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Another brilliant metaphor by Tom Barnett, helping us to more clearly see our changing world

23 August 2008

Tom Barnett is one of our leading geopolitical visionaries, whose analysis helps us more clearly see how our rapidly changing world.  Even those, like myself, who often disagree with his analysis gain from reading his work.  This essay strongly displays his strengths.

This also shows how the gradual accumulation of evidence is forcing convergence of geopolitical analysis, as different schools of thought adapt.  To see how Barnett’s has evolved, compare his earlier work, focused on using America’s hegemonic power to reshape the world, with the current essay about accommodating rising great powers.  (Note:  to say someone’s view evolves is a complement IMO, and I think most consider it so.  Consider the opposite, what it means if one’s view does not evolve.)

The early 21st century is being driven by America’s adjustment to the end of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, consisting of institutions designed by America and our Euro-allies.  What comes next?  We can only guess.  But the magnitude of our errors over the past quarter-century suggest massive changes.  The global “rule sets” will likely change, as the rising powers — Asian manufacturers, Russia and Middle Eastern oil exporters — have their own ideas about how to arrange the world.  The great question, which slowly becomes visible to Barnett and his fellow analysts, is how America can best adapt to this new world.  It will be interesting to see if they devise answers before the rising powers force us to confront the question.

Here is a brief except from Barnett’s essay.  I strongly recommend reading it in full.  At the end are links to articles on other sites discussing Barnett’s essay.

The Core comes with competing rule sets“, Thomas Barnett, posted at his blog, 21 August 2008 — Excerpt:

We didn’t invite Russia properly into our 21st century, so, denied any acceptable ownership of its own 20th century history (better it be all buried, say I), it slipped back into its 19th … We denied them proper attention for a long time and now they’re acting out to garner negative attention: “You don’t let us decide some of your rules, then we’ll simply decide on our own where we can!”

Of course, a certain amount of this rule-set competition is inevitable. Hell, it’s part of doing business (meaning, economics) in this world.

… In the end, though, one thing we’ve got to get used to is that America won’t get to run the Core’s many rule sets all by itself, anymore than it’ll get to decide–all on its own–how the Gap gets shrunk. And no, radically redefining the Core down to just a League of Democracies is not the answer, because we’ll find they’re not particularly interested in taking orders from us either–those uppity bastards!

Competition for defining preferred Core rule sets will be fierce in the years and decades ahead. [I was never under any other illusion, and if you think otherwise, you've never understood my writing. Go back and peruse the NewRuleSets.Project material, because the whole point of that research, which I learned about at the knee of Bud Flanagan and Phil Ginsberg of Cantor Fitzgerald, is that the competition to define dominant rule sets is everything.] I want to keep that competition largely economic, and will bend over backwards to avoid any headlong rush into militarizing that–especially when the trigger is an intervention inside the Gap.

So no, I won’t go to the mattresses over Russia in Georgia, nor over China’s passive aggressive approaches in Sudan or Myanmar or a host of other places, nor would I over India messing around with Pakistan, nor Australia’s smart peacekeeping efforts in Oceania (what’s to complain about?), nor South Africa’s poor job of handling Zimbabwe, nor Brazil stepping up on all sorts of trade issues on behalf of the Gap or finessing Chavez (quite nicely, if you’re paying attention), nor NATO’s somewhat lazy-ass efforts in Afghanistan (my apologies to the Dutch and Canadians for lumping them in). We will be finessing and managing all manner of Core-into-Gap interventions in coming years. Indeed, I see creating that rule set as the most important security policy issue out there.  {end of excerpt}

Other views of Barnett’s essay

The Definition of the Functioning Core and the Non-Integrating Gap“, Dan Tdxap, posted at his blog, 21 August 2008 — Excerpt: 

If “Core” / “Gap” is merely some self-selected conflict space, where we refuse to be maneuvered into conflict, then we can shrink it by merely avoiding conflict when it presents itself. By this definition India has no Gap except Kashmir, because the Indian government just ignores insurgencies elsewhere.  

If the likelihood of military conflict is a function of economic connectedness, global rulesets, etc, then likelihood of being a theater of armed conflict is a good description of the Core/Gap divide.

Georgia and Ukraine are connecting. They are new democracies. They are both in the WTO. They have been talks with the European Union and NATO, and hopefully more will come of this in the future. Paying attention to the direction of connectivity, Georgia and Ukraine are on their way “up” to the core.

Russia is disconnecting. It is a new dictatorship. Russia is not even close to being in the WTO. It has suspended its cooperation with NATO. Paying attention to the degree on connectivity, Russia is on its way “down” to the gap.

*** For more of Tdxap’sanalysis of Barnett’s core/gap theory, see his “Redefining the Gap” series; start with Prologue.

The Militant Idiocy of Thomas Barnett“, Joshua Foust, Registan, 22 August 2008 — Excerpt:

For some reason, people continue to solicit, enjoy, and buy into the opinions of Thomas Barnett. I find this curious because in almost every situation in which his theories can be tested, they fail — most recently, in Georgia, where Barnett’s advocacy of replicating the Balkans everywhere there is conflict doesn’t bode well for a sustainable security policy.

… {he notes Txdap’s article} Exactly. Not only can Barnett not agree on a single definition for his terms, he doesn’t seem to understand them when he settles on one for the convenience of current events. By his definition, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran should also be “core” states, while Bulgaria and Romania should be “gap” states. Ditto for Turkey.

So, can anyone explain why or how Barnett is providing a useful framework for insipid Grand Strategy that is in any way more applicable to the world than Tom Friedman’s stupid McDonald’s Theory of Big Macs Stop War? Because reality keeps showing how empty and useless they really are.

Dr. Barnett on American Grand Strategy and Russia“, Zenpundit, 22 August 2008 — Excerpt:

Despite his muscular prose, Tom is actually understating the costs of a crashed globalization and defense budgets ramped up as far as the eye can see. I can’t put a dollar figure on it but the working denomination here is “trillions”. We should really stop a moment and think about that and start calculating three or four steps down the road rather than tacking our moves to the needs of the MSM news cycle.

Russia – Georgia Analysis We Can Support“, Galrahn, Information Dissemination, 22 August 2008 — Excerpt:

Russia and the US are not equals, but can be in their approach to the gap. I would also include other major powers in this equation. I love that piece by Tom, because in a great many words, he is essentially invoking our Yin Yang theory for strategically approaching our national interests.

When any major power exercises power in the gap, it ultimately represents an opposing (competitive) and, at the same time, complementary (completing) application of power towards the ends of shrinking the gap. Tom found the Yin Yang.

In this case, Georgia, which has a relationship with the United States is being consumed by Russia, and ultimately will be regardless of what the United States does. This represents a loss of influence for the United States and Europe, a gain of influence for the Russians. BUT this also represents a long term complimentary action to the strategic goals of everyone in the core. Why? Because successful military intervention by a core nation into the gap shrinks the gap.

Update from Barnett

Reply by Thomas Barnett, 25 August 2008:

I know you like to see this as an evolution in my thinking, but to me, that was simply your mis-filling in my blanks from PNMoriginally (which I appreciated, because it forced further explanation on my part of implied-but-unvoiced-assumptions), which I instead filled in with Blueprint, my core argument being that the New Core sets the New Rules (again implied–I thought in PNM–made maddenígly explicit in BFA–but since far fewer read than PNM, it doesn’t register as well, so tough on me). As I say in the post, the notion has always been competing rule sets in the Core, going back to the work with Cantor. What 9/11 gave us was an unusual window to propose new rules (PNM), but I warned in BFA that the longer we go without making explicit our new rules and getting buy-in (not just, “get behind me!” but “these are rules I am willing to submit to as well”), the more inevitable it would become that alernative rule sets would be proposed/deployed. The “China model” is one, so also the EU integration model. Now the Russia model, crude as usual, becomes proposed for “export”–so to speak.

When I picked Kerry in 04, my fear was that Bush would continue the get-on-our-bandwagon logic until mounting failures (partially engineered by others in a balancing strategy–go figure) forced some accommodation (like Bush’s backtrack since Katrina/06 elections triggered the early post-presidency/lame-duck-ness).

Now, in this interregnum, we get a dose of our own medicine in the form of aggressively proposed & executed new rule sets (meaningless if you’re Chavez or Ahmadinejad–in a systemic sense, but eye-catching if you’re Russia because of the buttons you push–pun intended).

My point: this turn is not surprising but inevitable, but hardly invalidating from my perspective re: the Core-Gap model. It just says that when the U.S. “abuses” the Core for a while, there’s a natural reaction. That’s fine so long as you don’t freak out about it and start stockpiling for a new Cold War, which is my fear.

All of this is recoverable, but it’s eminently sabotage-able too. That was always the case to objective observers, but not–apparently–to the neocons. That now it’s apparent to all is not enough reason to lose our heads. It is enough to discard any simplistic, military-power-rules-all analyses.

I like Barnett’s description of my view of his work as “evolving”, and have changed the opening paragraph of this post to so read.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Posts about modern warfare (aka Fourth Generation Warfare)

I have developed a simple typology to show the relationship of the many works on modern warfare, to show the relationships among the various theories about modern warfare.  This has evolved into a first cut at a solution to 4GW.  These are the first steps in a long series.

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. How to get the study of 4GW in gear
  3. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  5. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW — Barnett is one of the big names in this group.
  6. 4GW: A solution of the first kind - Robots!
  7. 4GW: A solution of the second kind 
  8. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Don Vandergriff is one of the very few today implementing solutions of the third kind.
  9. Theories about 4GW are not yet like the Laws of Thermodynamics

For more information about the end of the post-WWII geopolitical regime

  1. A brief note on the US Dollar. Is this like August 1914?  (8 November 2007) — How the current situation is as unstable financially as was Europe geopolitically in early 1914.
  2. The post-WWII geopolitical regime is dying. Chapter One   (21 November 2007) — Why the current geopolitical order is unstable, describing the policy choices that brought us here.
  3. We have been warned. Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, Chapter II  (28 November 2007) — A long list of the warnings we have ignored, from individual experts and major financial institutions (links included).
  4. Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, III – death by debt  (8 January 2008) – Origins of the long economic expansion from 1982 to 2006; why the down cycle will be so severe.
  5. Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn  (24 January 2008) – How will this recession end?  With re-balancing of the global economy, so that the US goods and services are again competitive.  No more trade deficit, and we can pay out debts.
  6. A happy ending to the current economic recession (12 February 2008) – The political actions which might end this downturn, and their long-term implications.
  7. What will America look like after this recession?  (18 March 208)  — More forecasts.  The recession might change so many things, from the distribution of wealth within the US to the ranking of global powers.
  8. The most important story in this week’s newspapers   (22 May 2008) — How solvent is the US government? They report the facts to us every year.

To see the all posts on this subject, go to the archive for The End of the Post-WWII Geopolitical Regime.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. plato's cave permalink
    23 August 2008 5:33 pm

    Based only on the excerpt above, I prefer Barnett’s metaphor to Brad Setser’s (democracies versus authoritarian states). Obviously we are more attentive to the interests of China, or Japan, than Norway or Portugal. Barnett’s point that we have to accomodate ourselves to the core powers, regardless of ideology, is a valuable one.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: They are writing about different things. Barnett is writing about geopolitics.

    Setser is an economist, commenting on the rise of authoritarian states. Mainstream economists have assumed that free market economies operate best in liberal democracies, and the states combining both are the future — as they have a functional superiority. Setser notes that the evidence from the early years of the 21st century challenges this comfortable assumption.

  2. esd29a permalink
    25 August 2008 9:10 am

    First the No.

    I find Barnetts Core/Gap (“black/white”) categories amusing. Russia: exports natural resources, notably oil and gas (Gap), has around zero population growth (Core), is a nuclear power (Core), is highly connected to internet and global economy (Core), is authoritarian (Gap, just like China, heh), does not belong to the western EU, NATO and similar organisations (Gap), has a capitalistic economy (Core) but also tight state control/ownership in strategic industries like oil, gas and pipelines (Gap), culturally is close to secular, materialistic West (Core) and so on…

    Reality is more complex than an “A or B” division and letting it decide who gets to wage war (Core against Gap, according to Barnett) seems like a bad idea to me.

    Also, I do not see what are the alternative, non-Russian sources of fossil fuels that Europe (according to him) can and will turn to.

    And the Yes.

    Countering extremism and instability by having each of the great powers manage their own sphere of influence with an understanding on the borders of these spheres and what are acceptable methods of management does seem a better idea than having USA unilaterally seek to impose globalism in everyone elses backyard. But the transition from a “victorious, righteous and prosperous” Western order to a group of Great Powers each keeping their subject states in check and not trying to extend their influence into the spheres of others will be difficult.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: About your third point, which goes to the key flaw of many geopolitical visionaries: their work’s often weak basis in research. Most analysts — such as Hirsch’s “Mitigations” report — show that changing a large nation’s energy mix takes at least two decades — on a crash basis.

    It is not that Barnett is wrong, but rather than he ignores the vital factor of time when saying “But if Putin persists, then Europe will spend the bucks and make the supremely uncomfortable effort to redirect on both oil and especially gas. It’ll be a bitch…”

  3. 26 August 2008 1:48 am

    Update: I have added in the text Tom Barnett’s reply to this post.

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