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9:01PM

America the Aggrieved Departs Center Stage

Alex Wong/Getty Images

It was always going to be the case that America would eventually want/have to renegotiate its relationship with the world and the many great powers whose rise we encouraged and accommodated.  Eight years ago I published an entire book (Great Powers) that laid out a host of accommodations, deals, renegotiations, compromises, etc. that we'd have to pursue to re-rationalize our relationship with the world and globalization itself - the most obvious being we'd have to get along with, and forge new, more realistic and equitable relationships with New Core powers like China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and so on. As I have maintained for a couple of decades now, globalization comes with rules - but not a ruler.

President Obama did a lot of good things while in office, most notably symmetricizing the war on terror (our SOF/drones against their badasses). But he also engaged in the ill-conceived and poorly executed "Asian pivot," created a serious great-power leadership vacuum in SW Asia (into which strode Russia and Iran), and abandoned all pretense of responsible nation-building (logically adhering to the pottery barn rule - yes, but doing it by sharing both the burden and the decision-making with all those far-more-local-and-incentivized New Core powers named above). By doing these things, Obama encouraged the "G-Zero" atmosphere that President Trump now exploits to complete his very dark take on the state of America and the world - a take that allows him to regurgitate the "America First" vision of pre-superpower America.

That vision is arguably the greatest threat that our democracy faced in the 20th century, and, to my deep dismay, we toy with it again in the 21st.

Do I think it will succeed as a lasting grand strategy?  No.

Do I think this administration will be allowed to pursue it sufficiently to inflict great damage on the global economy (and us by rebound)?  Also no, but I will admit to worrying greatly about that possibility. American-hatched-and-nurtured globalization is here to stay. We simply were too successful in spreading it, creating vast and deep constituencies for its survival in a host of rising economies - most notably in the BRICS (whom I have identified for a dozen-or-more years now as our natural allies of this century).

Do I think there's a better and right way to do this?  Sure.

Much of what President Trump said today contained grains of truth - very important grains of truth:

  • America did seek to encourage the rise of other powers - at its own expense.
  • America did seek to spread liberal trade - at its own expense.
  • America has provided more security to the world than the world did in return.

And you know what? Our efforts fueled the greatest advance in human development, peace, prosperity, and freedom that the world has ever witnessed.

Simplest numbers: 

  • In 1950, 55% of the world's population was living in extreme poverty. Today that number is just under 10%.
  • In 1950, only 23% of the world's population could be described as middle-class. Today that number is 58%. 

All that happened as the world ballooned from a 1950 population of 2.5B to 7.3B today.

That means that, in absolute terms, the number of people living in extreme povery decreased from 1.4B in 1950 to 650m today, while the middle class skyrocketed from 575m to 4.2B! So, we cut extreme poverty in half - in absolute terms, and increase the global middle class over seven-fold. 

Amazing stuff.

That's what American "empire," "hegemony," "militarism," "imperialism," etc. actually wrought. 

Did we stress the planet?  Yes.

Was it worth it? Most definitely. Nobody living in extreme poverty gives a rat's ass about the environment - nor should they. You want environmentalists? Get yourself a big middle class.

Does our role in enabling the globalization of the international liberal trade order (based on the model of these United States) these past seven-plus decades mark us as the world's greatest nation? Absolutely.

Were we slated to play this pre-eminent role forever? Hardly.

Did the time come, in the Great Recession, for America to begin re-calibrating its role in the world. Yea, and I wrote a whole book on that.

So am I surprised or dismayed by Trump's ascendancy? No to the first, yes to the second.  You give me Mike Bloomberg in exactly the same role, and I'm loving it.

The correction is long overdue, and it's driven by what I (in Blueprint for Action) once dubbed any country's "caboose" - namely, its conservative, rural, interior poor. What I said back then (2005) is what I still say: The train's engine can travel no faster than its caboose.

That's true of globalization itself and it's true of every nation in the global economy - including ours. Because, if you go too fast, you end up like Iran after the Shah's White Revolution - in a reactionary backlash that can f*#k you up for a very long time.

How much is Obama to be blamed for not doing more to address America's "caboose" these past 8 years? No more than the GOP House and Senate membership. As I have stated for many years now, the Boomers have been a complete disaster as a generation of political leaders (and the Gen Xers pulled in their wake haven't been much better up to now). [Note: I remain supremely optimistic about the Millennials for many reasons long and often noted in past writings and speeches.]

In the end, America was going to flirt with economic nationalism. We went overboard on security after 9/11 (forcing the Obama retrenchment), and it was inevitable that the Great Recession would eventually push us to experiment with the self-destruction that is trade protectionism, wall-building, economic nationalism, and the mercantilist dream of winner-takes-all. In short, when we want change, we tend to freak out. That's the hidden opportunity cost of democracy. We don't do incremental change very well. That's why the Founding Fathers built in so many checks and balances - all of which I expect to function well across the Trump administration.

The pity is, America can and should renegotiate a more self-preserving economic relationship with the global economy. I truly believe the world knows it's time and it's the fair thing to do. And frankly, with China so "risen," the world economy no longer needs to rely on the US consumer so much, meaning we have it within our power to genuinely self-correct greatly while demanding appropriate "gives" from the rest of the world for whom we did so much to fuel globalization's successful rise and continuing durability.

But, again, we're not like that. When we freak out in any direction, it's all the way. That's what generations and generations of A-type personalities interbreeding gets you - and Trump is the perfect embodiment of that self-centered ambition and aggression.

My best positive spin on Trump is that he's crazy like a fox and will exploit all his over-the-top rhetoric and threats to achieve the much-needed recalibration between America and the world.

But I will readily admit that I fear he's an overboard character elevated by America's typically overboard political impulses, and that we'll learn many hard lessons over the next four years.

Either way, I've often said in speeches that America gets the president we need - and deserve, even as the course corrections pursued are often way too much.

But that's just who we are.

I will say, though, that I don't much care for this America the aggrieved persona. It strikes me as too full of self-loathing and far too fearful. I prefer the "better angels" and "shining city on a hill" stuff.

Because that's actually more of who we are.

But, rest assured, the Great Recalibration that I spent chapter upon chapter detailing in "Great Powers" is most definitely in full swing now. Obama got it rolling but it's moving into high gear with Trump. It could be done right and I expect it to be done mostly wrong by this raucous crew, but the effect is the same. [Much like Bush with the Big Bang strategy: If he does Iraq right, he scares the crap out of the region and triggers tumultuous change. And if he does Iraq badly, same outcome.]

America is headed toward a future of diminished global leadership: this is - and always has been - the price of our fantastic success in spreading American-style globalization.

Yes, the world is full of idiots who will proclaim America's relative "decline" in zero-sum terms. But don't let them bother you. What we did for humanity is the greatest single achievement ever accomplished by a nation-state - in addition to being the most Christian display of generosity and sacrifice by a country.

Point being: America has never been greater than it is now.

Remember that in the weeks and months and four years ahead. 

11:33PM

London Review of Books on Perry Anderson's treatment of my work

Thomas Meaney review's Anderson's book (American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers by Perry Anderson
Verso, 244 pp, £14.99, March 2014, ISBN 978 1 78168 667 6), which I excerpted here.

He overstates my trust in the market (Anderson noted my call for a lengthy progressive era [21st century edition], but so be it.

Meaney also postions me (allegedly per Anderson) as the polar opposite of Kagan, when Anderson noted our similarities (essentially calling Kagan a political determinist to my economic determinist). 

At the opposite end of the strategy spectrum from Kagan, Anderson has found a curious specimen. Thomas Barnett is a former Naval Academy instructor, and a self-declared economic determinist who delivers TED talks to the military top brass about the limits of American power. His work, Anderson writes, is ‘not unlike a materialist variant, from the other side of the barricades, of the vision of America in Hardt and Negri’s Empire’. ‘America needs to ask itself,’ Barnett writes in Great Powers (2009), ‘is it more important to make globalisation truly global, while retaining great-power peace and defeating whatever anti-globalisation insurgencies may appear in the decades ahead? Or do we tether our support for globalisation’s advance to the upfront demand that the world first resembles us politically?’ For Barnett, the answer is clear: America must trust in the market, which will solve all strategic problems. Russia? It is experiencing its Gilded Age, and will come around in fifty years. China? Already capitalist anyway, and Xi is just China’s version of Teddy Roosevelt trying to root out corruption and make markets more functional. Iran? Proceed with every deal possible, let the market penetrate, and stop threatening it with military strikes. Tell Israel to back off: Iran will take the position in the Middle East to which its culture and educated population entitle it. North Korea? First let Beijing extract from it all the minerals it needs. Then, when it reaches rock bottom, the Chinese will invite the South Koreans in to clean up the mess. In a world so tilted in the US’s favour, Barnett calls for drastically reducing the military to a small force with only a handful of bases that will be used to handle terrorist pin-pricks. In every other respect the time has come for stay-at-home capitalist husbandry.

Hat tip to my old mentor Hank Gaffney for alerting me to this.

10:10AM

The growing Sino-America co-dependency on food

FT story on a subject I've been harping on since my last book (and in it):  the stunning co-dependency that arrives with America increasingly feeding China, making our ag output as important to Beijing as the PG's energy exports.

Some data points on China's total imports (so not all NorthAm or US):

  • Cereal imports into China up almost 13,000 percent since 2008 to current 5.2m MT
  • Wheat up 6,000% to 3m MT
  • Rice up 264% to 1.6m MT
  • Overall rise from low-point of 2008 is from 2m MT to 12m MT.
  • China is now the 7th biggest importer in world, after Japan, Egypt (remember that when you imagine Egypt going rogue under the MB), Mexico, EU-27, Saudi Arabia, and SoKo.  Japan is #1 at just under 25m MT.

Note that US is biggest world exporter of wheat, corn and soybeans.

Yes, China is planting like crazy, so its own ag output is up.  It's just that demand is rising much faster.

The key line of the piece: 

China still has an official policy that mandates 95 percent self-sufficiency - a policy known as the "red line" - but recent comments suggest that the insistence on self-sufficiency is waning.

The US is waking up to China as THE ag export market.  Nebraska's top ag official:

China represents a huge export market . . . [and] a growing export destination.  

Nebraska's corn exports to China have doubled in the last half-decade.

China is already the world's biggest soybean importer (and - again - the US is the biggest exporter), and "is adding corn, wheat, barley and rice to its shopping list" (and - again - the US is the biggest exporter of corn and wheat).

10:18AM

For the Record: Excerpt from "Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of the Leaderless Resistance"

Book is by George Michael of Air War College.  I wrote the following blurb for the backcover:

As globalization continues to process a lot of populist anger over injustices - both perceived and real - stemming from its rapid expansion into traditional cultures, the world is going to suffer a lot more of the 'leaderless' terrorism that Michael explores in this wonderfully evenhanded book.  Those hunting for solutions - in addition to the 'bad guys' - would do well to add this to their reading list.

--Thomas P.M. Barnett, Chief Analyst, Wikistrat

In the conclusion, after a section on PLA Colonels Qiao Lian's and Wang Xiangsui's book, Unrestricted Warfare, Michael offers a summary of my thinking:

Global Integration

In a sense, Qiao and Wang's advocacy of unrestricted warfare on multiple dimensions is similar to Thomas P.M. Barnett's notion of "war within the context of everything else." A former Pentagon defense analyst, Barnett argues that in the contemporary world security must encompass several different dimensions, including economics, politics, trade, international law, and, most important, connectivity. His major study, The Pentagon's New Map, advanced a grand strategy for the United States. In Barnett's scheme, the world is divided into two broad regions.  Countries in the "Functioning Core" are integrated into a world system and operate under "rule sets." They arbitrate their differences through international bodies, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, and are less likely to go to war against other countries in the core.[PNM] In contrast, countries in the "Non-Integrating Gap" do not follow these rule sets and are the setting for most of the problems that bedevil the world today.

The real enemy, according to Barnett, is disconnectedness, the separation of people - especially globally. Life in the Gap is, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, poor, nasty, short, and brutal, he says.[PNM] An unabashed economic determinist, he believes that people integrated into the global economy are far less likely to succumb to radicalism. As he puts it, the only viable exit strategy for the US military in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan is to leave those countries with more jobs than when the operations began.[GP & Zakaria's Post-American World]  With no resevoir of discontent, extremist and terrorist groups will find few recruits and pose no existential challenge to the system. Although Muslim rage may be fueled by issues such as the status of the Palestinians and US foreign policy, Barnett argues that it really stems from the Middle East being one of the most disconnected parts of the world. In short, Barnett's long-term strategic goal is the integration of all into the global economy, to drain the resevoir for international terrorism. Multilateral efforts could eliminate the Gap altogether, making globalization truly global.[PNM] Barnett sees globalization as inevitable, because it is the ultimate "non-zero-sum game" - meaning that all sides win.  The entire world will benefit from greater connectedness, he believes, through economic growth and higher standards of living.[BFA]

Lending credence to Barnett's thesis, researchers at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland have discovered that countries that are more tightly integrated into the global economy experience less instability.[Ted Gurr edited volume Peace and Conflict 2008]  Nearly 80 percent of all international crises in the post-Cold War era have involved at least one unstable or failing state.[Peace and Conflict 2008] The physical security of the United States is now threatned not so much by the strenth of other states, but by their weakness, since weak and failed states often serve as sanctuaries for transnational terrorist groups.[PNM & Takeyh/Gvosdev cite]  Despite current global problems, Barnett is optimistic about the future and believes that the terrorist threat can be managed effectively:

I don't see the Salafist threat as particularly profound. It has not done well, particularly in the last several years by my calculations . . . I see them more as a friction. I expect to see more of its as globalization more extensively penetrates the Middle East ast a much faster pace. The Salafists are a response to globalization, a reflection . . .

If we pursue the strategy [of expanding "the core" and shrinking "the Gap"], I don't see how it could fail. If we pursue the strategy, then we can participate in it more and we can shape the process and shape the regimes and the global pillars that arise from the process [May 2008 interview by Michael]

According to Barnett, economics got ahead of politics during the 1990s, and technology got ahead of security, causing the world to become too connected too quickly.[PNM] New technology had led to the emergence of "superempowered individuals," who Barnett believes have the potential to wreak unprecedented damage or "system perturbation."[Friedman's Lexus & Olive Tree, GP] Although the United States cannot be defeated at the nation-state level, Barnett points out that it can still be humbled and even defeated at a system level if the US government is induced to disengage from the Middle East, through acts of terrorism in the style of 9/11.[PNM] Another terrorist attack on that scale could further destabilize financial markets and have a negative ripple effect throughout the economy. Nevertheless, he believes that modern societies have advanced precisely because they have mastered network complexity, usually in response to disasters and scandals that have periodically perturbed their systems and exposed vulnerabilities.[GP]

The encroaching process of globalization, Barnett avers, will undoubtedly engender opposition from those who feel threatened with a loss of identity and culture. The goal of such actors is a "civilizational apartheid" - removal of their areas from the process of globalization. In some ways, though, greater connectivity could increase the number of terrorists. For instance, inasmuch as the "virtual umma" is built on the Internet, increasing access to the medium would increase the potential to radicalize a large number of disaffected Muslims.[irregular warfare book cite]

Despite disruptions along the way, Barnett believes that globalization, if managed effectivey, is a force for good that improves the life conditions of many people. In order for his grand strategy to become a reality, the United States must take a leading role, with other "great powers" pitching in.[GP] Some observers, through, presage an end to US hegemony. What is more, some fear that centrifugal forces could actually tear the United States apart.[pages 158-60]

Michael follows that segue with a section on Sam Huntington, Pat Buchanan, William Lind, Martin van Creveld and Robert Kaplan entitled "Fragmentation."

The next section is called "The Viability of Leaderless Resistance," and here's the last bit referencing my stuff:

Societal fragmentation could increase the frequency of small-scale violence and the prevalence of lone wolf terrorism. But some observers believe the threat of leaderless resistance is overstated. Thomas Barnett finds the discussion about fourth-generation and fifth-generation warfare to be overwrought, depicting, as they sometimes do, a future in which Mad Max-like warriors roam a wasteland. Far from seeing al Qaeda as winning, Barnett sees a movement in retreat, as time and time again it has shifted its center of graveity from one locale to another in response to evictions and military reprisals. Likewise, he see little future for terrorism in "the core." As he points out, terrorism in core countries tends to be sporadic and unsupported by the populace. Perpetrators are often disaffected loners, such as Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, who "we see shuffling in orange jump suits and chains . . .  on their way to a court appearance." Rather than representing a "political storm," they become a social nuisance. This is in contrast to terrorists in the Gap who often thrive in a "wild frontier" environment.[BFA] [pages 165-66]

A pretty fair capture of what I wrote, although I always get this thing where my writings on connectivity leading to peace are countered with the notion (cited from others) that initial connectivity can actually lead to a rise in instability, which is, of course, a point I made ad naseum in my three books. After all, I called it The Pentagon's New Map, indicating that I argued globalization's spread would map out where conflict is going to occur.

Michael did a fair job of laying out my grand strategic vision while making clear that globalization's spread is inevitable all on its own at this point ["unabashed economic determinist . . . Barnett sees globalization as inevitable ..."], whether or not the US leads.  Too often my emphasis on what the US should do gets translated as "defeat the US and defeat globalization," which, as I note often in my writings, I don't believe is possible at this point in history, in large part because it's Asia that now leads in globalization's expansion. Where I argue the US role is crucial comes in how that inevitable globalization of globalization unfolds - i.e., how much violence is attached to that process and what are the pol-mil outcomes.

Naturally, opponents to President Obama's "strategic pivot" to East Asia are going to complain that the US is "abandoning" the Middle East, thus securing the radical Islamist "win" on some level (per my description above), but, as I have written time and again, I don't buy that one bit.  I see the "pivot" as an ass-covering drill by the Democrat Obama intent on closing down Bush's wars (along with a certain indulgence of US populism that blames a lot of America's current woes on "dastardly" China's rise), as well as a budget-floor-locating drill by the Pentagon eager to cut back on the Green (Army, Marines) and favor the big-war Blue (Air Force, Navy) that was "unfairly" penalized by the Long War and Bush's far-too-delayed embrace of COIN. True to form, globalization keeps pulling America's attention back to the Middle East in the form of the Arab Spring.

In short, our attention is pulled to wherever globalization's continued expansion hits traditional cultures not quite ready for it. East Asia gets a certain amount of our attention due to the deficit of regional integration schemes there, but these are not issues to be settled by great-power war - as much as plenty inside the Pentagon dream of such nasty business there.  But growing pains are growing pains, so East Asia gives us enough "crisis" to attract our attention even as other developing parts of the world are where the sub- and transnational action are at.

Having said all that, I did mean what I said in the blurb: I do think globalization's continued expansion gets you more leaderless terrorist activity, not so much because they're superempowered (because we all are), but because that's all that's left as globalization penetrates and absorbs the remaining traditional cultures (on view right now with the Arab Spring and in Africa's widespread economic boom and the socio-economic churn created by that). 

Of course, so long as the US offers the mentally ill easy access to military-grade automatic weaponry and ammunition, we'll have things like the Aurora shooting, which is plenty scary. The ease of doing that in our society eventually has to attract the attention of more organized foreign terror groups along the lines of the Mumbai incident.  I expect that to happen at some point, forcing the US and the West in general down some of the same domestic security paths that Israel long ago adopted (as did the UK in response to the IRA). This adjustment will be uncomfortable, but not life changing.  And it will have no impact whatsoever on globalization's continued advance. It will simply be the price of America's grand strategic success in spreading globalization these past seven decades - along with a sad reflection of our societal love of guns and violence.