Politics & Policy

A Core, a Gap, a Map

From the May 17, 2004, issue of National Review.

The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century

by Thomas P. M. Barnett (Putnam, 320 pp., $26.95)

Since the end of the Cold War, policymakers have struggled to describe the new security environment. By far the most optimistic alternative was that of Francis Fukuyama, who suggested that liberalism had become the world’s dominant force. He was answered almost immediately by Samuel Huntington, who argued that ideological war had been replaced by a “clash of civilizations.” Thereafter, advocates of “globalization” contended that interdependence and cooperation had replaced competition in international affairs and that the result would be more or less spontaneous peace and prosperity.

It is an understatement to observe that 9/11 called into question the assumption that globalization was an unambiguously beneficial phenomenon. Some commentators viewed bin Ladenism as the “dark underbelly” of globalization. But while a number of analysts tried to shoehorn 9/11 into earlier paradigms, Thomas Barnett, a senior military analyst and my colleague at the Naval War College, offered an innovative explanation of the link between globalization and terrorism in a controversial Esquire article titled “The Pentagon’s New Map.” According to Barnett, 9/11 revealed that the world’s most important geopolitical fault line was not between rich and poor, but between those who accept modernity and those who reject it. He calls these two, respectively, the “Functioning Core” and the “Non-Integrating Gap.”

The Core, where “globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, [and] liberal media flows,” is characterized by “stable governments [and] rising standards of living.” The Gap, where “globalization is thinning or just plain absent,” is “plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and–most important–the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists.”

Barnett has now expanded his article into a book that is, in many respects, brilliant and innovative. It offers a persuasive analysis of the post-9/11 world as well as policy prescriptions flowing from that analysis. It contends that security is the necessary (but not sufficient) cause of prosperity: The expansion of a liberal world order (globalization) is not automatic, but must be underwritten by powers willing to provide the public good of security. Barnett outlines a geopolitical rationale for a grand strategy to fight terrorism.

But the book is also disappointing. To begin with, Barnett devotes entirely too much space to his own experiences in the defense bureaucracy and elsewhere. While he is an entertaining writer and offers many insights, he does not really flesh out his concepts. For instance, he does not explain what makes the Gap the Gap (in my view, a combination of geography and culture) except to observe, tautologically, that it is where globalization doesn’t work.

Barnett, like others before him, points out that globalization is not a completely new phenomenon. Globalization I, he contends, took off in the 1870s and ended in 1914; Globalization II, based on the Bretton Woods arrangement, lasted from 1945 to 1989; today’s Globalization III is the post-USSR expansion of Globalization II. Barnett’s Core is North America, Europe, and Japan (the “old” Core–the pillars of Globalization II); and Russia, India, China, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina (the “new” Core–the emerging pillars of Globalization III). The Gap includes the rest of South America, most of Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Before 9/11, U.S. policymakers acted in accordance with a “rule set” that focused on inter-state conflict within the Core and consigned security concerns within the Gap to the status of “lesser included cases.”

Policymakers in both the Clinton and Bush administrations failed to anticipate 9/11 not primarily because of intelligence bungles, important as they may have been, but because their attention was focused elsewhere. The former saw globalization as a global panacea, and ignored its failures in the Gap; the latter focused on preventing the emergence of a competing great power–e.g., China–in the Core. These rules left much of the Gap–the “disconnected” regions of the world–in a brutal Hobbesian state of nature. Led by educated elites–such figures as Osama bin Laden, who desired to keep their regions disconnected from globalization and American “empire”–the Gap struck directly at the Core. In Barnett’s view, 9/11 was the revenge of the “lesser includeds.”

For Barnett, the key to future global security and prosperity is for the Core to “shrink” the Gap. Managing the Gap–a containment policy–is not enough: Such an approach further reduces what little connection the Gap has with the Core and renders it more dangerous to the Core. The Core must export security into the Gap, providing the stability necessary for integration with the rest of the world; otherwise, the Gap will continue to export terrorism to the Core. Barnett argues that al-Qaeda is a pure product of the Gap–in effect, its most violent feedback to the Core; and 9/11 was bin Laden’s attempt to create a “systems perturbation” in the Core so that he would be able to take the Islamic world “off line” from globalization. For Barnett, the proper strategic response to 9/11 is to create a countervailing systems perturbation in the Gap–which is exactly what the Bush administration did by striking Afghanistan and Iraq.

The book’s most important contribution is in its implications for future U.S. military force structure. If the Gap truly constitutes the “expeditionary theater” of U.S. foreign policy, are the services investing in the right things? Heretofore, the services have preferred to prepare for high-end, state-centric conflict; Barnett suggests that they rethink their priorities.

Barnett is optimistic about the blessings of globalization; he believes it can create prosperity anywhere only if it creates prosperity everywhere. Indeed one of the book’s weaknesses is that it is too optimistic, discounting the likelihood of great-power conflict: Barnett repeatedly ridicules the Bush administration’s pre-9/11 focus on China. Sounding very much like a latter-day Norman Angell, whose 1910 book, The Great Illusion, published to great acclaim, argued that war was unthinkable since economically interdependent states had so much to lose from it, Barnett argues that China has nothing to gain and everything to lose from war with the U.S. This is reminiscent of the political atmosphere surrounding the 1911 Agadir crisis, as Winston Churchill described it in his memoir, The World Crisis: “[War] is too foolish, too fantastic, to be thought of in the 20th Century . . . Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade [and other developments were thought to have] rendered such nightmares impossible.”

The optimists, it turned out, were wrong. So while Barnett is right to notice that the U.S. paid too little attention to the Gap, it would be a mistake now to reverse the error and focus exclusively on the Gap to the exclusion of the Core. As Barnett himself points out, there are looming fissures within the Core that could lead to serious problems. But in the Core, the old rules can continue; in the Gap, new ones based on preemption and counterterrorism are necessary. If policymakers fail to realize this, the rule misalignment of the 1990s will persist–and the terrorists will only get stronger.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an NRO contributing editor and a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.

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