March 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlarge
I just watched you on C-SPAN2. I read your book a few weeks ago and found it thought provoking, though I disagreed with many of your conclusions. I felt similarly about your speech on C-SPAN2. That said, I found the Q&A absolutely fascinating. It demonstrated your breadth of knowledge, original thoughts, and it. You should spend more time on Q&A and shorten the stump speech. Just a thought. As I said, I don't agree with everything you say, but I admire your thought process.
March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarc
Great work. What about global warming? If you tell me about global warming, I'll read GREAT POWERS.
March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike
Tom grants global warming per most scientific opinions. however, he is skeptical of most plans to 'fix' it since we will spend trillions and only do a little good. furthermore, we don't want to hamstring the rise of China, India, etc. he takes Bjorn Lomborg's tack (who also grants global warming). let's get the most bang for our buck. short answer: help poor people to get richer so they'll have more money to deal with the effects of global warming.
March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSean Meade
I agree this was a fascinating presentation. I heard it both on C-Span radio (via XM) on my Sunday afternoon drive back from NYC to DC and then again when I got home and found it on C-Span TV. I have to agree, the Q&A was really good and I would of liked to hear more. I'd also like a transcript of your answers. Any possibility? In particular, you made an argument about the pacifying effects of changing demographics in the Middle East (45 year olds, it turns out, are not so interested in Jihad) that I haven't heard much about elsewhere. I wonder if that's in the book or where I can read more about this issue? Thanks again.
March 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Otto
hard to give a short answer on demographics, Jeffrey. they're all through Tom's work, certainly in all 3 books.

or hang around the weblog and watch for this topic to come up.

or search the weblog for 'demographics'
March 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSean Meade
I saw this on Book TV last weekend and loved it. Does anyone know where I can find a transcript of the questions that were asked afterwards, along with Thomas' answers?
March 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKris
Kris: i'm not aware of any such animal. we have this transcript because it was Tom's script.

however, Book TV has the full video up now and, though they don't make the transcript available, if you go to this page there's an option to search the transcript in their right sidebar as well as above the video in the pop-up window.
March 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSean Meade

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