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Excerpts from Great Powers, part 1


A Selection
of Excerpts from




America and the World After Bush



Thomas P. M. Barnett 



One of the reasons our grand strategy matters most right now


"...America's grand strategy matters most right now primarily because it is so off-kilter from globalization's current trajectory.  Were fighting a 'global war' that no one else on the globe seems to recognize against enemies whose power we consistently exaggerate to the point of provoking disbelief among even our closest allies.  America seems paranoid and belligerent at exactly the historical moment when the world is going our way.  And when that exemplar, sporting the world's biggest gun, seems so disturbed about global trends, it sows the seed of uncertainty across the international system by suggesting that we don't have a clue about what lies ahead.  Neither Europe nor Asia can fill this vision void, because while each can offer models (Europe's integration of states, China's national development, Russia's petrocracy), none other than the United States of America can offer a trusted mechanism for eliminating the risk of debilitating conflict--however scaled.  The price of war determines all other prices in the global marketplace.  Either America backs those "securities" or they will be subject to wild fluctuation." (pp. 77-78) 




An irreversible legacy


"While some experts believe America should start from scratch in recasting--or merely accepting--some new global order, presumably one that pits "good guys" against "bad" or recognizes the onset of competing "empires," we need to recognize how the choices we've made over the past eight years shifted the global landscape in ways that simply cannot be reversed with a new American president or even new American policies. Our unilateral "bender" forced a number of rising great powers to rise even faster, accelerating their natural trajectory out of the fear that an America unchallenged was an America unhinged. Our improved behavior in the coming months and years will not erase their rise. Indeed, it will probably accelerate it, further narrowing our window for strategic rapprochement (rising powers are not, as a rule, great bargainers). 


So like it or not, the Bush-Cheney era has forged a lasting international legacy that cannot be reversed even as it must be redirected." (pp. 6-7)   


A Bush administration success greater than its failures in Iraq


"The lack of a serious U.S.-China confrontation in the years since 9/11 is the most important dog that did not bark during the Bush-Cheney administration. In the grand sweep of history, this is arguably George W. Bush's greatest legacy: the encouragement of China to become a legitimate "stakeholder" in global security--[Deputy Secretary of State Robert] Zoellick's term. This sort of effort at grooming a great power for a greater role in international affairs is a careful balancing act, and the Bush team sounded most of the right notes, from reassuring nervous allies in Asia, to avoiding the temptation of trade retaliation while simultaneously pressuring Beijing for more economic liberalization, to drawing China into the dynamics of great-power negotiation over compelling regional issues like the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. We can always complain that Bush-Cheney didn't do more to solidify what was the most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century, but we cannot fault them for any lasting mistakes, and that alone is quite impressive. Indeed, history will be likely to judge this success as greater than the Bush administration's failures in Iraq." (pp. 8-9) 



No more swimming against the tide


"By consuming so much of America's military force during these seven long years of nonstop, high-tempo, high-rotation action, the Bush administration basically condemned its successor to what will probably be an additional seven lean years of military operations. Whether it's simply winding down Afghanistan and/or Iraq and "replenishing the force," or shifting dollars from operations and maintenance funds to cover a plethora of Cold War "programs of record" (weapons systems and major platforms) that the ush administration has refused to scale back (even as it gobbled up relatively huge--as in $100 billion plus--supplemental defense spending bills every year since 2001), the next administration has been handed a veritable train wreck in terms of future budgetary crises. Something will have to give. If that "something" is not an improved situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, then you can pretty much forget about any significant U.S. military interventions anywhere else. But even if it is, we're still probably looking at four to eight very lean years (and if you've already spotted the corollary in federalbudget deficit spending, then go to the head of the class!).

What does that mean for the next president? It means ingenuity and inventiveness will be at a premium, because our incoming president's grand strategy is necessarily one of realigning America's trajectory to that of a world being transformed by the simultaneous rise of numerous great powers.

There will be no more swimming against the tide."  (pp. 34-35)   



A hypercompetitive global landscape that's hardly "un-American"


"We Americans survey the hypercompetitive global landscape with its cheap labor and trade protectionism, and we call these practices "unAmerican," when of course they're the most American things in the world--in their good time. So how do we keep ourselves competitive in this globalization of our making, realizing we're playing against "younger" versions of ourselves in many instances? And how do we simultaneously muster the will and the resources to play the vital role of bodyguard that we have long assumed in friction-filled locales distant from our shores?

We do what any general contractor does: We hire out the lower-end jobs to the most competent, entry-level providers and we keep the top-of-the-pyramid work for ourselves. We stop trying to pretend we can do it all by ourselves and thus get to call all the shots. We admit that the rising complexity of all this connectivity means we're but one seat at a very large table of rule-proposers and rule-deciders. But it's a key seat because our node is the terminus for a lot of consumption in this global economy and the starting point for a lot of innovation. Remember that as we move ahead: In a global economy, demand determines power far more than supply. We're also first among equals because our financial networks process risk with speed and daring (i.e., the booms) and a brutal honesty (read, the busts) that's the envy of the world. (Yeah, I said it.)

What we absolutely should not do is what our nativist instincts tell us to do: throw up walls."  (pp.37-38) 



Why the candidacy of Barack Obama (born 1961) hit so many national chords in 2008


"His vision of a post-Boomer bipartisanship made instinctive sense to a lot of Americans, especially young Americans, who felt that sixteen years of Boomer rule has seen this nation argue incessantly over several weeks of a fetus's life and the last couple of minutes of a person's death and barely touched upon a host of huge issues lying in between those extremes. The same can be said of our foreign policy: It's either "Shoot all the bad guys" or "We want democracies now," when most of the world is struggling with tough issues between that baseline security goal and that top-line political achievement.     

Now it's President Obama's chance to change all that." (p. 42) 



Resisting the urge to "get back to basics"


There will be a significant push within the next administration's defense posture to "get back to basics" and "heal the force" after Afghanistan and Iraq. To the extent that this becomes a bureaucratic cover for going back to old spending habits (Thanks a billion, Mr. Putin!), America will simply be setting itself up for more failure down the road inside the Gap. Worse, if the United States were to somehow signal to the rest of the world's great powers that big-war spending is the way to go, we would almost force them to emulate our bad choices in force-structure planning. How does that matter? China's future military requirements aren't being met by the People's Liberation Army's acquisition focus on Taiwan, nor does India prepare its military for its future overseas responsibilities by continuing to focus on Kashmir.

Already, we see what damage such a big-war focus has done to Pakistan's military capabilities to deal with its northwest territories: All that American military aid over the years has been spent building up a force more appropriate to fighting India than for taming its Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Now, as the real push comes to shove over the rising operational capabilities of the Taliban and al Qaeda inside northwest Pakistan, America finds itself having to recast the Pakistan military's force structure, raising the obvious question, why wasn't Islamabad spending all those billions in American military aid for these purposes the whole time?

There are a lot of U.S. Marine and Army officers asking the same questions about the Pentagon's spending priorities back home."  (pp. 45-46) 


Job creation is our only exit strategy

"Both al Qaeda and the West's antiglobalism fanatics are operating under the pathetic delusion that this era's version of globalization is an elitist ideology to be defeated instead of a profound force driven by individual ambition that's been unleashed upon the world by the collapse of socialism in the East. Judging the long war strictly as war will always yield a depressing verdict. So don't expect the killing to stop anytime soon, because the greater the force (globalization's spread), the hotter the friction (terror-based resistance). Thus, judging this ongoing struggle within the context of globalization's progressive advance across the world provides useful perspective, as well as confidence that we stand on the right side of history.

So how do we realistically define victory? Most people think it's killing terrorists and incapacitating their networks, but to me it's less about "draining the swamp" than about filling that space with something better. The opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation. Thus, the only "exit strategy" I recognize is local job creation. Headlines will frequently proclaim the "failure" of our military strategy against al Qaeda. Don't be disheartened by that judgment. It may be true, but it is completely irrelevant."  (pp. 48-49)   


"My point is this: In security terms, it's always going to feel like we're "losing" this war or--at best--achieving an operational stalemate. The real victory won't come on any battlefield, however, but rather in boardrooms. In the end, we can't kill bad guys faster than our enemies can grow them. Instead, we must offer them a more attractive recruitment package.  Progress isn't about less violence, it's about speeding the killing to its logical conclusion in any one battlefield to shift the fight to its next logical stand.

After the Middle East, the next theater of combat lies to the south, meaning the war's geography shifts to sub-Saharan Africa in coming decades. Americans are routinely accused of lacking strategic patience. We want our wars finished by the next major holiday or certainly by the next election. Given that mindset, we're forced to subsist on current events for encouragement--as in, "Which famous al Qaeda figure did we kill this week?" But if you admit this is going to be a long struggle, you look for trends and not individual events to drive your strategic calculations. Ultimately, we're trying to connect the Middle East to the global economy on the basis of something besides oil, turning all those idle young males into jobholders instead of bomb-throwers.  Meanwhile, the radical Salafi  jihadists seek to disconnect the region from what they see as the corrupting-- and growing--influence of globalization.

Here's the most important news in terms of America's grand strategy: Time is on our side."  (p. 50)  


An Iraq Postwar Done Right


"...the great temptation in the months and years ahead will be to dip into military strikes against Iran under the dual premises of reducing its meddling in Iraq and setting back its efforts toward achieving nuclear capability. Plenty of political leaders fancy this route, especially if it's limited to air strikes alone, so don't assume the danger disappears once Bush left office. While this approach would clearly satisfy our allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, it will likewise push Tehran into an all-out effort at sabotaging our maturing victory in Kurdistan and our nascent success among the Sunni--not to mention yet again turning Hezbollah and Hamas loose against Israel. Unfortunately, a better, more patient approach would be to let our forces continue to make their careful efforts among Iraq's Shia while the incoming administration focuses mightily on boosting Kurdistan's continued economic emergence and jump-starting reconstruction and recovery in southern Iraq. If the stability holds, and that's a big but worthy
if, the best course going forward would be to lock in what security gains we can in Iraq before conflating that conflict with another involving Iran. After so many U.S. casualties, the American people deserve nothing less from a new president than an Iraq postwar finally done right." (p. 56)    



The American Trajectory


"The harsh truth is that most developing countries that embrace markets and globalization do so as single-party states. Sure, many feature a marginal opposition party, just as the Harlem Globetrotters always play the Washington Generals, but they're still single-party states. Mexico was like this for decades, as were South Korea and Japan.  Once economic development matured enough, a real balance took hold, and power started shifting back and forth between parties. Malaysia heads for the same tipping point today.

Americans, especially experts and politicians, typically view these regimes with a certain disdain, wondering how a public can put up with a manipulative political system where elites decide who runs for high office and only a tiny fraction of the population has any real influence. We demand more competition, more suffrage, and freer elections--now!

But take a trip back with me to the beginnings of our own country, and let me try to convince you that America needs to summon more patience with such developments, because we often demand of others what we certainly didn't have ourselves as we struggled to our feet as a nation.

Remember this: Our country was born of revolution, including a nasty guerrilla war waged by a ragtag collection of militias against the most powerful military in the world at that time. We fought dirty, even launching a surprise attack during a religious holiday. We mercilessly persecuted fellow citizens who sided with the occupational authority. The enemy branded our military leader a terrorist. In fact, its parliament was the first in history to use such terminology to describe our violent attacks against its commerce. And true to our violent extremism, we "elected" this rebel military leader our first president in 1789.  I use the word "elected" loosely, because he essentially ran unopposed--by design.

Less than 2 percent of our country's population was actually able to cast votes, as roughly half of the states chose electors in their legislatures--rich landowning patricians selecting one of their own. This rebel leader ran unopposed again for reelection three years later in 1792. When the general finally stepped down in 1797, an outcome by no means certain, he was replaced by another revolutionary leader--an unlovable enforcer to whom the revolutionary elite had delegated a number of unsavory jobs over the years. Like the general, this radical lawyer wasn't associated with an organized party as such. His revolutionary credentials were beyond reproach.

Our third president, one of the world's most notorious radical ideologues, ushered in a period of single-party rule in 1800. During that election, only six of sixteen states actually allowed the "people"--white men who met certain qualifications--to vote in the presidential race. Certain racial groups were denied the right to vote, as were women.  This one-party rule, subsequently dubbed the Era of Good Feelings, extended almost a quarter-century, getting so stale at one point that an incumbent president ran unopposed.    

Finally, a whopping forty-eight years after we issued our famous Declaration of Independence declaring all men equal, we conducted a presidential election in which three-quarters of the states let their citizens vote directly for electors.

Four years later, in 1828, America finally saw an "outsider," meaning someone not from the first revolutionary generation or its immediate progeny, win the White House. Naturally, he was another war hero, who, over his eight years in office, brutalized his political opponents so much that they mockingly dubbed him "King Andrew."   The "king" then displayed the Putinesque temerity to handpick his successor, earning him the equivalent of a "third term."

This was the first half-century of American political history.

It took us 89 years to free the slaves and 189 years to guarantee African-Americans the right to vote.

Women waited 144 years before earning suffrage.

If a mature, multiparty democracy was so darn easy, everybody would haveone. "(pp. 73-75)



From GREAT POWERS, to be published by G. P. Putnam's on February 5, 2009.

Reader Comments (1)

Women did not gain the right to vote in federal elections until 1973, that's in Switzerland.
January 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHans Suter

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