Planning for a peaceful world: An interview with Thomas Barnett
By Steve Martinovich
With the publication of Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating, Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett has once again crafted a strategic vision for the future that is as compelling as his highly-regarded The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century. Where in TPNM Barnett identified the key issues he believed were needed to be resolved before we could expect a peaceful global community, that the United States needed to stop thinking of the world in Cold War terms and to craft a new military, political and economic rules to deal with the new reality, in BFA he goes one step further and ambitiously builds on those ideas to create a specific strategic roadmap to reach that world of peace and security. Dr. Barnett recently sat with ESR to discuss his new book and the ideas behind it.
ESR: For those readers who may not be familiar with Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating, how would you characterize what you are trying to do with it?
The Pentagon's New Map constituted my system-level diagnosis of the security world in which we find ourselves post-9/11. It also established my voice/character as someone (hopefully) worth listening to on the subjects of global change and grand strategy. Blueprint for Action attempts to drill down to the level of the nation-state, proposing a slew of strategic choices for our country in terms of the new rules, new organizations and new relationships we'll need to build -- as I like to call it -- a "future worth creating." I define that future as the progressive expansion of the global economy in a deeply connective and sustaining way around the planet, or the shrinking of those regions that currently are poorly or unfairly connected to that economy and thus present us with the most security issues. So, again, PNM gave you the map, while BFA gives you plan for improving that global environment to the point where America gets to declare, as we did in 1989, victory in a global war on terrorism in a way that we can all be proud of.
ESR: In the terminology you use, the nations that are economically and politically connected to each other are the Functioning Core while those disconnected are Non-Integrating Gap. What are some of the bigger issues and problems you foresee in bringing the latter online?
The toughest nut involves improving the security in those countries that need a substantial amount of time to develop their people capital in order to attract foreign direct investment (the precursor being the shift from -- typically -- extreme reliance on the exporting of a couple of raw materials that are easily controlled by small elites or fought over by rival small networks). The most vexing criticism I get from sharp thinkers is, "Okay, I can see how your extension of connectivity works for a bunch of countries in the Gap whose main turn-off for investors are the neighborhood in which they live, but how do you deal with the serious losers that have little to offer once you get rid of the bad actors on top -- you know, the guys who rise up because that's the way it's always been there?"
And that gets to the larger realization, which is both good and bad, that the Gap gets shrunk in chunks. It's not just a matter of declaring Singapore in, but in figuring out how Southeast Asia achieves the critical mass of security, political, network and economic connectivity en masse. So, sure, Singapore is the huge pass-through gate for foreign direct investment (FDI) flowing into China, but where's ASEAN right now on regional integration? Where's the definition of a NATO-like security regime that rules out great power war in the region? How are the FDI and digital divides doing between north and south in East Asia? There's an interlocking critical mass of connectivity across these arenas that needs to come together for Southeast Asia to someday -- soon, I expect, in historical terms -- be recognized as securely in the Core. So even on the good side of the shrink-the-Gap equation, it's complex.
And, of course, even pretending to think through this sort of stuff strikes a host of people as big-time hubris, but my reply is, "Shouldn't we be gaming out the positive pathways to global change and stop just sitting around dreaming up all the ways it can go south (pun intended)?" I mean, what's the point of having the power if you're not going to try and do something positive with it, as Albright said on the Balkans.
ESR: Much attention has been focused on the Middle East in recent years but essentially an entire continent -- namely Africa -- is disconnected from the world. Which nut would you try and crack first and why?
You get to Africa one of two fear-based ways, and let's start there because, deep down, we're practical on the subject, okay?
First pathway is that you prosecute the Global War on Terror (GWOT) aggressively in the Middle East, with the goal being you squeeze that balloon so it expands southward, and not to the north (Central Asia). You want the Salafi jihadists to retreat into sub-Saharan Africa for their last stand. And so you follow them down and that's pathway number one, which is a depressing tale to some, who want victory fast in the GWOT and don't want to be told that success doesn't mean less violence, but its geographic shift.
Second pathway is that we get all jacked up about China's "penetration" of the continent, believing it represents some zero-sum access outcome on raw materials, which inevitably will be described as "critical," lest we miss the chance to describe China's "threat" in its full glory. I hope this scenario remains dormant for as long as possible, because if number one unfolds, we'll be desperate enough at that point (strategic fatigue, so to speak) to logically begin considering the Chinese as more solution than complication to our efforts. Within five to seven years, we should have leaders on both sides that recognize the strong overlap of our strategic interests in the Gap (especially Africa) that allow us to locate the labor (Chinese) where the problem is (the need for sustained nation-building in Africa). In short, we set the table, security-wise, and then let the Chinese eat the meal.
And that's a big point to remember on global economics for the next several decades: we, the Old Core of the West, will make most of our money off the New Core (e.g., China, India, Russia, Brazil), but the Old Core will make most of its money developing the Gap, throwing labor and "One-Sigma solutions," as my boss Steve DeAngelis likes to say, at the Gap's seemingly "intractable" problems. We have the tendency to assume it's all going to be about turning the Gap into a carbon copy of the U.S., because it's never gonna happen. It'll be about turning the Gap into a knock-off of China, India, Brazil. One-Sigma solutions instead of Six-Sigma. But One-Sigma is a big step forward for most of these situations. Walk before you run. Keep it realistic. It's all about direction, not degree of positive change.
ESR: You argue that radical Islam isn't fighting the West so much as its fighting globalization, attempting a civilizational apartheid. Could the war against terrorism derail the globalization process as World War I destroyed it before?
Yes, but it won't be bin Laden's doing if it happens. It'll be because the big players screw up the most important things, which are our relationships with one another.
The Salafi jihadist response to globalization's creeping embrace of the Middle East is just the current struggle against the historical expansion of capitalist "global" markets. In that long-term process, securing the growing Core is more important than the tactics of the so-called Long War. So, in my mind, allying with China is the best proactive strategic choice we make right now, because what creates strategic despair on al Qaeda's side is the growing realization that a divide-and-delay strategy is pointless: we and China choose each other before events conspire to make us choose to balance one another.
The U.S.-Indian relationship is one degree removed from that primacy: many will be tempted to think we can choose India to balance China, but India and China have already chosen each other, so it's basically a two-for-one deal there. You lock down those two strategic relationships, and the other two pillars of my New Core, Russia and Brazil, basically have to follow suit as well, because we've eliminated their balancing options, other than going with Europe, which both will to a certain extent, it's just that it won't constitute much of a balancing act.
To me, grand strategy is all about getting what you want in the longest-term sense, and right now I think we need to keep our eyes on the prize of "securing the East," as I call it in BFA, as our number one pathway for increasing the Core's collective effort to shrink the Gap. The biggest danger is that the Core turns on itself -- basically an Old Core (West)-New Core split. That's possible for another ten years or so, because we're still led by a generation of leaders raised by the Cold War, so our knee jerk will always be to pick Japan over China and Europe over India and so on, when the truly strategic choices involve America allying itself with New Core more than fellow Old Core. Bin Laden, if he's anywhere as smart as we fear he is, really wants that Core split in order to buy his movement time, of which -- in historical terms -- he's magnificently short.
ESR: You tie globalization to the war on terrorism. Why?
Since the global capitalist system came into serious being in the late 19th century, the main forms of global conflict have been between competing models of that process. Globalization I (1870-1914) featured a slow-motion struggle between European colonial powers that eventually blossomed into Europe's multi-decade civil war (WWI and WWII). Our version of globalization emerges in the wake of WWII (Globalization II, stretching from 1946-1980), and that era features the socialist standoff embodied in the Iron Curtain that marked the limits of the global market economy at that time. That wall comes down in 1989, and marries up with the expansion of globalization (Globalization III, from 1980-2001), which featured the overhang of the superpower struggle and the emergent struggle we face now in Globalization IV.
The reason why I tie globalization to the GWOT is that globalization's expansion is what elicits the radical Salafi response -- not U.S. policies in the Middle East. Rather than focusing on the symptoms of the struggle (i.e., our involvement in the Gulf), I prefer to focus on the real causes, because focusing on the real causes gets me focused on pushing the real solutions -- namely, connecting the Middle East to the global economy faster than the radical jihadists can disconnect it.
I also connect globalization to the GWOT to help us understand how letting go of the past (the military-industrial complex's need for a "near-peer competitor" against which to size our forces) alerts us to new potential allies in this next phase of the historical struggle to make a market-based economy truly global in a fair and just manner -- namely, the New Core with whom we need to ally our country.
Place the GWOT in historical perspective and you can both spot the solution and recognize the actual "correlation of forces" in the global security environment. To me, that's strategic vision -- not this useless fixation on trying to demonize China to justify our Cold War hangover on military force structure. That's just greed and stupidity and old habits dying hard.
ESR: In your book you argue that the train can only go as fast as its caboose, referring to the fact that the U.S. can't achieve the goals you lay out in Blueprint for Action until other nations are on board. Given the falling support for an American presence in Iraq and overseas intervention in general, how would you respond to the notion that perhaps the American people are the caboose in the train, one that might not be moving soon or very quickly?
That's actually not the way I use that equation, and yet it's an interesting extrapolation.
I use the train's-engine-cannot-travel-any-faster-than-its-caboose argument to say that no matter how quickly the elites or more competitive segments of any national economy wire themselves up to globalization, the country as a whole can't embrace that historical process any faster than the weakest portions of its society can handle in terms of social-economic change. That "caboose" is typically the inland, rural, more agricultural base of the population, which likewise constitutes the bulk of your poverty in any country -- including ours. So that theory is really all about the question of optimal speed in globalization.
But you can use the argument at a higher level to say that the "go fast" approach, typically American in its expression and origin, is limited by the "caboose braking" within the Old Core (Europe especially, less so Japan), within the Core as a whole (the New Core can only handle so much change so fast), and across the planet as a whole (the Gap plays caboose to the Core).
Now, just to say that doesn't mean that the U.S. should necessarily throttle down on its arguments for speed of globalization's expansion, because that's essentially the role we play in history. It just says we likewise need to understand the role of the others in trying to brake on that approach as much as logically needs to occur. China or Brazil or Europe isn't being "bad" by arguing for slower speeds of global integration, they're just providing us functional feedback on the process.
ESR: Given the short attention spans that the First World seem to possess, do you believe that the Core can sustain action on shrinking the Gap, a process which could last decades, if not well over a century?
I'm thinking of that great McCartney line in "Hey Jude": "the movement you need is on your shoulder." The movement we need, that push that will always remain just on our shoulder, will be the pushback we get from the radical Salafi jihadist response to globalization's expansion. That's my definition of the "gift of 9/11": a clearly defined OPFOR (opposing force) that helps clarify the struggle we're in and the logical length of that conflict (i.e., CENTCOM boss John Abizaid's formulation of the Long War).
So we'll be well-served, in that doesn't sound too Machiavellian, by the Salafi-defined pushback in coming decades: we need frequent reminders of what we're defending so that we're incentivized not just to remain on the defensive, but go on the offensive in that the-best-defense-is-a-good-offence mindset. That's why I honestly believe that Bush does us a favor by keeping us focused through his GWOT formulation. It's fear mongering to some, but it's a clarifying function to me.
And it won't stretch a century. We'll see all this work out for the good before I hit my expected retirement age of 75 in 2037. That's not a lifetime even -- just one-third of one.
ESR: In your previous book, The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century, you argued that the United States needs to build a SysAdmin force, one that wins the peace after the Leviathan, or regular military force we're all familiar with, wins the war. Has that process started and what is the American military learning from its post-Iraq war experiences?
That process of bifurcation began right after the Cold War ended, and it's been progressively driven by the growing mismatch of our Leviathan's capacity to write checks with its warfighting prowess that our SysAdmin force can't cash in its current configuration. Wars have gotten shorter, easier, cheaper and less demanding of a personnel footprint, while postwars have grown longer, more complex, magnificently more costly, and requiring a far larger footprint. So we've basically created the huge asymmetry between the war-peace equation, one that forces us to progressively build the SysAdmin function, which is only partly military, only partly public sector, and only partly a U.S.-defined process.
In service terms, the two services drawn inexorably into the emerging SysAdmin function are the Army and the Marines -- in addition to their functional precursor in this process, the special operations forces. This new strategic triad for the 21st century, as Army chief of staff Gen. Pete Schoomaker likes to say, generates the deterrence we need for the GWOT, which I recently described in an Esquire story ("The Monks of War," March 06). I shorthand that deterrence function with the phrase, "anything you can do, I can counter faster!"
Many of the tricks al Qaeda will throw at us in coming years will be complete one-offs like 9/11 (fool me once, change airport security forever) and the usual asymmetries like improvised explosive devices. So our ability to process lessons learned rapidly will be our ultimate definition of resilience, telling our enemies that no matter what they throw at us, we'll take it in stride. That mindset of shaping force structure inductively from current operations instead of deducing them from future, distant, abstract conflict scenarios, is spreading like a virus in the Army and Marines, but far less so in the Leviathan-heavy Air Force and Navy.
ESR: You lay out some pretty specific recommendations for the federal government, including the dismantling of the Department of Homeland Security and replacing it with a cabinet level position responsible for America's global strategic vision. Could you sketch out those and other proposals you have?
My basic argument is that we reached inward instead of outward for a solution set following 9/11. We zigged when we should have zagged. We need a Department of Everything Else, as I call it, to focus on the main strategic task of our age: moving states from the Gap to the Core. We already have a great Department of War, called Defense, that works the security issues in the Gap even as parts of that force refuse to give up the fading dream of great power war inside the Core. We also already have a great Department of Peace, called State, which manages the Core magnificently but doesn't have a clue, by and large, about the Gap. My DOEE would fill the management space between that trio of Defense, State and Homeland Security, allowing us to blend resources from each more flexibly in pursuing not just postwar situations, but post-disaster and-eventually-"pre-disaster" situations inside the Gap.
I prefer to imagine the DOEE as more of a virtual department that a bricks and mortar one, but if you need that image in your mind, then you can go with the argument that eventually America grows up enough on the issue of network security in an era of expansive globalization and realizes that "homeland security" is a chimera: every net is only as secure as every other net to which it's connected. That's a truism in the IT world, and it's logically extrapolated to the level of nation-states in the global economy.
So yeah, one imaginable pathway is to say that DHS gets progressively starved for funds in its current definition, which is complete bull, and eventually we gut that bureaucracy and create my DOEE's center of gravity there, which is a logical call when you realize that much of the talent trapped inside DHS could be applied to extending our networks of stability, resilience and security around the planet rather than simply -- and rather idiotically -- firewalling them at our borders. I've heard that notion from a lot of people in Washington, but most pointedly from John Kerry in a face-to-face I had with him in the spring of 2005. Smart guy. Makes you wonder what 04-08 could have been.
ESR: How comfortable do you think Americans will be giving a vote on a global strategic vision to nations like China, India and Brazil, particularly if they perceive the U.S. will have to do the bloodiest work and carry much of the tab?
You make a poor assumption here. Where was the "bloodiest" work in the Balkans? It wasn't with our Leviathan load, and because we had the bodies required on the SysAdmin side, it sure as hell wasn't there either. There is no "bloody" side if you do this well. We need to take Colin Powell's "overwhelming force" concept and migrate it from the Leviathan, which is sufficiently transformed in its network-centric warfare mode to no longer require that definition of "overwhelming" in terms of boots on the ground, to the SysAdmin force, where bodies are short.
If we do this shifting of resources from the air crowd to the ground pounders, then we'll demonstrate to the rest of the Core that we're willing to field a winning team in the second-half, or postconflict stage. If we do that and contextualize the use of both forces within a larger, explicit, Core-wide rule set, which I propose in BFA, then we'll get the bodies we need for the manpower-intensive SysAdmin function from the big body shops out there that we haven't sufficiently tapped in the past, like China and India (three million-plus troops in aggregate).
So you're costing this whole strategy out incorrectly based solely on our experience in Iraq. You identify a bankrupting model there -- stipulated. But do not extrapolate that one experience into a logical cost structure for my strategy from here on out, because that's just self-defeating. When I see a solution set I know I must inevitably master and one of my first attempts at it sucks in execution, I get smarter on my execution, I don't simply walk away from the battlespace licking my wounds. This is simple learning-organization stuff, but since we take our failures so badly because the world chimes in vigorously with its criticisms, most of which are hugely deserved, there is the American tendency to self-deter, to impulsively take our ball and go home. This is the knee jerk we're facing from both the far left and the far right currently, which is why a centrist candidate is essential for 2008 -- for both parties.
As for letting our use of force come under the influence of the Chinas and Indias of the world: hell, that's happening already in financial terms. We just don't recognize it yet. Fighting that historical shift is the strategic equivalent of pissing in the wind. If you like wet socks, be my guest, but I'd prefer to avoid fighting the inevitable, because it tends to be so self-destructive in terms of national power.
ESR: Some critics argue that you view globalization and connecting Gap nations to the global economy as a cure-all, more important than even democracy in some cases. At one point you state that democracy can wait until after economic conditions begin improving. How would you respond?
Very simply: there are plenty of markets that aren't democracies, but no democracies that aren't markets. So that alone tells you everything you need to know about realistic sequencing.
Then I point out the reality that almost all the countries who've pulled off rapid development or ascension into the Core in the post-WWII eras of globalization have done it as de facto single-party states (e.g., Japan, the Asian tigers, Mexico, China, Russia in its post-Sov rehab mode).
Yes, all things being equal, it's better to be a democracy, because all things being equal, a democracy will outperform an autocracy. But all things are rarely equal in this world. I push economic connectivity first because I see the social blowback being the longest pole in the tent of anti-globalization in this world, so I allow emerging markets to pursue content control in exchange for building broadband network and economic access for their populations. Good example is 100 million Chinese now on the web. To me, that's more important that the Chinese government's doomed attempts to keep them all under "mouse arrest" on certain political subjects.
Plus, by pushing economic connectedness over rapid-fire political pluralism, which tends to destabilize more often than not, I'm allowing for the emergence of Islamist states, which want -- more than anything -- to control social content as the quid pro quo for opening up their traditional societies to globalization. To me, that's a fair request on their part, and it's ultimately how we get real democracy to flourish in the Middle East.
So my argument is more realistic than the democracy-first crowd, who tend to wrongfully idealize our own country's history on this subject (my belief being, we became a great democracy only recently, in historical terms, and that came about because we became a great market). In my opinion, the grand strategist's greatest skill is one of patience.
ESR: You devote much of a chapter to the importance of women in your strategic vision. Why are women so important?
They are the essential, first building block of development, so you get that right or you get nothing right.
The journey from Gap to Core is captured by the individual journey, within countries, from rural to urban. Watch this going on right now in China. What sets off industrialization is this key ingredient: the single young female just off the farm who's willing to work for damn near nothing in a nasty factory situation in the city.
Now, eventually, if you trigger that flow, you start running out of those females, so you have to start paying them more, and then the virtuous cycle begins: they delay marriage and birth, depressing your population growth curve, and then they have more resources to devote to those kids. Plus, they get uppity, so to speak, meaning urban labor in general, and they want more regulations and rights and political pluralism and benefits and so on -- and you want all that to happen.
But back to the start of this process: freeing up the female labor from rural areas and effectively migrating that labor to the cities, which has proven to be the key ingredient in any emerging market's rise, deals with the "caboose braking" I referenced earlier, and deals with it at the source. To free up that labor, you're messing with the roots of culture, which is the agrarian lifestyle in any society (which, by the way, is why the subject of ag subsidies remains the thorniest nest in the WTO's long-term trade liberalization negotiations), so you're getting to the heart of anti-globalization and the touchstone of -- quite frankly -- the current enemy we face in radical Salafi jihadists. When globalization comes into any traditional society, which is defined as male control over females, it naturally empowers women disproportionally to men.
So no matter how you want to look at it, women are at the heart of the process of change.
Here's the simplest measure of effectiveness: educating young girls. Do that, and everything can work out. Don't do it, and nothing will.
ESR: The American right, not to mention the Pentagon, seems obsessed with China and prefer to cast it as the next great power to challenge American dominance. Yet you believe that China is "rising peacefully" and that the United States should form an alliance with it as soon as possible. What role does China play in your strategic vision?
It's the lynchpin of global stability. You put America and China into alliance and this era's globalization cannot be stopped. Our victory is guaranteed in the GWOT. If you put us at long-term loggerheads or bumble us into -- God forbid -- actual war with China, then globalization is put immediately at risk, and I'm talking 1930s-style collapse. The quickest route for both America and China to become second-tier powers -- to suffer the geostrategic fates of England and Germany in the early 20th century -- is to let loose the dogs of that war, which would accomplish nothing, cost plenty, and lead to eternal regret on both sides.
Once you make that leap of logic, which is a pretty short one for anyone not married to "communist" China as a threat image, then it gets a whole lot easier to let go of the past, recognize our huge lead in Leviathan-style war, and shift the resources to the SysAdmin needs of the Army and Marines.
Plus, tapping China helps us likewise tap India in that two-for-one strategy I mentioned earlier, and that lets us into the two biggest military body shops on the planet, which enlarges our resource base for the security requirements of shrinking the Gap.
Ike liked to say, if the problem seems unsolvable, then enlarge it until it becomes solvable. China is the key to enlarging the challenges posed by my shrink-the-Gap grand strategy.
ESR: How likely do believe it is that the United States will ever drop its promise of defending Taiwan in case of Chinese attack?
In many ways, we already have placed so many implicit conditions on it that what I'm calling for is de facto U.S. policy today in a diplomatic sense. In truth, we use the Taiwan situation as a balancing function on China's perceived "rise," in addition to being a long-term rationale for Big War force structure planning for primarily the Navy and Air Force.
But the costs of this approach are rapidly approaching bankruptcy, as in, it costs too much in other spheres like the GWOT, so our defense guarantee's half-life is far shorter than most strategic planners care to admit.
But will there ever be an explicit disavowal? Diplomacy rarely unfolds like that. But we make it ever more clear to the Taiwanese, in gesture after gesture and in diplomatic interactions galore, that they do not have the right to declare war between ourselves and China.
Honestly, this is a relatively short-term worry for me. In five years, I expect a very different level of leadership transparency between the U.S. and China. We are less than five years from the de facto emergence of China's fifth generation of leaders, most of whom were educated here in the States. This is a sophisticated crowd. We better be ready for them, and so too should the Taiwanese. This "blue law" is going away sooner than our Navy realizes, so it better come up with a different definition of relevancy in U.S. national security planning and operations, and we're starting to see that with the current Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Mullen, and his dream of the "1000-ship navy" that has America borrowing 800 of them from allies. Whether Mullen wants to admit it or not, China will be the lynchpin for that vision too.
ESR: In The Pentagon's New Map you emphasized the need to get Europe on board with a common strategic vision to shrink the Gap. In Blueprint for Action, you seem to argue that Europe isn't as important as powers like China, India, Japan and Brazil and that the U.S. should focus its attention on building bridges these nations. Is that a fair characterization and what prompted the change in your thinking?
I don't see it as a change in thinking so much as a refined definition of practical strategies. I want Europe not to fight our effort at shrinking the Gap in diplomatic venues like the G-8/20 or UN, and I certainly want their FDI to facilitate that process.
But the heavy lifting on security will necessarily push us in the direction of seeking more support -- not to mention bodies -- from New Core pillars instead of the demographically moribund Old Core players, who, for various "past guilt" reasons, are reticent to engage the Gap security-wise. New Core players are more incentivized to defend globalization's advance, because their economic well being -- and ultimately their political stability -- depend on it. I say, go with the ones that are most incentivized, figuring out what their price will be for such cooperation.
Right now, for example, the Chinese and the Indians are all over Africa. Do they want failed nations and instability and transnational terrorism to flourish there? No, they want secure access to raw materials and ultimately to cheap labor. So you say to yourself: Look at all that potential labor located right where we imagine the bulk of our future SysAdmin challenge will be found. Why not marry the two up?
Meanwhile, waiting on Europe and Japan will take too long, and too many people inside the Gap will die in the meantime. Colonial guilt is fine for them. We owe the world more.
ESR: Your approach to dealing with Kim Jong Il -- essentially offering him free passage out of North Korea vs. war -- has earned grudging praise from none other than William Lind, hardly a supporter of your strategic vision. How likely, however, do you believe it is that we can avoid war with North Korea?
We avoid war with North Korea with ease. We also avoid deposing a mass murderer of significant rank, someone who let a couple million of his people die needlessly in a state-perpetuated famine in the mid-1990s and who condemns significant portions of his population today to malnutrition and stunted childhood development. Yes, we avoid that mess with ease, instead obsessing, as we always do, over WMD, which is this weird form of international gun control that seems to accomplish little but keep diplomats busy.
If we continue the temporizing approach of avoiding any serious confrontation with North Korea, what will happen is that China will continue to boost its investments in the country in the north while South Korea will do the same in the south, and the slow-motion buy-in of North Korea will unfold over years. Both countries will be guilty of essentially exploiting a nation of slave labor in an act of unforgivable cynicism and greed, and history will judge both harshly for that.
Eventually, Kim's regime could be destabilized by this buy-in process, but the human suffering that the North Koreans endure between now and that fabled date is -- again -- unforgivable on a moral basis.
I maintain that China can be turned against Kim, but only if something truly spectacular and valuable to Beijing is offered in return, like an East Asia NATO built around China, one that recognizes its preeminent military role in the region and eliminates the possibility of war between China and the U.S. over Taiwan, with probably the single biggest and most foolhardy danger to global security today being our implied unconditional defense guarantee to that island nation.
Once Beijing is turned on that subject, Kim won't be that hard to drop. China's ability to penetrate the senior ranks and make clear to them that they can either give up Kim or all go down together would be enough for his fellow kleptocrats to sell him out. But that scenario, and the precedent that Beijing would fear it might set, remains too big for Chinese leaders to contemplate unless we offer clear security incentives to China.
ESR: Speaking of Lind, he and a few other critics have charged that you underestimate the danger and motivation of Fourth Generation warfare – what we're seeing with the insurgency in Iraq -- and that a SysAdmin force would be no more successful than a regular occupation force. How would you respond?
I will confess to not buying into the 4GWers' obsession with the decline of the state in all matters, since globalization flourishes best in countries with the most powerful and efficient governments. I just don't find the reification of non-state actors to be the strategic guide that they do. As I argued in BFA, both the net-centric crowd and the 4GW crowd view me with suspicion, because I refuse to admit the supremacy and all-inclusiveness of their doctrinal views of future conflict, which they think explains most of reality on this planet. I find both views to have merit, but only in certain circumstances, in large part because I find that war only explains an ever-thinner slice of reality in our globalized world.
Read PNM and BFA and you see the following arguments from me on the SysAdmin force: it will include the Marines in their entirety and much of the Army's ground forces; those forces should be optimized for counter-insurgency operations, among other forms of low-intensity conflict, in the manner suggested by Fourth Generation Warfare advocates; and the SysAdmin function and its associated larger personnel pool, which includes more non-DoD than DoD personnel, more civilian than military, more private sector promotion than public sector spending, and more international participation than U.S. participation, should be focused on generating resilient broadband economic connectivity between the masses and the outside world in a rapid-fire effort to create local stakeholders in the economic and political success of the country.
A lot of hard-core believers in 4GW and Special Ops forces think that we should focus on more low-key, tit-for-tat, small footprint-like approaches to the global insurgency represented by al Qaeda. In short, they'd subcontract the entire GWOT to Special Ops Command down in Tampa. I don't believe we'll get off that easy in the Long War. I think we'll have to throw a much bigger effort at this problem set. But I understand the attraction of smaller, seemingly quicker fixes. And I understand the knee-jerk desire to simply wall ourselves off from the Gap by declaring all possible solutions as too hard.
ESR: Controversially, you argue in Blueprint for Action that Iran obtaining nuclear weapons is all but a fait accompli and that we should instead deal with that nation by offering them what they really want. Do you have any ideas what that might be?
They want a firm sense that we won't invade them, and I don't find that demand particularly odd given that we just toppled regimes to their east and west and have parked troops additionally to their north and maintain a significant naval presence to their south. Me, I find that fairly logical as a fear-threat response.
I also find it strategically incompetent that we went to all the effort to remove their two most hated enemies in the region (Taliban, Saddam) and managed not to get anything from them in the process, instead choosing to place them on the "axis of evil" list.
I also note that many military experts will tell you that unless we're willing to go nuclear on Iran today or risk a regime change effort when our ground forces are currently tied down in Iraq, Iran is basically untouchable on its current pathway toward nuclear weapons, something they pursue with no great speed. By the time we're out of the tie-down created by our effort in Iraq, Iran will likely have the near-term capacity for the bomb. Look over all the angles on those realizations and you can basically come to the conclusion today that Iran has already achieved a nuclear deterrence of sorts: we can't take out their inevitable nuclear capacity unless we're willing to go nuclear, which we won't, so it's a MAD-like stalemate.
We made the choice to leave Iran the undisputed military power in the region by toppling Saddam. I believe that Big Bang strategy remains valid, and that, in fact, it continues to succeed to an amazing degree throughout the region (look at all the political changes it has created, to include four new functioning democracies where previously you could argue there were none: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine).
But clearly Iran remains the key spoiler in the region regarding all these positive developments, so either we co-opt them strategically or we risk losing a lot of the gains our sacrifices to date have earned us, and I find that outcome unacceptable.
Again, I don't believe in fighting the inevitable. Iran will be the major security pillar of the Persian Gulf. We need to figure out how to make that work for us.
I say, when you face a tired authoritarianism of the sort that Iran features today, where the mullahs pretend to rule and the incredibly young and ambitious population pretends to obey, you go for the soft kill of connectivity. I counter-pose that situation to that of a rigid totalitarian regime like Kim Jong Il's, where I think the soft kill either takes too long or never works.
Iran is the one country in the region that is both a coherent nation and features a population that overwhelmingly likes America. I see no reason to go down the hard-kill path with that package, especially since Iran having the bomb will only generate a logical MAD stand-off between the Muslim world and Israel, one that would force a host of security issues to be quickly solved once it emerged.
Our current policy of trying to strangle Iran slow-motion style certainly beats the hard-kill option, which we can't pull off for several years -- if ever. But all it will get us five years from now is an Iran that's still isolated from the global economy, still an enemy of the West, ever more an economic partner of the East (e.g., India, China), and an avowed nuclear power that's considered a rogue regime by the United States, and to me, that's a loser pathway that gets us nothing in the meantime in terms of furthering the Big Bang strategy.
ESR: Why do you believe that Iran is the key to peace in the Middle East over, let's say, Saudi Arabia? Granted, Iran has a lot of influence among Shiites and terrorist groups across the region but couldn't one argue that Saudi Arabia's influence is greater thanks to the majority Sunni branch of Islam and its contacts with groups?
Saudi Arabia has never demonstrated a seriously effective leadership role, in my mind, save to stabilize global energy markets in a manner that benefits it economically over the long term.
I think the best we can hope for with Saudi Arabia is that the regime doesn't implode on its proposed pathway to constitutional monarchy.
ESR: You have a devoted readership in political and military circles around the world but what do you want the average reader to take away from Blueprint for Action?
Two things: 1) that planning for failure is easy, but planning for success is far harder -- even if it's far more rewarding; and 2) that the military-market nexus that we were once familiar with in the settling of the American West, an intensely interactive and mutually supporting relationship between the warrior and the merchant, is back with a vengeance in the challenges presented by the Gap in coming decades.
In the end, smoking holes will never be enough. Jobs are the ultimate exit strategy.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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