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

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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:

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)