A strategic thinker

Posted by lex, on March 14, 2007


For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, Thomas P. M. Barnett is a strategic thinker who has developed something of a cult-like following in the hallowed halls of the five-sided wind tunnel. Clearly very bright, he’s also exceptionally witty, even glib, and he’s taken his patented, PowerPoint road show – complete with “Law and Order ‘ca-ching’” transition soundtrack, all over the world, selling a pair of popular books along the way. He’s a great briefer, with showman perfect timing and fairly dripping with self-confidence.

I get the distinct impression of an indefatigable self-promoter, as well – he was only a very little ways launched into his presentation when he joked that when he arrived from Wisconsin for the first of his six years of instruction at Harvard, he was asked what country he had come from. Thus trotted around the stage for self-deprecating titter, six years at Harvard are once again retired to the barn.

No sin this, though: For a man whose brand is his name, self-promotion is nothing more than making a virtue of necessity. And while I didn’t find myself agreeing with all that he said, he said it convincingly, and nearly all of it was thought-provoking. And by the way? Yes, the world-traveling-strategic-thinker-gig does look like good work, if you can get it.

Here are the notes I took, interspersed at places with observations of my own. Reader’s digest version? Kill irreconcilable Islamists where you find them, throw Taiwan under the bus, and hitch the wagon of our inevitable decline to the rise of China and India.

Barnett loves the CJTF-HOA (commander, joint task force – Horn of Africa) model of fighting the GWOT. JTF-HOA was set up to prevent al Qaeda types from flushing by sea out of Afghanistan and Iraq and into northeast Africa, but after that work dried up they stuck around and adapted to changing circumstances. I think it’s easier to love JTF-HOA the further you are away from it myself, but Barnett says the people there have great morale and love what they’re doing.

On the nature of future competition for the US: China is engaged in “pre-emptive” nation building in Africa, as are non-government actors such as Dubai Ports World. He calls this making markets and shaping the future without shooting anybody. Just to give you some idea of the focus, he spends noticeably more time talking about China, and, to a lesser degree India, than he does on the Arab middle east. For what that’s worth.

Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History *” was broadly misunderstood because nobody read on to the end. Fukuyama said that Islamist movements won’t make history in the way that the 20th century ideological struggles such as those between democracy and fascism or communism did because the appeal of fundamentalist Islam does not extend beyond the range of its heartland. He goes on to say that whether you call it globalization, modernization or westernization, what we’ve got presents a much greater threat to the Arab Middle East than what they’ve got does to us. Modernization inevitably empowers women, with the problem being – for traditional societies – that nothing is as culturally wrenching as the re-definition of gender roles. Which is true I suppose in the calculus of cultural existentialism, but less true – from my perspective anyway – in the math of “are we more likely to find that a dirty bomb has been planted in New York, or Teheran and thousands of people have been killed in an afternoon” kind of a way.

Samuel Huntingdon, who wrote “The Clash of Civilizations and the Re-Making of the New World Order” had a point about the way identity has aggregated up from the local to the civilazational, but in practice, he has mistaken “friction” – the result – from the force: Globalization. Globalization, per Fukuyama Friedman in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” is inevitable. Barnett attempts to triangulate between Huntingdon’s friction and Friedman’s inevitability by adding that while Globalization is inevitable, it will move in fits and starts, faster in some places and slower in others, and the friction points will map to ideological and physical combat zones. Which sounded somehow deeper, less tautological and more meaningful when he was saying it.

Globalization won’t stop because we get tired. No argument there.

There are four forces in play for Globalization and modernity. Free markets, free trade, (something-something: rule of law, maybe?), and transparency. Notes that pluralism and democracy are not required for membership in the “functioning” core, but usually develop afterwards. Notes that we have a precious myth about those freedom loving, slave holding, democracy preaching, anti-suffrage founding fathers. Which strikes me as committing the sin of historical presentism, or judging ancestors against evolved sensibilities rather than those of the time. Compared to the society they broke away from and their own antecedents, both the pilgrims and the Founders were radical revolutionaries indeed. The path Barnett takes here walks deliberately away from the “American exceptionalism/shining city on a hill” model of foreign policy and illuminates the pathway to empire. We can and ought to be able to do better than building a military to defend our merchants who pay taxes to support our military in the 21st century. This is where he begins to lose me.

The Non-integrating Gap: 95% of all the world’s terrorism, cross-border crime, illegal narcotics trade, rape as a weapon of war and famine occur in the Gap states, which cover all of the Arab Middle East, non-industrial Asia – significantly, excluding China – nearly all of Africa, with South Africa as a tentatively rising pillar of Core-state integration, and most of Spanish-speaking South America (but excluding Brazil, and perhaps one or two others). This will be the expeditionary battlefield of the 21st Century. You can’t build a fence around it, it’s not a neo-con plot and you can’t vote it out of office – you’re stuck with it. He’s got a point, but I believe it has been made before.

The Gap can be shrunk in chunks, the HOA will be the last to go.


  1. Work across the Core to withstand and mitigate 9/11 perturbations to the system and preserve our ability to grow the Core.
  2. Firewall the Core from the Gap’s worst exports: Pandemics, narcotics, terror.

III. Shrink the Gap by exporting security.

Which brings Barnett into his Leviathan / SysAdmin partition of military force packages. Briefly, Leviathan is the big sticks – the air strike capability of the naval aviation and USAF are Leviathan forces, they break things. Kinetic special forces are Leviathan, as is mechanized armor and arty. After the Desert Storm demonstration of Leviathan, everyone else swore off of conventional nation-state warfare because they knew they weren’t in the same league as the US. No one does Leviathan like we do, and if there is a war anywhere in the world, it is because either we are waging it, or we are permitting others to do so. That may not actually be true, but rest of the world believes it to be true. Darfur, e.g. Everybody in the military wants to be Leviathan because it sounds cooler. Most of the force structure is SysAdmin though.

SysAdmin is the combination of soft power and dissuasion that creates security out of the rubble of what Leviathan left behind, leading finally to a rebuilding of the cracked Gap state along Core lines. It doesn’t take the threat out of the environment, it manages the environment of threats. It’s more civilian than uniform, more government than DoD, more rest-of-the-world than US, and more commercial than government. The surface Navy is mostly SysAdmin (except when they’re launching TLAMS), and so is the Marine Corps (over their strenuous objections). Civil Affairs are obviously SysAdmin, as is the JTF-HOA operation. SysAdmin doesn’t leave the house with the intention of killing anybody, and it doesn’t come home for a long, long time once it gets where it’s going. Notes, parenthetically, how silly it is for government and military types to play in the sandbox of developing market systems.

“Exporting security” is where the strategy gets controversial, but Barnett doesn’t mind the controversy. The whole “Leviathan / SysAdmin” dichotomy is, I think, a little overblown – we have a blended force structure, and the Marines in particular are good at tailoring forces to their task across the entire spectrum of operations. I do think it’s useful as a way of training – potentially even equipping – various elements of the force structure, because it’s obvious that our “create security” capability is not commensurate with our “take stuff down” capability. It’s also a great deal harder to rebuild than it is to destroy, though – a lesson most of us learned in kindergarten, wicked beasts that we were.

Well, this is getting pretty long and I’m only half way through my notes. More later. Maybe.


* Original link gone; new added 2018 – Ed.

Part II

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, International Affairs, Lex, Politics and Culture

2 responses to “A strategic thinker

  1. Pingback: Too clever by half | The Lexicans

  2. Pingback: Raptors for all my friends | The Lexicans

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