Sunday, February 05, 2006

Thomas Barnett: Is there such a thing as a lovable imperialist?

Book Review
Thomas Barnett, Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2005.

Rudyard Kipling called it “white man’s burden.” For President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), it’s “manifest destiny.” In the post-911 world, political scientist Thomas Barnett, author of “Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating,” calls it “shrinking the gap,” a program of global intervention that would entail America to forge unusual strategic alliances, speed up the pace of globalization, and isolate and defeat the terrorists.

If there’s such a word as lovable imperialist though, Barnett is that guy. His analysis transcends the stiff ideological boundaries that separate the liberals from conservatives as well as the idealists from the practitioners of realpolitik. He likes an aggressive global constable’s role for America but he also embraces ideas that are considered “progressive” by the standards of the Left (e.g. empowerment of women, debt relief for poor, countries, removal of export and production subsides, easier rules on migration of labor from poor to rich countries) and rejects US President George Bush’s unilateral approach to international relations.

The world according to Barnett is composed of the “integrating core” comprising largely of the highly developed capitalist countries, essentially the OECD whose advancement were brought about by greater integration and interdependence in the global capitalist system. The next group is called the “new core,” countries that we usually call newly industrialized countries including Korea as well as the fast growing economies of China, India, and Brazil. The rest are those counties that he calls the “non-integrating gap,” countries whose economic and political linkages with the global capitalist system are weak, with many of them practically untouched by the progressive forces of globalization. The Philippines and much of Southeast Asia belongs to the Gap. Supposedly, it’s in these “gap countries” where the troubles are brewing; their economic isolation, uneven development, and ineffective government make them conducive to the rise of radical elements that sow terror worldwide. You shrink the Gap, you unlock its potential for self-development and address the threat of terrorism and political chaos in these parts of the world.

In economic terms, shrinking the gap means greater “connectivity” which he defines as the “changes brought about by the information revolution, including the emerging financial, technological, and logistical architecture of the global economy.” Obviously, shrinking the gap implies a vibrant global trading system, strong global institutions like the World Trade Organization, and the adoption of popular measures like the abolition of export and production subsidies that constrain exports from developing or Gap countries to the Core. It also means facilitating the flow of people, energy, money and security from surplus area to regions deficit, i.e. the people from Gap to Core, energy from Gap to Core, money from Old Core to the New Core as well as the Gap, and security from Core to Gap. Like Thomas Friedman, author of the Lexus and the Olive Tree and The Earth is Flat, Barnett assumes that globalization and connectivity are all forces of good that need to spread globally to bring progress to all the corners of the globe.

By shrinking the gap, by opening these societies to the forces of globalization and change, Barnett argues that these countries will transform for the better as they are forced to adopt the best practices and the “rule sets” that underwrites the behavior of the more successful group of nations. Supposedly, shrinking the gap would also mean creating economic and social opportunities for the young population in the Gap states, thus preventing them from getting under the spell of “Salafi jihadists” who are preaching disconnectedness and isolation.

Discussions on economic issues, however, are only a small part of the book. Most of it is about how America should form strange alliances worldwide to strengthen the core politically and militarily and isolate the forces of disconnectedness.

Could you imagine the United States forging a strategic alliance with Iran? That question may startle you but yes, Barnett thinks it’s the best way to go to bring connectivity to the Middle East and eventually bring peace to the region. The quid pro quo will be for America to give Iran her nuke and trade linkages with the rest of the world in return for Iran to recognize the existence of Israel and allow a two-state policy in Palestine. Barnett firmly believes that Iran is simply interested in having the bomb and not using it. It’s a way to compensate for Middle East’s historical insecurity and sense of inadequacy borne of the fact that the Muslim world has always beaten badly in its previous military confrontations with Israel.

The current generation grew with the idea that America will come to the aid of Taiwan once Mainland China invades Taiwan that it views as a “renegade province.” Barnett thinks that shedding American blood to defend Taiwan is not worth it. He thinks that Taiwan will eventually have to reunite with China and it would be better for Taiwan not to provoke China into doing any drastic action across Taiwan Strait. The idea of defending Taiwan against Mainland China, Barnett thinks, is a relic of the cold war. Instead, he thinks it would be better for America to look at China both as a military and economic partner and lock the country into an Asian-wide military alliance a la NATO. From a strategic perspective, bringing China into the alliance is a way of enlarging and strengthening the Core.

Barnett thinks the spread of connectivity worldwide is a threat to terrorists who envision an isolated, utopian dominion free of Western influences. That’s why he proposes to transform the Core’s military forces to be composed of the Leviathan, the high-tech lean and mean strike force for surgical operations against terrorist and the larger SysAdmin (Systems Administrators) forces that are equipped with the cash, skills, and equipment to perform effective post-conflict stabilization, nation-building as well as for other functions like humanitarian missions and disaster response. If Barnett would have his way, he will take down Kim Jong Il of North Korea, not so much for the weapons of mass destruction, but for being a ruthless bastard who starved and killed millions of North Koreans. In fact, Barnett has developed a “template” for dealing with despots that are a pain in the neck of the Core and New Core and the global economy. Of course, one might question why American should have this blueprint for intervention given the seemingly unwinnable US war in Iraq. The answer he said is that doing nothing is ultimately costlier and he had numbers to prove his point.

Many readers would certainly find a lot of Barnett’s assumptions discomforting. His first person accounts of his hobnobbing with policymakers in Washington and the big shots in the American defense establishment sometimes seem to border on ego tripping. Nevertheless, his firm belief in the decipherability of the past and his optimism about the promises of the future worth creating are contagious. This is probably because he has an extensive grasp of the raging global economic, political, and strategic issues affecting the international community. Barnett’s is not afraid to put forward ideas that are controversial, a badge of intellectual courage that could not be found in many of today’s thinkers who pretend to offer guideposts in navigating today’s chaotic Post-911 world.

5 comments:

taoharu said...

Sounds like an interesting book. Have you finished reading it already? I would like to buy one. But not now as I am presently preoccupied with so many urgent things. Maybe you can write a blog on how it applies to the Philippines. What can the Filipino do?

Without Borders said...

that's a tough question, man. but i have a rough idea. there's are two major ways to shrink the gap in the philippines. first is to align local policies with the rule sets of the international trading system, primarily the World Trade Organization to usher in what Thomas Friedman (my other favorite author) a "revolution from beyond." I already wrote something about this in my previous blog. second, is to integrate the Philippine hinterlands with the our local functioning "core" (major trading centers primarily manila) through an extensive infrastructure network coupled with the complete deregulation or liberalization of the shipping industry to allow foreign competition. don't you know that because of the local monopoly in shipping, it would be cheaper for local processors to buy corn from argentina than from mindanao? but you are right, im thinking of writing a book about this someday. what prevents me from doing it now is funding for research. but who knows i might yet find some sources of funds for that.

Without Borders said...

to taoharu: yes, i already finished reading the book. i may have to go back reading volume 1, his original book entitled "Pentagon's New Map." i really dont agree with some of his point but i admire his intellectual courage and his extensive grasp of global, political, and strategic issues.

taoharu said...

I suggest you put this blog address on your calling cards and give your calling cards to as many congressmen as possible. Who knows?... Good things happen to good people.

Without Borders said...

thanks for the suggestion. ill do that.