Great Powers: America and the World After Bush
The responsible liberal's world view
By Steven Martinovich
Among foreign policy aficionados on both the left and right there has been a fight to claim Thomas P.M. Barnett as one of their own. Author of Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating and The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century, Barnett has attracted both sides with a compelling worldview which sees an America play an essential role in fighting world poverty, ending the scourge of terrorism and civil war, and making the world safe for liberty and capitalism. With his latest endeavour Barnett has essentially declared himself as member of the centre-left and while that may be a loss for conservatives, it is an invaluable gain for liberals that have been flailing for a visionary foreign policy.
Barnett manages this feat with Great Powers: America and the World After Bush, an effort that is even more grand in its scope than his previous works. Building upon his last two books, Barnett offers a compelling vision which sees America give up its concern over near-peer competitors like China and Russia and instead collaborate with them on spreading globalization to Africa and the Middle East. The challenge for America, and its new allies, is to create a global middle class identity. It is an identity that America created, and thanks to globalization it is one that three billion people around the world want to join in on.
Barnett argues that America has to understand that it has a role that only it is equipped to play: It must help manage the global transition to this new world. That said, however, America must also recognize that even though it essentially invented this middle class identity and post-Cold War globalization, it can only manage, not dictate. The rising economic and military power of nations like China, Russia, India and Brazil means that they are players in the game as well and their concerns and agendas must be taken into account. It is a careful balancing act of leading globalization but also recognizing that it is one leader among several.
What will likely worry those invested in the war against terrorism that America has prosecuted since 9/11 is that Barnett argues that the United States must realign its trajectory with the world at large. Terrorism is indeed a problem, he argues, but one that is better answered with jobs than smoking holes. George W. Bush's push to promote democracy, particularly in the Middle East, placed the cart before the horse. Rather than shoe-horning political liberty into a nation, he writes, it makes more sense to create the economic conditions that gives birth to a middle class that will inevitably demand exactly that – quite possibly what we're seeing the nascent stages of in China.
Much of the focus of Great Powers involves China, not surprisingly since its likely in a few decades that the country's economy will become the world's largest and it remains a concern for the military establishment. Barnett reminds readers that the China of today isn't dissimilar to the United States of the 18th and 19th centuries, decades filled with what was essentially one party rule, non-existent safety and economic standards, increasing concern over spheres of political, economic and military influence, and social strife thanks to changing economic and social conditions. If America is determined to treat China as an enemy, Barnett argues, then that's precisely what they'll become.
Instead, the United States must practice patience with China. Though Deng Xiaoping characterized the market reforms he launched in the late 1970s as "socialism with a Chinese face", he also stated that "[t]o get rich is glorious." Barnett argues the logical conclusion for China is full integration into the world economy and increasing political liberty at home. The country's rising power means that although America will continue to play the Leviathan role – the military capable of smashing any other – China will be necessary to help play what Barnett has previously called the SysAdmin role, the country that provides security and economic links to the new members of the integrated world economy. If China is frozen out, Barnett writes, America only guarantees a future of have-not countries play supplier of raw goods to the eastern giant.
This review has characterized Great Powers as one more in tune with the political left – and they would do well to give Barnett a hearing – but in truth it is a book with a large enough scope to appeal to both sides of the political debate. Much of what Barnett preaches is internationalist in nature which while it may anger the isolationists found on both the left and right, it is certainly in line with American foreign policy over the past century. Globalization continues to spread and billions want in; America can either play a leading role in empowering them or it can retreat into itself and allow others to manage the process. Either way, the country has some difficult decisions to make and only the fate of capitalism and liberty on the line.
Steven Martinovich is the editor-in-chief of Enter Stage Right.
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