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EnlightenNext's interview with Tom

The Genie's Out of the Bottle: Dr. Thomas Barnett explains why globalization may actually be the most unifying, progressive, and liberating force in human history.

An interview with Thomas Barnett
by Carter Phipps

June-August 2009

Text of interview finally available on line. 

Comes with a lengthy--and neat--introduction from Phipps

I repost the interview here, for my records.


EnlightenNext: Dr. Barnett, you have a background in political science and military analysis, but you refer to yourself as a grand strategist. Can you explain what you mean by that term?

Thomas Barnett: A grand strategist in the way I understand it is someone who is thinking about the world in a very broad, synthetic way. I’m talking about someone who is thinking across different domains with a perspective that spans decades. I believe that in the years since 9/11, America has really been searching for a kind of grand strategic vision to guide our actions. And frankly, I think the world needs America to think long term and strategically now more than ever.

The classic definition of grand strategy has to do with a country wanting to advance its own interests, bringing to bear all its national power toward that end. But that definition is too restrictive, especially for the United States. It’s not enough for us to advance our own interests. It’s about having a vision of a future world that we want to move the whole planet toward, and it’s about what we can do to serve that vision, not just in terms of government but also the entire panoply of our social and economic systems. So grand strategy means looking at the entire structure of our world and how to move it forward, as opposed to just advancing our self-interest within a chaotic environment of independent nations. Ultimately, it’s an attempt to bring greater order.

Thinking in terms of grand strategy is not a skill set we value enough. The complexity of the world is so dense today that much of what passes for expertise in Washington and European capitals is a vertical drill-down knowledge: “I know the tax code in this particular area” or “I’m an expert on the enrichment of uranium.” Individuals who think horizontally, meaning across many different areas of expertise, are actually amazingly rare. Political science is a broad enough background and a natural starting point for people who want to do grand strategy. But the skill set of the grand strategist should involve a lot more than politics. It should mean that one actually reads a lot outside of one’s preferred domain. I read everything but political science; I read technology, history, economics, sociology, religion, all kinds of fields because I’m trying to explore how the many intersections between all of these big domains are affecting politics. And history is particularly important. You can’t think long term and strategically if you don’t understand your history.

I often go places to speak and people ask me, “How many others do you know who think like this?” and I say, “Not very many.” I find it very disturbing to have to offer that answer. Instead, what passes for grand strategy is usually national self-criticism of the most dispiriting sort. So college kids are growing up on Noam Chomsky. That’s a disaster. He’s a great linguist, but he’s not a grand strategist or a good political thinker or an international relations expert. Neither is Chalmers Johnson; neither is Naomi Klein. On some level the best versions we have are op-ed columnists, but they tend to be too news-cycle driven, and I think that a successful grand strategist is someone who can, with equanimity, think across decades.

EN: Your new book is called Great Powers: America and the World After Bush. In it you outline an economic and political strategy for America’s engagement in the world after Bush. Could you explain to me what your purpose in writing the book was?

TB: Well, a variety of purposes. First, I wanted to explore explicitly what should be America’s grand or overarching geopolitical strategy at this point in history, and I wanted to expose the reader to what I thought was the general arc of American grand strategy historically. I want people to understand that this is very much a world of our creating, and in that self-awareness, I want them to understand exactly what the possibilities are for our global society going forward.

EN: One of the points you make in the book is that America is largely responsible for the kind of global economic system that we have today. Is that what you mean when you say this is a “world of our creating”?

TB: Let me provide some context. Let’s go back to World War II. If you look at the global political system that existed at that time, it was the Eurasian colonial system. The Eurasian powers had basically carved up the planet. And then there was the United States, this weird, hybrid, multinational union kind of doing its own thing on its own continent. President Roosevelt decided that after the war he wanted to create a new economic and political landscape, not only in America but across the entire planet. So he engineered the creation of what we now call the international liberal trade order. Essentially, what Roosevelt did was to create a global framework for the same sort of open-market, free-trade system that America had been pioneering within its own borders for decades.

To make a long story short, this new system succeeded dramatically, and by 1980 the West was fabulously wealthy and began to attract emulation from the East. Perhaps the critical point in the development of this global economic system was when Deng Xiaoping opened up China and their economy in the late seventies and early eighties. When that happened, we achieved a sort of critical mass for this international liberal trade order.

So part of Roosevelt’s initial postwar strategy was economic, but the other part had to do with security. After the war, we agreed to step in to provide our allies, both in Japan and in Europe, with the military force they needed to defend against the Soviets. As a result, none of these countries went back to the kind of militaristic structures or large industrial bases devoted to the military that they had prior to the war; instead, in an amazing historical turn, they largely outsourced that function to us. In effect, we became their provider of security.

EN: That highlights what I think is one of the most interesting aspects of your work, and that is your unique view of the American military. You point out that the overwhelming military advantage that America developed over the years has a pacifying effect in the world today.

TB: Right. Our overwhelming military power represents a sort of God-like force, which for all practical purposes rules out the question of major war between great powers. Again, in order to appreciate that achievement, we just have to look back at the first half of the twentieth century. On the Eurasian landmass, ten great powers managed to kill a hundred million people in a conflagration that ran fairly unabated from 1914 to 1949—all the way to the end of the Chinese civil war. It was war on an unbelievable scale; nobody has ever before accomplished that kind of warfare, taken it to those heights. Then there was the Cold War. But once you get to the end of that and then fast-forward to now, you have to admit that this is the first time in history when Britain, France, Germany, and Russia are all peaceful, all relatively more prosperous—although obviously there’s a downturn now—and all are integrating. There’s really no question of great power war. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. I mean, through the early 1980s, there was still tremendous fear in Europe of war.

We also have now for the first time in Asia something that’s never been accomplished in history: India, Japan, China, and South Korea are all relatively prosperous, rising, integrating, and peaceful, with no prospects of a great power war on the horizon. We’ve never before had that quartet of powers all strong and prosperous, and yet no one really talks about a possible war among them. Even with North Korea, it gets harder and harder to raise plausible scenarios of war. And Taiwan has begun what looks like negotiations for economic integration with China, not unlike Hong Kong. They’re negotiating the idea that they can be economically unified but retain their political differences for now. That’s what the European Union was for quite some time. So we’re looking at what is inevitable in Asia: an Asian union centered on China.

This is not to say there aren’t things that fill headlines, but here we are in our first global recession, and even with this somewhat frightening economic downturn, what most people seem to be discovering is an intense amount of economic interdependence. Countries are doing what they can within the World Trade Organization rules to protect themselves, but nobody’s really transgressing those rules. Nobody is talking about war or a Nazi-like rise to power, and that’s a pretty amazing achievement for us to have accomplished.

We’ve made our interdependence so profound that we really do sink or swim together in this global economy. The point of my book is that it is all modeled on America’s own economic and political union. I like to say that America is the source code for globalization. We are the models. We are the spreaders. We are the DNA. This process of globalization is very much modeled on our own multinational union that says states unite over time, economies integrate, networks proliferate, rules accumulate, incomes rise, and collective security expands.

EN: In many progressive circles, this kind of thesis is anathema. I have many European friends, for example, who see globalization in quite a negative light, as exploitative and repressive and driven primarily by American interests. So tell me, why is it a good thing that this is happening? Why is globalization good?

TB: First of all, globalization is not happening only because America backs it. Globalization happens because people find value in it. They find value in the connectivity; they find freedom in it; they find better lives. What is driving globalization are three billion capitalists. They’re being transmuted into a global middle class, which will be the dominant power in the global economy and the global political system in the twenty-first century. The genie’s out of the bottle. We were too successful. Also, as I said, war has gone away in this time frame. When the Americans really took over and sought to reshape the world in our image, what happened? Great power war disappeared! The latest tallies of international violence say that it’s almost all occurring in places that are yet to be deeply integrated into the global economy, which tells me that we’re in a frontier integrating age, just like we went through in America in the nineteenth century. Then the Europeans get very uncomfortable with that because they say, “We tried that.” And I say, “Yes, you did, but in a very exploitative manner.” And they say, “Your version is also very exploitative.” And I say, “Compared to yours, it’s not even close.” But Europe is not in charge of this anymore, and frankly neither are we. Indeed, if you look at the regions of the world that are poorly developed or poorly connected, like much of Africa, it’s Arab money and Asian money that is increasingly the main source of funding flowing into those places for development and infrastructure. I go to Africa, and to me it looks like a disaster. The Chinese and Indians go to Africa and they say, “Crappy soil, crappy climate, crappy infrastructure, crappy government, crappy work attitude—it’s just like home. I’m going to make this place so profitable. I can’t wait to exploit it.” Africa is going to be brought into the global economy by the Arabs and the Chinese and the Indians. The Europeans aren’t going to be asked. No one’s waiting on their okay, much less their veto.

So the question for all of us is, “Do we want to participate in this to make it better, or do we want to wash our hands of it and hope that it works out, hope that the Indians and the Chinese and the Arabs don’t exploit these situations?” I know that absent some sort of cooperation on our part, it won’t go well, but it’s also clear that we’re at the point where we can’t manage globalization alone because it’s gotten so large.

EN: In your books, you point out that those regions that have the most poverty, the most exploitation of labor, the most corrupt governments, and the most violence are also the places that are the most disconnected parts of our global society.

TB: That’s where all the violence is happening. That’s where all the terrorism happens. Virtually all of it happens inside the non-integrating parts of the world. But globalization is coming to these places. It’s coming because these places want it. They look at China and they want some of that wealth. Everything you can say about Africa today we said about China fifty years ago. And now they’re getting rich. Globalization has gone critical mass, and there’s no way to stop it. The only question is, how do we deal with it? We need to deal with it efficiently, because if you add the factor of global climate change and add the problem of resource depletion, then you realize that we’re heading into a period that is going to demand tremendous innovation and tremendous cooperation among all the major powers involved. And in terms of security, we’re tapped out. We need help. We can’t possibly run the world with only the Europeans and the Japanese, because they won’t go anywhere and kill anybody. We need Russians, we need Indians, we need Chinese. They have to be willing to fight and kill and in effect defend globalization’s advance.

People may say that I’m talking about globalization at the barrel of a gun, but that’s not a bad thing. It beats no globalization at the barrel of a gun, because I can take you to the places where you’re the most subject to the gun, and they tend to be the least connected parts of the world. It’s like the rapid integration of the American West. If the military authority doesn’t show up, then people will fight each other. They’ll kill in large numbers. There’ll be insurgencies. There’ll be bad individuals. Or you can instill real governance and security and, on that basis, empower people and enrich them.

We’ve empowered and enriched a lot of people on this planet in the last fifty years by following this grand strategy. Now we’re coming to the harder nuts to crack because these are the more off-grid places, and in terms of development, they lag far behind. They’re the places where you have the most intransigent forms of religious structures (and stricture, for that matter) and, of course, amazing population growth. Then on top of that, these are all places that are going to get the hottest because of global climate change and will therefore have the hardest time growing food. So as a strategist, I’m looking at this reality and thinking that we need to get these places wired up. We need to get them safe, we need to get them transparent, we need to get them marketized. We need to get the women into the labor force through education. We need to emancipate these situations. And we need to do it fast, because the amount of environmental stress and demographic stress and climate-based stress that these people are going to be under in the next thirty or forty years is going to be profound—unless we raise their incomes dramatically. Otherwise, we’re setting ourselves up for all sorts of nasty business and much suffering and premature death.

So, yes, I’m willing to do more than merely fortify America and Europe. I’m willing to do more than put up fences to keep these “nasty dark people” from coming to our countries. I don’t see that kind of mentality working. There is a lot of anger being expressed in those parts of the world. And bin Laden gave us an early glimpse of that.

EN: It makes sense, but what you’re saying also stands in stark contrast to those who insist that globalization is destroying cultures around the world and that we should allow people to retain their culture and identity on their own terms.

TB: Yes, what they say is, let’s deny them the connectivity. Let’s decrease their sense of fear. Let’s keep them off-grid. We’ll keep them pristine; we’ll allow them to retain their culture and their poverty and their disconnectedness because if we connect them, it makes them angry and demanding, and we’re not sure if we want to process all that anger. But people on the other side look at us and say, “That’s the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever heard. You’re all about keeping us down in the name of some antiquated bullshit.” So why take down these mud huts? Well, because they’re disease ridden. We live in nice houses, and they want nice houses too. We’re telling them they’ve got to live in these hovels that are four hundred years old to “preserve their culture.” They’re tired of the hypocrisy.

Marx was right. Back in the 1840s, he said that capitalism is going to sweep the planet, just crush everything in its way. It’s just that it took a certain type of capitalism to do it—not the European version, not colonialism. It took an American-style, truly liberal, free-trade version. It took political adaptations that Marx considered impossible to achieve. Marx was diagnosing capitalism on the basis of Europe in the nineteenth century. He saw castes, he saw elites, he saw viscounts and dukes and duchesses. He said this is never going to work. But if he’d come to America, he would have seen that this is the place where anybody comes, anybody joins. The synthetic identity is crucial to us. We are a version of globalization before globalization.

EN: Globalization may have been initially driven by the West and America. But as China and India begin to rise up, it’s going to decouple globalization from being almost exclusively associated with the West. As you say in the book, it will be post-Caucasian.

TB: Yes, there was a globalization that may have been Anglo-Saxon inspired, but now it’s going to be overwhelmed by the rise of the rest. It’s a post-American world, as my friend Fareed Zakaria likes to say. And I reply that it’s post-Caucasian world, not post-American. This post-Caucasian world has also already arrived on our shores. It’s already here in all of America’s major cities; it’s already here in our biggest state, California. In America’s zero to five-year age demographic, Caucasians are no longer a majority, and European-Americans are no longer a majority. So the power-sharing agreement that is part of that post-Caucasian world is being negotiated in preschools all across America right now. And what I know about social change in this country is that when something is figured out in preschools and kindergartens across America, fifteen years later it is the dogma that unites us all. It becomes the conventional wisdom. Look at recycling, drunk driving, antismoking—once you inculcate a new ideology in kindergartners, fifteen years later it becomes the way it is.

EN: What role does the European Union, the “European Dream” as Jeremy Rifkin dubbed it, play in this larger picture?

TB: Well, the problem I’ve always had with commentary on the European Union is people claiming that this is the first multinational union in history. I don’t think so.

People say, “They’re going to have a single currency. They’re talking about a single foreign minister for all of their states. They’re organizing a parliament.” Doesn’t anyone recognize this? We had a single currency in 1862 when Lincoln signed the Legal Tender Act. We went from having eight thousand varieties of bank notes in America to a single green piece of paper, the greenback. That was as revolutionary as creating the euro. Every-body assumes that we put Washington’s face on the dollar the minute he stopped being president, but there wasn’t such a thing as the dollar until 1862. So we’re further along in this process than we realize.

I admire having an alternative to America. I think it’s good to have both models and to have competitiveness between us. Otherwise, too much of the world will look at the Chinese model and think that that’s the way to go. And the Chinese one has huge flaws: It’s pre-progressive, it’s pre-political pluralism, it’s pre- a lot of things. China is slated for a lot of amazing change in the next couple of decades. It won’t be able to go on the way it has been.

EN: I recently interviewed futurist John Petersen, who’s an acquaintance of yours, and he’s very pessimistic about our short-term prospects. He expects a much bigger crash over the next year. In fact, there is a lot of doom and gloom these days, especially with the financial meltdown. Even many progressive spiritual types are talking about 2012 as being some sort of crisis point. How do you relate to that kind of apocalypticism? Is it justified by our current crisis?

TB: Well, they always have a new date. But it’s also true that none of what I’m describing is predicated on linear motion, with no U-turns, no backtracking, no pauses, no problems. And this time, to no one’s great surprise, the financial experimentation and the increasingly complex nature of risk management got out of hand. This has happened pretty regularly throughout our history, except this time it was sold and packaged around the world. We had an entire economy based on maximizing our borrowing, keeping no cash on hand. And then we have this financial panic where suddenly we need to have lots of cash on hand. And everybody looks at each other and says, “What do you mean cash on hand? Are you kidding me? You told us for the last twenty years, no cash on hand.” That’s the panic we’re in now. But deep in our hearts, I think that we knew that discipline was eventually going to have to be applied. Ideally, we all would’ve come to a calm collective judgment that we can’t live this way anymore. But that’s not how markets work. They tend to go right to the edge, and then people panic. In that process, there’s a tendency to look back and conclude, “It was all bad. This is a terrible system.” It’s our way of generating enough political will to change. So we’re at the end of thirty years of less regulation, and now we’re going to tack in the direction of more regulation. So is it socialism? Is it the end of the world? Is it Armageddon? Is it the end times? Is Christ coming back? I think it’s just a change of tack.

We’ve got a generation now that’s lived a very, very charmed life. They are now having their expectations altered, and it’s probably for the better. So I see the current situation as a healthy corrective to a twenty-seven-year global boom. A lot of bad habits accumulate in twenty-seven years, and now we’re being much more realistic about some of the challenges. I wrote in a blog post today that India and China are talking about cooperating on the environment, on counterterrorism, on all kinds of things. They’re really stepping up to the plate. In a big, fat, booming world where America is covering all bets, India and China don’t step up and take control of anything. But in a more frightened world where the challenges are more apparent, India and China step up.

But I love these doomsayers who’ve been saying for a long time, “I told you we’re going back to the 1930s, back to the depression.” I mean, they’ve only been wrong for the last seventy years! I hope they enjoyed their life.

EN: Another factor that gets cited by people concerned about the state of the world is the rise of religious violence. How does that dynamic affect your optimism about globalization?

TB: When you take people in the developing world from sustenance to abundance, it creates a kind of socioeconomic change that will cause people to reach for religion more and more. So this is going to be a highly religious, highly nationalistic century because of the amazingly rapid rise of a lot of previously off-grid, sustenance-based populations. Some look at that increasing friction and say, “That’s the future of the entire planet. We’re going to be all inundated with religious nutcases.” But globalization isn’t something we’re supplying; it’s something they’re demanding. It can’t be turned off. So when people’s lives are being changed and networked and reformatted, their demands for identity are going to skyrocket because they’re trying to hold on to their identity amidst all the change. We’ve destroyed all of their agricultural rhythms and all of their religious rhythms and all of their ways of viewing the world. If you do that too much, you’re inevitably going to get wild and radical responses. And those wild and radical responses, at their base, are all about “Recognize me, recognize my desires, recognize my uniqueness, recognize my identity.” So a lot of people are looking at this and worrying that the world’s going crazy. But I say that this is all part of the success of globalization’s spread. It’s creating demands. Those demands have to be met; they cannot be squelched.

So we’re heading into a very religious century, but that’s not a bad thing. I often look at America’s domestic history as a sort of forerunner model of globalization in miniature. And if you look at the latter decades of the nineteenth century in America, I think we’re replaying on a global scale what happened then. We went through a very nasty age where politics was considered very low, very divisive, and very corrupt, and robber barons and titans ruled. Our system was very brutal, tough on labor. The child labor was intense. A lot of people were rapidly joining the middle class, but the income inequality was the greatest in American history. In many ways, we were much like China today.

Then that anger started to translate into answers, and we shifted into a new progressive age. In that time, we had people like Upton Sinclair and Booker T. Washington pushing progressive agendas, and we had a great many religious and civic groups pushing for changes as well. It was the religious groups and the great awakenings of the time that were essential for that progressive era. There was a sense that we were going to self-destruct unless we cleaned things up.

So in the same way that we did in the nineteenth century, we’re going to have to co-opt and channel the current anger into a progressive search for answers globally. The good news is that in the long run, religion is going to be one of our greatest allies—not our foe, not a complicating factor, and certainly not a sign of a coming Armageddon.

EN: You said at the beginning of this interview that you like to read things besides political science. What have you been reading lately that is helping inform your own grand strategy?

TB: Science fiction. Right now, I’m reading Neuromancer, William Gibson’s classic book. I think science fiction is about presenting current fears in the context of the future. It’s interesting to me that for a long time the favorite villains in science fiction have been corporations. The stories often portray huge divisions between haves and have-nots and a sort of rapacious global capitalism. It’s a capitalism that has not been curtailed by the shaming and taming of the system that comes with populism and progressivism. So I would say that science fiction lately has done a good job of presenting us with a series of future dystopias. These stories suggest that as we successfully project this American capitalist model on a global landscape, our failure to set in motion the commensurate social and political change—to shame and tame the more rapacious parts of globalization—is going to come back to haunt us. Now, it is true that if globalization is done in too loose a fashion, it could definitely evolve into a have/have-not world. But I think it’s an overplayed concept. Look at America. Our biggest income inequality was in the 1880s and 1890s—until an age of progressivism kicked in. It’s true, of course, that globally we haven’t yet succeeded at political and social change at a speed that we would find satisfying. But if you look at American history, we were pretty slow on a lot of these things too. So we need to be patient and recognize that we have won the fundamental argument about what kind of basic model the world is going to follow.

That kind of confidence, to me, is very important for America to demonstrate. Look what is happening now with the financial panic. I know that when things like this happen, there is always that schadenfreude that finds elation in America getting its comeuppance, like there was on 9/11. But I would argue that underneath that, there is a much more significant unease. The idea, which some are expressing, that we as a country might no longer believe in certain aspects of our model is very threatening to others. The rest of the world likes having us as a model. They know it’s a model that they need to move toward, even though they fight against it a little bit. People like having ideals to work for. We represent reinvention and diversity. We are the first globalized culture. We are globalization inverted. We’ve been working on the complexity of globalization a long time, and we’re still perfecting it. I mean, when I was a kid, the state cops would chase a bad character to the state border and then they’d stop. States are still fairly distinct. When we go through something like the vote recount in 2000, we realize that there are very different state laws in this country.

So we’re still perfecting this model. We don’t recognize the significance of the fact that we’re the world’s oldest and most successful multinational economic and political union. And that’s a huge responsibility, because if we fall apart as a country or fail in our continuing quest to perfect ourselves, it would be a huge blow to the world. There is an underlying logic to our model that’s inescapable. It says that we have to get along, we have to cooperate, we have to integrate, we have to increase collective security, we have to increase transparency. We’re just the furthest along, so we underestimate the power of our example and the responsibility of it.

Reader Comments (2)

Tom, this post is amazing. It sums up America as the indispensable nation and all the bouquets and brickbats that entails. The sad part is that so many of Americas local institutions and schools cannot bring themselves to put it forth with such confidence and sense of purpose. How to solve that is perhaps more important . Thoughts?

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjames benoit

These were excellent questions which enabled you to summarize your grand strategy with great clarity. I appreciate your including this on your new site which is elegant. I've also ordered William Gibson's book.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElmer Humes
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