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Q&A with Tom upon release of Great Powers


A Conversation


Thomas P.M Barnett


Author of




America and the World After Bush 


1.  Why did you choose GREAT POWERS as the title of this book? 

We're 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 international liberal trade order around the planet.  The point here is that these great powers are emerging within a distinctly American world.  Our challenge is to understand that this is a world very much of our creating--one very much modeled on our American system of states uniting and economies integrating--and if we can just remain suitably patient, what will come about in conjunction with this emerging global middle class is political development toward pluralism and democracy.  The bottom line is that we stand poised on the verge of what is arguably the greatest global achievement of all time:  the peaceful knitting together of a truly, global, integrated economy and the establishment of a truly centering global middle class.  


2.  What differentiates this book from your two previous works, The Pentagon's New Map and Blueprint for Action?

The Pentagon's New Map was essentially a diagnostic of the world's divisions between states that were rapidly connecting themselves to globalization and those that were having difficulty in doing so and ultimately rejecting it.  The great contribution there was simply to note that stability ranged in places where globalization was thick with connectivity, and that as globalization spreads it will create tumult.  In other words: here are the places, the regions, the "Gap" as I called it, to which globalization must expand in the coming years--so expect your conflicts to occur there.  The book also made arguments about how the U.S. military needs to diverge its capabilities into a force that concentrates on war and one that  oncentrates on post-war reconstruction and stability operations.

The second book, Blueprint for Action, was written after I left the Naval War College and was freed from feeling like I was a government worker needing to present government positions.  It drilled down from the international perspective of the first book and offered a series of calls regarding our bilateral relations with the rising great powers. For example, it was in Blueprint For Action that I made the first argument for strategic alliance with China, and came to the conclusion that the so-called "West" was no longer a sufficient quorum of great powers for steering this enormous process we call globalization.  In Blueprint  I also came to the conclusion that it was the rising great powers of this age that would, by and large, be the main integrators of the so-called Gap regions.  In other words, it wouldn't be the U.S. or Europe, for example, that integrates Africa or Latin America or the Middle East per se but rather the rising new capitalist powers.  

My goal in this third book—Great Powers--is to give readers a sense of where we went off course during the past eight years as the Bush Administration was myopically focused on nukes and terrorists while the world underwent tremendous churn in response to globalization's rapid advance. 


3.  How would you summarize our standing in the world after the last eight years of the Bush administration?

Everybody acknowledged that we needed new security rule sets after 9/11.  And the more aggressive interventionary approach advocated by Bush/Cheney was by and large welcomed.  But because Bush and Cheney wanted to preserve America's freedom of action above all else they poisoned the well in terms of creating any understanding among the great powers regarding such interventions.  The result has been an "every great power for itself" environment with everyone now basically charting their own individual course regarding interventions in unstable areas.  The great example of this is Russia's invasion of Georgia.  

To me it's not so much that we've lost standing in the world but that we've modeled very bad behavior.  We're now seeing copycats of that bad behavior and in our fear we're diagnosing that as an emerging great power conflict environment.  In reality--as this current economic crisis amply demonstrates--the great powers of globalization are so intertwined economically that the notion of zero-sum conflict among them for the resources of developing countries is a pure chimera.  It's a fantasy.  


4.  In discussing the basics steps America needs to take to regain some control over its destiny and reassert its virtue you write, "There's more at stake here than our salvation."  What do you mean by that? 

We're at a point in global history that America was at in terms of its national history right after the American Civil War.  In effect we're rapidly stitching together a global economy from a series of regional economies in much the same way that America, back then, stitched together a continental economy from a series of sectional economies.  In that process we experienced our worst income inequality; our worst environmental degradation; our most rapacious period of capitalism; and the most grotesque examples of political corruption.  America was able to first get mad and then get even.  The getting mad part was a rising sense of populism in the 1880s in the wake of a series of booms and busts that were highly destabilizing and that recall the global economy of today.  And then we got even in the form of a progressive era that flattened out the competitive playing field and made it much more fair, much more accountable, much more transparent, and much more just.

We're in that kind of period now globally where we see a huge expanding middle class and a global economy that is knitting itself together at a rate we can barely fathom, to the point where our current financial crisis reveals the connectivity among the world's great powers to an extent never before seen.  Just as we first shamed and then tamed our own version of American capitalism in the late 19th century, the world, as a whole, is embarking upon a similar shaming and taming process today.  The great danger here is that populism, if left unchecked, or unaddressed politically, can easily segue into various forms of authoritarianism, isolationism, and bizarre attempts at economic and energy independence.  We look at Russia and China and see stagnant political regimes trying to retain control over very dynamic economic change.  We need to understand that in this process, in their attempts to escape the inefficiencies of their current authoritarian political system, they could easily lapse back into far more frightening forms of political dictatorship.  


5.  In the book you present twelve steps for America to take in order to get back to where we belong.   Which of these steps is the most important? 

The first step is the hardest one: admitting that we're essentially powerless over globalization in the same way an alcoholic is powerless in the face of alcohol. The key is to remember that this is an environment of our creating and that all we've done is spread to other great powers the same competitive opportunities that drove our rise, and that they're now seeking to replicate that rise.  We're facing younger versions of our economic selves and, unfortunately, even younger versions of our political selves.  This is a problem ultimately of our success, not our failure, so the concept of a post-American world to me is misleading.  A post-Caucasian world is not an indication of a post-American world, as some might suggest, but rather an indication of our great success in making globalization truly global.  That's why Obama's election would be deeply symbolic.  


6.  How do recent economic upheavals both here and abroad impact your vision? 

In the book I talk about a problem of success, not failure.  The global economy has simply outgrown our ability to control it, dominate it, bankroll it, and police it all on our own.  What the financial crisis does is make clear to us that collective requirements and collective goods--i.e., stability and prosperity--cannot simply be addressed by the U.S. on its own or by a putative league of democracies.  The real quorum of responsible players today must include all the rising great powers of our age, which could more logically be described as a league of capitalist economies, meaning we'll have to put off for now any question of political advance.  In some ways that's the underlying challenge.  We've gotten so much of the world to join our definition of economics.  If we can just retain some sense of patience and some understanding of how we built our own country and how we sought to project our models of states uniting and economies integrating upon the planet, then we'll be able to demonstrate the strategic patience required to keep this great ideological victory from unraveling.  The real struggle of the 21st century is not against radical Islam or terrorism per se.  Instead it comes in terms of shaping the ideology of this unprecedented world middle class, just like we once did in our own country when the middle class emerged.   


7.  In one of the closing chapters you write, "Naturally, I'd like to think that America's decades of effort in creating and spreading this international liberal trade order will end up accomplishing more than simply triggering the Great-Depression-after-next outcome that so many doom-and-gloomers anticipate with glee."  Are we seeing that trigger being pulled now?  Are the doom-and-gloomers right?      

We are seeing a financial correction in the world's largest economy and there is no doubt that you couldn't find a bigger trigger for the global depression-after-next than right now.  The key for America has never been avoiding panics, booms, or corrections.  Our key has always been our swift response to whatever crisis looms.  If you compare the U.S. reaction to our currently overleveraged situation to what Japan attempted in the early 1990s you'd see that we're moving in dog years compared to them.  We're accomplishing in weeks what it took them years to achieve.  Not pretty, but speed is of the essence.


8.   In what way does this current global economic crisis provide us with grand strategic opportunities?

The key thing is to quell any division of the world's great powers between autocracies and democracies, and to gently force us into accepting the notion that the preeminent category today is a league of capitalists.  What the current financial crisis does is render moot a lot of fanciful talk about great power competition over resources and markets.  It's not that that competition won't happen.  It will.  But I think it's wrong to assume it will lead to conflict.  In short, we've now reached the moment--economically—where we all sink or swim together.  The wars that America has fought for the past twenty or thirty years have all been pure globalization wars in the sense that they've been fought for system stability.

They lack, in many ways, clear enemies and represent our attempts to consistently protect and spread economic openness. 


9.  Why has the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama 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 under the Boomers; either it's "shoot all the bad guys" or "we want democracies now," when most of the world is struggling with a lot of tough issues between that baseline security goal and that top-line political achievement.   


10. Why is it so crucial that America move into a post-boomer political landscape?  

What's so crucial about it is that we need to get past the Cold War mindset that is so deeply inculcated in the boomer generation. By moving to a post-boomer political landscape we free ourselves from the dependency of requiring the West's approval for every step we take internationally when what we really need to seek out is a far broader array of allies: east, west, north and south.  We need to be able to see the economic similarities with all these rising great powers and look past the political differences. That is something the boomers have proven incapable of doing primarily because they were raised in the hyper-ideological age of the Cold War where politics was everything and economics seemed to take a back seat.  Now we're in an age where politics accommodates economics.  And to adequately deal with that changed landscape, we need a post-partisan, post-ideological, post-boomer leadership cohort.  That's what Obama's candidacy represents. 


11.  You write about the need to create strategic alliances with rising powers--most specifically India or China--through diplomatic linkages and military-to-military cooperation.  You also argue that China should be the priority.  Why shouldn't we choose India over China since it's already a democracy? 

I choose China first because China is the preferred military competitor for our Pentagon, which is desperate to retain a strategic argument for continuing to build a "big war" military force and for not adapting itself to the small wars of this frontier-integrating age.  I see that bias as a huge obstacle in America adapting itself to the challenges of globalization's rapid expansion.  Our problem is not taking on rising great powers, all of which want the same expansion of globalization, the same political stability, the same economic certainty, and the same vigorous response to dangerous non-state actors as we do. Instead, what we need is to be realistic about who's going to be our allies in this frontier-integrating age.  If your population is declining and aging, if your defense budget is decreasing, and if you haven't had large-scale combat casualties in decades, you're probably not an appropriate ally for what comes next.  

When I look at three million man armies--we're talking places like China, India, and Russia—even when I see a demonstrated willingness to go places and kill people (e.g., Russia's smack-down of Georgia), I don't interpret those capabilities as automatically constituting a threat to the future of the U.S.  Instead I see them as obvious candidates for co-option in managing globalization's advance.  In a frontier-integrating age there will be a lot of small wars, numerous insurgencies, and near-countless border conflicts because globalization will remap political realities through its capacity to generate unprecedented cross-border economic integration.  Dealing with all that tumult is labor intensive. You need lots of boots on the ground.  

In grand strategic terms America has already demonstrated that we're essentially trapped by two relatively small scenarios: Iraq and Afghanistan. What's happened since we've become strategically tied down in those two situations is that we've been forced to sue for peace just about everywhere else.  Our inability to address all of these regional crises creates a dangerous strategic uncertainty within the global economy. The only way we'll be able to address that panoply of regional flashpoints and crises is to enlist the cooperation of the rising great powers of our age.  As I've said before, we're not talking a league of democracies here but rather a league of capitalist powers fully intent on, and fully engaged in, making globalization truly global.  


12.  Why does the American "grand strategy" matter more right now than any other nation's grand strategy?  Shouldn't we entertain the notion that maybe the European Union or Germany or the U.K. or whomever has one that's better? 

Whether we recognize it or not, we remain the best and most advanced definition of how states unite and economies integrate.  Our fifty-member, multi-national union retains its lead as an experiment in effective globalization.  It's great that the European Union now joins our example because they temper our "go fast" approach with a more careful "go slow" style, but that only reinforces our historic role as globalization's cutting-edge experiment.    


13.  At the core of the book are five chapters that delve into the five major elements of our grand strategy--economic, diplomatic, security, networks, and strategic social issues--that will need to be realigned in order to reposition the U.S. along a trajectory that makes more sense for the global challenges ahead.  Can you touch on each of these and summarize your thoughts?

Perhaps the best way of summarizing the realignments that I explore in the book is to make clear the sorts of tradeoffs involved in each.  In the economic realm, what we've done is asked a lot of countries over the past several decades to join this liberal international trade order that we now call globalization.  In terms of the quid pro quo what we need to say to them is we will not stand in your way of achieving a middle-class standard of living; we won't try to delay that achievement by making, for example, environmental demands of you that are unreasonable.  Second, as we engage in these military interventions of the future, we'll be more realistic and open concerning whatever contribution you can bring to the mix.  It's not just a matter of come as you are as a military ally, it's also a matter of come when you can as an economic re-builder or market maker.  The point is that we've got to be realistic about the efforts involved in not just waging war but in winning the peace.  

In terms of the diplomatic element, we've got to understand that globalization is now penetrating some of the world's most traditional societies, so our trade-off here is a tricky one.  Essentially, we need to say if you accept globalization's broadband connectivity, we'll agree to your desire to exert control over its content.  That means people get to censor and retain certain taboos.  We must accept the reality that if, for example, they're willing to allow satellite TV beamed into their homes, we must give them individually and nationally the right to control content—especially pornography.  We can't possibly expect traditional societies to instantly transform themselves into being willing to accept the free flow of media content that we're able to handle.  

As far as security is concerned, the reality we've all come to accept after 9/11 is that dangers know no boundaries.  Past definitions of state sovereignty have been rendered moot by the existence of super-empowered individuals able to wage wars across borders and networks.  Our deal on security has to be simple: if you allow us to intervene in your neighborhoods, to root out these bad actors as is necessary, we promise to be far more transparent in our activities, meaning every casualty is accounted for, every round fired is justified, and we submit ourselves to complete international transparency regarding the justice we employ.  That means nobody disappears in the night, no secret tribunals, nothing in terms of international justice that we wouldn't be able to stomach at home.  

In terms of networks, the deal is both direct and empowering: if you let us bring our networks to your neighborhood and wire you up, integrating you into our many chains of supply, production, communication, travel, etc., and if you let us bring with those networks all the sensors, and security measures that make them secure, we'll give your economy, your people, your products, and your money fast-pass access to our own networks.   

And finally there is what I call strategic social issues or personal questions of identity.  The deal here is if you can find your way to allowing freedom of religion within your community, your country, or your civilization, we'll do our best to allow those within your community to pursue religious separatism as they feel they must to remain true to their faith.  As a rule we don't have a problem with religious-based separatism (e.g, the Amish) as long as it's not forced upon others unwillingly. And since we understand globalization poses huge social and spiritual challenges for traditional societies, we're willing to give you the time to adjust yourselves to its many demands, because we're confident of where that evolution will ultimately lead you (i.e., political pluralism)..  

One way to summarize all those trade offs, and something America needs to keep reminding itself of in the coming years, is that having accepted our economic model, we need to be patient with other countries regarding their ability to ultimately transform themselves in the direction of our political model.  In many ways that journey took years, decades, even centuries for the U.S. to achieve--depending on whether you were African American, a female, or gay--so expecting other countries to adapt themselves instantly to globalization's many social and political demands while doing their best to accommodate its profound economic changes is simply unrealistic on our part.  We forget our history.  We forget our own tremendously violent conflicts.  And we put at risk this amazing accomplishment of spreading our definition of a liberal international trade order to its current global heights.  


14.  What do you want readers to get out of this book?  

As we're demonstrating now through the overhang we've created financially, I want readers to realize that we're the one country that can truly destroy globalization.

That's why I think it's absolutely essential--and why I wrote the book--to make Americans aware that this globalization is a many-decades-long project that began with how we started this country and ultimately with how we seek to run this complex world - with rules but not a ruler.

And that's a most American world.

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