Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW

After WWII we entered the age in which 4GW is the primary mode of warfare.  In response first come analysts, followed by visionaries, then solutions (in three kinds).

Analysts (see this chapter) and visionaries provide the foundation on which solutions are build.  Visionaries propose radical ideas for the conduct of warfare (beyond anything we can do today) or even visions of new geopolitical regimes.  They play several essential roles. Their creativity provides new directions to more conventional experts. Their imaginations provide vigor and energy to stimulate others to write about 4GW. Their writings appeal to both the public and decision-makers in a way that few analysts can equal, communicating the nature of modern war to a large audience much as Carl Sagan did for science.

Like Sagan, successful visionaries earn more money than almost anyone else in their field.  This is the “sweet spot” in any profession, offering fame and fortune.

To some extent we are bounded by the imaginations of visionaries. Today that means the 4GW result from the imagination of Tom Barnett (in America) and Osama bin Laden for the jihadists.  Their work illustrates the power of a visionary to shape the discussion of geopolitics — and the weakness of implementing visions before the necessary work has bridged the gap between imagination and execution.  Premature use of Barnett’s ideas led us into Iraq (intended as an illustration, not to imply that he was the primary designer).  Premature use of bin Laden’s ideas mobilized western nations against al Qaeda before it developed a strong structure and destroyed the primary host government (the Tailiban in Afghanistan)

Visionaries drive the process of society’s adaptation to a changing world.  This works unless we confuse their dreams with actual plans.  That is, visionaries becomes problematic for policy-formation only when their work exerts too strong a pull on the imaginations of professionals, taking their gaze away from the messy details and constraints of the real world.  This euphoria may have contributed to the flawed planning of our Iraq Expedition.  This is a failure of the professionals, not the visionaries.

Characteristics of visionaries and their solutions

Any particular visionary will exhibit some, not all, of these.  Also, most writers about 4GW have visionary elements to their work.  Schema like this are simplifications — abstractions — to better understand the social processes at work.

  1. Solutions tend to some combination of simple, easy, and fast.
  2. The solutions are certain to succeed.
  3. Little or no discussion about the consequences if their solutions’ failure.
  4. Seldom estimate the cost of their solutions, or compare this cost to alternative solutions.
  5. They usually ignore the structural and institutional basis of current policies

The last is perhaps the most important.  These are, explicitly or implicitly, “clean slate” solutions.  “If only we do these things all will be well.”  But of course there are powerful reasons we do things differently today.  We cannot change the world by willing it be different.  This is the “Green Lantern theory of Geopolitics” described by Matthew Yglesias (TBM Cafe, 10 July 2006 — one of the best blog posts). 

Real solutions

Once we have a good vision, then we are ready to begin the process of solving the problem.  Having the vision is not progress or movement.  The first step consists of planning how to implement the vision.  How to gain attention of key groups and individuals.  How to convince them that this set of changes is desirable.  Overcome obstacles.  Change institutional procedures.  Gain the necessary funds.  Specific tactics and strategy; details about logistics.

Solutions to 4GW come in three kinds.

Solutions of the first kind:  new things (i.e., robots, autonomous flying vehicles,
software to help us understand and manipulate foreign societies).

Solutions of the second kind:  new ideas about tactics and strategy.

Solutions of the third kind:  new ways to shape our institutions
– aka politics — usually by altering how they recruit, train, and promote people.

Recommendation:  You might find this post from last week worthwhile reading:  We are withdrawing again from Iraq, forever.

Articles about the works of Thomas Barnett

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy  (31 January 2006)
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy  (1 March 2006)


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Post in the series “Solutions to 4GW”:

  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
  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

4 thoughts on “Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW”

  1. Do you really think the problem in Iraq is that Barnett’s ideas were good but just prematurely implemented? Barnett, recall, thinks Kosovo represents a repeatable model for toppling recalcitrant regimes and building news states in their place. He thinks the biggest problem facing Iraq was that we didn’t somehow convince China, Russia, and NATO to each contribute 30-40,000 troops (“you just need more diplomacy” was his explanation). He ascribes to a toxic view of economic determinism that thinks the way to solve terrorism is wealth creation. In “Blueprint for Action” he made competing lists of which countries in which order he would like to invade and conquer.

    Sorry for the rant, but while I would call Barnett a visionary, I would also call him a classical example of why the ideas of visionaries should be held at arm’s length and examined thoroughly for B.S. before buy-in.
    Fabius Maximus: I doubt there are any solutions not first described by visionaries.

    As for Barnett, would the invasion and occupation of Iraq been different if we had the super-duper System Adminsitration force advocated by Barnett? It is, as described in his books, very wonderful. I think we can plan to run the world … after building and financing such a force..
    To cite a quote from my article “The Myth of Grand Strategy“:
    “With that out of the way, man has turned to the only challenge yet. Conquering other men. That’s our problem. If you knew, you could defeat any army in the world today with a smaller army. You might say it is a simple little plan to conquer the world, which I am sure any politician or militarist would delight in.
    “…Is there a plan to conquer the world? Yes, of course. You could conquer the world with 150,000 men. Provided, the rest of the world wanted to be conquered. Hah. You see, it takes the cooperation of the losers. A brilliant plan that was impossible. Generals like those sort of thing. ”
    “The Destroyer # 2, Death Check”, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy

  2. Barnett is a visionary, it’s just…. not everyone agrees with his vision. Some (me) might argue that we need a different vision, one that isn’t nakedly imperialist. Very Boydian solutions to 4GW – toys, ideas, people. In reverse order!
    Fabius Maximus: Exactly. That is the point of this series. There are analysts and visionaries, the foundation of the process. Then solutions of the first, second, and third kind.

  3. Fabius, you’re right about that. I’m not saying visionaries are worthless, just overvalued. There is a very bad wheat to chaff ratio, in part because everyone knows being one is very profitable. Many shucksters try to become one.
    Fabius Maximus agrees: Yes, the pay is better for successful visionaries than analysts and it requires mostly imagination. Made to order for hucksters and geniuses. Like whole milk: the cream and scum rise to the top.
    My primary point was that visionaries are a necessary part of the process.

  4. Guilio Dohet (and later Brig Gen Doolittle) was an air power visionary, and many analysts tried to develop doctrine and material based on his views. I don’t think air power took the turn that he thought it would. I honestly don’t understand your point with the five characteristics of visionaries – if they use any one of those steps (let alone more than one), in my opinion, it’s almost doomed to mistrust and derision. Visionaries are certainly a part of the process, but not a necessary part. Lots of bland doctrine and concepts are successfully made the process while ignoring the visionaries.

    Minor point, you say “Premature use of Barnett’s ideas led us into Iraq.” Nooooo, I would suggest you mean “Premature beliefs in Barnett’s ideas led the Bush administration to believe it could succeed in a preventive attack against Saddam’s regime.” I think there’s a difference between the desired situation and endstate that led “us” into Iraq and the belief that “we” could actually suceed by ignoring the Weinberg/Powell doctrine.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The visionaries kickstart the process. The actual development probably seldom follows their vision (that would be expecting too much). I think air power fits my model quite closely. Visionaries like Billy Mitchell, Sir Hugh Trenchard, and Giulio Douhet were “prophets”, and did the heavy work of selling the vision of air power. Their work hardly fits your alternative of bland doctrine and concepts. Doolittle was a fine example of the pioneers who take visions and make them work.
    I do not understand your second paragraph. I could take my phrase and add in all the intermediary links, but that was not my point. It’s a flaw in English that a sentance can be written without an actor — I hope it was obvious that the actors of the sentence, those who used Barnett’s vision, were the senior civilian and military leaders in the Bush Admin (Barnett had, probably still has, many fans in DoD).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: