JFK Assassination and Respecting the Randomness of History

Printer Friendly

“Many Americans are now certain that had JFK lived to win a second term, he would have spared the nation its tragic adventure in Southeast Asia.”

American Historian Michael Beschloss, 11/22/1993 Newsweek, PG 62

As Michael Beschloss noted, the tragic loss was only the beginning, as the assassination of JFK seemingly darkened the nation's future for a generation as the Vietnam War, the upheaval of the 1960s, the Watergate scandal, and malaise were to follow. The orderly passing of the torch to a new generation and the promise of a New Frontier ended with the shots from a single gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald – that silly little communist. Because rationality was supplanted by randomness, the nation has never returned to the idyllic state the JFK era represented – at least for some. As counterfactuals go, JFK as thwarted peacemaker can be cruel, but such propositions test a consensus understanding of past events. The examination of “what if” inevitably provokes, but, invariably, whatever conclusion is reached, if ever, the exercise underscores the random nature of history and the peril of dogmatically believing otherwise.

President Kennedy Concludes Successful Pre-Election Swing Through South
According to the central myth of JFK, if the tragedy does not occur, then the nation is sparred the agony of the Vietnam War. This conjecture is the most emotionally appealing, but it is premised on speculation as to JFK's truest intentions, despite the rhetoric and actions observed from his candidacy to the very day of his death. A straightforward extrapolation of JFK completing his visit to Texas – without an attempt on his life – acknowledges JFK campaigned and postured as a Cold Warrior and the Vietnam War occurs anyway.

As candidate, Kennedy alleged war hero Dwight Eisenhower presided over a “missile gap” and out-hawked anti-communist Richard Nixon of Alger Hiss fame. As president, he increased the defense budget, encouraged the examination of counterinsurgency doctrine, and initiated American deployments to Vietnam. During his speech to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce the morning of November 22nd, he stated, “we put ourselves, by our own will and by necessity, into defense of alliances with countries all around the globe. Without the United States, South Viet-Nam would collapse overnight.” Depicting the nation as the “keystone in the arch of freedom,” JFK stated the nation will “continue as we have done in the past” in order to preserve American interests around the world, echoing his call for the nation to “bear any burden” as he famously first proclaimed during his 1961 Inaugural Address. The intervening Cuban Missile Crisis may have tempered such stridency, but the president remained committed to waging the Cold War and recognized the political perils of “losing Vietnam.”

In short, the Kennedy Administration, permitted to serve two full terms, would have prosecuted the Cold War vigorously. Hypothesizing President Kennedy escalating American involvement in Vietnam is reasonable. The circumstances and degree is certainly debatable. Would Kennedy have allowed Vietnam to drift after tacitly endorsing the overthrow of the puppet Diem regime in South Vietnam? Would Kennedy have capitalized on the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the same fashion as LBJ did? Would the Gulf of Tonkin incident have happened? Is the Gulf of Tonkin incident necessary for American involvement in Vietnam to increase? All unknowable, but John F. Kennedy was a committed anti-communist and adhered to the doctrine of containment – if Kennedy returns from Texas, then America has a rendezvous with Southeast Asia one way or another.

President Kennedy Says Visit to South Confirms “Nation is Ready for Civil Rights”
According to the secondary myth of JFK, if the tragedy does not occur, then he will capably and peacefully lead to the nation to a new era of race relations.

In June 1963, Kennedy introduced and sent a civil rights bill to Congress. The legislation succeeded President Eisenhower's 1957 act which aimed to protect African-American voting rights. Eisenhower's bill been the first such legislation since Reconstruction, but anti-civil rights members of Congress diluted its provisions.

Kennedy's bill was immediately stymied in Congress – again by segregationist diehards, this time in the House. In the aftermath of his assassination, LBJ attached new urgency to the bill, in part by successfully suppressing Oswald's Marxist background so Kennedy could instead be declared a martyr for civil rights.

Depicting JFK as a civil rights crusade prompts another corollary if JFK completes his visit to Texas, again without an attempt on his life: the reduced likelihood civil rights legislation would have passed.

As a presidential candidate, Kennedy did not identify himself as a advocate of civil rights. Ever the pragmatic politician, Kennedy knew if he was to ever be a viable national candidate, advocacy of civil rights, in combination with his Catholicism, which had already made him deeply suspect among needed Southern voters, would further complicate his bid for the presidency.

However, the Republican Party had begun chipping away the Democratic Party's hold on African-American voters during the Eisenhower Administration (winning 39 percent in the 1956 re-election) and Nixon had already come out in support of civil rights. Kennedy needed and angled for their votes by instead positioning himself as a foreign policy expert on African affairs. During the 1960 election, Kennedy famously won Martin Luther King Sr.'s endorsement by helping secure his son's release from jail – and substantial majorities of the African-American vote – but still his overall margin of victory was one-tenth of one percent. (Nixon won 32 percent of the African-American vote in 1960.)

Kennedy embarked on the trip to Texas to begin shoring up support in the South. If faced with the choice between civil rights and re-election, assuming Kennedy would have yielded on the former to secure the latter is fair – indeed, as a U.S. senator, Kennedy voted against the 1957 act.

Recalling Kennedy's expediency is important. Kennedy secured the nomination in part because he was as an “electable” alternative to two-time loser Adlai Stevenson, who signaled he'd be available for a third bid. Stevenson was a reluctant candidate in 1952, but a determined one in 1956, despite the longer odds, because the campaign afforded him the chance to espouse his vision of a “New America” achieved via long-sought liberal reforms, including civil rights. If equally disposed in 1960, Stevenson may have received the nomination again. Stevenson may have lost again, but, for some liberals, the subsequent dearth of progress would have been due to a Republican administration, not the electoral calculations of a patrician politician.

When Kennedy announced his bill in 1963, frustration was evident within the civil rights movement as well as their allies in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, especially the young and idealistic. In 1962, the student activist movement issued the Port Huron Statement, a manifesto repudiating the cautious centrism of the Kennedy Administration and calling for the reordering of American society. In 1964, LBJ had to contend with an ascendant George Wallace during the primaries. Had he lived, Kennedy may have forestalled this challenge from the right by accommodating civil rights opponents, but a challenge from the left, specifically the emergent New Left, may have emerged. Kennedy would have survived a primary challenge, but then he might have then been weakened for the general election.

If Kennedy enters the 1964 election with uncertain prospects, then Republican Barry Goldwater also emerges as a more viable candidate.

In 1964, LBJ trounced Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in a historic landslide. Goldwater privately contended a presidential run after JFK's death was futile because he felt the American people were not prepared to elect their third president in less than two years. Moreover, Goldwater wanted to run against Kennedy, his friend from shared time in the Senate, and not LBJ, whose ruthlessness he witnessed up close. According to Goldwater, he and JFK even discussed traveling the country together to hold debates. Even if it never occurred, the prospect of a more high-minded campaign would have undoubtedly served the country.

Would JFK have won? Possibly, but if he does win, would he have won by the same margin as LBJ? Possibly, but not likely. Goldwater considered himself a drafted candidate and undertook the campaign out of commitment to his conservative supporters. The Republican establishment had abandoned him and Goldwater's campaign committed numerous blunders, which left him without allies or even sympathy in the face of LBJ's more underhanded campaign tactics, like the infamous “Daisy commercial.”

A Kennedy-Goldwater race may or may not have been more substantive, but it certainly would have been more competitive.

If Goldwater loses by less, the conservative movement would have attained greater and earlier influence in the Republican Party, meaning Richard Nixon does not necessarily stage a comeback in 1968. If Goldwater wins, America proceeds on a different course in Southeast Asia and civil rights. Goldwater would have committed U.S. forces to Vietnam, but not without purpose as LBJ seemingly did. Moreover, Goldwater even may have achieved civil rights form in some form; the senator was hardly the racist his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act permitted critics to levy against him. Interestingly, if Kennedy leaves Dallas without an attempt on his life, the 1964 Civil Rights Act might not have occurred and Goldwater may have received the thirty-something percent of the African-American vote Eisenhower and Nixon had won in the preceding elections.

Of course, if an attempt on Kennedy's life does occur in Dallas but he survives, then perhaps subsequent public sympathy provides JFK with the political momentum he needs to secure its passage.

President Kennedy Wounded By Sniper in Dallas

If Kennedy survives Lee Harvey Oswald's attempt on his life, the above hypotheses remain somewhat valid. However, the brush with mortality, in combination with the nation's existential brush with nuclear annihilation the previous year during the Cuban Missile Crisis, might have persuaded the young Cold Warrior to exercise more caution abroad and more daring at home.

JFK seemingly signaled his appreciation for his nation's second chance during his famous June 1963 address at American University, commenting “[t]his generation of Americans has already had enough -- more than enough -- of war and hate and oppression.” More famously, JFK declared the need to “reexamine our attitude towards the cold war” and reminded the country “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.” The speech came eight months after JFK had estimated the odds of a nuclear exchange was between one in three and even. To face his own mortality a year later, it is possible to imagine JFK re-examining his political priorities.

Instead of accommodating civil rights opposition, JFK may have waged an all-out campaign to ensure its passage. Instead of fearing a collapse of dominoes in Southeast Asia, JFK may have sided with non-interventionists who saw Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist first and communist second. The early achievement of civil rights – without the distraction of a quagmire thousands of miles away – may have spared the country protests across college campuses and riots in the cities.

The New Left might have applauded JFK's conversion to social reform and detente with the Soviet Union. The most radical elements may have remained in opposition, but very much on the fringe and not the idealistic rebels with a cause as depicted by subsequent hagiography.

Then again, most people thought Oswald was a right-wing pawn of the military-industrial complex, and not the prototype radical poised to wreak havoc on the country throughout the Sixties.

Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald Begins in Dallas

Virtually every American of age that day remembers where he or she was when JFK was shot. Moreover, nearly every American knew by the end of the day that Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested for the murder of Dallas police office J.D. Tippitt and was the lead suspect in the murder of JFK. On November 24, two days after the assassination, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby made his own foray into the American consciousness by shooting Oswald, in the first murder captured on live television. Ruby claimed he murdered Oswald to spare First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy the trauma of a trial, but if Kennedy survives the attempt on his life, then Jack Ruby has no motivation to do so and Lee Harvey Oswald will live to stand trial for attempting to assassinate the president.

While controversy will continue to swirl as to Oswald's background and motivations, the preponderance of evidence indicates a guilty verdict would have been a foregone conclusion. So any drama would have been the result of Oswald's determination to use the courtroom as a platform for his critique of America.

Oswald's original fascination with Marxism arose from what he considered the persecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 but discovered his fealty for communism would not be reciprocated by Soviet authorities. Upon his disillusionment, he returned to the United States and he shifted his affections to the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro.

By the time of the assassination, Oswald was a committed Castroite and probably would have capitalized on any opportunity the trial offered to denounce American policy against Cuba. Oswald's demagoguery would have provided compelling television coverage, but it's unlikely the public would have been receptive to his anti-American message.

However, if Oswald was sufficiently articulate or compelling in his testimony, he might have spurred ambitious investigative reporters to track down any allegations of covert activities against Cuba.

As revealed by the Church Commission publications in 1975, US covert actions against Fidel Castro's regime did continue under President Kennedy in the form of Operation Mongoose, a secret plan aimed at inciting an anti-Castro rebellion in Cuba. Robert Kennedy, JFK's brother and Attorney General, represented the president on the coordinating group overseeing Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency activities. If information about the numerous assassination attempts and acts of sabotage committed against Cuba came to light as a result of Oswald's trial, the political consequences for the Kennedy Administration could have been extensive.

If the trial and revelations occurred before the election, then Kennedy may have lost. If the trial and revelations came after re-election, then Robert Kennedy might have been forced to resign, and possibly the president as well.

Moreover, public distrust of the government may have emerged earlier, as opposed to the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Liberals Vow Candidate With "Integrity" After Eight Years of JFK
Public skepticism toward the government has been a feature of American politics since the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. The betrayal of trust committed by the Johnson and Nixon administrations left many citizens convinced the US government -- and the country by extension -- was hopelessly corrupt.

In his absorbing history of the era, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, American scholar James Piereson dissected the circumstances surrounding the assassination, specifically the manner in which consensus opinion immediately depicted Kennedy as a martyr for civil rights and inexplicably ignored Oswald's radical links.

Moreover, Piereson describes how the incomprehensibility of the event left liberals grasping for explanations, with some crafting intricate and complex theories about wide-ranging and diabolical conspiracies including anyone and everyone, to some assigning blame to the entire nation, to a degree beyond the sentiment expressed by James Reston.

However these despondent liberals coped, the cumulative result was a doctrine of "Punitive Liberalism" whereby America was identified as the source of all misfortunes in the world.

Punitive liberalism held that racist misogynist America had enslaved Africans, persecuted Native Americans, oppressed its women, and marginalized minority groups. Greedy Americans had abandoned the poor and ruined the environment. Punitive liberalism held that a hypocritical and imperial America had installed dictatorships and overlooked human rights abuses around the world all in the name of the Cold War.

In politics and policy, punitive liberalism fostered "an impressive network of interest groups was developed to promote and take advantage of this sense of historical guilt." Signature punitive liberal policies include affirmative action, hiring and enrollment quotas, the expansion of welfare entitlements, environmental regulations, abandonment of longtime Cold War allies, and campaigns for unilateral disarmament. By 1976, American liberalism shifted from the triumphalism of JFK's call to "bear any burden" to the defeatism of Jimmy Carter's "crisis of confidence." The doctrinal shift upended the Democratic Party and sunk its future for a generation.

If an attempt on JFK's life fails or never even occurs, then American liberalism is spared the breakdown as chronicled by Piereson.

Instead, liberal components of the Democratic Party coalition would have had to endure the political pragmatism JFK personified. Aside from the aforementioned possibility that liberal dissatisfaction may have surfaced in 1964, an overall stronger prospect could have been that significant discontent among liberals would emerge in 1968.

Designated successors from within the administration would have been suspect. Robert Kennedy would not have been the favored candidate since he served as JFK's political enforcer during the Administration; he only became the darling of liberals after his brother's assassination left him a sympathetic figure and heir to the presidency. LBJ would have still been viable at sixty years of age, but eight years as a purposefully marginalized vice president under JFK may have reduced his influence and undermined his liberal bona fides.

In a foreshadowing of recent races, some contenders may have declared themselves representatives of the "liberal Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." JFK would have retained control of the party machinery, but notable liberals such as Edmund Muskie, William Fulbright, Eugene McCarthy, and Henry Jackson could have fared well. Such individuals were not representative of punitive liberalism and may have sustained the optimism and confidence attributed to liberalism prior to this period.

Humility Before The Randomness (and Chaos) That Is History

American historian William Manchester was the author of Portrait of a President, a profile of JFK, and later, the Kennedy-family authorized examination of the assassination, The Death of a President: November 20-November 25. In 1992, Manchester sent a letter to the New York Times discussing the readiness to consider conspiracy theories, which had been stoked by Hollywood director Oliver Stone's film, JFK. Manchester wrote:

Those who desperately want to believe that President Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy have my sympathy. I share their yearning. To employ what may seem an odd metaphor, there is an esthetic principle here. If you put six million dead Jews on one side of a scale and on the other side put the Nazi regime — the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state — you have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals. But if you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn't balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President's death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something.
As Piereson and others have noted in response to recent shocks and tragedies, the expectation for the course of history to be endowed with meaning is futile. The failure to respect and be humble in the face of randomness, such as nineteen men determined to turn aircraft into missiles, is just that -- a failure and does not preclude the possibility of chaos to intrude on how one would wish the world to be. With three shots of a Manlicher Carcano, the bright promise of the New Frontier was extinguished in an instant and millions will ask and lament what if. Such yearning is understandable, but history will only continue to tempt. What if Nixon had won in 1960? What if Joseph Kennedy Jr. returned from World War II a war hero? What if...

The Imperative of American Multilateralism in Asia

Printer Friendly

In November 2009, President Barack Obama will travel to Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. The trip will provide for a second meeting with Japan's newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and a third with PRC President Hu Jintao. Additionally, President Obama will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore, where he will also hold bilateral meetings with leaders from Singapore and other countries, and hold the first meeting between a U.S. president and leaders of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While the administration's attention to the greater Asia-Pacific is reasonable given the region's growing importance to global economic and security matters, presidential summitry must be paired with purposeful diplomacy aimed at a producing a new multilateral framework to support US foreign policy in addressing long simmering challenges now coming to a boil.

Bilateral To A Fault

The end of the Cold War should have been an opportunity for the United States to explore a multilateral mechanism for the Asia-Pacific, but American anxieties over Japanese economic prowess and horror at the brutal Chinese suppression of pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square precluded a constructive examination of the possibilities. The PRC clearly possessed potential, but successive administrations concentrated on engaging the PRC at the expense of comprehensive regional approaches.

During its first term, the Clinton Administration vacillated between liberalizing trade with China or upholding campaign promises to punish it for human rights violations. After committing to free trade (and sending two carriers to the Taiwan Straits to deter PRC aggression), the Clinton Administration pronounced China a “strategic partner” despite the illicit acquisition of US military technologies and an increasingly strident nationalistic posture on the world. The succeeding Bush Administration pivoted by asserting the PRC was a “strategic competitor” and identified the nation's burgeoning military strength as the premiere challenge to American security – at least until the September 11 terrorist attacks.1

Ultimately, the subsequent war in Iraq and Afghanistan distracted the nation from the rise of China and destroyed its capacity for unilateral action – while foundering in Afghanistan and Iraq, China has become a global economic power (and potential military power) and America's unipolar moment has come to an ignominious end. Instead of transforming the international system during its tenure as the sole superpower, the global war on terrorism and crash of 2008 discredited both the crusade for democracy and globalization. In contrast, China's economic resilience and diplomatic offensive has positioned the country as a robust counterpoint to the United States in Asia.

With the election of the center-left Democratic Party of Japan and the potential for serious cleavages in the “cornerstone” of American security in the Asia-Pacific, the fragility of relying on bilateral security arrangements and the consequences of failing to establish complementary multilateral institutions become readily apparent.

Priorities In Pursuing Multilateralism

Persisting on a unilateral course or clinging to obsolete bilateral arrangements would be folly, as would multilateral initiatives to “contain” China. The US-PRC relationship is qualitatively different than that of the US and USSR after the end of the World War II. Neither completely antagonistic nor entirely friendly, the unique degree of cooperation and competition between the United States and China forecloses an outright shift to overtly anti-PRC alliances.

The priority for American is to accommodate and integrate Chinese power, while ultimately bounding into a broad Asian collective security system. Intriguingly, China's “two-ocean” commercial and military strategy, a natural consequence of its ambitions to raise the country out of poverty, provides a template for American diplomacy going forward. As astutely identified by American correspondent Robert Kaplan, China's economic expansion has led to emphasize not only security concerns in the Pacific Ocean, but the Indian Ocean as well, underscoring the criticality of addressing the entire Asian littoral and mainland as a continuum of security interests. In the same fashion, America must also explore opportunities for continental multilateralism with the capacity to address or accommodate multiple levels of interests and values.

Numerous multilateral fora already exist in Asia, but they began organically among regional nations without the United States (ASEAN) or were established as improvisations in response to crises (the six party talks over North Korea).

Options For Pursuing Multilateralism

What is possible has been comprehensively addressed by American scholar Gary J. Schmitt in his essay “Facing Realities: Multilateralism for the Asia-Pacific Century.” Mr. Schmitt argues the seeming incoherence of a region with two major powers (the US and China), uncertainty associated with other key players (Japan, India, South Korea, Australia), and the wide range of regime types (autarkic dictatorships to capitalist democracies) actually presents an opportunity for the United States to move beyond ad hoc and bilateral approaches.

Schmitt acknowledges the diversity of regimes and variance in power precludes a NATO or European Union equivalent in Asia. If corresponding deep institutions are not possible right away, then perhaps, at the minimum, broad ones are. Accordingly, the model for Asian multilateralism is the 1975 Helsinki Accords founding the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The security components of the Accords were premised on key principles such as abstaining from the use of force, territorial integrity, conflict resolution, and confidence-building measures to foster greater transparency on military matters.

The precedent for an equivalent Asian CSC can be found in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), first signed in 1976 by Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Similar to the Helsinki Accords, the TAC emphasized territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of disputes, renouncing the use of force, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. Since 1976, new signatories have includes each member of ASEAN, the PRC, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Pakistan. In November 2007, the charter advanced with the establishment of a secretariat and standing committees on economics and political security.

An Asian CSC would abstain on encouraging democratic governance or capitalist economies, as the premise would be institutionalizing constructive multilateral approaches to conflict prevention and resolution, as well as cooperation on common challenges, such as humanitarian disasters, maritime trade, and environmental priorities. As Schmitt notes, “while such a multilateral forum would be limited in its capacity to tackle more divisive issues … it could provide a normative baseline for state behavior that would bring increased stability to the region.”

Of course, to democracy proponents, stability is the end to which democracy is sacrificed. Schmitt recognizes this and accordingly proposes as a complementary multilateral initiative the American sponsorship of an Asian forum for democracies.

Schmitt reiterates hub and spoke relationships with democracies in the region have been inadequate, especially when the region is primed and the time is right for a more comprehensive alignment of democratic interests. If the PRC's intense focus on cultivating economic relationships dovetails with overall regional economic priorities, then American attention to bolstering democratic governments will fit with those countries with corresponding aspirations.

As Schmitt notes, pursuing a two tiered approach permits Asian countries to align with both the PRC and US – this flexibility will provide Asian democracies with a safe harbor should the PRC become too dominant. Moreover, while the US is less inclined than the PRC to accommodate dictatorships, the PRC is markedly more afraid of democratic contagion. Finally, an exclusive democratic counterpart to the Asian CSC would be another mechanism for aligning the US with Japan and India, and equally important, securing Taiwan's future.

But Not Just Multilateralism -- Additional Steps For Consideration...

To return to Kaplan's analysis, China's capacity to expand its influence along the continuity of the Pacific and Indian Oceans begins with Taiwan. A matter of national pride for China and a democratic ally for the United States, Taiwan is still above all as Kaplan recalls Gen. MacArthur describing it – “an unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Taiwan represents the last reminder of the “century of humiliations” and securing its reincorporation into the motherland would, as Kaplan notes, “[sever] the maritime straitjacket it represents.” Moreover, if China consolidates Taiwan, “China [will be] more liberated to pursue a naval grand strategy in both the Indian and Pacific oceans. … [and] its national energies will be just as dramatically freed to project power outward, to a degree that has so far been impossible.”

However, as noted previously, this insight should not induce the impulse to contain China. To reiterate an earlier point, if the US-PRC relationship is neither completely antagonistic nor entirely friendly, an outright shift to overtly anti-PRC alliances would be counterproductive. Again, if the priority is to accommodate and integrate and ultimately bound Chinese power, then perhaps the following diplomatic initiatives could supplement Schmitt's two-tiered approach.

First, the United States should agree to abandon efforts to reverse North Korea's nuclear status and re-establish diplomatic relations on the condition the PRC assists in creating an Asian CSC and declines to inhibit the founding of an Asian democratic forum. Ostensibly, the PRC would welcome closing the nettlesome issue of North Korea, since it is an ally and China has repeately balked at imposing the sanctions regime proposed by the United States. Similary, endorsing new American multilateral initiatives would be a small price to pay to close out this perennial problem.

However, in addition, the United States should also insist the PRC will act as guarantor for North Korea's security.

The PRC is indeed North Korea's only ally, but an increasingly displeased one. Long past ideological ties, the PRC needs North Korea as a buffer state vis-a-vis prosperous and democratic South Korea. Moreover, Korean reunification would result in a highly nationalist state inclined to resurrect its historically antagonistic crouch against China. The PRC would prefer a less erratic ally than Kim Jong-Il, but supports him only because regime collapse would put China on the front line of a gargantuan humanitarian catastrophe.

Kim knows this and thus acts provocatively to spur American attention, all in an effort to win the bilateral recognition that would secure his regime. Unfortunately, launching missiles and testing nuclear weapons is the only means Kim has (and makes for lousy diplomacy) and the United States has reciprocated unimaginatively with proposals for sanctions and covertly exploring a joint US-PRC response to the fall of Kim's regime (only to be rebuffed, search "ALeqM5gxx-7ln9PA5F8Hr14O-xRZ9_PiKAD99Q71U80").

Moving forthrightly on diplomatic recognition would allow the United States to wash its hands of the situation and fully cede the matter to China. In the same breath, the United States should duplicate the initiative vis-a-vis Myanmar by establishing diplomatic relations, forswearing regime change, and accepting the PRC as the junta's guarantor.

The United States could publicly asserts the steps simply constitute an acceptance of the changing dynamics in the region, specifically the PRC's rise as a regional hegemon. Privately, the United States would examine opportunities to introduce China to the challenges associated with such hegemony.

America could ensure subsequent relations with North Korea and Myanmar result in “pickpocket” embraces, whereby relations provide a cover for the introduction of surreptitioius diplomatic and commercial linkages capable of providing much needed intelligence on these secretive regimes as well as other venues into PRC machinations.

Moreover, American abandonment of North Korea means the Chinese would be have to rebut Japanese and South Korean diplomatic pressure and counter Russian designs on the peninsula.

Similarly, the immediate priority of securing North Korea would ensure initial Chinese power projection occurs in the Western Pacific rather than the Pacific-Straits of Malacca-Indian continuum as the PRC would prefer. A strengthened PRC position in Myanmar would indeed enhance access to the Indian Ocean, but by switching places as regional security guarantor, the United States could explore more aggressive options in the years to come – think US support for anti-communist rebels during the twilight of the Cold War.

To conclude, designing an American multilateral approach toward Asia is cumulatively about transitioning to a multipolar international system and facilitating the rise of China with an eye toward encumbering it. Founding an Asian CSC and democratic forum could be the nascent institutions Asia needs to achieve the continental peace secured in Europe. Complementary diplomatic initiatives vis-a-vis Asian rogues could advance American diplomacy beyond the perennial challenges that have complicated security interests. Perhaps North Korea and Myanmar will ultimately be to the PRC what East Germany and Nicaragua was to the USSR – an albatross on the road to reform and the emblem of misguided patronage that persuades the pretender to global hegemony to stand down.

Key References:

1) The Rise of China: Essays on the Future Competition, edited by Gary J. Schmitt; "Chapter Five: Facing Realities: Multilateralism for the Asia-Pacific Century" by Gary J. Schmitt

2) China’s Arrival: A Strategic Framework for a Global Relationship, Center for a New American Security; "Chapter II: China’s Two-Ocean Strategy" by Robert D. Kaplan


1 By the end, the Bush Administration framework cast the PRC as a “responsible stakeholder” of the international system – an optimistic portrayal of Chinese interests at best, a realistic acceptance of global realities at the minimum. The Obama Administration has framed US-PRC relations as a matter of “strategic reassurance” whereby the two nations “must find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military or economic," as stated by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in September 2009. However, the Obama Administration has not yet fully elaborated on the concept.

PRC: Standing With The Authoritarians

Printer Friendly

In November, President Barack Obama will visit the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the first time. In another contrast with the Bush Administration foreign policy, the Obama Administration has lowered the profile of political liberalization and human rights in the US-PRC relationship. As Hillary Clinton explained during her first visit to the PRC as secretary of state, the global economic crisis, climate change, and North Korea would take precedence and American relations would be predicated on the more objective need for a “positive, cooperative relationship.” While the Obama Administration's approach emerges as a pragmatic compromise between the equally contestable depictions of the PRC as a strategic partner or strategic competitor, the overture signals continuity with an underlying goal of US policy since Tiananmen Square – channeling the rise of its onetime ally constructively, into that of a “responsible stakeholder” in the global system. As American journalist James Mann has asserted, implicit in American attempts to influence the PRC's rise is the belief that interdependence will cultivate a liberal China. The expectation dovetails with Americans’ well-known regard for their exceptional place in history – as an exemplar of democracy and prosperity, all other nations, even those defiantly authoritarian like the PRC, will inevitably choose liberalization or risk mediocrity, or, in the case of China, anarchy. James Mann has aptly labeled this assumption the “soothing scenario,” as it absolves American policymakers of the hard choices associated with promoting liberalization. Another appropriate title may be the “cloudy scenario” because political liberalization, while a worthwhile longtime goal, could present just as many risks.

Challenges Exist, But Interdependence Does Not Solve Everything

Admittedly, an authoritarian PRC presents many near-term challenges for US national security and global affairs as well. The avid growth of military budgets and acquisition of advanced capabilities without corresponding disclosure of aims and intentions have left the United States and neighbors wary. The current financial crisis remains an immediate priority and enlisting Chinese capacity will be imperative. Similarly, PRC influence will be necessary to resolve the perennial crisis that is the regime in North Korea. In the long term, the growing preoccupation of the West with climate change will only achieve progress if they accommodate the Chinese quest for a modern economy.

Finally, Chinese demography presents a number a scenarios for consideration. Will the Chinese population become old before it becomes wealthy? If it does, how will the government cope? Will the preponderance of single males, the so-called “bare branches,” result in rising dysfunction domestically, aggression abroad, or both? Will the coastal economy continue to outpace the rural interior economy? If so, will the government successfully negotiate some form of wealth transfer or will national unity fragment along sectional and class cleavages?

Because the PRC government is so opaque, American policymakers contend the access and engagement afforded by bilateral trade constitutes the best way to achieve a benign outcome in most of these scenarios. Given the depth and breadth of the economic relationship, the PRC will reach an accommodation with the United States or risk a relationship that has helped China become a global economic power – either way, US interests are advanced. To American policymakers, the logic is seductive – admitting otherwise would place American policymakers in the unenviable position of acknowledging it has limited influence over, much less the capacity for confronting, an authoritarian government at the helm of a nation nipping at its hegemonic heels. (Indeed, the historical record is discouraging – interdependence between European great powers was considerable on the eve of World War I, but it did not prevent war.)

Denying this dilemma may be convenient for American policymakers, but this consensus is also obscuring shortcomings associated with political liberalization in China. Controversial as it may be, an authoritarian China at this time is more advantageous than a democratic one.

The PRC Leadership: Can They Afford To Relax?

The spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics had the world in awe of a China ascendant, but as the Financial Times pithily commented, it also revealed a government “comprised of control-freaks.” To the casual observer, paranoia is common to any dictatorship; in the case of the PRC, such suspicions may appear overwrought considering the great lengths to which political dissent is effectively suppressed. From the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 to the Great Firewall today, the Chinese leadership has amply demonstrated its readiness to maintain power.

While the government’s response in 1989 prevented the ruling Communists from suffering the same fate as their Soviet counterparts, the act undermined the party’s political legitimacy. Even though the nation embarked on market reforms in 1979, the party maintained at least the fa├žade of fealty for communist ideals. After 1989, the ruling party based its legitimacy less on communist ideology and more on the ability to sustain economic growth. Thereafter, the population acquiesced to the Communist Party’s continued monopoly on political power as long as it produced continuing economic growth.

Fatefully, the party has sought to augment its legitimacy by simultaneously appealing to nationalism. Adopting a nationalist posture has helped preserve the party’s preeminence, but has also hemmed in the civilian leadership.

The small coterie of civilian technocrats leading the country seem secure in power, but behind the scenes, consensus is imperative and only achieved atop acrimoniously managed factional rivalries.

The civilian technocrats have wide discretion over domestic and economic affairs, but managing foreign affairs requires the support of conservative nationalists in the propaganda and military / security ministries. Since the civilian leadership does not possess the ideological or military credentials of founding revolutionaries and former Long Marchers Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, they are incapable of withstanding pressure from the conservative nationalists. Therefore, the leadership must be as nationalist (or at the minimum, condone nationalist posturing) in foreign affairs, namely when it comes to Taiwan, the United States, and (especially) Japan. According to reliable polls and authoritative observers, the Chinese are nationalist vis-a-vis Taiwan and the United States, but reserve a particular antipathy for Japan. (For additional insights, see Susan Shirk's exceptional dissection of the PRC in China: Fragile Superpower.)

Accordingly, the party has blessed nationalist fervor among the population. In 1999, the government facilitated public protests at the American Embassy after the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy during the Kosovo campaign. In 2005, the government abetted angry demonstrations in several cities after Japan permitted textbooks to downplay Imperial Japan’s aggression during the 1930s.

Nonetheless, the governing elite act is extremely anxious about the depth of its control. The PRC civilian leadership monitors such nationalist outpourings very closely to ensure public anger does not trigger a general revolt against the party. Party leaders are readily aware the use of force saved the regime in 1989 and the failure to confront foreign penetration has historically been the catalyst for regime change in China. The loyalty of the military and security forces are critical to the party’s survival.

Unfortunately, a gap in civil-military relations is becoming readily evident. Chinese military leaders have uttered incendiary threats and provocative acts have been increasingly frequent. Between 1995 and 2007, the Chinese military conducted missile tests in the vicinity of Taiwan, complicated the recovery of a US military aircraft after it collided with a PLA plane in 2001, and executed an unannounced anti-satellite test in 2007. According to Andrew Scobell, a China scholar at Texas A&M University,

The verbiage is evidence of a split in thinking and attitudes between China’s more hawkish military leaders and more moderate civilians… [while] the actions suggest a lack of civilian control… [and] the result appears to be a roguish PLA that makes crisis management all the more difficult and heightens the potential for worrisome misunderstandings and misperceptions.

Of course, the potential for misunderstanding and misperceptions is worsened by the lack of transparency into the workings of an authoritarian government.

Or is it?

“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”

While pandering to jingoist nationalism in the public and appeasing irreconcilable conservatives in the military is unsettling but ultimately successful in restraining potentially more aggressive impulses, then the exercise of authoritarian power is necessary.

If China suddenly became democratic, the societal upheaval generated by the country’s economic transformation would inevitably spur political demagoguery among conservatives and nationalists. Fledgling democracies are notoriously fragile and susceptible to chauvinist political movements and aggressive foreign policies.

In the immediate aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his fascist Liberal Democratic Party won 23 percent of the vote in 1993 Duma elections. The fragile liberal government of President Boris Yeltsin survived his ascent as well as a stubborn communist opposition, but only after using tanks against his own parliament. Given the current autonomy of the PRC military, concluding the military would align with whatever faction would preserve (or even increase) its independence is reasonable.

As such, the downgrading of liberalization in the US-PRC relationship is appropriate -- for now.

In the interim, the United States should delicately explore how to impress on the civilian leadership the importance of civilian control over the military and how it can be enhanced, all the while sustaining its inherent caution in foreign affairs and efforts to become a “responsible stakeholder.” Furthermore, the US should maintain bilateral contacts with the PRC military to explore areas for coordination as well as crisis management. Immediate candidates for such collaboration include joint humanitarian operation exercises as well as coordinated preparations for the perennially imminent collapse of the North Korean regime.

The inherent caution of “control freaks” can serve US interests well – far better than the full-throated demands of a wildly nationalist public itching for a fight with a military leadership more than ready to comply.

Key References:

Andrew Scobell, Parameters, Summer 2009, Vol. XXXiX, No. 2 “Is There a Civil-Military Gap in China’s Peaceful Rise?”

Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower, Oxford University Press, August 15, 2008

James Mann, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression, Viking Adult, February 15, 2007

Indian Ocean Command

Ten years ago, American scholar Paul Bracken announced the advent of the “post-Vasco da Gama” age.[1] Thinking more broadly than the post-Cold War world with which America and the West grappled, Bracken submitted the 500 year old domination of Asia by the West had come to an end. The People's Republic of China (PRC) was ascendant, India and Pakistan had just tested nuclear weapons, and the entire Asian continent was suddenly rife with nationalist rivalries and growing military arsenals – and was less deferential to America and the West. In the succeeding ten years, the ascent of the PRC seems nearly complete and many observers are readily acknowledge the 21st century will be Asian. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, American correspondent Robert D. Kaplan identifies a long-neglected region of Asia will actually be “center stage” – the Indian Ocean. Emphasizing the conjunction of energy, trade, and security concerns, Kaplan asserts the region will weigh heavily on the future. Unfortunately, Kaplan observes American hegemony on the ebb; if it cannot dominate, then it will have find a way to become indispensable. Such adaptation will not be accomplished without reconfiguration of the American combatant command structure. Advancing into the future, America will have to consider the establishment of an Indian Ocean Command.

The Rising Profile of the Indian Ocean

As Kaplan expertly observes, “a map of the Indian Ocean exposes the contours of power politics in the twenty-first century.” Despite a diversity of cultures, nations, religions, and civilizations, history has sustained long-standing connections and the region, while still disunited, has only deepened its integration in the past decade. Kaplan eloquently declares the “[the Indian Ocean] combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the rise of India and China to reveal a multilayered, multipolar world,” remarking the region is “…more than just a geographic feature, [it] is also an idea.”

Kaplan exhaustively catalogues the breadth and depth of the region’s significance.

Regarding international trade, Kaplan reports how the Indian Ocean accounts for fully half the world's container traffic. Moreover, seventy percent of the total traffic of petroleum products passes through the Indian Ocean, on its way from the Middle East to the Pacific. Principal oil shipping routes are found in the Indian Ocean – the Gulfs of Aden and Oman, Bab el Mandeb and the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Forty percent of world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca; similarly forty percent of all traded crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz.

Regarding energy, Kaplan notes global energy needs are expected to rise by 45 percent between 2006 and 2030, and almost half of the growth in demand will come from India and China. India will soon to become the world's fourth-largest energy consumer and will be dependent on oil for roughly 33 percent of its energy needs. Sixty-five percent of the oil will be imported, of which 90 percent will come from the Persian Gulf. India imports coal from Mozambique, South Africa, Indonesia, and Australia. In the future, India will be importing large quantities of liquefied natural gas from southern Africa, Qatar, Malaysia, and Indonesia. More than 85 percent of the oil and oil products bound for China cross the Indian Ocean and pass through the all-important Strait of Malacca.

Regarding the regional competition, Kaplan summarizes the incipient contest between India and the PRC. India conducts substantial trade with Gulf countries, seeks closer ties with Iran and Myanmar, and has even explored new linkages with its long-time adversary Pakistan. Similarly, the PRC has been establishing footholds in various countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Kaplan notes the outreach inevitably induces apprehension on both sides. India fears “encirclement” by the PRC, which is anxious about the security of the Straits of Malacca, absolutely critical to the nation’s trade. Finally, as international commercial interests expand, so do the two nations’ naval fleets – the PRC and Indian navies will soon rank numbers two and three, respectively, behind the United States.

Kaplan concludes “as the competition between India and China suggests, the Indian Ocean is where global struggles will play out in the twenty-first century.”

The challenges for the United States are not limited to the India-PRC competition. American forces remain committed in Afghanistan and Iraq for the foreseeable future. The 2004 tsunami and 2008 cyclone underline the continuing requirement for American humanitarian response capacity. Iran, while observably brittle in the wake of the recent presidential election crisis, remains under the control of an oppressive regime intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Continued lawlessness in Somalia and piracy in the Gulf of Aden underscore the hazards posed by failed states. The capture of nuclear-armed Pakistan by jihadists would constitute a grave threat to American national security.

Legacy Command Structures

The current configuration of combatant commands, the Unified Command Plan, reflects legacy concerns, essentially those arising from the end of World War II and the Cold War. Indeed, the United States rarely leans forward in the establishment of command entities to meet emerging security challenges.[2]

The US Central Command (CENTCOM) began as an initiative to set up a expeditionary force capable of responding to worldwide contingencies without diverting forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or Korea, the prevailing focus of American military planning. The Iranian revolution prompted President James Carter to formally establish the force, the Rapid Deployment Forces, in 1979. While conceived as globally deployable force, its geographic application was soon narrowed to the Persian Gulf, especially in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979. Its criticality as a military command came with the execution of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. While Southwest Asia became an enduring focus of American national security, attention remain centered on the Persian Gulf. Tellingly, the CENTCOM area of responsibility ends at the border of India and only a small proportion (approximately 20 percent) of the Indian Ocean.

During the early 1990s, India remain eclipsed by the PRC and the West was more concerned with the Straits of Hormuz, not Malacca. Accordingly, the Indian Ocean remained divided between CENTCOM, US Pacific Command (PACOM), and the US European Command.[3] In fact, the Indian Ocean comes under the jurisdiction of seven different entities when one examines the combined Department of Defense – Department of State map of areas of responsibility .[4] The Indian Ocean is the domain of CENTCOM, AFRICOM, and PACOM as well as the Department of State’s Bureaus of African Affairs, Near Eastern Affairs, South and Central Asian Affairs, and East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Given the contrasting dynamics of advancement in the military (rotational) and diplomatic corps (careerist and appointee), the likelihood the various principals[5] have collaborated in the past (and will coordinate activities in the future) is low.

Potential Courses of Action

Kaplan acknowledges establishing a NATO equivalent for the region would be an attractive approach, but ultimately dismisses the idea. NATO was premised on the singularity of the Soviet threat; the Indian Ocean has no equivalent focal point. Given the immense geography, Kaplan asserts a more optimal approach would entail reliance on multiple regional and ideological alliances in different parts of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, the US could replicate the task force model applied in the Horn of Africa; the success in coordinating anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden could be repeated in the Straits of Malacca. Proceeding accordingly would sustain American involvement as well as temper the nature of Indo-Chinese rivalries in the region.

First, Rationalize Internal Structures

However, before accomplishing the above, rationalizing internal policy making structures by establishing an Indian Ocean portfolio should be a priority, specifically an Indian Ocean Command. The futility of bureaucratic reorganizations has been cited in many reviews and assessments, but establishing Indian Ocean portfolios would address the need for approaches “emphasizing integrated effort, collaboration, and agility,” in the words of one Project on National Security Reform recommendation, as the step would consolidate disparate entities.

A recent GAO report credited the Department of Defense for establishing bodies to integrate the management of global defense posture, but noted these processes were embryonic and several steps were necessary to sustain progress. The Quadrennial Defense Review is reportedly devoting resources to the review of global defense posture and while combatant command adjustments are accomplished per the legislatively mandated review of the Unified Command Plan, one metric for assessing the next QDR report could be whether it prioritizes the Indian Ocean.

Kaplan’s recommendation for a Straits of Malacca task force has merit. Perhaps in conjunction with an Indian Ocean Command, such a task force could evolve as the fulcrum for the coordination of greater Indian and Pacific oceanic security matters. As the critical juncture and common denominator for both regions, the Straits encapsulate many salient issues – the security of commercial and energy sea lines of communication as well as the Indian-Chinese contest for regional influence.

Finally, an Indian Ocean Command would signal American respect for the rise of India, a partnership that was assiduously cultivated by the Bush Administration and now the Obama Administration. The PRC can enjoy an aligned policy portfolio when communicating with the US on matters related to its near abroad. This congruence stands in contrast to India which, as noted previously, must navigate multiple channels in the US government.

If the Indian Ocean is indeed destined to be center stage this century, the United States would be wise to organize accordingly.

[2] The United States established the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008 to better organize for emerging concerns on that continent. However, the step was also a necessary reorganization considering the command previously responsible for Africa, European Command, would have to manage a region stretching from the Siberian coast along the Pacific Ocean to the South African coast in the southern Atlantic Ocean, all while managing its core focus, the Eurasian continent. Moreover, the Department of State is a key stakeholder in the management of US national security policy and its configuration would similarly influence the overall capacity of the US government to address security challenges in the Indian Ocean. This article does not examine the Department of State’s configuration in full. Given the institutional heft of the Department of Defense and increasing influence over the direction of national security policy, emphasis will be placed on its command structures; for a fuller discussion of American’s increasing reliance on the Department of Defense on diplomatic matters, see Dana Priest’s “The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military” (2003).

[3] In 2008, the newly established AFRICOM took over the European Command's responsibilities in southwest Africa, and thus a portion of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa is a key joint multi-service command and interagency entity operating in conjunction with local East African nations.

[4] The Office of Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council each have various offices with responsibility for the region too. Moreover, Obama Administration special envoys for the region include Richard Holbrooke (Afghanistan / Pakistan), George Mitchell (Middle East), and Dennis Ross (Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia).

[5] CDRs David Petraeus (CENTCOM), Timothy Keating (PACOM), William Ward (AFRICOM) and Assistant Secretaries Johnnie Carson (African Affairs), Kurt M. Campbell (East Asian and Pacific Affairs), Robert O. Blake (South and Central Asian Affairs), Jeffrey Feltman (Acting, Near Eastern Affairs).

Book Review: Great Powers, America and the World After Bush, by Thomas P.M. Barnett

Printer Friendly

In March 2003, Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett unveiled the Pentagon’s “new map.” Arriving twelve years after the Cold War ended and two years after the beginning of the global war on terror, the simple line Barnett drew clarified a world that had seemed indefinable at best and chaotic at worst. Dividing the world between an integrated Core and a non-integrated Gap, Barnett crystallized the key challenge in an increasingly globalized world. Barnett warned that “disconnectedness defined danger” and contended the direction of change was more critical than the degree. Not content with his cartographic innovation, Barnett then published a “blueprint for action” identifying concrete steps the United States could undertake to achieve critical national security objectives. Released just before the fiasco in Iraq consumed all the energy in the Bush Administration, the insights and recommendations went unheeded. Now at the close of the turbulent Bush 43 era, Dr. Barnett concludes his trilogy with his most comprehensive submission on grand strategy yet – Great Powers, America and the World After Bush. Endeavoring beyond maps and blueprints, Great Powers is a stark contrast to pedestrian commentary and ideological grandstanding about the future of America.

A Tale of Two Worlds

After the Berlin Well fell and before the attacks of September 11th, international observers, theorists, and commentators struggled mightily to define the era. A world that was once bipolar was unipolar overnight. Or was it multipolar? Francis Fukuyama boldly claimed the demise of communism marked the “end of history”, claiming Western liberal democracy had achieved ““universalization … as the final form of human government.” Samuel Huntington gloomily concluded otherwise, predicting a bloody “clash of civilizations”. International system theorists contemplated how long the “unipolar moment” would last and when the inevitable multipolar system would arrive. Realist practitioners predicted the return of great power conflict; liberal counterparts envisioned a cooperative international environment. Each thesis possessed merit, but each one also had its limitations. Accordingly, why should Great Powers be any different?

One major advantages lies in the distinction Great Powers observes between differing political, economic, and security norms prevailing around the world. The end of history, the clash of civilizations, and systems theories are predicated on the universality of the model. Democracy should prevail, but the persistence of illiberal regimes cannot be explained satisfactorily. Conflict along civilizational and cultural faultlines have erupted, but interdependence among disparate groups remains just as vibrant. Great powers have co-existed peacefully but great power cooperation has been hard to come by.

The truth lies somewhere in between.

The veracity of this axiom was heralded early on in a little noticed article by James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul in the spring 1992 volume of International Organization.1 The two American scholars rejected that history has ended, arguing the alleged sharing of norms about economic and government is not yet global as it shared only by the major powers. Instead, the post-cold war world is a "tale of two worlds" -- a core and a periphery in fact. The core is populated by the developed industrial democracies which are increasingly of one mind as to political, economic, and security relationships. In contrast, the periphery is the domain of underdeveloped nations where conflicts over political, economic, and security norms continue.

Goldgeier and McFaul contend the increasing homogeneity of norms within the core will lessen the ability of realism to explain the behavior of the great powers (i.e. free trade and multilateral cooperation), but realism will still be helpful in explaining the behavior of states within regional systems outside of the economic and political core (i.e. minimal trade and arms racing). Overall, Goldgeier and McFaul caution policymakers against universalizing predictions about behavior.

Presciently, Goldgeier and McFaul concluded:

The fields of international political economy and international security will not be as separable as they were in the past, and new analyses of security politics will need to examine the nature of a liberal core and a realist periphery that will interact in new ways.

Such an analysis is what Great Powers finally delivers...

Beyond Liberalism, Beyond Realism

This was always the elegance of Barnett's map. No theoretical or ideological rigidity – just a dividing line and the instructions for breaching it. The boundary slaked the hunger of American national security and military leadership for a frontline. If America was to lead the Core, then the mission would be the shrinking of the Gap (i.e. the periphery). Expeditions to unpronounceable regions of the globe would now have purpose, beyond the security of the West's resources or the amelioration of Western guilt. Shrinking the Gap – expanding connectivity – would achieve security in a globalized era.

As a preface, though, Great Powers explains why the first major undertaking – Operation Iraqi Freedom – failed and outlines the first principles of pursuing grand strategy. As imparted by the subtitle, Barnett contends the Bush Administration fell short in the opening campaign of this new mission. Great Powers commends the Bush Administration for shattering the ossified political-economic structure of the Middle East, but ultimately laments its failings, characterizing them as the “seven sins” for which future American policymakers must make amends.

To atone for the errors of Bush 43, Barnett advises the reader, “this is a world of [America's] making... [there are] no strangers, just younger versions of ourselves.” Accordingly, future American grand strategy must resist the unilateralist martial temptations to which the Bush Administration succumbed. Failing to do so would be hinder the spread of the nation's liberalism, which is the “source code” for contemporary globalization.

In a compelling retelling of American history akin to Robert Kagan's Dangerous Nation, Barnett describes how the American Republic was just as illiberal, rapacious, and aggressive as other potential “peer competitors” appear today. Barnett is not drawing an equivalence between the United States and authoritarian capitalist nations, but merely wants to illustrate how such nations take an uncertain path to becoming liberal regimes. In its first twenty-five years, America was virtually a one-party state and in its eighty-fifth year fought a vicious civil war over the right to keep part of its population in bondage. Later, and only at 125 years old, did America grapple with the challenges of a maturing and modernizing economy as well as newfound responsibilities on the world stage.

Barnett asks contemporary policymakers to recognize the American experience in similar challenges other nations are facing (i.e. China, India, Brazil, Russia) and facilitate their transition, not complicate it with arms buildups or trade barriers.2

Realign This, This, and Don't Forget to Realign This Too

One review of Great Powers commented the book was “obsessed with lists,” citing Barnett's “12-step recovery program for American grand strategy” and “14 points to remember.” The book is indeed replete with such lists, but its core is found in the calls for “realignment” in various realms.

The first three realignments – economic, diplomatic, and security – are natural outgrowths of arguments featured in his previous books, articles, and lectures. Moreover, Barnett more firmly ties the criticality of such realignments to the imperative of sustaining globalization's advance.

Economically, America may find the rise of China unsettling, but it is simultaneously an inevitability and an opportunity that must be embraced. With China amidst an economic transformation, Barnett posits this important nation will face the same crossroads America did in its past and steps taken to facilitate the nascent, but growing, “demand” of its middle class will increase the likelihood of a more benign rise. Furthermore, Barnett contends China is more than prepared to engage where America is hesitant or uninterested. In a globalizing economy, the frontier is just awaiting settlement and it would be better for the United States to influence this process than abandon it to the mercantilist impulses of competing nations. Ultimately, if the Gap is to be shrunk, then it will have to be more connected – and only America can guarantee that.

Diplomatically, the choice is similar. America can capitalize on rising nations’ enthusiasm for economic expansion by harnessing their interests to the same ends – greater connectivity globally and increased opportunity for commerce. Barnett pointedly echoes an Army War College professor's argument that “one NATO is not enough” and recommends establishing equivalents in each geographic combatant command.

On security, Barnett can point to a realignment already underway corresponding to concepts he had originally laid out in The Pentagon’s New Map, namely the reorientation of U.S. armed forces away from interstate to irregular warfare. Barnett lauds the doctrinal revisions and reforms undertaken by thoughtful and intelligent leaders, such as Army GEN David Petraeus, Marine Corps GEN James Mattis, and Army COL John Nagl (Ret.). Benefits have already been secured in Iraq and the new direction has already rippled across a recalcitrant Department of Defense. As commented previously though, the development of capabilities to wage population-centric operations is positive, but the approach must not become the new dogma. Unrestricted and hybrid warfare and anti-access / area-denial strategies will demand a synthesis of conventional and unconventional capabilities. One need only re-read Barnett's quoting of GEN Mattis (the best in the book and printed fortuitously across two pages):

Let's hold our breath and get through [Iraq], then we get back to proper soldiering by planning for China twenty years from now.

[Turn the page...]

F**k that. If we fight China in the future, we will also find IEDs and people using the Internet. If we go to Pyongyang and we're fighting there six months from now against a mechanized unit, one hundred thousand Special Forces would be running around doing what they're doing to our rear area now [in Iraq].
[emphasis in the original]

Barnett acknowledges the turn to population-centric warfare contravenes fifty years of strategic thinking – managing the global security environment, not preventing the rise of challengers. Barnett responds the comfort of preparing for great power war will only become self-fulfilling. Given the seeming confluence of American and Chinese interest in sustaining globalization, Barnett is on strong grounds. (However, as one last counterpoint, one should remember British history. After the Boer War, British political and military leaders pursued expeditionary ground force capabilities to similarly manage its far-flung empire only to be unprepared for Imperial Germany in World War I. The British victory was a pyrrhic one and the nation’s days as a world power were numbered.)

In the penultimate realignment, Barnett provides the compelling insights that separate him from other observers opining yet again about numbered polar systems or post-”insert adjective here” worlds.

The rise of the network as the means and ends of globalization is well understood. Moreover, the potency and disruptive impact of networks on one dimension after another is readily recognized. However, other examinations rarely extend beyond the integration-disintegration diagnosis or the recommendation to become more network-like. In contrast, Barnett more fully explores how the empowerment resulting from globalization can undermine progress as well as the potential solutions.

Using terms both familiar and esoteric, Barnett depicts globalization as the “ultimate service-oriented architecture” with supply chains proliferating endlessly. However, for every innovation globalization facilitates, there is a corresponding vulnerability. For every vulnerability, there is both opportunity and danger. Accordingly, this twin emergence forces participants in the global economy to revisit a matter essentially obviated by the rise of the state – trust.

With the rise and persistence of the state, economic interactions between unfamiliar actors could be conducted more confidently, leading to greater social capital, and ultimately, trust. If the trust was violated, the state would intervene to rectify the violation, at the expense of the violator. With the advent of the network, more agile than the state and operating in regions remote, virtual, or both, global economic participants trust their counterparts at their own peril. As Barnett titles one section: “The New Rules: From “Know Your Customer” to “Know Your Supply Chain.” Accordingly, trust as a deteriorating value presents two challenges.

First, Barnett discusses the bloodier and more unnerving – the arrival of the “global guerrilla,” a threat first formulated by John Robb which Barnett acknowledges. The global guerrilla exploits networks to serve his own needs, whether it is the theft of goods and services or the sharing of terrorist techniques. Worse, the global guerrilla is prepared to undermine and sabotage the greater global system for narrow economic or ideological gains. With the global guerrilla marauding the landscape, the easy and routine assumption of trust is replaced by paranoia and suspicion.

Second, Barnett describes the more benign challenge – the task of establishing a “SysAdmin-Industrial Complex.” SysAdmin, Barnett's shorthand for stabilization capabilities, is a work in progress. As noted in the section on a security realignment, the US military is just getting around to a doctrinal shift. Similar reform of American governmental civilian capacity has barely begun and private contracting remains problematic. As such, trustworthy partners in emerging markets and failed states have little opportunity to interact with the world's lone superpower, that is until American troops stop by asking for tips or ferry relief workers to their community. The solution is “sovereignty services” as embodied by Enterra Solutions, the firm currently employing Dr. Barnett.

The sovereignty service space is a market where Core firms provide the necessary – and trustworthy – interface between major foreign direct investors and aspiring locals in accordance with globally accepted standards. As the relationship evolves, local “counterparty capacity” emerges, engendering further opportunities for connectivity. Barnett cites the success of Enterra with its own pioneering efforts in Kurdish Iraq. Ultimately, trust is preserved and globalization is sustained.

In the final realignment section, Barnett concludes with a discussion of strategy, but not necessarily in terms of what the United States should do, but what it can expect in the future.

Concluding with strategy as a philosophical mindset rather than an integrated agenda of political, economic, and military measures would initially seem unsatisfying, but Barnett succeeds, primarily because of an inescapable reality he identifies midway through the chapter:

...we [Americans] now find ourselves, for the first time in this grand strategic process, adjusting more to globalization than globalization adjusts to us. (PG 368)

Barnett acknowledges globalization will spur apprehension in those adamant about identity, religion, and norms, but he argues globalization need not result in a clash of civilizations. Disagreements between civilizations are inevitable, but respectful competition will ensure the persistence of globalization more than the insistence that globalization mean Americanization. Compromise will be inherent to the globalization, just as it was in the integration of the American Union. In the end, if the United States approaches the mantle of world leadership on such terms, then a potential “global progressive era” is possible, where America and the other beneficiaries cooperatively and constructively address the challenges of a globalizing world.

When All The Realigning Is Said and Done

In all, Great Powers is a powerful and compelling statement of what American grand strategy should be. As noted at the outset, the impetus for ideological or theoretical rigidity when broaching global affairs can be limiting. Goldgeier and McFaul submitted their observations in the shadow of Francis Fukuyama's landmark “end of history” thesis and on the eve of Samuel Huntington's equally important but countervailing argument about the “clash of civilizations.” In the period since the end of the Cold War, both arguments were persuasive, but neither identified the path for navigating this new world – or the matters they couldn’t explain.

As a Sovietologist turned sovereign service provider, Dr. Barnett learned American grand strategy would be neither crusading for democracy nor warring against apocalyptic terrorists. Instead, it would be all about the mundane pursuit of the middle class life by billions.

During the Cold War, the world was divided into the familiar (albeit clumsy) First, Second, and Third Worlds. Since then, the world now features the advanced industrial democracies, the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), emerging markets, failed states, and rogue states. A common ideological thread? No. A system-level theoretical explanation? Hardly. Common aspirations? Absolutely. Great Powers reminds readers the hopes and desires of millions across this varied set of nations, liberal or illiberal, is the same as many an American – the peace and prosperity offered by a middle class existence. It is in this vein that Dr. Barnett and Great Powers succeed in providing a primer as to how American grand strategy can facilitate these aspirations.

Unfortunately, grand strategists are hard to come by. As esteemed scholar Colin Gray has repeatedly contended, America suffers from a dearth of robust strategic thinking. America trumpets a multitude of aims and possesses means in abundance, but is rarely helmed by individuals capable of crafting a strategy bridging the two. Moreover, articulation of a comprehensive grand strategy is rarely the criterion for the American electorate when choosing a president. In the latest election cycle, Barack Obama frankly cited the exceptional quality of his campaign as evidence of his management capabilities and qualification for the presidency, not his strategic vision.

Moreover, heralding the prospect of a global progressive era is and will be persuasive, but Great Powers is also a manifesto without a ready constituency. Whether the governing party or opposition embraces its premises is questionable.

The Obama Administration has espoused a pragmatism laced with liberal objectives, namely tackling global climate change. Great Powers similarly identifies global warming as a challenge in need of concerted multilateral action, but disparages campaigns for energy independence or Kyoto-like restrictions on emissions. The former is a chimera amidst growing economic interdependence and contravenes the premise of fostering greater connectivity. The latter would only antagonize potential partners, such as China and India, by artificially restricting their growth for the sake of Western sensitivities.

On the other end of the spectrum, some American conservatives are uncomfortable with Barnett’s readiness to pursue partnerships with not only the People’s Republic of China, but Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran as well.3 Some American conservatives contend the globe remains a contest between democracy and autocracy and object to finding common ground with authoritarian regimes. Barnett rejects this narrative as well, arguing these regimes have parallel economic objectives and America should seek to align their interests and assets (i.e. military capabilities etc.) with America’s in addressing challenges, like expanding connectivity and combating global guerrillas.

More fundamentally, Barnett’s assessment sidelines democracy promotion as a priority. Instead of democracy, Barnett observes a shift in emphasis toward “rule of law”, critical to the iterations of trust mentioned above. Without the constancy provided by rule of law, then economic activity, social capital, and ultimately connectivity is impossible, regardless of regime type. Democracy proponents can counter liberal regimes can achieve these attributes more rapidly and peacefully, but in light of China’s success with state capitalism and the stumble taken by advanced industrial democracies in 2008, democracy is no longer deemed the premiere route for aspirants to middle class prosperity.

Ultimately, American liberals and conservatives should heed Great Powers for its unstated warning – forget about narrow international goals or global ideological struggles because neither will be achievable if America fails to advance connectivity into those spaces where the population may be on the cusp of surrendering all hope. Barnett is too much the optimist to concede this possibility, but as American scholar Jakub Grygiel recently argued in an excellent article entitled “The Power of Statelessness,” groups no longer seek control or creation of a state as its ultimate goal. Instead, “they now pursue a range of objectives while actively avoiding statehood. … In fact, statelessness has become increasingly feasible and desirable in order to pursue a broad spectrum of objectives.” [Emphasis added] If Robb’s global guerrillas can prosper as parasites and destitute West Africans and Arabs are faced with the arduous task of building an industrial democracy, joining an armed gang and picking up an AK-47 is a simple choice. Westerners will have difficulty fathoming the choice given their long evolution, but a fleeting and violent existence will be superior to generations of an impoverished one.

In place of this stark choice, Great Powers presents a future where American primacy is preserved and its source code prevails. As Dr. Barnett states,

We understand that our model does not constitute the universe of possibilities even as we seek to universalize those possibilities.


1 James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, “A Tale of Two Worlds: Core and Periphery in the Post-Cold War Era” International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2 (Spring, 1992), pp. 467-491. Published by: The MIT Press; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2706860

2 Before turning to Barnett's recommendations, two intriguing aspects arise from his interpretation of American history.

First is the comparison he draws between Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. According to Barnett, Wilson possessed the vision, but failed to recognize the nation's economic and military shortcomings – the heft necessary to achieve the League of Nations did not yet exist. In contrast, FDR undertook more achievable aims and possessed the military and economic strength required to accomplish them. Similarly, Bush had a vision for transforming the world, but the nation's military was configured for a different war and the economy was increasingly fragile.

Second, Barnett portrays Wilson's and Roosevelt's agendas as purposeful endeavors in the service of American liberalism. Their visions can be rightly traced to the nation's liberal precepts, but less certain is whether these two presidents would have undertaken their respective crusades had it not been for the wars in Europe and their ideological nemeses in the form of the German kaiser (and later Vladimir Lenin) or Adolf Hitler.

Cumulatively, this leads to speculation as to who would be FDR redux to Bush's latter-day Wilson, and under what circumstances. Barnett has high hopes for President Barack Obama, but whether this young presidency could implement Barnett's prescriptions for success, which are many and will take time, in the near term is uncertain. FDR arrived twelve years after Wilson and American economic and military strength was still not evident eight years later. Without Nazi Germany and the new war in Europe, FDR might have been denied a third term in 1940. Bin Laden galvanized the Bush Administration, but American unity has not proving enduring. If this era's most notorious terrorist failed, will another megalomaniac dictator of a major state have to succeed for a successor to FDR's Four Freedoms and the American postwar world order to emerge?

3 Although Dr. Barnett did speculate Iran would experience an overthrow of the mullahs' rule by 2010 in The Pentagon's New Map (published 2004, page 380). (link)