October 08, 2004

An Interview With Dr. Barnett

Dr. Thomas Barnett has been extremely generous with his time with me in the past. I thought I might push my luck a bit and see if he would answer on some questions that have been accumulating in the back of my head for some time. To my immense surprise and satisfaction, he quickly responded with answers to my top ten list of questions, which I share with you below. It's a real bonus because though he says "you have basically stolen an hour from my day" he also remarks that " I am happy with that, because I just spent an hour writing my next book and your questions were quite excellent."

And now, Flit(TM)'s inaugural interview. My questions lead off with a number, Dr. Barnett's answers with A:

1. You have been critical of the low number of US troops trained and available for "System Administration" duty in Iraq. Would you agree that there is a point where there are too many US forces and the population in a Gap country could learn to love being free riders? One example of that other danger might be South Vietnam before Vietnamization. How do we determine the happy medium of enough people to do the job while not so many as to instill bad local habits?

A: It's a question of mix. In terms of uniformed security, you want to overwhelm at the start and then peel back numbers by a formula of Measures of Effectiveness. So overwhelming presence of military units of Sys Admin force on scene at the start (with big US) component, but that uniformed percentage share drops as the reconstruction kicks in: fewer trigger-pulling troops and fewer U.S. troops, more cop-like troops and more other nations' troops, fewer uniformed military as a whole and more civilian, fewer disaster relief and more reconstruction. Big emphasis throughout must be in using local bodies as much as possible (busy hands), so it should resemble something like a chain gang under martial in the first few days but segue will all possible speed into something like the CCC under FDR during the Great Depression. The motto of the Sys Admin force should always be: success equals the increasing irrelevancy of our role here.

2. We're in an election season. You've made the case that the strategies driving PNM need to be bipartisan, that both parties need to embrace it for the concepts to have a chance of success over the long period of time that they need to work. Now that both parties have a nominated candidate, a party platform, and have had their foreign policy debate, do both sides get PNM yet? If no, who's closer and why?

A: Bush's side has gotten it more up to now in terms of bold action and revamping the national security establishment in the direction it needs to go. These are executive decisions, and the Republicans hold the White House, so naturally they lead here. Having briefed the Kerry camp (and interacted with plenty of the old Gore people over time), I will tell you that they believe this vision is far more in line with their view of the world than the Bush Administration and the Republicans. I think they may well be right and here's why: starting this whole vision takes a lot of bold leadership and a willingness to go your own way in changing a lot of recalcitrant institutions and relationships, and that's something this administration has excelled at. But ultimately, the vision is highly multilateral because it demands that America think as much or more about Core-wide security than it does about just U.S. "homeland security." In short, it defines a larger "we." To get that long-term expression of the vision rolling is far different than starting it by detaching from the past: the leadership does need to be more nuanced, balanced, open to outside influences and opinions, etc. In short, I believe we needed a "unilateral" Bush to start the motion, but now we need a Clinton-like dealmaker on security for the next four years. I frankly believe Kerry is closer to the mark than Bush on that, although if elected, I do hold out the distinct hope that Bush's second administration will be more legacy oriented. However, the hardliners in that group are substantial and they still have their sights set on China. That worries me plenty.

3. While there is no war in the Core, not all is sweetness and light between the powers in the Core, with none cooler than the Franco-American relationship. What is the lower limit that you can see relations falling to before the ties that anchor us to the Core bring a wannabe belligerent to its senses?

A: So long as the WTO Doha Rounds continue, I see enough give in the system. Bare minimum movement, though, requires the U.S. does not go off on any ideological bender on China. China will eventually experience trouble with its economy, because we still haven't repealed the businss cycle. How the U.S. handles both that strategic moment and the rising issues associated with both Iran and North Korea, will either demonstrate there are limits to our perceived "unilateralism" or that we really are uncontrollable in international security affairs. If the latter scenario unfolds in the minds of other Old Core powers and especially among the New Core pillars (India, China, Russia), then deals will be struck behind our backs and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.

4. In the same vein, some have posited that the Kyoto treaty was an attempt to kneecap future US economic growth at least as much as it was an attempt at greenhouse gas control in an effort that could have come out of Frederik Pohl's Cool War. Assuming human nature continues to be without a history, how do you see competition and conflict evolving in the Core?

A: Kyoto was a dose of our own medicine. The cap-and-trade regime there is of our creation, and it's worked wonders on SOx and Nox here in the U.S. It will eventually succeed on CO2 elsewhere, with the only question being (as with trade negotiations) whether regional treaties precede global ones or the other way around. Myself,I tend to be on regional ones first, because I believe in local pain driving change. What was wrong with Kyoto is what's wrong with the global economic and security order: China and India tend to be excluded from consideration, rules, corridors of power. Kyoto was screwed for that reason, just like the G-7 continues to be screwed for that reason. If you don't invite your competitors to the bargaining table, you force them into alternative deals, like China working Pakistan and Sudan for oil, pipelines, ports, etc. Why does Beijing seem to pick these countries? Because those are the ones we leave available to them because China's not part of the inner circle that decides Iraq and other key issues. You want cooperation, you offer connectivity. It's that simple.

5. Is there ever a point at which the sovereignty of a nation-state that is incapable of defending itself is not worth defending from private usurpation? For example, would you see a system of civilized enclaves in Haiti along the lines of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age as being an improvement over the reality that we've never been able to figure out how to fix Haiti? Or do you believe that there is always something that can be done without going outside the classical westphalian system of sovereign nation states?

A: No, I do not. I believe governments exist for a reason, and that reason is universal. There are some collective goods that must be supplied by a public entity that is not devoted to the profit margin. There will be much temptaton to treat the Gap in this manner in coming years, but I believe it is the path to evil outcomes. I see public-sector security clearing the way for private-sector trade, investment and production, so don't get me wrong: my shrinking-the-Gap is overwhelmingly a private-sector affair. But the up-front enabler is public-sector security and rule of law. There's no getting around that if you're serious about a global war on terror. This is where my state-centric scorekeeping and approach baffles the non-state-actor crowd, who think it's all a matter of fighting fire with fire. We shrink the Gap by eliminating progressively the operating domain of the enemy. We need a frontier mentality that focuses on settling the Gap--plot by plot, province by provine, state by state. Good states replace bad ones through regime change and the work of Sys Admin forces, and there you have a huge public-sector role, although not that many states fit that bill in the Gap. Most will involve good states replacing bad ones through internally driven reform rewarded by externally-delivered investments (both public and private, but over time overwhelmingly private-sector).

6. Let's posit a future where there is no more Gap. Do nation states still make sense in that world, and why?

A: States still make sense in the Core now, despite the growth in supranational organizations. All politics is local and states are ultimately about politics. Politics is what's left over from what the private sector is willing and able to deal with. That margin never goes away, it just becomes more complex over time, so it's always a matter of better government, not bigger government.

7. Coming back a little closer to the present, do you think there is a natural rate of Gap shrinkage, as economists think there is a natural rate of growth? How often should we be seeing Gap nations join the Core in order to judge whether our political class has been paying the proper amount of attention to the problem? If there is no mechanistic rule available for citizens to judge their governments on this issue, what is a better approach?

A: The progress gets measured in decades, and the growth of the Gap will most likely come,as it has in the past, in great spasms or "waves of democracy." The Core's progress got stuck on the Iron Curtain for half a century, experiencing basically no growth along the entire Cold War. Then presto! A huge expansion drops in our lap starting in 1989 (earlier if you count China's evolution). So when I do scenarios for Gap shrinkage, I plot them out in clumps, like SE Asia versus the Middle East versus Andean South America versus Sub-Saharan Africa. To me, it's all a matter of sequencing and how the Core comes together to push that sequencing. The Bush Administration did decide unilaterally to try and transform the Middle East using the System Perturbation that was the Saddan takedown. I think we are succeeding in this endeavor, although signs of success will be meager and mostly under the surface until we reach the tipping point. So I see the Gap going in a sequence of 1989-like moments. With the commitment we've made on Iraq, the Middle East is clearly up first, so failure there sets back efforts everywhere else, although I feel confident in arguing that China's great and peaceful rise in Asia will eliminate those portions of the Gap there over the next two decades pretty much no matter what happens in the Middle East (unless the U.S. military pulls out and China feels forced to do something militarily there to protect its access to oil, but I don't see that happening).

8. Continuing the theme of judging Gap shrinkage efforts, at what point do you have to bite the bullet and devote serious effort to killing off the international and national initiatives that actually make things worse in the Gap? How do you judge such things and what failed institution is in the most need of disbanding, if any?

A: Great question. Hardest thing about adjusting to the current strategic security environment is letting go of the past, both in terms of successes (why in God's name do we need Star Wars now?) and failures (why in God's name do we keep funding Star Wars!). More seriously, there are some IO's that are completely or near-completely irrelevant, like the UN (although its technical rule-setting agencies are great). Do we fight to get rid of the UN? No, we promote a cannabilzing agent or "new entry" into the rule-set marketplace that forces the UN to change or die through irrelevancy and lack of funding.

The UN has become, for all practical purposes, the venue for Gap states to complain to the Core. What the system lacks is an executive decision-making forum on security where the Core states decide what needs to be done with the Gap. I see that function rising in the G-20 over time, and my next book (out in fall '05, A Future Worth Creating), will pursue that idea and many others like it.

9. There seems to be a contingent in today's US that pines for a literal US empire. A great deal of Gap shrinking would put us temporarily in charge of various nations in the Gap and the imperialists among us will always argue that it's a dumb idea to let go because the locals will just foul it up again. How would you respond to such arguments and ensure the continuation of the Republic as republic?

A: The historical analogy we need to remember is taming the Wild West, not the British Empire. It's not about extending our political control over others, but inviting them into the club--even into our multinational economic, political, and security union known as the United States. The rise of the threat of nuclear war created a new reality in the Cold War that said, as far as security alliances are concerned, distance is irrelevant. The rise of the modern form of globalization said that as far as economic alliances are concerned, distance is irrelevant. What the global war on terrorism and the accompanying shrink the Gap strategy should alert us to is that as far as political alliances are concerned, distance is irrelevant. Politics is all about synchronizing competing rule sets and that's what the 21st Century will all be about. So this is not a matter of corrupting America the Republic, but growing America the Republic. The EU is growing. A China-led Asia will inevitably start growing. We need to grow too. We need to get back to our republic roots, not away from them.

10. Finally, aside from your own work, what is the most important thing a civic minded individual should read, listen to, or watch to gain an understanding of what kind of challenges we are faced with and how we should approach the challenge of creating the national consensus we will need to meet those challenges?

A: My advice tends to be: read the Wall Street Journal and look for economic inevitabilities that cannot be ignored. Then read the New York Times and watch for the security inevitabilities arising from those economic ones. Then read the Washington Post to see if the politicians have a clue or are paying attention whatsoever to these emerging realities. And if they're not, start complaining. A good example: I just spent close to a month in China, where the pollution is huge. China has to deal with that or suffer some serious security dangers, almost all internal. Do our politicians get this? Or is the only security element the Pentagon currently recognizes come under the categories of . . . say . .. diesel submarines? Or this or that missile? Is the Pentagon only seeing war within the context of war, or do they understand it really arises within the context of everything else--an everything else they tend to ignore completely? Extending that line, are our politicians falling into the same trap? Or do we see the vision for a future strategic alliance with China as it seeks to rise peacefully (note I didn't say, "rise by accomodating the U.S. in every damn thing it obsesses about")? You can track all this across such news sources, but you have to be thinking horizontally over time, and not just looking at everything as vertical slices of a "chaotic world I will never understand and therefore fear." If you can't think horizontally, you're basically at the mercy of the conspiracy theorists.

Posted by TMLutas at October 8, 2004 01:49 PM