I have been a fan of Barnett’s geopolitical insights since I saw his TED talk. I just came across something he offered in a Q & A forum over on Wikistrat, and was encouraged by the following A to a posted Q:
Q: Greg R. Lawson – Dr. Barnett, I have always been struck by your immense optimism at the general direction of global affairs and that the imperatives of economics will lead to increasingly greater cooperation among already established as well as rising powers. Yet, the “Jacksonian” instinct (as referred to by Prof. Walter Russell Mead) is still prevalent in the US. Do you fear that political leaders may manipulate latent bellicosity within the American body politic in order to keep China, relative to the US, “down.” Obviously, this is already inherent in things like the AirSea Battle concept, but I am thinking beyond only the confines of the Pentagon.
A: I don’t doubt that if Mitt Romney got elected – what with all the Bush neocons advising him – that we’d see some attempt at re-establishing a sense of US “primacy.” But Obama’s turn here is more than a swing to the other impulse (“leading from behind”), it’s a right-sizing effort that presupposes – correctly, I believe – that the U.S. has entered a period of globalization’s maturation in which America’s ability to lead by fiat has been significantly diminished. So Romney’s advisers can dream all they want of putting America back in the driver’s seat, but it ain’t gonna happen to any degree they’ll happily recognize as successful. Those days are gone, with the “unilateral moment” (Krauthammer’s term) of the 1990s having been as artificial – in structural terms – as that of the 1950s (that caused by the flattening effect of World War II).
I don’t note such things with an eye toward declinist arguments. I have argued at length in my books that America’s nearly seven-decade-long grand strategy of encouraging the spread of a globalization based on the “American system” (states uniting, economies integrating, collective security, network building, etc.) has succeeded beyond – what should be defined – as our wildest dreams (think back to 1945 and realize what a world we’ve created). It has enabled a spreading of the global wealth that, in turn, is in the process of effectively erasing the Great Divergence (1800-2000) in wealth accumulation between the West and the Rest. That’s arguably the greatest single foreign policy achievement in U.S. history – and world history to boot.
But that success has created challenges. Demographic aging among our traditional allies means we need new allies – to put it bluntly – if we’re going to manage the messy and long-term job of settling globalization’s remaining economic frontiers (or what some have myopically reduced to only the “war on terror” or a “struggle against radical Islam”). Successor allies are obvious enough: rising economic powers with expanding global interests and growing defense budgets. Problem is, that’s basically China and India, two natural future allies that our current generation of foreign policy leaders have a hard time imagining – except in a two-versus-one manner (namely, India + America versus China).
And that’s actually where you locate the surviving impulse of the neocon “primacists”: we imagine India can be made to help keep China “down,” lest this world of our creating be hopelessly warped by Chinese authoritarianism. [That and Obama’s cynical downsizing of primacy to mean that America can summarily execute any individual on the planet that it so chooses to define as its mortal enemy.]
On this score, I suggest Conrad Black’s brilliant biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In it, Black offers the argument that Roosevelt didn’t “cave in” to the Soviets (Yalta) or get duped by Stalin, but rather he maintained a supreme confidence that the U.S. system would simply outperform the Soviet one – thus he could not conceive of the Russians ever winning any future global struggle.
Well, it turns out FDR was right, and I’m arguing today (see my January 2011 Esquire article, “When China Ruled the World”) that we should exhibit the same calm confidence regarding “rising” China. China’s economic rise was achieved through completely unremarkable means: Beijing got rid of babies for four-plus decades and reduced the country’s non-working population from 80% (1965) to 40% (2010). Now, due to that success and others, China ages demographically at three times the rate of the United States: we’re both roughly 36 years “old” (mean age) now, but by 2050 America will just be reaching 40 while China will be 47-48 years “old.”
We may, in our current fears, imagine China will get rich and nasty before it gets old, but it ain’t gonna happen. Healthcare and environmental costs, not to mention stupendously rising dependence on foreign energy and food, will slow Chinese growth down dramatically, making it far harder to keep both the military (guns) and increasingly restive public (butter) happy.
So I not only reject the residual “primacy” impulse because it’s structurally untenable (What? Are we to somehow stop all these rising powers that we purposefully encouraged over the past decades?) but because it’s pointless. China is the only great power package we can imagine in classic expansionistic terms (even as a grade-school reading of Chinese history says otherwise), and so we dream up as our next great challenge a quasi-containment strategy for East Asia (Obama’s cynical “strategic pivot”), when what we should be doing is moving toward an understanding achieved with China of how our global security interests overlap quite nicely in every other region in the world.
But as I’ve noted with Obama on this score: I see internal motives primarily at work here. Obama must justify his strategic withdrawal from Southwest Asia and so requires a scarier tale that “commands” him in this way. The “big war” crowd in the Pentagon greedily embraces this because it fits the self-serving needs of the Air Force and Navy in their counter-revolution against COIN and all that it has cost them in lost procurement (when, in truth, it has set them on the correct path of “the many and the cheap” versus “the few and the absurdly expensive”).
Why must Obama surrender to these base impulses? First, he must be re-elected. Second, whatever strategic vision he possesses does subscribe to the general notion that – per his right-wing critics – it is a better world with a less powerful America. So sending us off on the fool’s errand of containing China in East Asia will spare us the temptations of “empire” across what I call the Gap.
Of course, my counter to this logic is that, if we can recognize our natural allies in this era of maturing globalization (China, India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, etc.) then “shrinking the Gap” (as I once dubbed the settling of globalization’s remaining frontiers) requires nowhere near an “imperial” effort on the part of the United States. Between America and all these risers, there’s no question we have the resources and will to do what is required, which, by the way, looks more like China’s aggressive investment in Africa’s economies than Africom running around assassinating every radical Islamist it can.
But, of course, I am naïve for thinking such things. I’ve spent the last 7 years working primarily in international business and I’ve lost my stomach for arguing with ideologically rigid national security types who do not have a clue about how the world really works in this day and age. Honestly, the more time I spend in international business (I currently structure hydrocarbon deals globally), the less able I am to even hold a decent conversation with those who pass for “strategists” these days. I know I come off harsh here, but seriously, the lack of economic awareness among this crowd is simply stunning. In fact, I would describe it as the biggest security threat the world faces today – even bigger than the numbskulls running much of the PLA.
We are bereft of serious leadership in this day and age – both China and America. It is the only thing that truly scares me nowadays.
One of my summer projects has been to read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It’s a three-volume set which includes eight separate novels he wrote and then combined. I’m a touch intimidated by even trying to summarize, but here goes. The saga ranges over the years 1640-1714 (roughly), following three principal characters: Daniel Waterhouse, a British natural philosopher and non-conformist; Eliza, a woman kidnapped from a remote British isle and abducted into the seraglio, who is later rescued and who subsequently makes her way into the court of Versailles and the world of high finance; and Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, adventurer, galley slave, pirate, and sympathetic everyman who will out-connive everyone unless the Imp of the Perverse compels him toward actions uncommonly glorious. Along the way we meet Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, Wren, Boyle, Locke, Peter the Great, royals of Europe, harpoon-chucking Russians, insidious Jesuits, etc., etc. and are led on great many an escapade in which, as the phrase goes, hilarity ensues.
In some interview Stephenson defines science fiction as fiction that takes ideas seriously, and by that measure this is major league science fiction. There are no robots, cyborgs, or time travel, but we do encounter the beginnings of modern science (promiscuous with alchemy), the transmutation of rare earth metals into coins, credit, and finance, the operations of the British Mint and Royal Society, the various sultanates of Asia, the global slave trade, the manufacturing of watered steel, cryptography, the logistical difficulties of sailing and of naval warfare, the beginnings of steam engines, and the lived experience of London’s sewer problems, with lots of clanging swordplay along the way. None of these are merely glimpsed, but each is explored in such depth as to prompt the reader to wonder who the hell this Neal Stephenson person is and how many heads he might possess. For a guy who, as he says, gets paid to sit on his butt and make stuff up, the achievement of his series is jaw-dropping, and it is a ripping good yarn to boot, all 916 + 815 + 886 pages of it.
The length seems to scare off anyone to whom I’ve recommended this Cycle, though one might stop to consider that Mr. Stephenson wrote out the bloody thing in fountain pen, and (in this day and age) if a fellow believes enough in his project to be willing to do that, why then perhaps we might consider expending the effort to turn the pages. And while I would not put him in the league of novelists whose prose is in fact poetry, his writing does communicate the feeling that he is savoring the language as it emerges from his pen, noting the strangeness of words and how they have come about, relishing in the different speaking styles of his zoo of characters and delighting in how they might reply to one another. (Jack saying, “Let her rip, Ike” to Isaac Newton is one of my favorites.)
I’ve read other books by Stephenson, and clearly this is a guy who likes to understand and explain how things work, or how things came to be as they are (or were). In the same vein, he takes obvious delight in setting up a pivotal showdown. At times I knew I should try to make a map of the scene, because obviously I was missing some of the notable constraints upon the action, but I fell back into trusting the author. Maybe the next time I read it….
I’ll let it go at that. I finished the series last night, with great reluctance, as I will surely miss these characters, especially Daniel. That by itself, I imagine, is the mark of a tale well-told.
Re-posted, from 3quarksdaily:
Looking Around, Believing How strange that we can begin at any time. With two feet we get down the street. With a hand we undo the rose. With an eye we lift up the peach tree And hold it up to the wind — white blossoms At our feet. Like today. I started In the yard with my daughter, With my wife poking at a potted geranium, And now I am walking down the street, Amazed that the sun is only so high, Just over the roof, and a child Is singing through a rolled newspaper And a terrier is leaping like a flea And at the bakery I pass, a palm, Like a suctioning starfish, is pressed To the window. We're keeping busy — This way, that way, we're making shadows Where sunlight was, making words Where there was only noise in the trees. by Gary Soto from New and Selected Poems by Gary Soto Chronicle Books, 1995