Thomas Barnett at the Pop!Tech Conference

I’m at Pop!Tech this weekend, a conference I’ve wanted to attend for years, but only made it to this year. It’s a great venue for for a conference – a beautiful opera house in a lovely coastal Maine town. The audience is very bright, the speaker roster is excellent and the presentations have ranged from pretty good to downright terrific.

(Since I’m speaking on Saturday, that’s a little intimidating.)

Lots of folks are blogging the conference, including the always eloquent David Weinberger, and I’m generally a better listener when I’m not blogging.

But Thomas Barnett’s presentation really blew my head back, so I’m paying less attention to the current presentation and sharing my notes.

Dr. Barnett is a professor at the US Navy War College, a prolific blogger and a Green Bay Packers fan (a big plus in my book). He’s sharp, snarky, a brutal realist and gives a hell of a talk – I’ll be buying his book presently.

His talk, which he shortened from 3 hours to 30 minutes:

During the cold war, the US focused forces in Berlin, Northeast Asia (Korea and Japan). Our goal was containment: boxing the Soviets in.

In the early 1970s, the fall of the Portuguese empire helped shift focus to Southeast Asia. European detante helped us pay less attention to the Soviets in Europe, and pay more attention to Soviet influence elsewhere. The “Reagan Doctrine” had the US match direct aid to socialist governments with the cheaper model of selling arms to rebels.

In the mid 1970s, two events forced a shift of focus to the middle east: the 1973 oil crisis, and the fall of the Shah of Iran. By the 1980s, US military attention was strongly focused on the Middle East. And subsequent to 1980, 50% of the US military’s crisis response – 70% of the response using US Marines – has been in the middle east.

The Bush regime accused President Clinton of overfocusing on economics and underfocusing on security, and started his administration with a strong focus: China. Not coincidentally, this is also the power American businesses saw as most threatening…

A country participates in globalization if:

– it’s capable of coping with global connectivity and content flow. (An example of a country that isn’t coping: Iran, which freaked out when Barbie dolls started getting imported. Evidently, the mullahs introduced a rival doll clad head to toe in black… she didn’t sell as well, so a Barbie fatwah of sorts was issued…)

– it’s ruleset is harmonized with the global ruleset. This sounds like Americanization, but that’s more because America is the world’s oldest economic union, not the EU

The direction of a nation’s change is more important than the magnitude. China, despite being 30% marxist leninist, and 70% The Sopranos, is moving in the right direction even if the magnitude is not great.

Who’s global and who isn’t:


the NAFTA countries

the EU

Russia under Putin

coastal China

Argentina Brazil Chile

India, at least in parts

South Africa

These nations total roughly 4 billion people. Barnett refers to these as “the core group”

Everyone else is the “gap”, which represents security threats for the US: almost all of Africa, the middle east, most of Latin America, Central Asia, Indonesia and the pacific island states. These countries represent 90% of the global security threat.

Mutually assured destruction works in the world of globalization. For the rest of the world: preemption.

There’s a bilateral agreement the US government has signed with 93 nations that states that, should the US invade preemtively, the country won’t sue the US in the International Criminal Court. 91 of these agreements are with countries in the “gap”. These countries have “signed up for the service”.

Looking at the world map, where it’s thick with globalization and connectivity, we’ve got peace. Where it’s thin, that’s where we have genocide, terror and rape as a weapon of war.

US military theory pre 9/11 was an “area denial, anti access asymmetric strategies” – let’s deploy so many forces to an area that it would be suicidal for the enemy to fight us there. Clearly, this is a strategy that only works for military on military strategies – it doesn’t work against insurgencies. Saddam’s army ran away – that’s how you find yourself in a condition of “catastrophic success”.

We’re good at the start of a conflict, but aren’t so good at the second half of the game. we can access any conventional combat space with very few casualties. What we’re bad at is creating the peace space, turning things over to the UN and State Department.

To move from battle space to transition space and peace space, you need proportional force, not overwhelming force. Rather than projecting power, it’s about staying power. We’re mostly hat, not much cowboy in the transition phase. That’s why India wouldn’t come in and help us in Iraq – they didn’t believe we’d be able manage trannsition.

How do we establish a ruleset for politically bankrupt states? A proposed model:

Treat the UN security counsel as the “grand jury”. Incapable of doing anything other than “severely warning”, condeming or abhoring. Then there’s the US-enabled war-fighting force. And then way downstream is the International Criminal Court, who will happily prosecute things once all the fighting is done.

So we need to fill the gaps – use the g-20 nations as a “functioning executive”, who decide when a UNSC indictment becomes a US-supported invasion. After the invasion and before the criminal court, there needs to be a functioning peacekeeping force.

The US has basically no interest in building this force. The current buzzword in the military is “4th generation war – force transformation”, which is designed to allow us to fight major wars in China, Taiwan, Russia, etc. There’s another class of operations – “military operations other than war” – crisis and peacekeeping operations which is official military code for “we don’t want to do this”.

The military sold us one model of war – the 4th generation model – but we actually have to fight using an entirely different mode – the MOOTW model.

I don’t buy everything Barnett has put forward – I think he glosses over the distinctions between failed, failing and developing states, and I think it’s a mistake to group together states where ideology is a major motivator for unrest as opposed to states where poverty is the main motivator. But the analysis that we should be worried about the developing world, rather than traditional powers is right on. And the realization that peacekeeping is the main thing we need the US military to do is a critical one. It’s very refreshing – and more than a little chilling – to hear a military expert speak so frankly about these issues.

The reaction from the crowd was somewhat mixed. While Barnett got the loudest applause from the audience of any speaker, he also rubbed several listeners the wrong way, who heard his bluntness about the use of force as dehumanizing and amoral. That’s not the impression I came away with – I felt like the bluntness was a function of Barnett’s history of giving this talk to military audiences, rather than the globalist do-gooders hanging out here in Camden.

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